Thursday, May 14, 2009

The National Fist

Today marks our first ever guest post at Boxiana. I'd like to profoundly thank Angela Garbes for her first-person account of the Pacquiao-Hatton fight. Check out her blog.

A week after the Pacquiao-Hatton fight, there are two things I can’t get out of my head.

First, a nagging chorus, thousands of British voices strong, singing—over and over—their Ricky Hatton cheer, to the tune of Winter Wonderland: “There’s only ooone Ricky Hatton! There’s only ooone Ricky Hatton! We’re walking along, singing a song, walking in a Hatton Wonderland!” It’s a persistent, beer-soaked, insipid song; it bullies its way into the brain and hangs around.

Then there is the smile of Manny Pacquiao—joyful, ear-to-ear wide and almost goofy, accentuating his flat, bridgeless nose, so irrepressible as to appear childlike, so natural it’s infectious. For a boxer, expected to appear stone-faced, stoic—purposefully intimidating, as Hatton surely did—Pacquiao’s smile is surprising, unnerving. Powerful.

It’s Pacquiao’s smile that actually matters, exposing that Christmas carol-cum-fight song as mere distraction, and promptly dismissing it from my mind.

The Pacquiao-Hatton fight was, without a doubt, the most exciting, passionate, and awesome sporting event of my life. The feeling remains in my bones long after the vibration and deafening ring of 16,000 screaming spectators has passed through me. Unsurprisingly, it was sensory overload. There was a constant barrage of improbable sights: a punch thrown so hard during an under card bout that it sent a mouth guard flying; the strange thrill of being able to spot Jack Nicholson in his ringside seat from far away; women in Lucite heels and gold glittered bikinis parading around with giant signs at the end of every round; sitting next to my uncle Xerxes, who had traveled all the way from Philippines to see this fight with his son, Xerxes Jr., whom he had not seen in six years; a little brown man knocking a bigger white man unconscious as though it was the easiest thing in the world.

* * *

I’ve always joked that Filipinos are the Rodney Dangerfield of the Asian world. Filipinos far outnumber Thai people in the United States, yet how many Filipino restaurants can you think of off the top of your head? Compared to other Asian countries, Filipino culture is not widely known. Filipinos are happy, hospitable people who love to eat, dance, and sing. The cuisine and way of life are not admired or celebrated the way, say, Japanese and Chinese are. Looking back, five hundred years of Spanish colonial rule left the Philippines without their native religion, the only Catholic country in all of Asia. And though the U.S. preferred to call it a “territory” rather than a “colony,” the Philippines spent the first half of the 20th century under American rule. People remember Imelda Marcos and her 3,400 shoes, but ask them to name another famous Filipino, and most come up short.

No respect. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t fierce pride.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Manny Pacquiao is a national hero, an icon. When PacMan fights, the Philippine Army call a truce with both the communist New People's Army and the Muslim insurgents in the south so that everyone can tune in. The Philippines is a poor country—40 percent of the population lives in abject poverty, and the economy depends heavily on the billions of dollars sent home annually by the millions of Filipinos working abroad. Anyone who’s watched the HBO 24/7 Pacquiao-Hatton is familiar with Pacquiao’s improbable rise to glory and wealth: he began working as a young boy, selling donuts on the streets of one of the poorest, most violent cities, General Santos, living in a dirt floor shack. There are no platitudes here: Pacquiao is a unifying figure, carrying the hopes and dreams of the Filipino people on his shoulders. What’s most striking is that Pacquiao is more than willing to take this on.

“All I’m trying to do is give happiness and joy to the people,” Manny has said. And after he destroys his opponents, Pacquiao says simply, “Nothing personal for me. Just doing my job.” You get the feeling he actually means it.

Consider Pacquiao’s nicknames. He is known as both “The People’s Champion” and, even better, “The National Fist.” When Pacquiao emerged from the locker room and made his way down the tunnel to the ring last week, shrouded in a Philippine-flag robe, all the while looking loose and excited, unable to stop himself from breaking into the occasional smile, he did so to the tune of “Lahing Pinoy” (translation: “The Filipino Race”), a rallying cry in the guise of a pop song whose opening line calls for the Filipino flag to be raised high, then instructs its listeners to shout to the world, “Filipino! Filipino! My race is Filipino!”

Now consider this: The singer of the song is Manny Pacquiao himself.

In true celebrity fashion, Pacquiao is dabbling in a singing career and has released a few singles in the Philippines. His best-known song is “Para Sa Yo Ang Laban Na To,” which translates to “This Fight’s For You.” The song, far from subtle, yet gently and reassuringly crooned, promises that Pacquiao will never surrender: “Even my life I will risk for you / I will protect you with my hands / This is the only plan I can think of / So that there will be unity among my fellow Filipino.”

* * *
Pacquiao not only represents the hopes of millions of people in the Philippines, but also millions of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans in the United States. Filipinos in the States are used to the idea that we can succeed, but what we’re not used to seeing is someone who actually looks like us succeed on such a high level. In America, the list of well-known Filipinos (mostly mixed race entertainers) stirs little excitement: Kirk Hammet from Metallica, that one guy from the Black Eyed Peas, Arnel Pineda, the guy who became the new lead singer for Journey via a reality television show, and rumored fractional Filipinos Dean Cain and Rob Schneider. But in Pacquiao, we have a rare thing: a Filipino athlete, a role model, someone who is the best in the world at what he does—someone that Jay-Z, Jack Nicholson, and New York Giant star Brandon Jacobs will pay thousands of dollars to see. A real deal celebrity.

But Pacquiao’s smile betrays him. When he flashes it, he seems as familiar to all Filipinos as an uncle or cousin. In the same way that I occasionally forget that I don’t actually know Barack Obama and have never had a conversation with him about basketball, it’s easy for me to feel like I know Manny Pacquiao, that I may have sung karaoke with him at a second cousin’s baby’s Christening party. It was barely a surprise to me when the young man in a Team Pacquiao windbreaker sitting next me on my return flight from Vegas to Seattle told me that he knew Manny. And that Manny had generously purchased fifteen tickets so he and his family could watch the fight together. And that while training in LA, Manny, despite his millions, lives in a small, crowded three bedroom apartment with ten other men, one of whom, Buboy, cooks all the food for them.

There is something wildly humble and down-to-earth about Pacquiao. ESPN boxing columnist Dan Rafael wrote about his experience watching a DVD of the Pacquio-Hatton fight with a gracious Pacquiao in his hotel room the day after. Pacquiao had not yet seen the fight, watching intently while working his way through a plate of steak and white rice. When the knockout punch was thrown, Pacquiao instinctually put down his fork and made the sign of the cross, praying that Hatton was ok, even though he knew Hatton was fine. This is no doubt exactly what countless old Filipino ladies watching the night before did.

Last week I came across this video of Pacquiao unwinding with this friends after a day of training. The two-and-a-half minute video is silly and mundane—Manny plays guitar and his friends lip synch and dance to a Filipino singer’s verision of “Lonely Teardrops.” A lamp goes out; the camera man is giggling the entire time; a paunchy man uses a banana as a microphone. But it brought a smile as wide as Manny’s to my face because, as any Filipino could tell you, this scene is likely to occur at any Filipino gathering, anytime, anywhere.


Jason said...

How many years till the biopic? Its a great story

Maria said...

At last Pacquiao moved forward against Floyd Mayweather allegation that Pacquaio use steroid.