Society
December 18, 2015

Hail to the Champ

Photos by Steve Tirona

Having won the gold at the Barcelona Olympics and defeated 17 world champions, Oscar De La Hoya decided to take on Manny Pacquiao in one of his endless farewell parties. The decision proved disastrous, as Pacquiao brutalized him over eight shocking rounds that shook the world. Why do some Filipinos still, despite this historic win, feel equivocal about a countryman now considered the undisputed best pound-for-pound boxer in the world? Vanni de Sequera examines what kind of fighter we want Manny Pacquiao to be . . . and what kind of man we don’t

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EVIL EYE. While Pacquiao is known to take it easy on sparring partners, whom he is inclined to befriend, his intensity during training camp is palpable. Roach and conditioning coach Alex Ariza often agonize over how to slow down their manic ward.

Moments after Oscar De La Hoya stayed in his stool after eight stunningly one-sided rounds against Manny Pacquiao, the text messages started streaming in. I had predicted De La Hoya would win in six, so this must be, I thought, the first of many humble pies I would have to wolf down.

That De La Hoya pussy just made a legend out of Pacquiao.

Faggot. Rich faggot. Yung pera niya pambili nalang ng stockings.

EL CHUPAcabra!

Fuck the Golden Girl.

Bizarre fight, don’t you think? I’m suspicious . . . 

What’s going on here? Manny Pacquiao, the decided underdog in both Vegas betting odds and among boxing cognoscenti, had just dismantled De La Hoya like no one had before—not the ferocious Tito Trinidad, not Shane Mosley the skilled warrior, not Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins, and not undefeated Floyd Mayweather, from whom Pacquiao had inherited the mythical “Pound for Pound” mantle after the former had retired in 2008.

Pacquiao effectively ended Oscar De La Hoya’s exceptional 600-million-dollar career on December 7, 2008. Amazingly, the Filipino, who was five inches shorter in height and reach, had outjabbed the Mexican-American who owned among the best jabs in the business. Pacquiao danced, ducked, and feinted as de La Hoya lumbered forward, always threatening, but never quite getting off, unable “to pull the trigger,” as Pacquiao’s trainer Freddie Roach had famously taunted.

After eight rounds, two judges had Pacquiao winning every round; the third judge had given De La Hoya only the first. By the fifth, the face of the most handsome man in boxing was a mess. Three rounds later, De La Hoya looked, not just despondent or frustrated, but defeated. He had the scared, sad expression of a man who knew that if he stood up from his stool to face the fighter across the ring, for even just one more round, he would be knocked out violently. Oscar De La Hoya made a choice. He quit.

Maybe not quite on record, because experienced trainer Nacho Berenstein was wise enough to spare his boxer the indignity of verbal submission. Berenstein, who had asked De La Hoya after the end of Round 7 if he wanted to continue (the boxer answered, to his minor credit, yes) did not bother with rhetorical questions this time around. He waved the fight off.

“The Dream Match” had, to be honest, provided negligible drama—the little buzzsaw from General Santos City, with a startling combination of savage body punching and blistering left straights that turned De La Hoya’s head into raw meat, made sure the fight unfurled, unambiguously, into a methodical one-way beating.

This should have been a day of unbridled euphoria for Filipinos, and for many it certainly was (a cursory scan of the evening TV news would fill viewers with interminable images of howling, teary-eyed, and jubilant PacMan fanatics). But for a fair few, the overriding feeling was trepidation about the future non-boxing delusions of grandeur the victory might inspire in Pacquiao. Hence, perhaps, the perplexing SMSs.

 

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The Man-Boy 

Mythos surrounds the life of Emmanuel “Manny” Dapidran Pacquiao. While most tales about the Philippines’ greatest-ever boxer (with apologies to the Hall of Fame junior lightweight Gabriel “Flash” Elorde) are likely factual, some are apocryphal at best. Here’s the PR or, just maybe, what actually happened: Bukidnon-born Pacquaio, then 13, whose family had since relocated to General Santos City, South Cotabato, promised his mother that he would leave for Manila, earn his fortune, and return to carry the family on his shoulders out of poverty. At 14, with the kind of latent guile he would later utilize in the four-cornered “ring,” he stowed away on a crowded passenger ship and, indeed, found his way to the capital, where he worked, among other jobs, as a cigarette vendor. It seems that despite barely scaling 100 lbs., Pacquiao was a feared boy in the mean streets of Manila. This kid could get nasty, and the thuggishness caught the attention of local boxing trainers.

In 1995, with zero amateur experience, he made his professional boxing debut as a light flyweight in a small-town fight card in Mindoro Occidental. Pacquiao was just 16—he had lied to the Games and Amusements Board (GAB), telling its officers he was a legal 18 but had lost his birth certificate (one guess—did the board grant Pacquiao a license?). The 106-lb. boy was an instant crowd favorite. He threw punches with what “Iron” Mike Tyson once called “bad intentions.” A southpaw, the boy literally had a punch like a mule’s kick—each time he launched his left straight, his left foot would lift up from the canvas because of a deficit in technique and a reckless impulse to decapitate his opponent.

Pacquiao fought 28 times in the next four years and eight months, sending crude fans, who lapped up his take-no-prisoners approach, into rapture, while flummoxing knowledgeable observers. Pacquiao, like so many Filipino fighters before him, was fed to the sharks in 1998, to WBC flyweight champion Chatchai Sasakul in Thailand. (Today, the GAB allegedly still colludes with Thai promoters and boxing authorities to sanction an assembly line of Filipino boxers with padded records who are, for the most part, fodder for superior Thai fighters.) Pacquiao was supposed to be just another notch on Sasakul’s record, but a funny thing happened: Pacquiao, predatory as ever, knocked Sasakul out.

Yet boxing pundits remained unconvinced. Of course, Pacquiao should be extolled for his big win, but his reliance on an imposition of will—and a seeming lack of discipline during training—would eventually be exposed, like it was against fellow Filipino Rustico Torrecampo, who was a middling 11-4-4 when he knocked out the 18-year-old Pacquiao, then (as now) prone to showboating, in three rounds less than four years earlier. They were proven correct less than a year later, when yet another Thai fighter, Medgoen Singsurat, disposed of Pacquiao in just three rounds.

The two losses (to Torrecampo and Singsurat), observers noted, were weight-related—Pacquiao, in both fights, had failed to make at the weigh-in. Half the battle for boxers is to train as furiously as their bodies will allow while virtually starving themselves during this near inhuman exertion to make a weight class, an undertaking so ineffably arduous it is impossible for non-boxers to comprehend. They sleep hungry, wake up hungry, and then have to run for miles each morning, skip rope, hit the speed and heavy bags, and spar on an empty stomach. In his fight against Singsurat, Pacquiao actually lost his belt even before the bell for the first round rang (Pacquiao was relieved of his title as soon as the scales revealed he wasn’t even close to making 112 lbs.).

Critics said, I told you so. Yet another Pinoy fighter who was all punch and no brain or discipline. The specter of Rolando Navarrete, the champ from back in the 1980s—curiously also a resident of General Santos who could punch a hole through a reinforced concrete wall and whose career was abruptly derailed after he was jailed in a Hawaii penitentiary for sodomy—haunted boxing’s jaded aficionados, who by now had learned to be more prudent about their hero worship. There were fleeting exceptions, mercifully. Luisito Espinosa, the original Mexican Killer, and Gerry Peñalosa, arguably the most technically proficient Filipino boxer of all time, enjoyed success as respected champions, but for whatever fickle genetic reason could never surmount the Pyrrhic demands of boxing at the highest levels—the former had a shaky chin; the latter, a lack of come-from-behind spirit.

In hindsight, Pacquiao’s travails could be attributed to the deficiencies of his local team, which knew little of the conditioning, nutrition, and muscle memory a fighter needs to act instinctively inside a ring, whether to finish off a teetering opponent or to survive an onslaught. Sage boxing trainers are a dying, veritably extinct, breed. Wisdom in this field is learned only from old-timers and can hardly be figured out on the fly. Luckily for Manny Pacquiao, he had the audacity to convince Freddie Roach to enter his life.

 

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“The Mexicutioner” 

Time for more unauthenticated anecdotes about Manny Pacquiao: sometime before 2001, Pacquiao walked into Roach’s Wild card Gym in L.A., hoping he would be taken in by the former fighter who had turned pro the year Pacquiao was born. Roach, in his time a crowd-pleasing boxer himself who eventually rose to contention in the lightweight class, lost most of his high-profile fights, although what he lacked in pure talent he made up for in grit. He possessed an innate understanding of the fight game, and was rewarded for his acuity with the Holy Grail of trainers—apprenticeship by arguably the greatest of them all, the late Eddie Futch.

Roach, awed by Pacquiao’s raw talent, agreed to the mentorship and worked Pacquiao’s corner for his next title fight against the respected IBF super bantamweight champion, the Soweto-born Lehlohonolo Ledwaba. What followed was boxing manslaughter.

Everything Pacquiao hit the champion with seemed to give him a severe migraine. From the first round, visible, pain was etched on Ledwaba’s face. After the referee mercifully ended the carnage in the sixth round, the boxing world wondered if this was a fluke win by the Filipino or if a new player had arrived in the lighter weights.

Six fights later, Pacquiao faced Marco Antonio Barrera, the legendary Mexican “Babyfaced Assassin” (don’t you just love boxing nicknames?) in 2003. In just over four years beginning that fateful night in San Antonio against Barrera, Pacquiao had annihilated Barrera once and forced him to fight in out-of-character survival mode a second time, lost to the revered Erik “El Terible” Morales by decision once and reduced him to rubble on two other times, and battled the oft-dodged Juan Manuel Marquez to a controversial draw and equally controversial split decision. In this eye-opening span, Pacquiao had gone 5-1-1 (win-loss-draw) with the best Mexican fighters of his generation.

Pacquiao was a stud and a star.

 

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Why the ambivalence? 

Despite Pacquiao’s spectacular success, recently capped by his unlikely domination of De La Hoya, many Filipinos are unwilling to pay total homage to the greatest Asian boxer of all time. The reason is plain to see after each high-profile win during every via satellite telecast—the famous faces behind Pacquiao that serve as circus backdrop during Larry Merchant’s post-fight interviews. Pacquiao’s high-pitched voice, which flounders so charmingly when forced to speak in English, never fails to thank the political heavyweights that stick to him like leeches during his fights. There is Chavit Singson’s poker face, Lito Atienza’s cherubic, Hawaiian-shirted glee, and Noli de Castro’s toothy, freeze-dried smile.

Pacquiao ran for Congress and lost decisively in 2007. Less than two weeks later, during a boxing festival in Cebu, he was, unthinkably, booed when his presence was announced. He sought to shift his residency from General Santos to Manila, a cynical move thought by many to be inspired by his political Svengali, Lito Atienza, so that Pacquiao could seek public office on a local level.

In the same year, Pacquiao filed a P30-million suit against Manila Bulletin journalists who claimed he was a compulsive gambler. The boxer, it was asserted, lost unconscionably large amounts of money in casinos, cockfighting stadiums, and pool halls. (Pacquiao decided not to pursue the case.)

Pacquiao: The Movie, directed by Joel Lamangan with Jericho Rosales as the lead, flopped, and his CD—Para Sa Yo Ang Laban Na To—is eminently forgettable.

We do not want to see Pacquiao doling out cash yet again this Christmas to General Santos residents after making sure all the major TV networks are there to chronicle the generosity. We do not want Pacquiao to become the representative of the first district of Cotabato; we certainly refuse to vote him into office via a city he does not even live in, no matter how beloved an adopted son he has become. We may purchase the multitude of products he endorses, but we will not patronize inane films that rhapsodize his life. And we would rather listen to the Grammy-nominated Oscar de La Hoya before we ever sing along to Pacquiao’s tinny voice as it is pounded out of crackling karaoke-bar speakers.

We will, however, continue to visit bars, restaurants, and cinemas at 8 A.M. on Sundays to witness Manny decimate the best fighters of the new millennium. We will bay like hungry wolves when Michael Buffer, in his charmingly tacky, mellifluous voice, bellows, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” The hairs on our arms will continue to stand on end as Manny raises his hand in victory after improbable victory. We just want him to box and win.

Maybe Manny does the right thing and becomes conscious of his shot at all-time boxing greatness. Early next year, maybe he outhustles the fearless Ricky Hatton in a fight that nets him nearly as much money as the De La Hoya fight windfall (US$20 million?). Then, maybe he finally, conclusively outpoints the man who many believe has beaten him twice already—Juan Manuel Marquez. And maybe he crowns his career by manhandling the detestable, comebacking Floyd Mayweather. Then—wonder of wonders—maybe he actually retires . . . for good, and stays out of Philippine politics. Remember, in boxing, a wish list is always preposterous until money gets thrown into the mix. Maybe De La Hoya— the promoter who has co-opted Bernard Hopkins, the only other man to knock him out, into Golden Boy Productions—the unforgettable boxer whose love for mega-fights is only exceeded by his addiction for money—the fighter who has now been rendered unprofitable as a fighter because of his demolition at the gloved hands of mighty Manny—will tie all the loose ends. Stranger things have happened in the strange history of pugilism. By the way, Manny, now the most bankable man in boxing, suddenly has the cache to make almost any outcome viable. He merely has to wish it.

He is already the first athlete to be immortalized in a Philippine stamp. If he beats Hatton, Marquez, and Mayweather, he will carve his name into the mountain of the immortals.

 

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This story first appeared in Rogue’s December 2008 issue.

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