ON the morning of November 24, 2013, thousands of displaced Filipinos packed into convention centres and parks in the Eastern Visayas region of their country to watch the fight between Manny Pacquiao and Brandon Rios. For the boxing public, the fight held little significance. Pacquiao had been inactive for nearly a year following his sixth-round knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez, while Rios appeared to be a safe enough opponent to return Manny to the win column. Yet, for those who two weeks prior had lost their homes, family members and livelihoods during Typhoon Yolanda, the strongest storm to make landfall in recorded history, the fight was a welcome distraction.

The natural disaster ravaged the coastal areas with up to 20-foot storm surge from 145-mile-per-hour sustained winds, leaving over 6,000 dead and many more lost to the sea. Many still didn’t have ample shelter or clean water, but, for two hours at least, they could forget about the frustrations of waiting for relief goods, the unforgiving heat that bared down on them from sunrise to sunset, and the paralysing fear of an uncertain future.

In the preceding weeks, Pacquiao had been at home in the unaffected area of General Santos City preparing for a contest that would make or break his future in the sport. But as fight week in Macau heated up, Pacquiao expressed solidarity with the suffering people in his nation, telling his countrymen: “This fight is for you.”

For many, Pacquiao’s unanimous decision win was the first time they had been able to crack a smile in weeks. It was a return to normalcy, as they cheered for their hero with the same vigour as they had in better times. His comeback reminded people that they too could bounce back from calamity to return to prosperity.

One survivor’s sign, translated from Tagalog, summarised the effect of Pacquiao’s win: “It’s just Yolanda. We are with Pacquiao. God bless Tacloban [the city which bore the brunt of Yolanda]. We will rise up.”

“It was a good fight by Pacquiao. He fought for the typhoon victims. We will rise again. Pacquiao lifted us up,” another fan told a Reuters camera. If it sounds outlandish that a boxer could have such an effect on a nation, it’s understandable. There are few parallels in other places to the adoration that Pacquiao enjoys in his home country. In boxing, he is respected as a world champion in six divisions, having been one of the sport’s biggest draws over the past decade or so. But in the Philippines, he’s a ubiquitous figure whose likeness graces multiple platforms. He’s a highly coveted pitchman, appearing in television and billboard advertisements for products like pizza, multi-vitamins, jeans and gas stations. He once hosted his own afternoon variety show (Manny Many Prizes), giving away cash to impoverished contestants for their singing performances and buying the entire stock of roadside vendors.

His domestic movie roles include playing a super-hero (Wapakman) and a war hero (Son of Commander). He’s released two patriotically themed albums, entitled Laban Nating Lahat Ito and Pac Man Punch, and collaborated with Canadian pop star Dan Hill for a cover of the soft rock staple Sometimes When We Touch.

Any Philippine politician who is hoping to keep his constituents happy and retain a shot at re-election will host viewing parties for Pacquiao’s fights, erecting giant screens in all venues of high occupancy to beam the matches live.

Since 2010, Pacquiao has served as a congressman in his home province of Sarangani, and in 2014 became player-coach of the Philippine Basketball Association’s Kia Carnival, essentially drafting himself with the 11th overall pick. At home, he is beloved like Babe Ruth was in New York, Elvis in Memphis and Ricky Hatton in Manchester.

He’s looked at with the same hero worship that compelled an African-American man in the 1930s, who was moments from being put to death in a gas chamber, to exclaim “Save me, Joe Louis!” Only Pacquiao’s appeal stretches across an archipelago nation composed of 7,107 islands populated by 100 million people.

“Manny is a Philippine icon – when he fights, the streets are empty and all plans are put on hold so people can watch his fight,” notes Philippine Senator Sonny Angara. “He is huge, larger than life. He can’t have a solitary moment in public because there’s always someone wanting to have a picture with him.”

Part of the reason Pacquiao appeals to so many Filipinos is that he can identify with their struggle. Pacquiao, like a quarter of his country’s population according to WorldBank, came from an impoverished background.

“He gives them hope,” says veteran reporter Ronnie Nathanielsz, who has covered Pacquiao since his third bout. “They look around and say, ‘If Manny Pacquiao can do it, why can’t we?’”

Born on December 17, 1978 to a mother who raised six children on her own, Pacquiao left his southern Philippine city as a teenager to pursue a career as a boxer. He turned pro at age 16, two years early, skirting around the lack of required parental consent.

Nathanielsz recalls first laying eyes on a 98-pound Pacquiao, recalling a cockiness in the boy who was pummeling his early opponents despite having to stuff his pockets with lead so he could weigh near the strawweight limit of 105lbs: “In a strange, certain way – he’s not good-looking – but he’s got charisma. He’s got a Filipino-type charisma. That’s his biggest plus, his humility and that he’s nice. He’s even nice to people who steal money from him.”

Pacquiao won his first 11 fights before his aura of invulnerability was shattered by a right hand to the mouth from Rustico Torrecampo in round three. It would have been difficult to imagine that the teenaged boy who was draped over the canvas in that steamy gym would somehow rise to the world championship scene, but a little over two years later he did just that.

Pacquiao won his first world title in the autumn of 1999, travelling to Thailand to stop feared puncher Chatchai Sasakul in eight rounds to win the WBC flyweight strap. Pacquiao lost the title less than a year later, drained after being unable to make the 112-pound limit. Two years later, in 2001, Pacquiao would become a global ruler again, knocking out Lehlohonolo Ledwaba in his American debut to win the IBF 122-pound belt.

Pacquiao had already cultivated a following among Filipino fans and niche boxing observers, but it wasn’t until 2003, when he pulled off his biggest upset to that point with an 11th-round demolition of lineal feather champion Marco Antonio Barrera, that larger audiences began to take note.

Pacquiao wasn’t the first Filipino boxer to crash the title scene on American shores. Francisco Guilledo, better known as Pancho Villa, became the first Asian boxer to win a world title when he knocked out Welsh legend Jimmy Wilde at the Polo Grounds in New York in 1923 to take the flyweight crown. Gabriel “Flash” Elorde, Luisito Espinosa and Gerry Penalosa also found footholds in the United States during their championship reigns.

But it was Pacquiao who made the sport’s biggest promoters open their eyes to the bankability of Filipino boxers. “Before Pacquiao, promoters looked at Filipinos as just opponents,” recalls Penalosa, a former super-flyweight and bantam king.

Michael Aldeguer, who presides over the Philippines’ biggest promotion, ALA Boxing, recalls being surprised when Eric Gomez of Golden Boy Promotions gave him a call about signing a young upstart named Rey “Boom Boom” Bautista in hopes of finding the next Pacquiao. Aldeguer believes that Pacquiao’s success both created opportunities for Filipino boxers, and raised the expectations levied on them to unrealistic levels.

“There’ll only be one Manny Pacquiao in the next 100 years or so, but definitely it has also helped the awareness of Filipino boxers,” reasons Aldeguer. Bautista had the aggressive style and knockout power fans were looking for, but his lack of technical ability spoiled his career before he could win a world title. American-raised boxers of Filipino descent Nonito Donaire and Brian Viloria, however, were able to capitalise on the popularity of Filipino boxing during their multiple world title reigns.

Many assumed that the reckless manner in which Pacquiao fights would eventually catch up to him. Still, against the odds, the hits kept coming. After drawing with Juan Manuel Marquez in their first encounter and coming up on the short end of a decision in his first match with Erik Morales, Pacquiao tore through the sport’s smaller weights, knocking out Morales in two rematches before eking out a close decision over Marquez in a second bout. The apex of Pacquiao’s popularity came in 2008, when he signed to face Oscar De La Hoya, who had been the sport’s biggest non-heavyweight attraction for the previous decade-and-a-half. De la Hoya’s four-inch height advantage, coupled with Pacquiao having to step up two divisions to meet him, made the fight seem like a mismatch on paper.

Rufus Rodriguez, a Philippine congressman, even sought to ban the fight from occurring, telling a local news outlet, “If something bad happens to Manny in that fight, it’s the government that would be blamed.”

And when Pacquiao dominated De La Hoya, forcing him to quit on his stool after eight punishing rounds, it was greeted as if
David had conquered Goliath.

“His win would boost the morale of the Filipino people at this time of economic hardship and difficulties,” Eduardo Ermita, the executive secretary of then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, told Reuters.

The winning run continued – names like Hatton, Miguel Cotto and Shane Mosley were vanquished – before it was Pacquiao who himself fell. One right hand in the sixth round of his fourth meeting with Marquez sent Manny collapsing face-first into the canvas at the MGM in 2012.
The Philippine Star newspaper treated the loss as if it was the literal death of a national hero with the over-the-top front-page headline: “National Day of Mourning”.

It took two years and three consecutive victories to mend Pacquiao’s image as a viable star in the sport. Pacquiao’s first opponent back, Rios, was himself coming off a loss when Pacquiao outpointed him in 2013. He then started 2014 by avenging the dubious decision defeat to Timothy Bradley that he had previously suffered, and then looked dominant in a six-knockdown performance against untested New Yorker Chris Algieri.

Pacquiao’s vast fame hasn’t been untainted by controversy. There have been numerous accusations of adultery against him. He’s battled the tax bureaus of the United States and Philippines over claims that he failed to accurately file his income tax in 2008 and 2009. His inclusion into the PBA has been criticised as a celebrity abusing his influence to jump over more qualified players. He’s also been among the leaders in absent days from Congress since he was elected. But for the Mayweather fight, even his staunchest opponents have rallied behind him.

In Mayweather, Filipinos have found the perfect villain through which to prop up their hero. The country’s politicians have taken initiatives to show support to Pacquiao, with some proposing a bill exempting him from tax responsibilities for his purse.

Pacquiao, who was training in Los Angeles, has also been excused from his congressional duties until after the fight by House Speaker Feliciano R. Belmonte Jnr.

“Manny being a Filipino promotes the Philippines,” claims Senator Aquilino Pimentel III of why he feels Pacquiao’s fight with Mayweather should be tax-free. “The marketing value for the country is priceless.”

It’s difficult to overstate the importance that a Pacquiao win over Mayweather would have in Philippine society, where the deep gap between socio-economic classes is bridged when he fights.

“A win for Manny would probably mean a national week – at least – of celebrating,” Angara says.

Nathanielsz takes it a step further: “A victory over Mayweather would be the culmination of a career that has helped lead the international community to recognise the Philippines after years of being down and out.”

It’s a safe bet that Pacquiao is still standing tall in the end, at least in the eyes of his countrymen.

This article was originally printed in the April 23 issue of Boxing News. Click HERE to access digital issues of the magazine