He loves the night life and fancy cars but to his tens of millions of fans in the Philippines, Manny Pacquiao is a working class hero from humble beginnings.
The reigning World Boxing Council (WBC) lightweight champion — and generally considered the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world — is known for the speed and power of his hands and his blind refusal to quit even when he’s down.
Such is his draw in his impoverished home nation that police say whenever he fights, the crime rate drops to zero as millions tune in to watch.
It will be no different tomorrow morning, when the Philippines shuts down early to root for Pacquiao as he goes head to head with “Golden Boy” Oscar De la Hoya, several time-zones away in a much-hyped “Dream Match” megafight in Las Vegas at 3:30pm.
Having the whole country behind him is a major boost.
“I feel their strength behind me,” Pacquiao said ahead of the blockbuster bout. “Whenever I fight, I fight for my country.”
“This is the fight that people won’t forget even in the next 50 years,” he was quoted as saying from his Los Angeles training camp.
The left-handed Pacquiao, dubbed “Pacman” for the way he gobbles up rivals, will be competing in his richest fight yet.
Already the Philippines’ wealthiest sportsman, Pacquiao stands to make at least US$15 million from the fight.
Born to a family of vegetable farmers in a remote part of the southern Philippines, Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao dropped out of elementary school aged 12 and found himself on the streets, selling cigarettes to motorists.
He made his professional debut a month after he turned 16, and two weeks before his 20th birthday he was world champion, seizing the WBC flyweight title in Thailand from defending champion Chatchai Sasakul in a one-punch knockout.
A professional fighter for almost 14 years, Pacquiao has won four world titles, the latest being the WBC lightweight crown he wrested from David Diaz in a ninth round technical knockout in June.
Today, he will be fighting more than 4.5kg above the lightweight limit of 135 pounds (61.2kg).
Back home, where he has appeared in movies and even recorded an album, he is known as a big spender, with a penchant for fast cars and sports utility vehicles and for enjoying cockfighting in his spare time.
Part of his folk hero charm comes from wearing his heart on his sleeve and being known to give generously to charity.
But for now, it’s all about today’s fight. As Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, says: “It’s basically because of what it will do for Manny’s life. It’s the icing on the cake. It makes him a superstar.”