For the Philippines, boxer Manny Pacquiao is more than a sports champion. His fans, the media and politicians see him as nothing less than a national hero whose feats can lift the nation.
“The hopes of an entire country are riding on me. That is why I cannot let myself fall,” Pacquiao says in one television advertisement.
It is a heavy message for a shampoo commercial, but it is one that many Filipinos have taken to heart as they cheer Pacquiao on in his improbable career that has seen him rise from deep poverty to six-time world champion.
“There is a great responsibility on his shoulders because his victories are the victories of all of us and his loss would be the loss for all of us,” Philippine Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said when he awarded Pacquiao an “outstanding achievement” medal recently for his feats in the ring.
He lauded the 30-year-old for inspiring the 92 million people of this Southeast Asian nation.
Teodoro also referred to much-publicized security reports that rebel attacks and crime went down during Pacquiao’s fights as guerrillas and criminals wanted to follow his fate on radio or television.
Both Pacquiao and the nation’s faith will again be put to the test next Saturday when he faces hard-hitting World Boxing Organization champion Miguel Cotto in a welterweight title fight in Las Vegas.
Pacquiao has parlayed his fame well, starring in two TV series and a movie, and appearing as a celebrity endorser for products ranging from luxury watches to milk and health drinks.
He is currently listed by Forbes magazine as the world’s sixth-highest-paid athlete, earning US$40 million in prize money, endorsements and business ventures for the 12 months beginning in June last year.
Even his mother, Dionisia Pacquiao, has benefited from his celebrity status, becoming a television comedy star in her own right.
Bill Velasco, host of Hardball, the country’s leading TV sports talk show, said Pacquiao’s fame was partly a result of his accomplishments.
“[It’s] for the sheer volume of titles he has won. He is the first Asian to win four or more titles,” Velasco said, but he added the sport of boxing itself was also an important factor.
“He has made good in a tough field that does not require technology, does not require schooling and does not require too much expenditure. It is basically his physical body. It is very primal, it strikes a chord with the Filipino,” Velasco said. “Additionally, he came along at a very good time. He came along when the economy was down, people were looking for a hero, and he won a world title, and he has been undefeated for four years.”
Importantly, Pacquiao is also widely seen as a genuinely nice man who cares about others.
“He says all the right things, he does the right things, he does charity work, he does good things for his hometown. He plays his cards well, he is subtle in the way he handles things. He is very savvy,” Velasco said.
Pacquiao plans to run for a seat in the nation’s parliament in next year’s elections, representing a district where he comes from in the southern Philippines.
This is one area where Pacquiao has failed before. Despite his widespread popularity, he lost to a veteran politician in his first bid for Congress in 2007.
“During the last election campaign, people were afraid that if he does win, he may not box anymore. That is the fear of most people,” Velasco said.