Manny Pacquiao's big fight within a fight

This weekend's boxing match could well decide his presidential aspirations in 2022 - and political future

Philippine boxing hero Manny Pacquiao trains at his gym in the city of General Santos in southern island of Mindanao.  AFP
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Despite its tortuous history and penchant for dramatics, the Philippines does not have an official national hero. Not even the polyglot Jose Rizal, an European-trained doctor and novelist who inspired generations of Asian nationalists in the 19th century, is recognised as one. In contrast, other former Spanish colonies such as Cuba (Jose Julian Marti Perez) and Venezuela (Simon Bolivar) can boast of undisputed national heroes, who have been unswervingly venerated across all political divides throughout countless generations.

In the boxing-crazed Philippines, however, Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao comes closest to a living national hero. Nicknamed "PacMan" for his lightning-speed counterpunches, the boxing sensation is the only man on earth to who have won 12 titles in eight divisions. Among his countrymen, Mr Pacquiao is hailed as Pambansang Kamao – the National Fist – a symbol of collective strength and Filipino grit.

Though hailing from a nation deeply divided across ethnic and class lines, Filipinos from all walks of life tend to come together whenever he enters the ring. During his matches, families gather in merriment, with grannies joyously punching into the air at his every winning strike while toddlers are tickled into laughter by their cheering parents.

During the pre-pandemic days, even bustling cities such as Manila turned into ghost towns as soon as Mr Pacquiao’s matches flashed live on television screens while radio announcers howled before an anxious nation. Upon his return to the country, a victorious Mr Pacquiao marched across Manila’s thoroughfares, with a legion of adoring crowds cheering him on like a Roman emperor.

His upcoming match, in Las Vegas this weekend, however, could be his most fateful one. Should Mr Pacquiao, now a senator approaching his mid-40s, decisively defeat his Cuban rival Yordenis Ugas, the boxer-turned-statesman is likely to make a run for nothing less than the office of the presidency next year. But unlike in the past, the current man in the Malacanang Palace, who has other anointed successors in mind, will not be cheering for him. Thanks to an inevitable clash of ambitions, Mr Pacquiao has unwittingly emerged as one of the top opposition figures in the 2022 election.

Throughout much of the 20th century, Philippine politics was dominated by the landed elite, mostly from Chinese or Spanish mixed stock, as well as lawyers trained in the country’s elite universities. The Philippines’ first president, Manuel Quezon, was a Spanish-blooded creole, who fought in revolutionary wars against Spain and the US.

A trained lawyer, the dapper president was both a master of rhetoric and political persuasion. Charming, self-assured and at times authoritarian, Quezon not only personified presidential power, but he also represented the very idea of presidency. For decades, Filipino presidential candidates, hailing from the competing liberal and nationalist parties, tried to approximate his best qualities.

No less than former strongman Ferdinand Marcos also tried to replicate the dashing Quezon in style, rhetoric and decisiveness. Following his declaration of Martial Law in 1972, Marcos became a de facto dictator and subsequently abolished the American-style two-party system, which dominated Philippine politics throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Instead, he created a single-party system and tried to systematically eviscerate any kind of genuine political opposition. But the eventual collapse of Marcos dictatorship in 1986, following years of deep economic crisis, didn’t lead to the genuine restoration of political parties in the Philippines.

Instead, the landscape gave birth to a fiesta-style democracy, whereby multiple parties, largely funded by tycoons and with identical platforms, competed based on the resources of party bosses and charisma of their latest standard-bearers.

The upshot is a vicious kind of personality politics, whereby celebrities and political dynasties have come to dominate practically all elected positions in the past three decades. Thus, self-made millionaires and global celebrities such as Mr Pacquiao have managed to become senators of the republic, a highly prized position that was historically dominated by Ivy League-trained lawyers, journalists and statesmen.

When the populist mayor Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016, Mr Pacquiao swiftly emerged as one of his staunchest allies. To begin with, both men hailed from the historically marginalised southern island of Mindanao, which bore the brunt of decades of internecine conflicts between the government and various rebel groups.

The two men presented themselves as symbols of Mindanaoan pride, self-consciously contrasting their humble beginnings and populist style against the American-accented politicians from “imperial Manila” in the north. Mr Duterte and Mr Pacquiao also shared similar political views.

On multiple occasions, Mr Pacquiao enthusiastically defended the incumbent’s violent drug war, which has claimed the lives of thousands of suspected drug dealers. He also actively supported the president’s call for restoration of death penalty for heinous crimes, especially drug trafficking.

When Mr Duterte came under fire for burying Marcos in the cemetery of national heroes, a sanctimonious Mr Pacquiao called on critics to “forgive” and “move on”. Pleased with Mr Pacquiao’s loyalty, Mr Duterte went so far as to openly endorse him as a future president. His greatest reward yet was helping Mr Pacquaio to become the president of the ruling PDP-Laban party last year.

By this time, the boxer became increasingly open about his ambitions for presidency, confidently viewing himself as the de facto standard-bearer of the ruling party in the 2022 election. Within few months, however, all came crashing down, as Mr Duterte signalled that he prefers others, including his daughter Sara and his long-time aide, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, to succeed him.

In response, a visibly enraged Mr Pacquiao moved to expel the president's allies within the party, publicly opposing their push for a “Duterte-Duterte” tandem for next year.

The situation quickly escalated when the boxer-senator suddenly adopted a nationalist posture amid recent maritime spats between the Philippines and China, going so far as publicly warning Mr Duterte not to “buckle” before the Asian superpower.

“I found the president's response [to Chinese presence in Philippine waters] lacking. He should continue with our strong stance so China would respect us,” Mr Pacquiao declared, openly questioning Mr Duterte’s patriotic resolve.

As if that wasn't enough, Mr Pacquiao upped the ante by accusing the Duterte government of corruption and anomalies amid a raging pandemic. The allegations clearly hit a raw nerve, as Mr Duterte, who has claimed he won’t even tolerate a “whiff of corruption”, lashed out at Mr Pacquiao.

"That is the work of – I have a term for that, it is not mine, I just borrowed it – but I think Pacquiao is punch-drunk. And I leave it up to you," Mr Duterte said in a national address last month.

Next, he even threatened Mr Pacquiao with tax evasion cases, describing his ally-turned-rival as “a cheat” and “more corrupt”. It wasn't long before the president’s allies made the dramatic move of dislodging Mr Pacquiao from party leadership, with the threat of full expulsion hanging over the horizon.

Inching closer to his retirement years in boxing, and increasingly isolated amid his feud with Mr Duterte, Mr Pacquiao is heavily banking on his weekend – and possibly final – professional bout, against Ugas, to revive his political fortunes.

Though spurned by Mr Duterte, Mr Pacquaio has consistently featured among top five contenders for the top offices next year, namely the presidency and the vice-presidency. No wonder then, he has been actively courted by other potential candidates, including leader of the opposition, Vice President Leni Robredo.

Should he emerge triumphant this weekend, Mr Pacquiao will be a definitive "kingmaker" in next year’s election, whether as an independent presidential candidate or in tandem with other Duterte rivals. In a dramatic turn of events, the Philippines’ National Fist has unwittingly become an opposition leader against a popular president.

Published: August 20, 2021, 9:00 AM
Updated: August 22, 2021, 8:06 AM