As Manny Pacquiao squeezed into a bright-red padded spandex leotard, complete with a yellow belt and matching goggles, the symbolism was as fitting as the outfit was ridiculous.
Who knows whether Pacquiao fully appreciated the comical nature of the scene, played out on a movie set a few months ago, yet one of the perks of being boxing’s premier superstar is that no one’s going to poke too much fun at you.
In any case, the casting of the fight game’s current favorite son as Wapakman, a Filipino film about a swashbuckling superhero, is especially fitting in the lead-up to his showdown at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas Saturday with Miguel Cotto.
The Pacquiao tale has always been one filled with intrigue and inspiration, how the boy from the back streets of a troubled city left home at 14 and sold fish and doughnuts to make ends meet before rising to the top of the toughest sport of all.
Yet after dismantling Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton in his past two fights, Pacquiao’s popularity has gone stratospheric. With his homeland of the Philippines recently ravaged by natural disasters in the form of typhoons, flooding and landslides, he has morphed from a source of pride to a symbol of hope, and taken on a status that borders on mythological.
In the absence of a public figure with sufficient gravitas or charisma to lift the spirits of a nation brought to its knees by corruption, poor governance and forces of nature, the citizens have instead turned to Pacquiao, with attention focused on his fight with Cotto like none of his previous 54 encounters.
The 30-year-old has become a cultural phenomenon, who can draw crowds of thousands simply to catch a glimpse of his face and whose freakish fighting abilities stop traffic, crime and the regular breathing patterns of a nation that turns hysterical when he takes to the ring.
However, while many love to portray the evolving Pacquiao story as an uplifting tour de force of humanitarianism and joy in the face of adversity, reality is somewhat different.
Suggestions that Pacquiao remains unaffected by the change in his life are wide of the mark, and the inevitability that his name, status and popularity would be hacked into by parasitic outsiders is already well under way.
It is not just fight week or fight month in the Philippines; this is fight season. Ever since Pacquiao vs. Cotto was announced in the summer, the excitement has been building to a crescendo.
In General Santos City, where Pacquiao grew up the son of a corn farmer, preparations to erect a giant screen which will broadcast the fight at a municipal gymnasium are already in the final stages.
In Baguio, the epicenter for the recent typhoon tragedy and where Pacquiao spent a large portion of his pre-bout training camp, the roads are still littered with boulders, mounds of garbage carrying the danger of dengue fever still line the streets, and landslide warnings serve as both threat and reminder.
Yet all talk is about a far away and unimaginable city in Nevada, a place few of these citizens could even dream of visiting, but where their hearts and hopes will live on Saturday.
In the capital of Manila, there is turmoil in Congress. Nothing unusual there, except that the pivotal argument this time is whether the decision of several key political figures to travel to Vegas for fight night is a negligence of power in these difficult economic and social times.
From the typhoon survivors to the wide-eyed dreamers of a better life, to the ambitious and ruthless politicos, it seems everyone in the Philippines shares a common thread. When things get tough, look to the Pacman.
“Manny’s countrymen love him and he is a great inspiration for his country,” trainer Freddie Roach said. “When the typhoon hit pretty hard, Manny went down there to help the people out and I asked him not to go because I thought it was dangerous. But it was his day off and he went and helped as much as he could.
“He is so well-loved in his country and he wants to help the people and the people love him for that.”
An estimated 2,800 people died due to the effects of Typhoon Parma and Roach could see the mentally draining effects of Pacquiao’s first trip to offer solace and aid to the survivors. He persuaded Pacquiao against a second visit, instead venturing to the stricken region himself to distribute more food and supplies and to deliver a message from the pound-for-pound king.
“I felt so bad to see what was happening,” Pacquiao said. “I do have to focus on my training because I have to prepare. But I try to help the people in my country as much as I can. It is very difficult for me but I have to focus on my fight because nobody can help me in the ring.
“I am not only fighting for me but I am also fighting for my country. It is my responsibility to focus on training. Of course I understand people want to take a picture and shake my hand because they are idolizing me and supporting me.”
Intensity was swiftly restored to the gym, and Pacquiao’s introverted demeanor means we will never know just how much extra purpose the plight of his fellow Filipinos affords him.
Freddie Roach is a meticulous man for whom distraction is an antithesis. Boxing is not so much the sweet science to the world’s top trainer, but rather more a never-ending labor of dissection and refinement that dominates his life and pushes the restrictions of Parkinson’s to the back of his mind.
Roach has worked with Pacquiao for eight years, building a bond of closeness and respect that has hewn tighter with each passing victory.
His methods have had to be adapted for Pacquiao over time. Simplicity and silence are impossible wishes with this boxer, who brings an enormous entourage of friends and family and a legion of patriotic fans wherever he goes.
Roach has put up with whatever extra-curricular activities Pacquiao has involved himself in until now. Yet patience may be wearing thin, on both sides.
“It is hard to imagine just how much people are obsessed with Manny Pacquiao in the Philippines,” said 19-year-old rising star Marvin Sonsona, already the WBO super flyweight champion. “He is an inspiration to everybody, and people want to know everything about his life. They can’t get enough.”
Things are getting complicated, with the intensity of the demands on Pacquiao’s time ever-increasing. One flashpoint was caught on the television cameras of HBO’s "24/7" documentary when Roach came up to Pacquiao in the middle of a meeting with influential politician Manuel Villar, and urged him to leave Baguio as the bad weather was closing in.
Villar, one of the richest men in the Philippines, is just one of countless heavy hitters who are keen to align themselves with the one-man publicity machine that is Pacquiao.
The problem Pacquiao has is that to many he is no longer a person or a fighter, but an ideological statement. It is an ideal of perfection that he can never hope to live up, to be everything to everyone. It must be remembered he is a human being, a fighter, from simple roots, not a magician.
All the magazine covers (he last week graced the cover of Asian Time), Nike commercials and even lyrics about him in a Jay-Z rap song can’t change that.
In the Philippines, the small signs of a backlash are already there. Some fondly remember Pacquiao the out-and-out fighter, the simple man of simple taste, for whom the ring was all that mattered.
For those fight fans who have supported him from Day 1, the newer and more dubiously motivated acquaintances are an annoyance, as is Pacquiao’s pandering to them. Even the fighter’s mother, Aling Dionisia, who has become something of a celebrity herself, has been criticized for riding on the coattails of her son’s success by accepting roles in movies and on television.
“What really makes her, in the world of celebrity, a diamond in the rough?” asked a rather mean-spirited editorial in the Philippine Star newspaper. “Nothing, actually. She is not, by any stretch, pretty. She dances well but is not exceptional in it. Her singing does not make her stand out. And her humor is not something you have not heard elsewhere.”
Further focus will be on family matters for this fight as it will be the first time Pacquiao’s formerly estranged father, Mang Rosalio, will watch him in a major fight. The pair fell out when Pacquiao was a boy.
Even when camp shifted to Los Angeles and the more anonymous surroundings of the Wild Card gym in Hollywood, Calif., life was not free of distractions within Team Pacquiao.
Simmering resentment between physical trainer Alex Ariza and adviser Michael Koncz persists and Pacquiao even became embroiled in a domestic dispute between his assistant Winchell Campos and Campos’ ex-wife, who lives in an apartment Pacquiao owns.
The demands on Pacquiao’s time are not as extreme in California, but there was still an appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and the thousands who come to the gym to catch a look on a daily basis.
Many of those same supporters will venture to Vegas this weekend, an invasion similar to that of Ricky Hatton’s marauding army of British fans.
None of the disruptions will matter if Pacquiao can do what he has managed so far, to keep his head straight and avoid a loss of focus against Cotto. The Puerto Rican is surely his toughest challenge, a bigger man and a worthier foe than a shot De La Hoya or an overmatched Hatton.
Cotto is a genuine star, and there is strong feeling in boxing that his only defeat, to Antonio Margarito, was due to Margarito’s allegedly loaded gloves rather than a legitimate result. The Mexican was caught using illegal hand wraps in his next bout against Shane Mosley, and the way the blood gushed from Cotto’s face and how quickly it became swollen and misshapen suggests that foul play may have been at work.
In any case, the expectations Pacquiao has to live up to continue to grow, in keeping with the additional influences he must clear from his thought processes.
With a potential mega-fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr. a possibility for next year, the stakes are set high for Pacquiao. On Saturday the cape and goggles will be gone, but a superhuman performance will be demanded.
- Manny Pacquiao
- Miguel Cotto