Pacquiao a Filipino uniter

They took away the death penalty, then brought it back, before three years ago abolishing it once and for all.

But still, two decades removed from the autocratic and brutal regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the Filipino authorities face a serious crime epidemic.

Drugs, gangs, murders, vigilante death squads and warring religious factions combine to provide a scourge to society in the Philippines that never stops.

Except when Manny Pacquiao fights.

Sunday is the Lord’s Day in the Philippines, a predominantly Roman Catholic country of 90 million people.

Yet even the day of worship can not normally slow down the spate of killings, shootings, stabbings and other miscreant turns that often transform the streets of major cities into battlefields.

This Sunday, though – Saturday night in the United States – it all stops. For one day, just one day, the Philippines becomes perhaps the world’s largest crime-free zone.

The reason is Pacquiao.

To boxing fans the 30-year-old superstar is the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter. To his own people, he represents so much more.

The broadcast of his fight with Ricky Hatton at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas will stop a nation, and any malevolent thought, in its tracks.

Events in Sin City will temporarily take the sin out of a country regarded as the most dangerous in the Asia-Pacific region. While Pacquiao fights, the most unsavory elements of Filipino society unofficially declare a temporary truce.

Crime rates were virtually zero for Pacquiao’s last two victories, over Oscar De La Hoya and David Diaz, a welcome respite from an unwanted reality.

“There were no registered reports [of crime] for the period covered during the duration of Pacquiao-Diaz fight,” said Manila police director Geary Barias. “It makes a huge difference when Manny is in action.”

Even separatists and known terrorist groups have ventured to the cities from their hillside hideaways in order to watch Pacquiao.

“The guns are silent in the street every time I fight,” said Pacquiao, who always appears mildly bewildered by the ever-increasing attention he receives. “There is no fighting, no crime. I would fight every day just for my people, if the guns will stay silent.

“These are the thoughts I carry to the ring and they are powerful thoughts. I am not trying to win this fight alone.”

The Philippines has never known an athlete like Pacquiao, and the small and understated man with the heart of a lion and astonishing fistic force has taken on mythological status.

It is highly likely Pacquiao will seek a career in Filipino politics once his career is over; he has already lost one bid to be selected for a congressional seat.

For now, the politicians are happy to use him as a tool to further their own standing.

In the capital city of Manila, the decision to broadcast the fight free of charge at several public sports venues is a move that has boosted the standing of Mayor Alfredo Lim.

Lim is a political rival of Pacquiao’s trusted advisor and ‘second father’ Joselito Atienza, and the five-weight world champion once turned down the chance to parade through the streets of Manila following a victory due to the animosity between Lim and Atienza.

Pacquiao’s fans would far rather he focused on the pugilistic rather than the political, in any case. In the minds of Filipinos he is the ultimate source of pride and a national treasure.

Estimates suggest that up to 30 percent of the Philippines population lives below the poverty threshold and Manny Pacquiao’s upbringing in Bukidnon, a place best known for its rice and corn industries, was no different.

As a child, he worked in a bakery and sold cigarettes on the street to scrape together some money to help his family.

This humble upbringing is a key reason why he is able to resonate so significantly with the public that adores him, as is his legendary generosity.

Those on hard times regularly beat a path to the Pacquiao home in General Santos City. When the champ is home few visitors leave disappointed, or empty-handed.

Promoter Bob Arum and trainer Freddie Roach fret that Pacquiao is generous to a fault and will end up broke, but he refuses to change.

Roach, the master technician and preparer of fighters, had to shut his Los Angeles-based Wildcard Gym in the afternoons so the Pacquiao training camp could proceed undisturbed by onlookers keen to get a glimpse of a modern-day legend.

“Manny is a very open person and he feels a responsibility to the people who come to see him,” Roach said. “That is part of what makes him a good person, but it is not the best thing when you are getting ready for a fight.”

Pacquiao has not lost since he was outpointed by Erik Morales four years ago and his status has grown immeasurably since then.

It is hard to imagine the scale of Filipino mourning that would take place if Hatton emerges as the victor on Saturday night.

While Pacquiao is a clear favorite, the Englishman has never lost at 140 pounds and repeatedly asserted that too much has been read into Pacquiao’s pounding of De La Hoya last December.

Hatton’s invading army of supporters will outnumber the Filipino contingent on fight night, but it can be argued that it is Pacquiao who will feel the weight of public expectation more acutely.

However, pressure has rarely blunted his abilities in the past and the man who belongs to his people insists he is ready to deliver another thrilling chapter to his rags-to-riches story.

“My people make special plans to see me fight and give me the best support and respect any boxer could have,” Pacquiao said.

“But it is not pressure, it is inspiration.”