Manny Pacquiao: A World-Class Boxer Tries to Be an American Star


Da Capo Press

Adapted from PacMan: Behind The Scenes With Manny Pacquiao—The Greatest Pound for Pound Fighter in The World (Da Capo) by Gary Andrew Poole.

It's 12:27 p.m., and the grand opening of the Manny Pacquiao Merchandise Store was supposed to start 27 minutes ago. Filipinos are gathering around the store, which is located below the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood. This is Pacquiao's foray into branding himself. In the sickly looking strip mall, the store's entrance is blocked by blue, red, and green tape. Winchell Campos, beleaguered, is in the back of the place. He has handwritten a sign for everyone to come back at 4 p.m., and a rumor starts buzzing among the Filipinos that Manny Pacquiao might show up. He's not vacationing in Mexico! they whisper. Looking over the store, hardly any of the boxes unpacked, Campos, who until recently referred to himself as "Pacquiao's biographer" and is now selling Manny Pacquiao T-shirts, lamps and posters, says, "This is a way to help Manny after he retires."

Manny Pacquiao, the greatest boxer since Ali, who was named the best boxer-of-the-decade this summer and will fight Antonio Margarito on November 13 in pursuit of his eighth world title in eight weight divisions (a swing of 48 pounds), is an icon among many of the world's poor and a product of the globalization of celebrity—the subject of a 60 Minutes feature and a regular on the American television talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live. He could be a Harvard Business Review case study in counter-intuitive marketing. Unlike a neatly packaged star, like Roger Federer or even—before his fall—Tiger Woods, the PacMan's image is so ridiculously uncrafted that he stands apart from all the IMG- or Ari Fleischer-guided sports celebrity robots.

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Pacquiao's unpredictability has produced even more interest in him, say his handlers. Considering the blind loyalty of his fans, there might be something to this. They wear T-shirts emblazoned with his image or the statement "Freddie Knows" or "Buboy Knows," treating his trainer and best friend, respectively, as apostles. Any negative mention of the National Fist in an online article, and comment pages will fill up with the vitriol of his supporters. Picking up the obsession of his fans, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications, try and cover Pacquiao as much as reasonable because Web traffic spikes on stories about the PacMan. He is a cultural icon in the Philippines and when he fights the country literally stops, and for the millions of Filipinos who have departed their native land to find work, Pacquiao is a talisman. (That I have spent time with Pacquiao—eating dinner, watching him train, and traveling to the Philippines to see him—is almost incomprehensible to many of his most ardent fans.)

While essentially a subculture in the United States, Pacquiao's fan base is always there—online and off—for him. Before Pacquiao fought Miguel Cotto, a Twitter message was sent out that Pacquiao and Freddie Roach (Pacquiao's trainer) would make a public appearance and talk about the upcoming fight. The event would be held in Hollywood at the Montalban, a Nike-sponsored hipster store. One out of every four Filipino Americans make their home in Southern California, numbering more than one million. But they are not the only fans of the fighter. Hours before the event started, a line with pretty women, tough-looking fight fans, and hipsters stretched around the block, all wanting to catch a glimpse of the Filipino. He's cool.

But can a five foot six Filipino boxer with a weak command of the English language become an American star?

After Floyd Mayweather Jr., Pacquiao's rival, won a big fight in 2010, he sat in the pressroom talking with reporters. Mayweather was guaranteed $22.5 million. He was still undefeated. It was a special night.

But he was upset that so many Americans favor Pacquiao, especially because Mayweather had the "USA on my back." He had represented the United States in the 1996 Olympics, earning a bronze medal. But Mayweather's notion of fandom in the age of globalization might be dated. Of course, Americans tend to cheer for Americans, but with the foreign integration of the NBA and Major League Baseball, a foreigner, if sold correctly, can easily become a star in the United States. Pacquiao trains in Los Angeles, owns a Beverly Hills mansion, is trained by an American, hobnobs with American singers, actors and sports stars, and has become a novelty with a younger demographic who view him as a mix between Ali, Bruce Lee, and Robin Hood. Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, is a fan and one of the best sports marketers in the world. He told me that Pacquiao has an "aura."

There is a greater reason than his boxing brilliance for all of the attention. Pacquiao's global appeal doesn't come from selling soap or shoes but from what he sees as his greater purpose: his fight against poverty. His bid for a congressional seat in 2007 failed, but in the spring of 2010 interest around Pacquiao's political mission seemed to congeal. "The people have rallied behind him and feel like they're a part of him, because they can see his talent, his dedication, his grace and his class," Lennox Lewis, the former heavyweight champion says. "The grip he holds over the Philippines is similar to Nelson Mandela's influence in South Africa. I can surely see Manny becoming the Philippine president one day." When this quote was repeated, Filipinos would laugh. They admired Pacquiao, but they also thought of him as a child. No one wanted him to run for office, and most people thought he would lose. But his campaign created a groundswell of interest among nonsports fans who saw him as a crusader for the world's impoverished. Pacquiao, who grew up in a cardboard shack and who has a dramatic story of survival, says his real fight is against the dispossessed.

Manny Pacquiao is a rather soft-spoken, almost childish man, but he takes politics seriously. Last week, in the midst of his busy training camp, he flew from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to campaign for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the incumbent from Nevada. (Pacquiao's promoter, Bob Arum, says Pacquiao's support helped Reid win the election.)

In 2010, Pacquiao ran for Congress again, and he is now a Congressman in his own country (one of his first legislative acts was to strengthen his country's anti-human trafficking efforts), and many political analysts, not just fellow boxers, believe he will someday be the president of the Philippines.