Manny Pacquiao goes from boxing ring to political arena

Manny Pacquiao takes on the complicated politics of the Philippines like opponents in the boxing ring

The five-car convoy heads south, warning lights flashing, weaving dangerously around the ever-present, slow-moving civilian traffic and on toward the province of Sarangani and its most famous resident, Manny Pacquiao.

There will be a political rally at 3 p.m. and Pacquiao will be the star, much as he is in the boxing ring.

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(In early 2010, Times columnist Bill Dwyre went to the Philippines to see Manny Pacquiao, the politician. Pacquiao easily went on to win the election and most of his fights since then. This is Dwyre’s behind-the-scenes report on Pacquaio at home. It first appeared in the Times on May 9, 2010.)

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The convoy includes Pacquiao advisors, managers and friends, as well as his famous boxing promoter, Bob Arum. It also includes members of the media. Once the domain of mere sportswriters, Pacquiao now draws no less than the Asian bureau chief of the Times of London.

Pacquiao is arguably the biggest name in boxing, having just been honored as fighter of the decade by the U.S. Boxing Writers Assn. In March, he drew nearly 60,000 people to the new stadium built for the Dallas Cowboys, fighting someone who had little chance of beating him.

In his last 12 pay-per-view fights, he has gotten 6.25 million people to spend at least $50 to watch him, generating $320 million in revenue. But as big as he is in the United States, he is even bigger in his home country.

When he travels about the countryside, it is in a bulletproof van. In this Pacquiao procession -- minus Pacquiao -- two police officers are present and packing. That is mostly for Arum, whose fame and worth greatly exceed that of the rest of the caravan.

If that seems excessive, it could be noted that, last November, several hours to the north in Maguindanao, 57 people traveling in a convoy were ambushed, slain and tossed into a hastily dug grave, where they were covered with banana leaves. Their sin, apparently, was to become part of a group that was traveling to file papers to run for election. Several members of the family set to oppose those filing are now in jail.

Of the 57 who were killed, 34 were journalists, 12 from Pacquiao's birthplace and main residence, General Santos City. Those 12 are buried in a special plot surrounded by a brick walkway at a cemetery less than five minutes from Pacquiao's house.

An election-related incident such as this is less surprising here than most places. This country is election-crazed, even though the consensus is that many results are tainted.

The political system is modeled on that of the United States, with an elected Congress and Senate. Pacquiao is running for a congressional seat. In 2007, he campaigned for one in the larger General Santos City district to the north and lost, 60% to 40%.

"Last time," Pacquiao says, "I started just a month before the election. This time, I am better prepared."

Pacquiao is running against Roy Chiongbian, who is from the family that owns the most land in the district. Chiongbian, who at 61 is 30 years Pacquiao's senior, is running to replace his brother, who is leaving office because of term limits.

The trip snakes through beauty and beasts. There is ocean and beaches on the left, and oxen, dogs, cats, horses and cows wandering about, occasionally down the middle of the highway. It is a barnyard in paradise. The convoy is heading to the far southern reaches of the island of Mindanao, two hours from General Santos City, which is a 90-minute flight from Manila, the heart of Mindanao and the country.

Pacquiao's house, surrounded by others but larger, is also surrounded by people. They are on the patio, in the driveway. Inside, every room is crowded. It is 2:15 p.m. and the convoy party wanders about, some settling in a room adjacent to a closed bedroom door. Pacquiao, a noted night owl, is inside, asleep.

Pacquiao sleeps through the 3 p.m. rally, and it becomes a 4:45 p.m. rally. Pacquiao's wife, Jinkee, emerges first and answers a few questions. She looks shy and tired. She says she dislikes her loss of privacy but that Manny likes lots of people around him, so she has no choice.

Pacquiao emerges, smiling his magic smile. He says, "I believe I can be a great politician. If I can make it as a boxer, why not in politics?"

He also says, "I think they should vote for me, because in my heart I really want to help them."

At the rally a few miles north in Kiamba, Pacquiao, the star of the show, speaks forcefully, much more so than in interviews. He gestures, changes inflection, pumps his fist. Like any good politician, he builds the crowd to a fever pitch. He speaks in the local dialect, one of seven he knows. Nobody on the stage behind him, including the Filipino media, has any idea what he is saying.

The stage is a dirty wooden platform, with three peeling white plywood squares indicating speakers' spots. Children wiggle their way to the front of the stage, as close to Pacquiao as they can get. They have come to see their hero, somebody larger than life. A later translation tells members of the convoy that Pacquiao told the crowd he was once like them, that he was poor, that he wanted to help them make it too.

In about half an hour, it is over. The members of the convoy are led through the crowd, Pacquiao near the end, smiling, never fearful, being touched and touching back. It has been a big day in Kiamba. Manny Pacquiao has come. The children, even the adults, don't want to let go. They smile and reach out to members of the convoy.

Several of the children end up with wrinkled pesos and loose change in their hands, even though they never asked.

Time to vote

Pacquiao's political campaign of faith, hope -- and, possibly, naivete -- is winding down now.

Monday is election day in the Philippines, and the world-champion boxer could very well take a world-class beating, something that has never happened to him in his 56 professional fights and his unprecedented seven titles in seven weight divisions.

Or, with a victory, he could provide a ray of light to the Philippines, where much of the population exists on a dollar a day.

Since that 2007 political loss, Pacquiao's boxing fame and corresponding wealth have increased by multitudes. His victory over the legendary Oscar De La Hoya put him on the short list of the world's most famous athletes. On June 4 in New York City, he will receive his award from the U.S. Boxing Writers Assn. Last year, Time magazine put him on its list of the world's most influential people, a designation indicating contributions beyond sports records or knockout punches.

Pacquiao's political presence has stirred worldwide attention. Boxing and the ballot box make for strange bedfellows. And appealing stories.

Pacquiao grew up in such poverty in General Santos City that he often slept in a cardboard box. When the family had no food, Pacquiao bargained for some at a local market, sold it for a profit on the street, paid his debt and bought more with what he had left. His mother, Dionesia, who now lives in one of the nicest houses in the city, sent his father away when she discovered him living with another woman. At age 12, Pacquiao became estranged from his father, Rosalio, when he ate Pacquiao's dog. A few years ago, he welcomed Rosalio back into his life.

It is that nature of forgiveness, that gentle and giving strain -- from a man whose job is violence and infliction of injury -- that is a central fascination of his story. He is running on the Nationalist Party ticket, but his identity is as "the People's Champion."

Nobody here seems to doubt his sincerity. All have either witnessed or heard the stories of the hundreds of people who line up at his home when he returns from yet another successful boxing match in the States. They ask for rice, money, help of all kinds. Pacquiao says no to no one.

"Many come with a doctor's prescriptions for drugs they can't afford," says Nick Gioncgo, longtime boxing writer for the Manila Bulletin. "He sees on the paper what it costs, and he gives them the money."

Even the woman who beat him in the 2007 election, Darlene Antonino-Custodio, publicly acknowledged in the aftermath of her victory what Pacquiao means to Filipinos.

"People weren't prepared to lose him as their boxing icon," she said.

She could have phrased it differently. Perhaps people weren't willing to let their knight in shining armor be tarnished by a political system generally considered corrupt.

"Here, it is like what they used to say about politics in Chicago," says Ronnie Nathanielsz, a Philippine media veteran and boxing historian. "They vote early and often."

Arum loves to tell about his pre-election trip in 2007. By Philippine law, he can make no speeches or financial contributions, so he can hang around only as a supportive figure. He was doing exactly that in 2007, when wave after wave of people visited the Pacquiao residence with lists of voters' names they would sell, guaranteeing the votes -- apparently a long-standing feature of Philippine elections on all levels.

"I watched them go in, get paid and leave," Arum said. "So I went in to see Manny's people, said I would guarantee the entire Jewish vote for all of the Philippines and asked what they'd pay."

He got zero. Beverly Hills probably has a larger Jewish population than the Philippines.

Big money ahead

Beyond the election, a huge payday looms for Pacquiao. A year ago, he and Floyd Mayweather Jr., the two best boxers on the planet, could not make a fight deal because Mayweather demanded a blood testing schedule to determine drug usage. Pacquiao refused to accept that schedule. That, by implication, left Mayweather accusing Pacquiao of being a drug cheat and Pacquiao so angry that he sued for defamation of character.

Pacquiao says that his mind is on the election, period. Arum, who stands to fill another Brink's truck if he can somehow put this bout together, asks not to be asked about it or Mayweather right now. He says that, if Pacquiao wins this election and decides to stop boxing, "I'll throw a retirement party for him."

The smart money seems to be on the voters, once again, protecting Pacquiao from himself and voting no. The smart money also seems to be on the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight getting done, because boxing loves any money, smart or otherwise.

That would leave the children of the Philippines still looking up to a boxer, not a politician. Probably a good thing.

Follow Bill Dwyre on Twitter @LATimesDwyre

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