Sports

In boxing or political arena, Manny Pacquiao wields a lot of clout

Win or lose against Floyd Mayweather Jr. Saturday, Manny Pacquiao is a world figure and a hero in Philippines

The congressman from the Sarangani district of the Philippines was in a relaxed mood Tuesday. He wore a T-shirt and a big smile. If confidence can ooze, it did from him.

Manny Pacquiao had just conducted a pep rally in a huge hall at Mandalay Bay, in a place so big it hosts car shows. Even the several thousand Filipino Americans for whom this show was held were swallowed up in the room and congregated in a corner.

Pacquiao eventually came on stage, after much music and hype, raising his arms like, well . . . a politician. That he is, not to mention one of the best-known and most-accomplished boxers ever.

He has a dual purpose here, one obvious, the other more long-term and important.

He will fight Floyd Mayweather Jr. on Saturday night in a boxing match that has the sports world goose-bumpy. Which is no small thing, because boxing probably hasn't triggered goose bumps since Muhammad Ali.

Pacquiao can take his political brand forward by leaps with a victory over the unbeaten and skilled Mayweather. That's true, even though, as the unquestioned face of sport in his country, a loss won't hurt him greatly. There are just 12 senators in the Philippines, all of them prestigious at-large public servants and national leaders. The next election in the Philippines is in May 2016.

Pacquiao, at age 36 now, will admit that he would not only like to win a Senate seat, but also be the No. 1 vote-getter. That brings extra prestige and leverage.

Then, in future years, the country will need a new president and . . . well, you get the drift.

None of this was anywhere on the horizon 14 years ago, when a skinny kid — born Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao in the extreme poverty of Kibawe, Bukidnon province, Philippines — stepped into the same ring where he will fight Mayweather at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

He was a super-bantamweight then, 122 pounds. He had just begun to train with Freddie Roach at Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles. He had fought 34 times, 32 of them in the Philippines and twice in Thailand. His record was 32-1-1, but few had heard of him. Even Roach admitted that, when Pacquiao showed up on his doorstep, he hadn't, either.

There was an IBF title fight scheduled, and the opponent for Lehlo Ledwaba had canceled out. Somebody remembered a boxer from the Philippines was nearby and had a good record. So Pacquiao was sent in, as nothing more than an "opponent" in boxing terms.

Six rounds later, of the scheduled 12, it was over. Ledwaba was knocked out, all three judges had all five rounds for Pacquiao, and the $40,000 he got for winning was like $40 million for a young man who had left home because his need to eat had deprived his siblings.

The career of a superstar had begun, as had some bumps in the road.

The money flowed in. He was not only a hero in the Philippines, but an ATM machine for some. They would line the streets around his home in General Santos, a seaside city in the far south of the country and in the district he now represents as a congressman. They'd bring copies of unpaid bills, death certificates; anything showing a need.

He seldom said no. He was the country's Robin Hood, but not with funds robbed from the rich. He was the rich.

The biggest day for those who came calling in need — most revealing about Pacquiao's character — was Pacquiao's own birthday, Dec. 17. They came from near and far. Eventually, a center was found in a town plaza, where they could gather. Pacquiao's assistants would listen to requests and return with canned goods and, sometimes, cold hard cash.

In November 2009, a Philippine caravan that included 34 journalists was ambushed and massacred in a political dispute. Several victims were from Pacquiao's General Santos area. A memorial was built for them at a nearby cemetery. Pacquiao paid for it.

As he journeyed, he was a multimillionaire in his 20s. Women swarmed and he didn't always say no.

He also loved to gamble, especially on cockfighting, a huge gambling interest in the Philippines. In time, he purchased his own farm and owned thousands of fighting cocks. Several years ago, a handful of U.S. journalists visited the farm. There were birds, as far as the eye could see, with one leg tied to a stake.

Big-money cockfights are huge in Manila. Years ago, Pacquiao would take his own entries and bet heavily. Everybody knew which entries were his. They went to battle under the name Superpacman.

On their visit, reporters attended a fight, in a stadium on the property. The birds weren't fitted with the knives used for final kills, but one clearly was the winner. Afterward, when the visitors were fed dinner, there was no escaping the feeling that they were eating the loser.

One veteran journalist, Nick Giongco of the Manila Bulletin, wrote a story about Pacquiao's gambling. Pacquiao was angry and sued for libel. But months later, he walked past Giongco before a fight, stopped and shook his hand. A few days later, the suit was dropped.

As he kept winning, and likely began pondering politics, Pacquiao matured and better understood his celebrity and the influence of his behavior. He sold the cockfighting farm, stopped the womanizing and now reads and quotes the Bible liberally.

Some change for public relations purposes. Pacquiao's change, by all accounts, is genuine.

At his Tuesday pep rally, a complete love-in, he told the gathered fans to relax, that it would be OK. And he ended with a perfect example of the new, and now highly believable, Pacquiao mantra.

"I can do all things that Christ, who gives strength to me, allows," he said.

Consider that a prediction. Maybe even about the fight.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes

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