A Portrait of the Ex-Champion as Politician

A Portrait of the Ex-Champion as Politician

Manuel L. Quezon III on how transitioning from uniting sports figure to divisive politician still reveals Manny Pacquiao is Everyman.

Time was when, rich or poor, whether you were urban dweller or barrio folk, the entire country would stop, watch, and be that rare and marvelous thing, a united nation whenever Manny Pacquiao was in the ring. The petty pickpocket and the professional politician—not very different from each other, when you think of it, except perhaps in the boldness and scale of the larceny in their hearts—would join the honest in rooting for the Pacman. To be sure, commentators would have a field day tallying the patriotic junketeers who preened before the cameras in their ringside seats, but as reporters of an older generation might put it, isports lang, chief.

In 2009, for example, First Gentleman Mike Arroyo, Vice President Noli de Castro, Speaker Prospero Nograles, with at least 20 fellow representatives and other worthies such as Andal Ampatuan, could be spotted occupying choice seats at PacMan’s Cotto fight; in 2011, 113 representatives would miss sessions to be able to demonstrate their patriotism by jetting off to Vegas for another fight; and even in 2012, when the number had shrunk to 40 (despite of, or maybe because, the session had ended so there was no fun in playing hooky), no one in the political class before, or since, ever really suffered for extravagantly seeking such photo opportunities. At home, far from the purloining official crowd, the cops would crow over the absence of crime during the duration of Pacman’s fights, and no one was unpatriotic enough to wonder if the statistics had something to do with the policemen avidly watching the fights, too.

That was then. The fights are fewer now, and tougher to set up. But even in his prime, Pacman had set his sights on another ring, the political one.

In 2010, in his famous GQ profile of Pacquiao, Andrew Corsello had this to say about The Pacman’s first attempt at political office: “It’s the strangest thing: Pacquiao was routed in his run for public office two years ago in part because voters revered him too much to elect him.” At that point, Pacman had lost a bid for congress in 2007; he was widely expected to again throw his hat into the ring, this time not in South Cotabato but in Sarangani. He had lost as a member of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s KAMPI and won as one of Manny Villar’s Nacionalistas in 2010, then shifting to Aquino’s Liberal Party that same year (after Aquino defeated Villar for the presidency), before switching to Jejomar Binay’s PDP-Laban in time for the 2013 mid-terms. Which he won, while wife Jinkee became Vice-Governor though his brother lost in South Cotabato. In 2016, he ran and won as a senator in the UNA slate of Binay, only to rejoin PDP-Laban when it became the ruling party under President Rodrigo Duterte (after Duterte defeated Binay for the presidency).

There are two lesser-noticed vignettes in the Corsello profile. The first is courtesy of a Manila Bulletin reporter who recounted how, as a back-alley fighter, Pacman would “announce himself as the mayor and speak about his plans for improving things. He would move his arms around like a politician. I could never tell if he was just trying to entertain himself or if he was, you know, practicing.” The second is an observation on Pacman’s adoring fan base by a former congressman: “As Manny has risen through the weight classes, nobody has doubted him more than Filipinos. We expect our public figures to falter. It’s incredible, but for a long time the people who loved Manny Pacquiao the most, his own people, were the ones who least believed in him.”

Which leads you to conclude two old truisms: Politics is our national sport, and our politicians are first and foremost, like every other Filipino, a nation of balimbings, eager to see you fail, wildly supportive when you don’t, twice as vicious when you do. The Filipino, we are told, loves to root for the underdog; precision demands that a qualification be made. We root for the underdog that wins.

As winners soon discover, winning also requires losing money and possessions. To be galante is one of the highest praises we can bestow on the fortunate. That Great Ilocano, Ferdinand Marcos, for example, was magnificently gallant with the people’s money, and at least half of the population remains grateful. Which is why a third observation, courtesy of another talkative Corsello source, seems so wildly off the mark, now.

The source, a reporter, rhetorically asked Corsello, who do you think of, immediately, when you hear the word “Filipino?” Immediately supplying the answer, “Marcos. This is how the world knows us. By our corrupt political clans that have been around for centuries. This is how we know ourselves. And Manny Pacquiao, the most beloved figure in the country, talks of going there? It makes his people fear for him.”

Some might have feared Pacquiao becoming a politician, but what of Pacquiao’s own fears? The only thing such a man has to fear is failure itself. Fear of losing a fight, any fight; fear of losing the means to be generous and thus, beloved. Fear of having arisen from nothing, only to become nothing again.

Thus, to the two things certain in this life—death, and taxes—then, should be added a third and fourth: All fame is fleeting, and success can be temporary. Before Pacquiao, our boxing greats died young. Pancho Villa died in his prime, at the age of 24, of a tooth infection. Flash Elorde died of lung cancer at the age of 49, having gained financial security by pitching San Miguel beer, and leaving his heirs a name they have successfully leveraged into a chain of boxing gyms. For former champion pugilists who live past their boxing prime, this was formerly about the best one could expect to achieve. Even the greatest of all fighters, Muhammad Ali, found himself pitching cockroach traps in self-deprecating ads in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

No fighter may have thought of it before, but other durable sports icons had figured a way forward—politics. If Pacquiao is Everyman, and politics is in everyman’s blood, then everyone wants to be a mayor. Or a congressman. Or a senator, or president. Besides being an athlete, Pacman has been an entertainer—and both have made it big in politics. Ask Jaworski, Webb, or Sotto. Long past their professional prime, they added that third element of success to the fame and fortune they already enjoyed: Power, which is the enabler of all things.

Back in 2014, Forbes magazine estimated Pacman’s career earnings at U.S. $300 million, with the Philippine government under former President Aquino wanting to collect U.S. $75 million in tax payments. By 2014, his estimated career winnings had totaled U.S. $400 million. Last April Pacman was saved by the bell—courtesy of the Supreme Court, which maintained its 2014 freeze on the BIR from collecting a multi-billion-peso cash or surety bond to stop the BIR from immediately collecting taxes it claimed were due. Even his mother faced a tax investigation.

As Jose Avelino, a Liberal stalwart and Senate President in 1949, famously put it, “Why did you have to order an investigation, Honorable Mr. President? If you cannot permit abuses, you must at least tolerate them. What are we in power for? We are not hypocrites. Why should we pretend to be saints when in reality we are not? We are not angels. When we die we will all go to hell. It is better to be in hell because in that place there are no investigations, no secretary of justice, no secretary of the interior to go after us.” What sort of treatment of a member of the ruling coalition was this? And of a national icon, at that? One who, we would do well to remember, never aspired to, or proclaimed himself, a saint.

The best the Liberal President at the time, Elpidio Quirino, could say to Avelino by way of a reply, was the uncomforting, “I am no saint…but when public opinion demands an investigation, we have to go through the formality of ordering one.” It displeased Avelino to the extent that he split the party. But because Pacman is a nice guy—and perfectly innocent, as he and his lawyers will you, the BIR, and the IRS—in 2010 Pacman only bolted the administration Liberals, aligned with Binay’s UNA, and after the elections, returned to the fold of the PDP-Laban which is now the ruling party.

Don’t get mad. Get even. He’s rolled with the punches and paid his dues, mocked in the past for his stand on reproductive health in 2015, deprived of lucrative endorsements for his homophobia in 2016, and now an increasingly divisive, because just another run-of-the-mill partisan figure since he was elected to office. But he matters. He is finally in his political element, giving up on trying to be clever and settling instead for being the bouncer of the ruling coalition.

Which brings us to another figure—a champion, in his own right, in terms of being a political survivor—who stole the limelight in Corsello’s piece: Chavit Singson. More Tony Montana of Scarface fame than the Don Viteo Corleone of Mario Puzo’s imagination, Chavit was, is, and will probably always be, the Godfather in every respect of The Pacman.

In Singson’s hometown of Vigan, there is a museum to himself, which includes a gallery filled with the preserved heads and stuffed corpses of the exotic animals Chavit’s killed. The man always comes out ahead. He fights to win. And he is untouchable. The Pacman likes many things, but big-game hunting doesn’t seem to be one of them. But he has his own gallery of stuffed and mounted (political) kills.

“Mr. President, I move that the chairmanship and members of the committee on justice be declared vacant.” Kapow! Goodbye, Leila de Lima. Hello, Dick Gordon.

“I move that the position of the Senate President Pro-Tempore be declared vacant.” Kablam! Goodbye, Frank Drilon. Hello, Ralph Recto.

“I move that the chairmanship and members of the committee on health be declared vacant.”

“I move that the chairmanship and members of the committee on agriculture be declared vacant.”

“I move that the chairmanship and members of the committee on education be declared vacant.”

Blam, blam, blam! Goodbye Risa Hontiveros, Francis Pangilinan, and Bam Aquino. Hello JV Ejercito, Cynthia Villar, and Chiz Escudero.

“Even Jesus Christ was sentenced to death because the government has imposed [the] death penalty.”

“You can dig copper but if you understand the first line [from Deuteronomy] there’s responsible, meaning responsible mining. But there is ‘responsible mining’ meaning I do not destroy the environment. I do not destroy the earth.”

Boom! God is with us. Because God helps those who help themselves.

Pacquiao the rags-to-riches boxer may once have spoken truth to power, achieving fame and fortune through determination and luck; but now he speaks the blunt language of power. In the era of the clenched fist, the national fist has come into his own.

Godfather Chavit, lest we forget, stood by the side of the man who is now president, at that shock-and-awe miting de avance in the Luneta on the eve of the May 2016 elections when the era of the clenched fist was proclaimed. Godfather Chavit and protégé Pacman stand by the side of that president, as he imposes tough love on the Filipino people. All three are the authentic face of the Philippines and its politics, beating its national pretensions to a pulp. It is a face at times hard, at other times smiling, but always tough.

Yet for Pacman, what sets him apart is that he has done with his fists what it took guns for his mentors to do: gain power. In that sense, his is the most authentic face of all. Whatever success or security most obtain or aspire to, they gain only with native cunning, striving, and the cultivation of friends. It does not come at the cost of other people’s lives. The same applies to Pacman: He may beat you, but he will never kill you.

Floating like a political butterfly and stinging like a bee, not just in the ring but in the session hall, is as good as life gets. In six—now going on seven—years after all, the Pacman managed to join and leave five parties, win elections twice as a congressman and once (so far) as a senator, establish a political dynasty (his brother, Pedro Pacquiao, now holds his old congressional seat), all without really having to do much of anything except be his happy self. In 2015, for example, his record for absenteeism surpassed even that of the chronically absent Jules Ledesma—which only goes to show that whether old money or new, provincial barons can end up very much the same: as carefree as a bird. And doing the Lord’s work, besides. With a clear conscience, to boot, as these things go. He hasn’t done more, or less, than anyone else holding a similar position—and he certainly has never gone as far as those who have taken him under their wing.

Truly, he is everyman; for rare is the person who hasn’t wanted to be somebody in this nation of obscurity. As Senator Pacquiao himself might say (in the process beating colleague Senator Allan Peter Cayetano to the punch), quoting Almighty Jesus himself (Matthew 6: 25-34), “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: They neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

Amen? Amen, if your Honors please!

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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