Nation's total loyalty to their lord of the rings

Nation's total loyalty to their lord of the rings

On the North Luzon Expressway, some distance from Manila's claustrophobic traffic and a kilometre short of a town called Mexico, a highway patrolman is throwing a crisp punch into the blue Filipino sky.

The sun burns the tarmac, the tyre is flat, the driver winds a jack under the bus and officer Francis Batisan, who's stopped to help, grins.

"Fifth round. Knockout."

Manny Pacquiao over Floyd Mayweather.

Not since Mar-Cos has there been a two-syllable word as frequently used in this land as Puck-Yow. Except this one makes people smile. In a land where happiness is exercised constantly as a fundamental right, nothing brings pleasure like the fists of Kid Kulafu (his nickname before Pac-Man and the title of a new movie on him).

I'm in the Philippines as a guest of the dazzling Anvaya Cove Golf and Sports Club. That place is owned by Ayala Land, but this nation is MannyLand. Manny on the front pages. Manny being mimicked by TV anchors throwing punches. Manny snaking out a left jab on a sponsor's billboard which carries the hashtag "#sugodmanny".

"Sugod" is Tagalog for "attack". Manny doesn't know anything else and Manny has to do nothing else if he's to beat Floyd Mayweather on May 2 in this decade's version of The Fight of The Century.

When Manny fights, hope rises like a beautiful mist. When Manny fights - usually on a Sunday - people swear to me, crime decreases ("he should fight all the time," laughs his friend and former councillor Miles Roces). Traffic clears. Rebels announce a cease-fire. When his hands start moving like a Miles Teller drum-roll from Whiplash, one man can still his nation.

I know deification because I come from Tendulkar's India and I've read about Pele's Brazil, but even they shared affection with others, from within sport, from outside sport. But here, only after a pause, do they mention Lea Salonga, the singer who won a Tony for Miss Saigon in 1991. Mostly the Philipinnes has only Manny - a man apart and in the ring a man alone.

I know people who sneer at Tendulkar and shrug at Pele and so in my spare time here I'm trying to find one person unmoved by Manny.

"Impossible. Almost," says veteran sportswriter Nick Giongco of the Manila Bulletin. Jerome, a food and beverage manager, tells his own tale. He's tried, he said, to search for someone who'll bet against Manny. "Didn't find," he laughs.

So maybe the immigration officer is immune to MannyMadness. No way. He happily talks, he stamps. Maybe the bellboy in the SEDA Hotel in Bonifacio Global City has a grouse. No chance.

Will Manny win?

Yes.

Why?

"Because," he says with a shining faith, "he's our fighter."

He's their man, he's one of them, a nation and boxer fitted like a glove. Filipinos are religious and he's now a praying man (the partying and gambling are apparently history). Filipinos have never met a microphone they don't want to sing into and Manny croons on US talk shows.

Filipinos don't care for immodesty and he, reversing boxing's braggadocio, doesn't mock rivals. Filipino men are macho and he's a pugilist of uncontained fury. Or as Giongco says: "He's an all-action fighter. No safety first."

He is also, in a nation too familiar with poverty, a sweaty symbol of possibility. A kid who sold bread on the street, a kid who stuffed a box with clothes - perhaps from his mom's laundry - to make a makeshift punching bag, a kid who grew up to be famous enough to meet US President Barack Obama.

This last fact is told to me by bus driver Arsenio Bernado, who owns the lumpy, monumental face of a beaten boxer. He speaks in quiet praise and it reminds me later of what Roces says: "Manny is living out their dreams."

But dreams are bruised in rings, the boxer pounded, his nation temporarily broken; one with bloody kidneys, the other with swollen eyes. But it is through the idea of defeat that I appreciated most the Filipinos' affection for Manny. He fights for them and they seem to know it.

Defeat can excavate a callousness in fans as if a loss is a betrayal of faith. Across the planet, fans throw stones at athletes' houses and turn twisted on Twitter. But as Roces says, of a 2005 fight when Manny was outpointed by Erik Morales: "People also felt they had lost. And it gave Manny more motivation because he doesn't want the Filipinos to feel bad."

Fans often want only victory, but with Manny against Mayweather they don't seem frightened of defeat. Fifty-fifty, said most people I met, of the fight. A waiter told me Mayweather would stay undefeated but then spoke proudly of how his father hailed from the same area as Manny.

No one can predict reaction but there was no hint of a boxer having failed if he loses, no glimpse that a fan's anger will flame if he is defeated. As Mike Jugo, an executive, put it: "If someone tries their best, it is all you can ask for."

As I left Manila it struck me, this is how love affairs should be in sport, this sense of athlete and nation in smiling union, where a playful champion is never deaf to his adoring people.

I never found my Manny-cynic - they must exist - but left with a vision of a patrolman, on a buzzing highway, whose sunlit face never lost its smile when I asked his reaction if Manny lost.

"Win or lose, we love him all the way."

Then the tyre was fixed, the bus coughed to a start, and down we rolled. To just another part of MannyLand.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Apr 19, 2015.
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