Prayers in rain go unheard as fans keep faith in hero

Prayers in rain go unheard as fans keep faith in hero
Fans watch a live telecast of the welterweight unification bout between Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao and US boxer Floyd Mayweather, in Manila on May 3, 2015.

NO SIGNAL.

No picture. No way. Not now. Not in the fifth round when we're wrapped tightly in the embrace of the fight. In a praying nation, a thousand pleas silently travel upwards through the rain. But the TV screen is unmoving and it is unmerciful.

NO SIGNAL.

Heaven isn't weeping, it's suddenly bawling in torrents in Marikina City, east of Manila, holding us prisoner in Freedom Park.

We're here, thousands of us, for a free public viewing. We're here on sidewalk and street, one collective knot of tension. We're here but Manny Pacquiao isn't, nor Floyd Mayweather, for the picture on the TV screen - perched on a truck - freezes mid-punch and mid- fight. Then, in the rain, it dies into blackness.

NO SIGNAL.

The crowd howls and, like Mayweather, they duck. They don't riot, they run. They are being defeated by nature and, out of sight, Mayweather is defusing their force of nature. I call Singapore for fight updates and a few people listen in. Many want to get into the nearby city hall where the VIPs watch, but here too:

NO SIGNAL.

Las Vegas is 12,000km away, Las Vegas has Denzel Washington, sex appeal, hype. But I've come here because this is the ordinary nation of Manny, standing on stools, chairs, cycles; this is the army of Manny, bound by faith, glued by sweat and belief. It is like being at a boxing Mass.

Ian Intic, 32, is here for his son Xyu's first fight. He is six. Salvador Mercado has been here since 7.30am, a security guard on his day off who has spent a night praying for a boxer whom he first saw as a 14-year-old and in whom he has never stopped believing.

Thelma Remlante, Gloria Llanes and Virginia Decena are here, all fluttering fans and knowing giggles as they renew a 27-year-old friendship. Even for these older women, the boxer has meaning. "I'm glad when Manny fights," says Remlante, "because then the Philippines is known for something other than disaster or corruption." Then she hoists herself onto a bench to gently boo Mayweather.

All morning, for the first five rounds, I can watch the fight blindfolded, for an audible crowd gives voice to every boxing act. A boo means a Mayweather clinch, a roar is a Manny blow. There aren't enough. A boy collecting used bottles has a "Go Manny" headband, but Manny won't go as if he's a shy bruiser.

Mayweather is a gloved chess player but here they want a cockfight, a bloody battle, they're waiting for a punch to rip open the morning. Boxing crowds, you'd think, own a latent violence, as if they're pounding punches in their imaginations, but not here. This is orderly devotion and even the odd belittling comment arrives without meanness. When Mayweather, all sinewy intelligence, slithers away from punches like an oiled eel, some don't like it.

"Coward."

"Stop running."

Nearby, the statue of Jose Rizal, the Filipino nationalist, looks benignly over the crowd. He was a pacifist but perhaps he would have forgiven this. Because people need heroes, someone to slay adversity, someone to exceed the boundaries of what is imaginable. Other people have riches, development, power, influence. Here they have Manny. But Manny is losing.

Which is when, instead of a rain of Filipino punches, all we get is the rain. Rounds go by. We wait. Technicians try. We wait. Then, in the 10th round:

SIGNAL.

But huddled near the screen in a defeating drizzle, all we can do is watch the last rites in soggy quiet. A woman comforts her son. A man shakes his head. Manny is only a man, not a miracle.

Maybe later his tactics will be trashed, but now there are no hostile voices or angry flourished fists. Elsewhere I have seen bottles thrown after failure, abuse launched, heroes flayed. Not here. Maybe a nation of boxing knows how to wear defeat. "Dignity", said Mercado the security guard, is Manny's finest virtue and here they have returned it.

I wander, I speak to old men who linger, as if digesting defeat, but from whose voices pride has not been leached. Carlito Bergonia, 77, once a textile operator, has watched every Manny fight and says: "If Mayweather had engaged he would hit the canvas". It's a faith in a fellow man as dazzling as this day is grim.

Later, after this city mourns but won't weep, after the rain has ceased but can't wash away hope, a bellboy named Yves is at my hotel door. He watched, he's smiling still, and he's bewildered when I ask if he's angry with Manny, as if my question is a misunderstanding of the entire idea of faith.

"But he's our hero, sir."

As he walks away, I remember my plane ride to Manila last Friday. In the seat in front a man was watching a documentary on Manny. Then so did I, and the man next to me, and the man next to him, all of us flying on the deeds of this fighting man.

In the film, after a loss, Manny appears to a crowd and says to them gently, almost soothingly:

"Don't be sad. Don't be sad."

Maybe it's what the bellboy was trying to tell me. Maybe he's trying to explain that Mayweather may be 48-0, but for him Manny is always undefeated.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 4, 2015.
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