Manny Pacquiao has more to fight for than usual on Saturday.
Manny Pacquiao returns to the ring Nov. 24 (Nov. 23 in the U.S.) at The Venetian in Macau, China, to take on Brandon Rios in a welterweight bout that could provide inspiration to many in Pacquiao’s home country of the Philippines.
On Nov. 8, 2013, Super Typhoon Yolanda (also known as Super Typhoon Haiyan) barreled through the Philippines, wreaking havoc on thousands of local inhabitants.
According to John Carlo Cahinhinan of the Sun Star, the rising death toll hit 3,976 on Monday, with 1,602 missing and 18,175 reported as injured.
After the devastation, Pacquiao expressed concern for his homeland via Twitter:
Please join me in keeping the Philippines and its people in your prayers.— Manny Pacquiao (@MannyPacquiao) November 14, 2013
Per Associated Press writer John Pye (via ABC News), Pacquiao believes the best way he can bring hope and inspiration to victims of Yolanda is by dedicating his upcoming bout against Rios to the country and its people. According to the same report, Pacquiao was disappointed that he couldn’t leave training camp to help his countrymen during this trying time:
I really want to visit the area and personally do what I can to help our countrymen who have suffered so much in this terrible tragedy. But I'm in deep training for a crucial fight so I regret I cannot go. I will send help to those who need it the most, and I enjoin all of you to pray for our country and people in these trying times.
Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, related that same sentiment to reporters last week on a conference call from Pacquiao’s camp in General Santos City, Philippines.
“He told me he wanted to go down on Sunday, but it’s too close to the fight for him to take any time off, and we talked about that,” said Roach. “He is focused on the fight still, but obviously it is a big distraction because it killed all of those people.”
Roach said the storm has been a frequent topic at camp.
“We do talk about it in the gym—about how many people got killed in the storm and how many more have been affected. He is concerned about it yes, very much, but I think we have him pretty much on track on the fight.”
Roach said Pacquiao hopes to inspire his people, but that the fighter was drawing inspiration from them as well.
"He knows it’s a big fight, and he knows it’s a must-win situation, and it’s bigger than that because he has to win for the country also, not just his boxing career. He knows he has to win for the people, and he told me that yesterday. They seem to be inspiring each other."
Speaking to Yahoo! Sports' Kevin Iole, Pacquiao underlined the fight's significance:
I am more than confident. Rios is bigger than me. Remember Goliath was bigger than David and yet David needed just one stone to fell the giant. I enter this fight stronger than ever. I have the strength of my country and my people coursing through my body. I fight for them, not for me. I fight for their glory, not mine.
Filipino sportswriter Retech Son, founder and editor of ShuttlePenBoxing.com, believes Pacquiao's focus is in the right place.
“I think a Pacquiao win would definitely uplift the spirits of the Filipinos that were devastated by Super Typhoon Yolanda,” Son told Bleacher Report.
Son trumpeted the influence Pacquiao’s fights have had on the Philippines in the past, saying that the nation’s military troops have even gone so far as to agree on truces with rebel forces so that each side could watch Pacquiao fight.
But will the same fighter, who momentarily brought peace between those at war in his country, also be able to bring good tidings to people who are suffering after the effects of Super Typhoon Yolanda?
Son thinks so.
“A Pacquiao win would once again bring hope for the typhoon victims,” said Son. “Pacquiao was knocked out in his last fight by a single Yolanda-type of punch from Marquez, so if he, Pacquiao, can come back strong and win against Rios, people will, of course, relate it to their situation.”
Son continued the parallel.
“They were knocked out by Super Typhoon Yolanda a week ago,” said Son. “But they will get up and go on with their battles inside their own ‘ropeless’ boxing rings…the battle of their daily lives after a knockout…”
Abac Cordero, a sportswriter for the Philippine Star, lives in Manila. He also believes Pacquiao can help the country get back on its feet.
"We badly need something to cheer about, something to lift our damaged spirits. Pacquiao has always done it for us. We hope he'll do the same [again]. The Philippines is counting on him. We are riding on his shoulders in this most trying moment."
But is that fair to Pacquiao? And can sports entertainment really inspire people in the wake of tragedy? Recent American history suggests so.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the upstart New England Patriots rode a wave of emotion as many Americans dealing with the devastation of the aftermath cheered for the underdog team with the nationalistic moniker. The Patriots won the Super Bowl that season.
Similarly, residents of Louisiana rallied behind the New Orleans Saints after the football team was forced out of the Superdome due to Hurricane Katrina. The Saints were terrible that year. The storm-induced exile led to an ugly finish in 2005, but in 2006 the team returned to the city.
It was a sign of new life and hope for the beleaguered area, something to rally behind. As the Saints built their team up from the ground floor, so too did New Orleans build itself back into a thriving metropolis. The Saints’ restoration culminated in a Super Bowl victory for the 2009 season.
More recently, the Boston Red Sox defeated the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 2013 World Series. This was the first time since 1918 that Boston was able to celebrate a championship victory in front of the home crowd. Earlier that year, Bostonians suffered senseless violence after two pressure-cooker bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring an estimated 264 others.
Still, some aren’t so sure sports should play such an important role in people's lives. Michael Woods, editor of The Sweet Science and a boxing writer for ESPN New York, said he believes people place too much importance on sports.
“It makes sense—the world can be a cold, nasty place, and comfort and joy can be hard to come by,” said Woods. “But I think the world would be a better place if more people cared a bit less about how their squad is doing and more about more substantial things.”
It’s a fair point. In the grand scheme of things, sports are of little consequence. But don’t even the little joys of life seem that much more important during or after terror, confusion, devastation and loss?
Award-winning writer Springs Toledo, who lives in the Boston area, believes so.
“Sports are big here, however loosely they are defined. Wearing a Yankees hat in Dorchester or Southie can get downright dangerous at times. People take it personally.”
And what of using sports as inspiration or even as a coping strategy? Toledo believes it's fine.
"As for the practice itself, I think it's perfectly healthy. It takes an individual out of family stress or relationship blues or work angst or no-work-available angst and offers a thrill for a few hours. Sports bring people together. Even the alienated among us can put a 'B' hat on and feel like they are part of a team."
But the people of the Philippines don’t watch baseball to emote. They don’t rally behind American football teams that are thousands of miles away, played by almost no one from their home country. The people of the Philippines don’t really have a team to get behind after Super Typhoon Yolanda.
But they do have Manny Pacquiao.
Pacquiao is a national treasure. Where fighters in America are relegated to mainstream media coverage just once or twice a year at most, Pacquiao is covered daily by local papers.
The popular champion has parlayed his success into other endeavors as well. He’s a singer, a TV host, an actor and a congressman representing the province of Sarangani in the Philippines.
Perhaps fittingly, Pacquiao is coming off the toughest stretch of his storied career. The future Hall of Famer was vying with Floyd Mayweather for the top spot on pound-for-pound lists before his last three bouts.
On Nov. 12, 2011, Pacquiao won a disputed majority decision over Juan Manuel Marquez. The bout was closer than many experts predicted beforehand. Some began wondering if Pacquiao was starting to slip.
On June 9, 2012, Pacquiao lost a decision to Timothy Bradley in what could only be referred to as a robbery. Still, Pacquiao seemed more sluggish than normal in the fight. This was not the Pacquiao who had torn through the 140- and 147-pound divisions for three years prior.
Then, Pacquiao was knocked out cold by Marquez on Dec. 8, 2012, in Round 6. Pacquiao was laid to waste by a perfect Marquez counter right hand the second it appeared Pacquiao might be taking over the fight.
It happened just like that. It was out of nowhere. Pacquiao was down and out.
Maybe Retech Son is right. Maybe Pacquiao does represent something for the Philippines after the knockout loss, something he couldn’t have been for them before it.
Because if New England was important to America after 9/11, if the Saints were important to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and if the Red Sox were important this year after the Boston bombing, then Pacquiao is more important to the Philippines than ever right now.
The best thing Pacquiao can do for his countrymen is show them how to fight. Because after ruin, after desperation, after destruction is wrought—all there’s left to do is fight.
And like the people of the Philippines, Pacquiao will fight.
Kelsey McCarson is a boxing writer for Bleacher Report and TheSweetScience.com. Follow him on Twitter @KelseyMcCarson. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.