It’s 8 AM Sunday, May 8, 2011 in Manila. Not too far from the bay on a side street in the Ermita district of the city sits the crowded Manila Bay Cafe.
Formerly one of the most popular red light neighborhoods in Asia, Ermita, this somewhat rundown district of Manila, has undergone a continuous massive cleanup by Mayor Alfred Lim. The bar itself, formerly known as “LA Cafe,” contains several large bars, a stage for live bands and plenty of billiards tables spanning two floors.
Running 24/7, until a year ago it was one of the few remaining “bar girl” havens. Lim closed it down after undercover officials discovered underage solicitors. After several months it was reopened officially as a sports bar, so it’s the perfect place to take in the Filipino perspective on this morning’s Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley fight (Manila is 10 hours ahead of Las Vegas).
The mood is noisy but festive, and the venue is as heavily crowded as any busy Saturday night. Since there are no windows there’s no way to tell that it’s actually Sunday morning. Most of the men are drinking beer.
“I asked to work today and skipped church to see my Manny win again.”
A skimpily clad waitress, a typical dark-haired, exotic native beauty, hands me an OJ and vodka. After all, it’s only been a day since I got off the plane after a 16-hour flight from LAX, and by my own body clock, it’s still early Saturday evening. The country here is very Catholic, but clearly the bearded savior has got some serious competition today, nigh two weeks after Easter Sunday.
To suggest Manny Pacquiao is God here may be understated. Let me explain. It’s rather noisy, so I duck into the men’s room, where Rico, the head bathroom attendant, shakes my hand. Rico loves to discuss sports, especially boxing, one of the four famous big “B’s,” the most loved Filipino sports: boxing, billiards, bowling and basketball.
"No problem," Rico says. "Mosley's not going to stop him. What do you think, my friend?"
Boxing had always taken a back seat to bowling and billiards in the Philippines, the source of champion legends like bowling’s Rafael "Paeng" Nepomuceno and the “magician” of billiards himself, Efren "Bata" Reyes. Both were sources of great national pride until Pacquiao elevated boxing to the No. 1 “B” position.
“He came here and kicked ass in billiards,” said Rico, intentionally leaning on the American slang. Sure enough, the Pac-Man’s distinctive autograph graced one of the lamps over a central billiards table. “He could just as easily make it big in billiards.”
True or not, it underscores the general belief and hope that Pacquiao can not only box—but that he can do anything he sets his mind to, most recently to solve the country’s problems with corruption and poverty.
As I chatted with other Filipinos in the excited crowd, a clear impression began to take shape. Regardless of the outcome of this morning’s fight, to the average Filipino, Pacquiao has ascended far above the role of boxing’s national pride. He has become the “one.” Several said they were sure he’d be president someday in the not too distant future.
There seems to be little concern as to whether or not he is going to win. In fact, I asked several people why they came out on Sunday morning to view the fight and whether they thought he would defend his title yet again. “Our bayani (hero) will win, but even if he doesn’t, we are here to support him. He’s here to save the Philippines. Boxing is his hobby.”
The proud people of the Philippines seek a savior, and right now it’s Manny Pacquiao. The demographic today is different here from the last fight viewing: more women and less actual fight talk. I’m now certain that aside from a core of true boxing enthusiasts, today's crowd is less here to watch a fight than, I dare say, to pay homage and get a look at their living messiah in action.
Thus far Pacquiao has had no difficulty filling the massive shoes of expectation placed upon him by these people. Beset with the dire economic consequences of decades of widespread government corruption, they've had had a string of bad luck with elected officials entering office on that platform only to conspicuously become part of the problem as they used their office to enrich themselves and their families. Wealthy beyond belief but from common roots, they view Manny as different.
It’s apparent that the fighter himself is even taking the extra step to promote this new role. A newly elected national congressman, in fact its richest member, he appeared at Wednesday’s press conference dressed in a conservative suit. Reading a prepared speech, he said, “The biggest fight of my life is not in boxing...(but)...to end poverty in my country.” He spoke as if defending the Welterweight title against Shane Mosley was a secondary concern.
Mosley, equally moved, referred endearingly to his opponent as “a great person.” As the fight begins I find myself starting, too, to feel a certain awe that there’s more to this nationalistically yellow-clad “bayani” than championship boxing.
Marshall "Dopadoc" Davidson http://www.dopadoc.com