Dominant. Dazzling. Dauntless.
On June 23, 2001, a last minute substitute for Mexican Enrique Sanchez, who injured himself in the gym two weeks prior, from a little known province south of the Philippines stepped into the ring in the Oscar dela Hoya-Javier Castillejo undercard. Aside from a few die-hard boxing fans in his home country, no one knew him. He was challenging Lehlo “Hands of Stone” Ledwaba for the junior featherweight title. With his dyed hair and boyish demeanor, the then 24-year old southpaw might have been mistaken to be challenging instead for a boy band spot.
At the start of the fight, the bout commentator had difficulty pronouncing his name: Pacayo, Pacaw. But after 59 seconds of the 6th round, with Ledwaba lying on the canvass in a match that he seemed to have no chance of winning, the MGM Grand Garden Arena had one name reverberating inside its hallowed hall: Manny Pacquiao!
As star was born.
He was dominant from the first bell; he was blindingly fast for the South African boxing star who already had 31 wins with just 1 loss and 1 draw prior to their bout; and he was fearless in his attempt to put the Soweto native to bed. There was no denying that the boxing world was witnessing a prospect so bright that those inside the arena should have worn shades to protect themselves.
After the fight, Pacquiao said: “This is a dream come true. My dream was to be champion again. He did not hurt me at all. He did not even hit me hard. I was in control the entire fight.”
Fast forward 15 years later, entering the fifth round of what probably be the last match of his glittering career, Pacquiao was neither dominant nor dazzling against his third-time opponent Timothy Bradley. He looked tentative and his usual fearless aggression, which shellshocked Morales, dela Hoya, Hatton, Cotto, Margarito, etc., seemed to have watered down. His sixth round knock out loss to Marquez in 2012 seemed to still have an effect on his fighting style.
But it was not Marquez’s right hand that has done the most damage to his boxing greatness and the affections of millions. It was self-inflicted.
In the middle of February as the Philippine political campaign was heating up, Congressman Manny Pacquiao, a senatorial aspirant, was asked about his stand on same-sex message. Pacquiao did not mince words about his objection on the issue, even giving a graphic example to drive home his point. As lethal as his left hook that sent his opponents to the canvass, his straightforward answer immediately sent his standing in the senatorial survey outside the Top 12.
A more pragmatic man, or politician, would have immediately issued an apology. He did not. He stood his ground. He did not waver even in the midst of backlash not just from the LGBT community but also from celebrities, a shopping mall in LA, and from his long-time sponsor Nike.
Whether or not Pacquiao knew what was coming, the conviction with which he stood by his controversial remark shows what the future Hall of Famer values more. And the only thing, before the election, that could mitigate the damage he inflicted on himself is his performance inside the ring.
That’s why, more than ever, he needed to have a strong showing versus Bradley to at least win again the hearts of some Filipinos.
After the fight, which we won by unanimous decision, he was asked if Pacquiao-Bradley III could be his last fight. Pacquiao said yes.
It’s his message to the Filipinos that he wants to be a full-time senator if he wins in the election.
And in case he doesn’t win in the election, he may have to stay true to his words. There are no more titles for him to win and no amount of money could affect his lifestyle now that he has taken a more sober approach with his Christian beliefs. It would be disheartening, with his age and diminished skills, that he will just become a stepping stone for some up and coming young boxers if he continues his boxing career.
Pacquiao’s legacy is already safe. He does not need to prove anything. He is one of the few that has become bigger than the sport. He is the foremost Filipino that put the Philippines in the consciousness of millions of sports fans worldwide. And for a time at his peak, he made boxing became relevant again when the sport needed excitement and personality.
May the Pacquiao-Bradley III be his swan song. Any more bouts after this could just tarnish his record and potentially add more injury to his aging body. If he is really sincere in public service, he should just focus his attention on learning good governance and policy-making. He has shown that he’s a fast learner after acquiring skills on guitar, piano, chess, billiards, and basketball during his free time.
It’s time for him to do the same as a public servant.
For now, it’s up to the voting public if they will give him that chance. Pacquiao may just hope that his last boxing performance could mitigate the damage done by his remarks.
Filipinos no longer expect Pacquiao to be the dominant, dazzling, and dauntless boxer that lit up the boxing world and raised the hopes of millions Filipinos on numerous occasions.
But the Filipinos expect that he be a good public servant if he wins the election. Anything less from him and he will soon be forgotten as the greatest ever Filipino – an accolade that no other Filipino could even come close to.