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Manny Pacquiao: No other hero |


Manny Pacquiao: No other hero

Alex Almario - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The redemption narrative heading into Manny Pacquiao’s fight against Brandon Rios last Sunday was so palpable, so obvious, that it actually wrote itself. Pacquiao was dedicating his fight to the victims of super typhoon Yolanda, who like himself, needed to rise up from some form of disaster. The last time we saw him in a boxing ring, he was literally down, knocked unconscious, and for a few minutes, feared dead. It was a sobering sight, seeing our hero, the pride of our land, the most renowned Filipino in the world, sprawled on the floor in humiliating defeat. A year later, with his country in tatters, desperate for inspiration, the fallen hero needed to redeem himself.

Sports has always been a ready-made metaphor for life, with its clearly drawn line between triumph and defeat lending itself to easy lessons on perseverance. If we were to stretch the metaphor between Pacquiao and the typhoon victims further, we could say that both have suffered irreparable damages. Pacquiao will always be remembered as the recipient of one of the meanest knockout punches in boxing history regardless of his recent victory, while parts of the country will never fully recover from the wrath of Yolanda. But the metaphor is also stretched to its limit: there is nothing — not even Juan Manuel Marquez’s brutal right hook — that can compare to the devastation that Yolanda victims have to endure.

But for a few hours last Sunday, the romantic allegory was the best thing they could have. The survivors in Tacloban, taking a break from their seemingly overwhelming task of rebuilding, watched the fight from giant screens and basked in the glow of a familiar image. For years, Pacquiao’s victories have provided us Filipinos an annual respite from our oft-disappointing existence, his wins becoming almost a cathartic ritual, for once or twice a year we are guaranteed our vicarious triumph. That feeling was back on Sunday, just when it was needed the most.

Tempered rejoicing

This time, however, the whole process seemed rote, perhaps weighed down by the desperation and weariness of the typhoon’s aftermath. The country’s collective rejoicing seemed relatively tempered, with all the “Manny’s back!” pronouncements betraying a lowered threshold for satisfaction, a far cry from the amazement inspired by Pacquiao during his peak. Even Rios seemed a little too gift-wrapped as the ideal bounce-back opponent for Pacquiao, his lumbering, counter-punch-averse style making him a low-risk challenge, almost as easy and as convenient as all the “pagbangon” narratives. The overall sense was more of relief than jubilation, more “we needed this” and “Pacquiao needed this” than “this is history in the making.” He didn’t topple a boxing giant, or dominate yet another weight division — those days are long gone. In the end, all we were left to celebrate is that he did not fail. He did not fail us.

This is not to say that the narrative was force-fed to the public. If it did feel manufactured, it was only because we all connected the dots ourselves, out of habit, out of the sheer absence of choice. That Pacquiao has become our modern-day hero says more about our nation’s psyche than it does about Pacquiao. We do not have the practical leaders that can help in actual nation building, inspire us to be better individual citizens, pull us together during times of calamity. Instead, an entire devastated region had to look to a boxer for symbolic leadership because they cannot find the real one on the ground. In fact, the entire country has to make do with symbols and metaphors — mere representations of assets we do not actually own.

We do not know how much longer Pacquiao can keep taking punches and standing proxy for all the things that we need in our actual, non-boxing lives. He’s turning 35 next month, the age when most athletes start to decline. A scathing piece published by sports website SB Nation entitled “Requiem for a Welterweight” made the rounds on social media last week, detailing the ways in which Pacquiao was starting to decline both inside and outside the ring, how he seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of the fallen heroes of boxing, the once mighty and famous now penniless and forgotten.

American perspective

But the piece was written by an American writer, for an American website, with an American perspective. It misses one salient point about Pacquiao and his status among the people to whom he matters the most — he’s not just a boxing champion, of which America has a dime a dozen; he’s the living fulfillment of the Filipino Dream. He’s not Mike Tyson, or Joe Louis, or Evander Holyfield — he’s our Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Babe Ruth, Neil Armstrong, all of America’s symbolic heroes rolled into one. While his place in boxing history may be subject to eternal debate, his place in Philippine semiotics is secured. He is the Great Brown Hope. He is Pinoy Pride. He is our easiest, most universal shorthand for Filipino excellence.

Every country has its symbolic heroes, but ours carry the additional weight of filling in for gaping substantial holes. We lack the concrete leadership to help solve our concrete problems, but we have no shortage of inspirational symbols. They mushroom organically out of the barrenness — our YouTube sensations showing up at Ellen DeGeneres’ couch, our half-Pinoys ruling American talent competitions, our beauty queens waltzing in countless top fives. But none of them means as much as Manny Pacquiao, who after all these years, is still holding his nation’s crumbling hopes together in his deteriorating fists. Unfortunately, he is just a boxing champion.

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Tweet the author @colonialmental.



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