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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Packing punch for humanity, Pacquiao now a cultural icon

Thursday, May 5, 2011

LAS VEGAS ? The oddball notion of the world's most ferocious pound-for-pound slugger singing a sticky-sweet 1970s-era love ballad is incongruous at best: C'mon, Manny Pacquiao, the fearless, relentless, punching engine from the Philippines, crooning Sometimes When We Touch?

  • Manny Pacquiao, posing in his suite at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas,

    By Chris Farina, Top Rank

    Manny Pacquiao, posing in his suite at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, "relates to people" and "is generous to a fault," promoter Bob Arum says. He faces Shane Mosley on Saturday night.

By Chris Farina, Top Rank

Manny Pacquiao, posing in his suite at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, "relates to people" and "is generous to a fault," promoter Bob Arum says. He faces Shane Mosley on Saturday night.

"The singing thing with Manny is so tender. This guy, such a powerful man in the ring, is unafraid to sing an emotional, sentimental song like Sometimes… " marvels singer-songwriter Dan Hill, who recorded the 1977 smash hit that was re-released last month as a duet with Pacquiao as lead vocal.

Juxtaposed against the sometimes cruel sport of boxing, Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao — "Pac-Man" — is a striking anomaly on today's sporting landscape: He is the grateful megastar with a sense of humanity. The global reach of the diminutive fighter as a champion of giant causes, including addressing poverty, medical and environmental concerns, threatens to outdistance any grand ring achievements.

In the process, Pacquiao has managed to retain an aura of vulnerability while not surrendering his air of invincibility.

Building his brand

Undeniable charm and playful exuberance also have helped catapult Pacquiao into the realm of international icon. Increasingly, he is in demand as a product endorser for major companies, among them Nike and Hewlett-Packard. The eight-time champion has branded a cologne fragrance (MP8) and a "Pacquiao Produce" line of vegetables that might hit supermarket shelves before 2012.

Pacquiao, featured on 60 Minutes in 2010, was named to Time magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people in 2009.

In February, Pacquiao, newly elected as a Filipino congressman, visited President Obama at the White House and also met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), for whom he campaigned. Demonstrating budding political savvy, he sought Reid's legislative assistance on behalf of a job-creating bill relating to the garment industry in his homeland.

Asked to compare the vagaries of his two occupations, Pacquiao said with a laugh, "There is no cheating in boxing — only in politics."

At 5-6 with a Justin Bieber-like mop-top, the goateed left-hander stands taller than many contemporaries. He appears to be the charismatic antithesis of the preening, often-narcissistic, sometimes-rude modern-day athlete. Pacquiao embraces all — even news media. More than mere boxer, he is a lawmaker, philanthropist, singer, spokesman and bona-fide hero to the masses of his impoverished homeland.

The 32-year-old is by all accounts humble, gracious and self-effacing — a simple, uncomplicated man who loves to sing karaoke. Clearly, the spiritual fighter has uncovered his version of contentment and enlightenment. He and his wife, Jinkee, are the parents of four children.

"I never believed that you had to say bad things about your opponent to make yourself bigger," Pacquiao says in his hotel suite before Saturdays' welterweight title showdown against Shane Mosley at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. "You can be popular, or be a champion, without trash talking. And you can be a good example for people, especially children."

Not since the halcyon days of Muhammad Ali has a fighter had such positive worldwide impact. Pacquiao has accomplished that minus Ali's bravado, gamesmanship and former status as heavyweight king, and with only a smidgen of controversy. That came on the issue of performance-enhancing drugs.

The boldest public allegation came from his foil, welterweight Floyd Mayweather Jr., as the pair negotiated to fight. Thus far, no fight — except in Nevada federal court where Pacquiao in 2009 sued Mayweather, promoter Oscar De La Hoya and others for defamation. Pacquiao claims the allegations were made out of "ill will, spite, malice, revenge and envy." He has never tested positive in a post-fight urinalysis.

Music relieves his stress

Pacquiao's rock-star status has been unaffected. Last year, he earned $32 million in the ring as one of the world's top-grossing athletes. He retains an enormous entourage of family and friends numbering in the hundreds.

"Manny is someone who is genuinely concerned; he relates to people," says his promoter, Bob Arum of Top Rank. "The last fighter I had who truly was that way was Ali. Manny is generous to a fault, as was Ali. The most endearing quality about (Pacquiao) is his big heart."

Pacquiao refuses to construct a shrine unto himself, even in his own home — where he keeps boxing awards, mementos and memorabilia stashed away. He sings to his children most every night, either back home in the Philippines or at his home in Los Angeles, where he trains at Freddie Roach's Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood.

Hill, who discovered from his "hysterical" wife that the fighter was singing his famous song last year on Jimmy Kimmell Live!, will attend Saturday's fight. Afterward, he and Pacquiao will reprise their uber-love song classic in a post-fight concert at the Mandalay Bay casino.

The fighter once sang Imagine with comedian Will Ferrell on Kimmel's show.

"I love music," Pacquiao says in his soft-spoken manner. "When I listen to music, all the stress is gone. I feel stronger."

Perhaps that is why he always broadly smiles as he enters the arena to face the fear all fighters confront. Sometimes, Roach says, he's a little too nice while applying his trade. The fighter who can carry a tune sometimes carries his opponent, too.

"Look at his last fight — he ends up liking the fighter during the fight," Roach says of Pacquiao's 12-round triumph against Antonio Magarito last November. "Instead of knocking out the guy, he asks him, 'Are you OK?' He didn't feel as if he had to embarrass the guy. I told him he should have knocked him out. He said, 'It's a sport and I didn't have to hurt him; I beat him up enough.'

"What can you say to that? He is the most compassionate fighter I've ever met."

Governing and gambling

His empathy derives from experience and a well-documented childhood: Pacquiao, who often begged for food or money, began fighting at 14 to support his mother and her six children.

"It's hard for us, as North Americans, to really understand what he has gone through and why he is genuine," says Hill, a Canadian. "The poverty is alarming and heart-crushing. I think what he sees (back home) is his de facto family."

Last May, Pacquiao was elected to the House of Representatives from the province of Sarangani.

"When I started fighting professionally (in 1995), every time I saw poor people sleeping in the streets, it made me think that one day I hoped I could help them," he says.

Oftentimes, as he walks the streets, Pacquiao doles out cash.

"He can't shake his past, even if he is earning millions," says Nick Giongco, a reporter for the Manila Bulletin who has known the fighter for more than 15 years. "He knows he came from nothing. He knows what it is like to be poor, to beg for food and money. In the Philippines, you cannot afford to forget your roots."

Pacquiao will wear yellow boxing gloves in the Mosley fight to symbolize "unity and hope to end poverty." His trainer says his biggest concern is that his fighter "just might give it all way. He is that good of a guy," Roach says. "I hope it never happens."

Recipients of Pacquiao's largesse include those also attracted to apparently his biggest vice — gambling. In Bob Simon's 60 Minutes piece last summer, the CBS reporter showed Pacquiao shooting pool — with a $30,000 wager at stake, he said.

Pacquiao is an avid baccarat player and, most recently, has taken up poker.

The fighter's gambling "is a huge topic of conversation," says Abac Cordero of The Philippine Star, though as a congressman Pacquiao is not permitted to play games of chance in government-owed casinos. Then again, he visits the gaming meccas of Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Macau.

"He loses big and wins big, but he knows his limits," Cordero says.

But his devotion to religion seems to know no boundaries. A devout Catholic, Pacquiao has an almost surreal-like serenity that he says has carried him through a sometimes-difficult life.

"I always pray. Without God, we have nothing," he says. "I give him thanks. It's common sense. Without God, we are not here — He created us and the universe. It is very simple."

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