The Meaning and Mythos of Manny Pacquiao

His power and smarts have helped revive a sport and made him a hero in the Philippines. But as he thinks about politics, can Manny Pacquiao be more than the best boxer in the world?

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Dewey Nicks for TIME

Manny Pacquiao

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Pacquiao has a myth of origin equal to that of any Greek or Roman hero. Aban-doned by his father and brought up by a tough-as-nails mother, the poor boy who loves to box is rejected by a local squad but then journeys many islands away, to the country's metropolis, Manila, to make it big. Then he leaves the Philippines to make it even bigger, conquering the world again and again to bring back riches to share with his family and friends. Now, in his hometown of General Santos City on the island of Mindanao, he and his family own commercial buildings, a convenience store, caf├ęs and a souvenir shop that sells everything from DVDs of his fights to T-shirts to bobblehead dolls. In Manila, his children attend one of the most exclusive and expensive private schools. He is generous to a fault, spending thousands of dollars a day feeding and entertaining guests. For his last fight, he distributed $800,000 in tickets to friends.

The broad outlines of his history — his legend — have made the boxer a projection of the migrant dreams of the many Filipinos who leave home and country for work. About 10% of the Philippines' GDP is money remitted from overseas Filipinos: nurses, nannies, sailors, singers, doctors, cooks, X-ray technicians, mail-order brides, construction workers, prostitutes, priests, nuns. Some spend decades abroad, away from the ones they love, for the sake of the ones they love. Everyone in the Philippines knows a person who has made the sacrifice or is making it. Pacquiao gives that multitude a champion's face of selflessness: the winner who takes all and gives to all. "To live in the Philippines is to live in a world of uncertainty and hardship," says Nick Giongco, who covers Pacquiao for the daily Manila Bulletin. "Filipinos are dreamers. They like fantasy. And what is more of a fantasy than Manny Pacquiao?"

A movie has been made of his life. But Pacquiao says the full details of that life couldn't possibly fit into just one film. There are things to clear up. For one, he did not leave ramshackle General Santos City, a camp of tin and thatch, to pursue boxing, even though he did love the sport. He left home at 14 because his mother Dionisia, who did odd jobs and factory work and hawked vegetables by roadsides, wasn't really making enough to feed her six children. He had to go off and earn money elsewhere, doing anything to relieve the burden on his mother — even if she wanted him by her side. As it was, he was often absent from school because the family needed him to help sell snacks and trinkets on the potholed lanes where nearly naked children with matted hair still chase rusting bicycle wheels for fun. Pacquiao liked school, correcting and grading his classmates' homework. He "never cheated during a quiz — he wouldn't try to look sideways, this way or that," says one of his schoolteachers from the Saavedra Saway Elementary School. A decent education, however, requires several years and a lot of money. The Pacquiaos had trouble accumulating even a little.

And so young Manny plotted his trip in secret. Dionisia Pacquiao is slender and slight, like her son, and has his easy smile. "Manny has a strong mind and a strong body," she says. "Just like his mother. Except I am stronger." But she was heartbroken when he left for Manila. Dionisia recalls receiving a letter from him "saying how sorry he was [for leaving home] ... I was very, very sad. But after a while, I accepted his destiny."

From Zero to Hero
Pacquiao was not one to pick quarrels. But he did not shy away when friends got into free-for-alls: what he calls, with an almost pop-eyed relish, bukbukan — unrestrained fistfighting. He loved boxing. Dionisia recalls an 8-year-old Manny wrapping towels around his hands to mimic gloves. Rey Golingan, a General Santos City businessman, remembers the young Pacquiao attending the weekly bouts in the main plaza. "Manny was always there at the fights, waiting to be paired with someone," says Golingan. But his consistency wasn't matched by any obvious talent. "Honestly, I didn't see any potential in Manny. He was just another kid who knew if he won a few fights he might get 100 pesos [less than $3]," says Golingan. "He was always very courageous and had natural speed and power. But he wasn't a clever boxer ... He was [always] flailing around."

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