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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Being a good Catholic is a plus for a would-be politician in the very pious Philippines. But so is knowing how to handle a constituency. Pacquiao doesn't have one so much as he has a royal court. Roach is famous enough to have his own table at the Capitale extravaganza. Beside Pacquiao sits his wife Jinkee. Filipino tabloids have published her purported ultimatums against Manny's "playboy" ways, but tonight she says only a couple of sentences and even those guardedly. She speaks mostly to the other man seated next to her, Mike Koncz, a Canadian who takes care of the little details that matter to Pacquiao and his wife. The fighter, for example, must have white rice with his meals (a hard habit to break for all Filipinos), so Koncz goes scampering for a plate of it. The slightly fusiony menu lists a side of wild rice with the entrée. That will not do for the Pacquiaos.

If Roach is the most popular foreigner in the Philippines, Koncz, who has become a gatekeeper for the Pacquiaos, is the most loathed. And not just by Filipinos. In mid-October, Alex Ariza, a Colombian boxer who is Pacquiao's fitness coach, fought with the Canadian. Koncz, says Ariza, "is so condescending, so passive-aggressive, and just doesn't care if he's being unreasonable. He crossed a line, and I just bitch-slapped him." Roach shrugs off Koncz's influence. "I'm the only one who can really talk to Manny," he says. Still, he says introducing Koncz to the Pacquiao team was "the worst f______ mistake of my life." For his part, Pacquiao tries to remain above the fray.

The fighter appears anxious as the evening wears on. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out sheets of paper — his acceptance speech, in English. While Pacquiao has no problem understanding English, which is widely used in the Philippines, he is much more comfortable speaking Tagalog, the national language, and Cebuano, the dialect he grew up with. But he is a hit with the New York City audience. All he really has to do is grin, and they are in his hands. A Filipino listening to the speech, however, senses the trouble Pacquiao will face if he decides to run for office in the Philippines. His English is heavily accented, sounding provincial to anyone used to the softly musical English of the entrenched upper classes of Manila. What would they think of someone who pronounces everything as eebreeting? Snobbery is the unvoiced rationale behind some of the opposition to Pacquiao's political ambitions: He's not really one of us.

Even one of his closest advisers isn't sure he's right for politics. Governor Chavit Singson, 68, of the province of Ilocos Sur, in the northern part of the archipelago, hangs out with Pacquiao all the time. He styles himself a kingmaker but is unclear whether Manny can be a king. "He is so humble," Singson says. "He's a simple person." Singson, however, may be a role model for Pacquiao. The governor amassed his fortune as a tobacco-plantation owner and travels in a private plane and in a bulletproof Hummer. He is an epitome of Philippine politics, where power grows out of barrels of patronage. Political reformers worry that that is the style Pacquiao has been learning during his decade of kingdom-building and distributing wealth to family friends and allies. Ramon Casiple, a prominent political analyst and reform advocate, says Filipinos know that model too well to want it from their hero. "They don't want him to run, to dirty himself and open himself to charges of corruption."

Manny's sister Isidra, however, says her brother is too strong-minded to be dissuaded from politics. "Whatever Manny does, we'll support," she says. During the huge floods in Manila in September, he took a motorcade from the mountain resort where he was training to help distribute relief to victims. "He wants to be giving service," his sister says. "He has big potential. He is caring, thoughtful and generous." Dionisia is quieter about her son's career after boxing. "I will support and pray for him," she says. But she worries. "There's a lot of trouble in politics." Can Manny Pacquiao continue to be the most loved man in the Philippines when he quits the ring and enters the cockpit of politics? That is going to be the fight of his life.

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