Manila, Philippines – Manny Pacquiao, the eight time world boxing champion and senator of the Philippines, takes on Cuban Yordenis Ugás in Las Vegas on Saturday night in a high-stakes fight that could kick-start his campaign to be his country’s next president.
While 42-year-old Pacquiao has been focusing on politics over the last two years, reclaiming his former boxing title as the welterweight champion of the world would serve as a reminder to Filipinos of the rags-to-riches life story of a man who won their hearts – and votes – during his athletic prime.
“The boxing fight is just a bonus,” Monico Puentevella, Pacquiao’s political spokesman, told Al Jazeera.
“After the Las Vegas fight will be the biggest fight of his life in May of next year, and if he wins [over Ugás], it will only add more mileage and inspire the people more to support him.”
The Philippines goes to the polls to choose a new president to replace self-styled tough guy Rodrigo Duterte in May 2022, and while Pacquaio has yet to say so himself, his intention to run for the top job has long been an open secret.
“He’s all set to run. He’s been eyeing that for some time, and he just wants to finish this boxing match. He told me to tell everybody categorically that he’s going to run,” Puentevella said.
Until recently, Pacquiao was well-positioned for a presidential bid. He became the president of Duterte’s political party, PDP-Laban, in December 2020 and it seemed the machinery behind Duterte was gearing up for Pacquiao. Duterte, himself, even referred to the boxer as “the next president of the Philippines”.
But Duterte, who is only allowed to serve a single six-year term, risks possible trouble when he steps down in less than a year.
An International Criminal Court complaint against him for crimes against humanity is moving forward, and the court may order his arrest. Rights groups opposed to his violent “war on drugs” have also promised to lodge similar lawsuits with local courts as soon as he loses legal immunity.
Unable to run for a second term, Duterte has said he wants to run for vice president and, judging by his close allies’ recent actions, has indicated he would prefer the top job remain in the family.
“The president is worried that if anybody aside from his daughter runs and wins [the presidency], the president knows he will be charged in the International Criminal Court,” Puentevella said.
Removed as party president
Beginning in June, PDP-Laban members associated with Rodrigo Duterte began pushing for his daughter, Sara Duterte, to run as the party’s presidential candidate. Pacquiao opposed the idea, ostensibly because Sara Duterte was not a member of the party.
“Let’s give others a chance,” Pacquiao said in an interview with ABS-CBN News, still not confirming whether he intended to run for president.
In mid-July, as Pacquiao camped in Hollywood to train for his upcoming match, PDP-Laban members loyal to Duterte met outside Manila and declared the party’s leadership posts vacant, effectively removing Pacquiao as their president.
Pacquiao declared the meeting invalid, and the party split with both men claiming legitimacy and numbers.
“Just as a show of force, while [the Duterte faction] were having their meeting in a fancy hotel, more than a hundred of our chapters met nationwide, some along the streets, some under a tree, some in a small patio,” PDP-Laban executive director Ron Munsayac, who is loyal to Pacquiao, told Al Jazeera.
“We just showed that the PDP-Laban grassroots members are alive and kicking, and they want their voices to be heard. They are lucky to have a leader such as Manny Pacquiao who is giving them a voice inside the party,” he added.
Whatever the mood in the party, Pacquiao has lost any chance of getting Duterte’s backing for a potential run, and that could undermine his campaign.
“Always, the cards are stacked against the one fighting the administration,” said Clarita Carlos, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines.
‘They underestimated me’
Pacquaio is not worried. He is used to being the underdog.
“They might have underestimated me, but they don’t know what’s on my mind. It’s even better that they underestimate me because, in my life from the beginning, in my experience, I failed to make the Philippine [boxing] team because they belittled me back then,” Pacquiao, in a video message from Hollywood, told the PDP-Laban ranks loyal to him.
He was reacting to Duterte calling him “ignorant” of the country’s issues. The irascible president had taken offence at the senator’s criticism of his policies on the South China Sea dispute with Beijing, and allegations of corruption within his administration.
Having grown up poor, Pacquiao dropped out of school and lacks the polished eloquence often expected of politicians of his stature. Some of his critics have used his lack of formal education to suggest he is unqualified for public office.
“But because of my determination, hard work and discipline, I was able to achieve my dreams and even more. My fight for PDP-Laban is for the little people,” Pacquiao continued.
Pacquiao’s narrative resembles that of Duterte, who identified with the poor and banked on their collective grievances against the elite-dominated establishment to propel him to victory.
Both men come from the Mindanao region, the Philippines’ geographic, political and economic south, and speak with the region’s characteristic accent that right away differentiates them from the traditional elite.
But unlike Duterte, a lawyer from a middle-class family who spent 20 years as Davao City mayor, Pacquiao really did come from the street, clawing his way out of poverty through boxing.
Duterte perpetuates the myth of his “simple life” by sharing photos of his average-looking house in Davao, walking around in worn-out shoes, and speaking gutter language. He refuses to disclose his bank accounts or even provide a list of his assets – mandatory for government officials – to dispel allegations of ill-gotten wealth.
Pacquiao and his family, on the other hand, are proud of the fortune he has made from boxing. His wife might once have drawn controversy for posting photos of her designer bags on social media, but Pacquaio has earned a reputation for being generous with his wealth.Play VideoVideo Duration 02 minutes 38 seconds02:38Duterte denies corruption allegation, says Pacquiao is ‘punch-drunk’
“From what I hear about the kinds of things and activities that [Pacquiao] does, he really has a generous heart, a compassionate heart, to the extent that if he can, he really helps people,” Carlos, the political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
Pacquiao’s personal narrative needs no curation, and it would have been a sure formula for winning the presidency in another time. But the Philippines’ current political scene is replete with personalities with strong narratives, most of them more astute and seasoned politicians than Pacquiao.
“There will be many, many other names,” Carlos said. “It’s going to be a tough campaign for anyone.”
‘Already a legend’
But the sudden falling-out with Pacquaio could also further tarnish Durterte who is under pressure over his poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the impending ICC investigation.
Pacquiao had been a staunch defender of Duterte’s controversial policies, especially the anti-narcotics campaign that rights groups say has killed as many as 30,000 people, according to human rights groups. He also pushed for a bill to reinstate the death penalty at Duterte’s behest.
“The president is on survival mode,” said Antonio Antogop Jr, a former Duterte campaigner who now leads a movement pushing Pacquiao to run for president.
Antogop said he had campaigned among “ordinary folk in the boondocks” for Duterte, whom he believed would help improve their lives.
“I thought Duterte could be our man because he’s just like us, being from Davao and all,” Antogop told Al Jazeera. “Unfortunately, he failed us miserably.”
Many of Duterte’s disillusioned supporters are now turning to Pacquiao, he said.
“I cannot mention their names, but many who were with Duterte before are now with us. Some of his operators are now here with us, too,” said Antogop.
Even political heavyweights are considering alliances with Pacquiao.
Last week, Vice President Leni Robredo, from the opposition Liberal Party, said she was in “exploratory talks” with Pacquiao’s camp. The opposition needs a marketable champion, and Pacquiao might just be it.
Meanwhile, Duterte’s supporters within PDP-Laban have announced that they will field Senator Bong Go, formerly Duterte’s aide and still his closest associate, as their presidential candidate. Unlike Sara Duterte, Go is a member of the party.
“I hope it’s true,” said Puentevella, Pacquiao’s spokesman. Opinion polls show Go significantly behind Sara Duterte in popularity. Melvin Matibag, of the Duterte faction, denied speculation that Go is a proxy for a last-minute switch with the president’s daughter.
That the entire scenario hinges on personalities such as Pacquiao and the Dutertes is lamentable, said Carlos, because it shows how the Philippines’ political parties are practically built around personalities rather than policies or principles.
“Sadly, we’re just seeing faces, but we’re not seeing programmes of government. As a voting public, we would like to see the candidates talk about what to do with the next pandemic, and what to do with the sorry state of our education system, for instance,” Carlos said.
Even now, Pacquiao is making the same generic promises made by Duterte and all other presidents before him.
“God willing, when the time comes, mark my word – a new day will dawn in our country, bringing hope and real prosperity and peace,” he said in his video message.
Supporters of such charismatic figures rarely ask about the specifics. To them, the medium is the message.
That is why Pacquiao’s match against Ugás could be so significant.
“Imagine the victory parade if he wins. Everyone will want a piece of him, the idol of the masses. It will be a big boost to his candidacy, to the point that some people in this country are now praying that he loses,” said Puentevella.
“Their problem is, win or lose, he is already a legend,” he added.
“Manny Pacquiao is Manny Pacquiao.”