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The Philippines Is at Fever Pitch as Manny Pacquiao Prepares to Fight Floyd Mayweather

7 minute read

Shay Malcampo puts on a pair of bright red boxing gloves and gets into the ring at General Santos City’s Pacman Wild Card Gym. Others around the room are hitting punching bags, small sprung “speed bags,” or they’re skipping, or doing sit-ups. All of them are just recreational boxers trying to stay fit, but about twelve thousand miles away the facility’s owner, Manny Pacquiao, is training at the gym he named it after — the fabled Wild Card Boxing Gym in Los Angeles — for the biggest fight of his life.

“I think Manny will win, not only because of his power and speed but because of his personality and confidence,” says Malcampo, a 27-year-old medical representative. She’s planning to watch fight — which takes place on Saturday night in Las Vegas but on Sunday morning Philippines time — at home on pay-per-view. “It doesn’t matter how much it costs, I’m excited to watch it.”

The rest of the gym is filled with dozens of people on treadmills and at weight racks, sweating it out for “Manny Pacquiao’s Biggest Loser Challenge” — a contest he started in September 2014 and conducts every time he fights. The top four winners (or losers) get between $1,000 and $1o,000, and anyone who loses more than 15% of their bodyweight gets the equivalent of $560. These are sums worth sweating for in a country where the average monthly wage is less than $1,000.

The Pacman Wild Card Gym can doubtless afford it. Signs of Pacquiao’s immense wealth and success are everywhere in General Santos, the southernmost city of the Philippines’ and a place where Pacquiao spent his formative years. Besides the gym, he owns a local stadium, a gas station, a printing press, a bottled water company called “PacMan H20” and two large mansions.

As he prepares to take on an undefeated Floyd Mayweather in Las Vegas on Saturday night, in what is being hyped as one of boxing’s biggest ever fights, the excitement in the hometown he left at age 13 in search of a better future can be felt everywhere.

“Time practically stops here whenever he fights,” says city administrator Arnel Zapatos, adding that General Santos City’s — already a little sleepy, admittedly — become completely deserted. “Everything stops.”

That isn’t the case only in Gen San, to call the city as the locals do. Whenever the eight-division world champion fights, the whole of the Philippines comes to a near-complete standstill. Even the crime rates plummet — and opposing rebel groups in the nation’s war-torn south suspend their hostilities.

“The bad guys are too busy watching,” Dennis Principe says with a chuckle.

Principe, a journalist and broadcaster who has covered Pacquaio’s career ever since he was fighting his way through the local leagues in Manila, isn’t exaggerating. A survey by Social Weather Stations shows that 69 percent of Filipinos are closely following the long-awaited bout between Pacquiao and Mayweather — a level of engagement surpassed this year only by a clash between two of the Southern rebel groups and Pope Francis’ visit to Manila, both in January.

For the Philippines and its people, there’s very little Manny Pacquiao cannot do (or hasn’t already done). He’s an elected congressman, singer, actor, he’s the player-coach of one professional basketball team and owns another. He may stand for election to the senate soon, and is expected to run for President once he retires from boxing. But above all he’s their fighter, hero and champion, and he exemplifies their spirit and aspirations.

“Most of us Filipinos, we struggle in our daily lives and when we see someone fighting it’s a matter of life and death for them,” Principe says. “Coming from such a poor country, most of the time it’s life and death for most of our countrymen as well.”

Seeing one of their own make it this big on the world stage is meaningful in itself. If Pacquiao does lose to Floyd Mayweather, well, so be it. To many Filipinos, Pacquiao is already a winner.

It feels like a dream for Filipinos to “see someone like Manny getting pictures with Hollywood celebrities,” Principe says. “And it’s actually the celebrities that are asking for his picture.”

Manila’s Own Thrilla

The Araneta Coliseum isn’t really well known outside of the Philippine capital Manila, but its most famous fight — the “Thrilla in Manila,” at which Muhammad Ali dealt Joe Frazier a resounding defeat in their third and final bout bout — is instantly recognizable.

This Sunday’s fight doesn’t have as catchy a sobriquet, but given the national pride at stake this is no time for glib rhymes. “Battle for Greatness” read the posters plastered around the venue and across the city gravely. “Fight of the Century.” Come Sunday, the Coliseum will be packed with over 10,000 Filipinos screaming their lungs out, not at a boxing ring but at a cube of 32-foot screens in its center. Some 70% of the 14,319 seats in the stadium had been sold as of Friday evening, according to Araneta’s VP of Marketing Cecile Marvilla, who anticipates a surge in sales the day before the fight.

“It’s a holiday, and the hype will be at its fullest,” Marvilla said, “This is the most exciting fight being viewed at the Araneta Coliseum since the Thrilla in Manila.”

About 8 kilometers away, the MP Tower in the city’s Sampaloc neighborhood rises above its surroundings. It’s only 7 stories high and rather unremarkable to look at, but amid narrow streets barely wide enough for a car to drive through, and one-room houses, it might as well be the Empire State Building.

In a gym on the second floor, young boxers spar in a ring and throw punches at bags twice their size. Pacquiao was just like them when he practiced here, when it was called the LM Gym and a small, one-story structure just like the houses around it. In 2008, the champion boxer bought those premises, tore them down and built the tower that now bears his name.

Aspiring boxers like Ali Laurel can now train at the second-floor gym free of charge (or, if they can afford it, work with one of the trainers for about $2). The building also has three floors of dormitories for the boxers to stay in — cheap if they can pay, free if they can’t.

“I want to make a name in the world of boxing, I want to be a champion like Manny Pacquiao,” says Laurel, a lanky 23-year-old also from General Santos. “Maybe I won’t be as famous as him,” he adds quickly, “But I want to be a champion.”

Like everyone in the country, he firmly believes that Pacquiao can hand Mayweather his first defeat on Sunday. “But if he loses this time, I don’t think anything will happen.” he adds.

“Of course we would feel bad, just like anyone who suffers a defeat,” says Principe, “but the respect will always be there after what he has done.”

And if he wins? “It will be euphoric. It’ll be like each and every Filipino won the sweepstakes.”

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Write to Rishi Iyengar/General Santos City at rishi.iyengar@timeasia.com