I have been defeated 30 minutes into my career as a boxer. I’m flat on my back, exhausted from uphill sprints—OK, a sustained jog—and from trying to learn to jab and uppercut while constantly moving, counting rhythmic punches on a speedbag. As Roberto Duran famously begged the referee during a match with Sugar Ray Leonard: No más. Yet my coach—OK, my box-ercise instructor—knows how to motivate me for what’s next.
"Come on," he says, "this is Manny Pacquiao’s ab workout."
Done. I may be comfortable letting myself down. I will not let Manny Pacquiao down. Not because Pacquiao, probably the greatest welterweight of his generation, is beautifully cut and sculpted. It’s because Pacquiao is the only athlete alive who could credibly say this: "The biggest fight in my life is how to end poverty in my country."
He is also the only athlete in a position to implement an anti-poverty agenda—not by giving away his fortune, but by concerted government action. Besides being a professional boxer, Pacquiao is a Philippine congressman. He used his international fame to win elective office in one of the country’s poorest regions, where he was born and raised, then began to fight for economic justice, health care, and education.
Sports, meet the political left; the left, meet sports. You used to know one another so well. Half a century ago, on April 16, 1947, Jackie Robinson desegregated baseball and never stopped fighting for civil rights. The greatest boxer in history fought racism and the Vietnam War. Tommie Smith and John Carlos celebrated their medals in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics by giving the black-power salute in a silent protest for human rights.
Sports is one of the great pleasures of civilization, one that naturally inclines enthusiasts to impose grand narratives on simple physical contests. Yet its political consciousness is AWOL during the greatest economic upheaval in almost a century. Athletes by and large ignored Occupy Wall Street, the rare grass-roots movement carving out a mainstream place for the politics of economic justice. Worse, no one found that unusual.
Pacquiao proves that a different politics of sports is possible: The seamless marriage of athletic success to a 99 Percenter agenda. Liberals should be hanging posters of Pacquiao on their bedroom walls. If nothing else, he will make them want to do bicycle-kick crunches.
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In the ring, Manny "Pac Man" Pacquiao delivers pure suffering, a fusillade of jabs and body shots designed to grind an opponent into an exhausted, lumbering state before he lands a decisive punch. Outside the ring, Pacquiao has even more impact. If you don’t know his story, get familiar.
The southernmost island in the Philippine archipelago is called Mindanao. You, American reader, may be surprised to learn that you’ve been fighting a war there for a decade. Mindanao, which is historically majority Muslim, has periodically rebelled against the Manila government, one of several circumstances disinclining the government from developing the area. Around the turn of the millennium, Mindanao hosted an extremist group aligned with al-Qaeda called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which goes by the unfortunate acronym MILF. Since 2002, quietly, elite U.S. special operations forces have helped the Philippine army wage a war in Mindanao against the MILF.
The southern coast of Mindanao contains the mountainous agricultural district of Sarangani. The 2000 Philippine census reported that 48 percent of Sarangani’s 500,000 citizens were impoverished, up from 45.1 percent in 1997. Access to potable water and even sanitary toilet facilities is poor, especially for the district’s indigenous population.
This is where Manny Pacquiao grew up. Born in 1978, Pacquiao lived in and near Sarangani for the first 14 years of his life—a local teacher interviewed by Newsweek remembered him showing up for elementary school without shoes—before setting out for Manila, where he pursued a boxing career.
To the untrained eye, boxing looks like two people punching the crap out of each other. It’s actually a sport of endurance and strategy, matched with explosive physicality. Hold up your fists and throw punches for five minutes while moving and you’ll get a sense of how hard this is. You’re trying to exhaust your opponent and figure out when to land a knockout blow. You only fight opponents who weigh about as much as you, so you’re evenly matched.
The sport has international appeal, but very few boxers get famous, and fewer navigate its often-corrupt professional management system successfully enough to control their own destinies. Yet it took very little time for Pacquiao, an electric fighter, to do both. Powered by his frenetic speed and deceptive strength—he’s 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds, practically none of it body fat— Pacquiao held five different world championships in five different weight divisions by 2008, a rare accomplishment. That year, he fought Oscar De La Hoya, considered one of the best boxers alive. Pacquiao won after eight rounds.
All this made Pacquiao the most famous Filipino alive. One of his many, many nicknames is Pambansang Kamao, or the National Fist. "I know it sounds very basic, but I just want to help my people," Pacquiao wrote about his decision to enter politics in his autobiography, Pacman: My Story of Hope, Resilience, and Never-Say-Never Determination. "Isn’t that enough? Isn't that what public work is supposed to be about when stripped to its core? I knew that my people had given me so much because without them I wouldn't be a world-famous boxer. Now, it was my turn to give back to them."
Pacquiao, worth an estimated $25 million, hosts a weekly TV show, Manny Many Prizes, in which he literally gives back to his people— he gives away cash, in between singing Beatles songs and hosting karaoke contests. It sounds like some crass charity display—the sports website Grantland recently called it "monstrous" and "profoundly cynical"—but part of the show’s purpose is to air the stories of those who come asking for Pacquiao’s money. On one episode, an elderly woman who sold rice cakes reminded Pacquiao of his mother, so he added an extra 100,000 pesos to her prize.
But Pacquiao’s biggest contribution isn’t charity.
In 2010, he was elected Sarangani’s representative in the Philippine Congress, and he represents in extravagant style. Last August, he drove armored personnel carriers through Sarangani as part of his declared "War on Poverty." This particular campaign was designed to promote education. Leading a group of so-called "Education Revolutionaries," Pacquiao distributed workbooks to what one local news outlet said were "all Grade 1 and Grade 2 pupils in the whole province." An endorsement deal with Hewlett-Packard included a donation of computers.
Pacquiao also provided a basic necessity that had long eluded Sarangani: a hospital. Within months of taking office, Pacquiao personally asked President Benigno Acquino III for the $5 million necessary to build it. By that point, it was unthinkable for Acquino to refuse Pambansang Kamao. The groundbreaking ceremony for the 200-bed facility took place in August—not long after Pacquiao beat Sugar Shane Mosley in Las Vegas in three rounds.
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Americans used to look to sports not only to alleviate their daily grind, but to mirror the broader struggles around them. During baseball’s decades of segregation, the Negro Leagues transformed an injustice into a point of black pride, producing players like Josh Gibson, whose home-run power may have exceeded Babe Ruth’s. To Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, bringing a first baseman over from the Negro Leagues 50 years ago was just a good business decision; but then Jackie Robinson’s historic career made white America acknowledge the broader inequality it created and tolerated.
Something strange has happened in the past two generations. As professional sports have become giant industries and players have become millionaires, Americans have accepted that there is an unbreachable distance between themselves and the athletes they admire. ESPN is studiously apolitical, except when it airs nostalgia specials about Robinson or Muhammad Ali that gently valorize their politics. What happens on the field, the court, or the ice is assumed to no longer reflect what happens outside, and this has occurred without much dissent or even acknowledgement.
And yet there’s a place in sports today for conservative politics. Quarterback Tim Tebow is known beyond the realm of sports not for his Heisman Trophy or his improbable fourth-quarter successes last season with the Denver Broncos but for his outspoken religiosity, which is embraced by the National Football League even when it turns political. He’s promoted by the right and touted his anti-abortion views in a league-approved Super Bowl commercial.
By contrast, the sports world shows little patience when athletes speak out for social justice. After players for the Miami Heat posed for a photo wearing hoodies to demand that the man on a "neighbor- hood patrol" who shot the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin be charged with a crime, the Heat’s front office put out a statement saying the team was hoping, generically, to "help in our nation’s healing." The owners conspicuously sidestepped the players’ actual message, which star forward LeBron James had made clear by tweeting the hoodie photo with the hashtag #WeWantJustice.
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"I can entertain the proposition that life is a metaphor for boxing," Joyce Carol Oates once wrote, "for one of those bouts that goes on and on, round following round, jabs, missed punches, clichés, nothing determined, again the bell and again and you and your opponent so evenly matched it’s impossible not to see that your opponent is you."
Manny Pacquiao actually has an ideal opponent. That opponent wants nothing more than to conquer Pacquiao. Everything good will fight everything evil if and when Pacquiao finally gets into the ring with Floyd Mayweather.
Very early on the morning of September 9, 2010, Mayweather entered the home of Josie Harris, the mother of three of his four children. Mayweather was upset by rumors that Harris was dating a basketball player. When Harris came home, she called the police, who escorted Mayweather out.
Hours later, as Harris slept, Mayweather returned. "He awoke me by pulling me by my hair and throwing me on the ground in my living room," she told police, "and began punching me in my head, digging me on the floor, and thrusting my arm back in an attempt to try and break it."
Mayweather, an undefeated welterweight prizefighter, beat Harris as their young children watched and their mother screamed for them to call 911.
This was not the first time Mayweather laid his fists on Harris. In December 2003, he beat her in a Las Vegas nightclub. Felony battery charges were dismissed after Harris abruptly testified that she, effectively, brought it on herself.
Mayweather will go to jail on June 9 for the 2010 incident. Despite the multiple abuse charges, his sentence is a mere 90 days. Mayweather has spent time ahead of his incarceration not searching his soul but goading Pacquiao on Twitter. "Manny Pacquiao I’m calling you out let’s fight May 5th and give the world what they want to see," he tweeted on January 11. He immediately followed up: "My Jail Sentence was pushed back because the date was locked in. Step up Punk."
So far, Pacquiao has declined the request for a fight, saying that Mayweather won’t split the purse 50-50. The boxing promoter Bob Arum, a longtime Pacquiao consigliere, recently predicted the fight will happen in 2013. The Internet is littered with fan sites tracking every rumor, hint, or smack-talking word exchanged between the two fighters. "Pacquiao-Mayweather," Newsweek gushed, "would be the biggest fight in boxing." ESPN commentators treat it as a matter of time.
They don’t treat it as the contest of values it will inevitably be. Mayweather doesn’t concern himself with politics, beyond such provocations as his statement that the excitement over Jeremy Lin, the Asian-American breakout star of the New York Knicks, is "based on race not talent." But like all of us, Mayweather lives his politics.
Apolitical boxing fans will no doubt note that Mayweather might be a horrible human being, but he’s an exquisite fighter. There’s no denying it. Still, that sells the matchup short. When Pacquiao and Mayweather finally fight, it will be a bout between social obligation and its destruction, pitting the poster boy for giving back against the poster boy for trampling others.
I’ve practically placed my pay-per-view order already. The left may not be interested in Pacquiao-Mayweather, but to paraphrase Trotsky, Pacquiao-Mayweather is interested in the left. Those who care about economic justice—about controlling their own destinies, which is the meaning of economic justice—ought to be cheering the loudest for Pambansang Kamao.