Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Raising The Flag: Manny Pacquiao waves the flag of the Philippines as he celebrates his victory over Oscar De La Hoya in their welterweight bout in Las Vegas on Dec. 8, 2008.
Raising The Flag: Manny Pacquiao waves the flag of the Philippines as he celebrates his victory over Oscar De La Hoya in their welterweight bout in Las Vegas on Dec. 8, 2008. Ethan Miller/Getty Images
It may only be games, but nothing in culture can galvanize a nation the way a world championship can. And it just so happens, in the months ahead there will be nearly a surfeit of sports nationalism.
It's only weeks now before the Winter Olympics and then, come June, the soccer World Cup, which is by far the most passionate international competition of all.
Yet in 2010, there is one little athlete who can mean more to his country — and to his sport — than all the skaters and skiers and soccer teams in the world.
The man is a boxer, Manny Pacquiao; his country, the Philippines. And what he signifies to his people everywhere is perhaps unmatched in sports history.
Lennox Lewis, the thoughtful former heavyweight champion, has even said that Pacquiao's "grip" on his country "is similar to Nelson Mandela's influence in South Africa."
The Philippines, of course, is an impoverished island nation, which has led to a diaspora of its people. In fact, Filipinos make up one of the largest groups of immigrants in the United States — and they've shown well what they can do with the main chance. Filipinos here are better educated and wealthier than the American population at large.
But Pacquiao is so special to all ethnic Filipinos, rich or poor, in the islands or abroad, because his country has never before produced any champion that it could hold high before the world. No Filipino has ever won a single Olympic gold medal.
Pacquiao is so beloved that when he ran for Congress in the Philippines a couple of years ago, he was soundly beaten largely because, as the adored national icon, his fans voted against him to keep him out of office so he wouldn't dilute his attention to the ring.
He's an extraordinary boxer, the first ever to hold seven world titles, for he began fighting at a tiny 106 pounds and now, incredibly, holds the welterweight crown at 147.
Already, there are those experts debating whether he is the greatest fighter ever — better than Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali — better at his craft than anyone who ever has laced on a pair of gloves. And at a time when boxing has descended so in popularity, Pacquiao has come to mean almost as much to his sport as to his country-people.
He's as exciting in the ring as he is talented. When Pacquiao fights the undefeated American Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the dream bout that appears to be set — probably on March 13 — it will almost surely produce the largest gate in the history of the sport.
Should he win over Mayweather, himself previously acclaimed the best pound-for-pound fighter, Pacquiao's place in the boxing pantheon will be sealed. But already, he has taken this brutal sport and distilled from its blood and guts the pretty pride that Filipinos never shared before.