One Of World's Top Boxers Runs For Philippines Seat

Filipino boxing hero Manny Pacquiao speaks to supporters i i

Filipino boxing hero Manny Pacquiao speaks to supporters as he starts his campaign for a seat in Congress in the southern province of Sarangani in the Philippines on March 26. Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images
Filipino boxing hero Manny Pacquiao speaks to supporters

Filipino boxing hero Manny Pacquiao speaks to supporters as he starts his campaign for a seat in Congress in the southern province of Sarangani in the Philippines on March 26.

Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images

Filipinos go to the polls next month in national elections, and one of the candidates for Congress is both the most popular man in the country — and maybe the best boxer in the world.

There aren't many things that make Filipinos feel proud these days. But Manny "Pacman" Pacquaio is definitely one of them. Pacquaio has earned his popularity the old-fashioned way, through hard work and quick hands. He's the only man to win seven belts in seven different weight classes. Now 31, he has many fights — and lucrative paychecks — ahead of him.

So, why is he running for office?

A Welcome Diversion

Journalist Edwin Espejo has been following Pacquaio's career for more than a decade, and writes a column called "Pacquaio Watch" about the man some call the best pound-for-pound boxer ever.

"It's too early to tell if Manny is really the greatest fighter of all time. ... But definitely he's in the mix of things," Espejo says.

And in a country racked by corruption scandals, natural disasters and grinding poverty, Pacquaio is a welcome diversion. A man, Espejo says, who brings the country honor. A dirt poor kid from a broken home in a troubled region who is now a world champion — and millionaire to boot.

"Manny Pacquaio is such a big figure [that] when he fights, the country virtually comes to a standstill," Espejo says. "Nobody goes out."

His Latest Fight

His latest fight — for the congressional seat in Sarangani province — is perhaps his most controversial. Boxing is often described as the red light district of sports, but politics in the Philippines has an even seedier reputation.

Pacquaio says it doesn't have to be that way in his district, or for his people.

"I came from nothing," Pacquaio says. "My situation of my life right now [changed], but not my heart. That's why I want to help them, because I feel what they feel. If you ask me why I enter politics, I don't want to enter that, because politics is very dirty and dangerous, but I have a heart that feels what they feel."

Hundreds of people turned out for one of Pacquaio's recent rallies, not far from where he grew up. Many stood under umbrellas to shield them from the sweltering midday sun.

Pacquaio started out a little slow, shy even, but warmed up as he spoke to the crowd in their — and his — native Visayan dialect.

He reminded them that he was once as poor as they are and, if elected, he said, he will work to bring them better schools, hospitals and more jobs. All are badly needed in this impoverished region. Fliers posted on trees next to the stage advertise jobs as maids in Singapore or Hong Kong for $400 a month.

"He's a good man," says shopkeeper Exuifancio Bernales. "And Manny remembers what it's like to be poor. When my brother-in-law died, we didn't have enough money to bury him. I went to Manny — and he gave us a coffin. He's always doing things for us poor people, so I'm voting for Manny."

Accounting student Mariz Silva says Pacquaio is sincere and already rich. That's a plus, she says, because he probably won't feel the urge — or the need — to steal money like so many politicians there. She says she's not sure the high school grad can make good on his campaign pledges, but she seems willing to give him a shot.

Wilmark Niral, however, who's about to join the army, is not.

"For me, I believe that experience is best than a first timer," he says.

Running For Office

Never mind that Pacquaio's opponent has no experience either. His family does: His brother is the outgoing congressman; his father, a congressman before that. Politics in the Philippines is a family sport, and one in which incumbents — and their formidable political machine — have the advantage. That's one reason Pacquaio may have lost the first time he ran, three years ago. But the Pacman — who hates to lose — says he's learned since then.

"I lost before because I just decided one month before the election," he says. "I wasn't prepared for that election. But this time I started preparing two years before the election, so I don't think I'm going to lose this time."

Political scientist Benito Lim of the Atenio de Manila says Pacquaio stands a good chance of winning. But he and many other Filipinos surveyed say they wish he'd stick to what he does best.

"It's difficult to become a world champion in boxing but it's very easy to become a congressman. I believe he should remain a boxer," Lim says. "He has earned enough reputation and he will only be ruined — not only tarnish his reputation, but he's going to regret it afterwards."

After one long day campaigning, Pacquaio stops to unwind at his Pacman sports bar, not far from his mansion. The pool tables are full, there's boxing on television and there's Pacquaio — still patiently posing for pictures with adoring fans well past 1 a.m.

Pacquaio says he doesn't think he'll regret running for office. In fact, he says, he still hasn't ruled out fighting again even if he does win.

That's good news for boxing fans — but maybe not so good for his next opponent.

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