The boxer and the politician
Manny Pacquiao’s recent speaking engagements in two hallowed learning institutions—Oxford and Cambridge—faded quickly from the news cycle, a reflection perhaps of the boxer-politician’s relatively diminished status these days compared to the rarefied heights of his peak years. But those appearances, remarkable in themselves, deserve a second look.
Pacquiao charmed the Oxford audience with a stirring speech that mined his rags-to-riches story.
“I have fought some of the best fighters in history,” he said. “And yet I have to admit, as I stand before you, I am intimidated when I think of the kind of main event headliners who faced you over the years: Sir Winston Churchill, American Presidents (Ronald) Reagan, (Richard) Nixon, and (Jimmy) Carter, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, and Sir Elton John.”
It was a knockout for Pacquiao the boxer. If only Pacquiao the politician had excused himself from the event entirely.
On the sidelines of his speech, Pacquiao unfortunately quickly tarnished the glory of his Oxford moment when he baldly denied that extrajudicial killings (EJKs) were happening in the Philippines. He doubled down on the claim by repeating the rote police narrative that drug suspects were killed because they chose to fight it out with the cops.
Pacquiao, an ally of President Duterte, was obviously only being loyal to the President when faced with the EJK query. But before an international audience, he could have been more conscientious about the facts. The grim reality of EJKs is no longer in debate at this time, with thousands of Filipinos dead even by the police’s tally—numbers that would in no way justify the default police defense of “nanlaban.” And the killings continue unabated; in the first 10 days of November alone, 11 fresh killings have occurred in Caloocan, Navotas and Malabon, said Bishop Pablo Virgilio David.
Perhaps it is true that greatness taxes those it touches with some sort of surcharge. How many great ball players, for instance, have failed to translate their talent into post-career coaching or team managing? The single-minded pursuit of excellence can rob a person of the ability to focus elsewhere, even in the case of Pacquiao, a known multitasker. Thus the depressing reality that Pacquiao the boxer—with his extraordinary capacity for mental focus, intensity and drive—appears to be simply incapable of applying the same rigor and hard work to Pacquiao the politician. The latter persona was a perennial absentee during his time in Congress, and a shallow, shiftless worker when it comes to politics and policy-making.
Those in Pacquiao’s corner will cite his unending devotion to charity work as proof of his worth as a politician. True, there’s also Pacquiao the humanitarian—a “one-man social welfare” department, as his former promoter Bob Arum once called him.
But, while Pacquiao’s heart has always been in the right place, that has yet to translate to any consequential policy work that would impact the country’s impoverished, a sector he knows only too well and which has served as his greatest popular base. Despite being an exemplary graduate of what he calls the “university of life,” his grasp of his country’s social conditions is tenuous at best, and formally allied with the ruling class at worst—hence, using his milestone Oxford appearance to airbrush the current administration’s bloody EJK record despite stark contrary evidence.
At Oxford, Pacquiao pushed his inspirational zero-to-hero narrative as the guiding force for his political career. “My compassion for the plight of my people is what motivated me to enter the world of public service in 2010 as a representative of Sarangani in the Philippine Congress,” he said.
But is that compassion present when he, in effect, dismisses the grief and cries for justice of thousands of families brutalized by EJKs? The more startling irony is, most of these victims and their families belong to the poorest end of society, eking out a living under the most squalid of circumstances—the very same environment Pacquiao had punched his way out of, providing the sort of inspiration that has endeared him to the masses.
In his Cambridge speech, meanwhile, Pacquiao provided the blueprint for escaping such circumstances. “If the world knocks you down, get up. If all things conspire against you, fight back. Quitting is not an option.”
They say there may never be another champion like Pacquiao. Sadly, under the current unforgiving climate, that may be true, for tragic reasons: Because the heir apparent, just recently toiling in one of those hovels and dreaming of boxing his way to glory like his idol Pacquiao, has been felled by a bullet.
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