All of Manny Pacquiao’s fights have imposed a tremendous burden on him. Each time he fought in the past, I’d worry about him losing. Of course there’s always that possibility in any fight and with any fighter, but such has become our level of expectation, no, of faith, that he would naturally win, I’d dread what would happen if he lost. Other people say, “Death is not an acceptable excuse,” we say, “Defeat is not an acceptable option.” At least with our hearts if not with our mouths.
It’s too monstrous to contemplate, which went beyond contemplation to reality last year when the “Pambansang Kamao” not only got beaten but got beaten to a pulp. Everywhere in the world, at home and abroad, Filipinos walked about like the Taclobanons after Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” The devastation was complete. The spectacle of Pacquiao lying senseless on the canvas for an eternity—one worried at that point the eternity might be literal—so shocked Filipinos they trooped out of the movie houses in silence, unable to comprehend what had just happened.
But none I think brought more weight on Pacquiao’s aging shoulders than this last fight. He put it there himself, quite apart from his torn and bleeding nation, vowing never again to fail his countrymen. He had cried twice this past year, he said, his heart wrung by two horrors. The first was not when he was decked out by Marquez—he had had come to accept it as a fact of boxing life, or death—but when he saw the pain and grief and desolation in the eyes of his countrymen when he came home. The second was when he saw the pain and grief and desolation in the eyes of the Taclobanons after Yolanda.
He was going to win this fight. Defeat was not an acceptable option.
Win it he did.
In a way that rolled back his defeats of the past year, in a way that rolled back the debris in Tacloban, in a way that rolled back the hands of time itself. This wasn’t the Pacquiao who lost cataclysmically to Juan Manuel Marquez. This wasn’t the Pacquiao who won against Timothy Bradley though was cheated barefacedly of it: In a way that was a defeat too because he looked slow and listless and aging in it. This was the Pacquiao who went through Ricky Hatton, Oscar de La Hoya, Miguel Cotto, Shane Mosley and Antonio Margarito and left them torn and bleeding, or with faces their mothers would be hard put to recognize.
The speed was back. I hadn’t seen him this fast in a long time, his lateral movement in full display, turning right and left on a dime, befuddling and frustrating his opponent. Indeed, amply demonstrated by Brandon Rios taking roundhouse swings at him after cornering him, or thinking he had cornered him, only to slice air. Not just once or twice, but again and again, drawing roars and laughter from the crowd. It was like that NBA advertisement of Chris Paul where he goes poof, nibbles French fries with Magic Johnson and Steve Nash in a bar, and materializes back in the game. Pacquiao’s sudden disappearance from Rios’ view had that same now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t quality.
There were changes of course. Some of the power had disappeared too. A couple of years ago, that flurry of punches would have sent his opponents wobbling. A whole series of them would have sent them to sleep. Pacquiao himself would say it was a testament only to his opponent’s toughness, and he marveled at it: “I hit him with lefts and rights and he was still standing.” In the last couple of rounds, Freddie Roach would say, he had the chance to take Rios out but wouldn’t take it. Again Pacquiao had an explanation for it: He had learned his lesson from his fight with Marquez.
Roach however had quite another: Alas, boxing-wise, Pacquiao has discovered compassion.
Indeed, Pacquiao looked every inch like a changed man: more subdued, more introspective, stronger. Stronger, that is, in spirit, though he may very well have grown stronger in body too. The cockiness was gone. He had been chastised by his crushing defeat in the hands of Marquez but, unlike Hatton whom he too had crushed and who had fallen by the wayside afterward, he had not been bowed. He had clawed his way back by dint of his belief in himself, by dint of his belief in his duty to his countrymen, by dint of his belief in his God.
It seems almost unimportant at this point where he goes from here. What is important is that he has plucked himself out of the clutches of defeat and risen to become champion again, with or without the belt. What is important is that he has plucked his countrymen, particularly the storm-ravaged and hope-deprived, from the clutches of despair, with or without the knockout. I said yesterday I thought Pacquiao needed nothing less than a knockout to revive his career, but this wasn’t just the next best thing, this was an even better thing. It wasn’t just that this was a rout, as complete and utter as anything boxing has seen. It was that this rediscovery of form, this display of inner strength, this show of compassion wasn’t just career-reviving, it was life-affirming.
Certainly, it was so for those who watched the fight in the schoolhouses, gymnasiums and relief shelters of Tacloban. The same people who just a couple of weeks ago huddled in the cold and dark, in wind and rain, to watch the dying of a city and grieve over the deaths of loved ones. More than the tons relief given by the aid-givers, this was relief of an order that slaked more than hunger and thirst. More than the comfort and sympathy offered by the bishops and the government officials and the humanitarian groups, this was balm to wound, a candle in the night.
Manny Pacquiao needed a crack at redemption and his countrymen a crack of salvation.
Last Sunday, he supplied both. Despair was not an acceptable option.
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