I will never forget one night in Hanoi in December 2008. I was just leaving a restaurant when I heard this roar, as though the entire city had been converted into a stadium and everyone was cheering. Following the roar, I saw people running out into the streets in all directions, and a few seconds later cars and motorcycles began to fill the streets, all honking madly.
An earthquake? No, I didn’t feel anything. An attack like 9/11? But I didn’t hear an explosion.
I asked one of the waiters what was going on and he hollered, “Vietnam victory!” Everyone in Hanoi, it turned out, had been looking forward to this night’s event—the championship match in the Suzuki Cup, a competition among Southeast Asian countries. The game was played in Hanoi’s National Stadium and Vietnam had won over Thailand.
Last Sunday I thought of that night in Hanoi and wondered if Metro Manila would break out in similar pandemonium if Manny Pacquiao were to win.
Quezon City’s streets were empty that morning (night in Las Vegas), as well as most shops. I picked up something at National Bookstore’s large branch on Katipunan Avenue and my son and I were the only customers.
As we drove along, I would encounter a buildup of vehicular traffic in front of some restaurants. I explained to my son that those were establishments that had paid PPV (pay-per-view) fees and were going to show the boxing match live on wide TV screens. I gave him my phone and told him to look up a message from Cignal, a cable provider, offering P2,000 for PPV.
I thought my son would ask me to stop at one of the places and pay to watch the wide-screen telecast but he was, much to my relief, disinterested. My regular readers know what my views are on boxing, and I think the nonchalance has rubbed off on my son. But this time, I was interested in the fight, more from the perspective of a social scientist.
Forty years ago we had the “Thrilla in Manila,” where Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier at the Araneta Coliseum in their third and final match for the heavyweight championship of the world. Filipinos were biased for Ali, who, ever the showman, had declared the fight “a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get that gorilla in Manila.”
This time, the “thrilla” was thousands of miles away in Las Vegas, but a Filipino boxer was now one of the contenders. An American friend had called me to ask what “pem-ben-seng kay-mao” meant. It took me a while to figure he wasn’t asking about Chairman Mao but about Pacman, who the media had dubbed the “Pambansang Kamao.” I gave him the literal translation: the “National Fist.”
Ohh, my friend replied, and I could tell he was trying not to laugh.
But yes, at stake here was a national hero, and several international cable TV commentators used those words to describe how many Filipinos viewed Pacquiao.
At stake, too, were a nation’s hopes. Earlier in the week we took an emotional battering over drug smuggling convict Mary Jane Veloso, who came close to being executed in Indonesia. Each time we have cases like that involving Mary Jane, we are reminded of our national disempowerment.
And the “Pambansang Kamao” was there to empower.
I didn’t see any of that feeling of nationalism from those rooting for Mayweather. He wasn’t playing for America, not even for African-Americans. He was Mayweather, an undefeated champion.
Much of the international interest in this fight came from the United States and, to my surprise, from Britain. In fact, the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) had more extensive coverage, through radio, television and blogs, of the fight than many American media outlets.
A few days before the match, BBC was posting opinions of former boxing champions. Most of them predicted a Mayweather win, mainly saying that the American was better at strategizing. An interesting twist in the blogs, coming from the usual trolls (people who like posting negative commentaries) were those who said they wanted Mayweather to lose because he was a wife-beater—a reference to charges of domestic abuse that had been lodged against the boxer.
The international commentaries and blog postings on Pacquiao were mostly positive, mostly admiration for his boxing style, but with guarded predictions. I don’t remember reading anything negative.
On local Internet sites it was, of course, all rah-rah, with constant references to Pinoy pride.
The bottom line is that our media networks, the businesses, know that beyond Pacquiao’s boxing skills was something more important: a sense of patriotism, which can be translated into big bucks. They were quite successful in building up national fervor, and getting people to pay for that.
My son and I did our usual weekend errands for his grandparents, getting stuff from the drugstore and the grocery before heading to their place. My son asked to go to a neighbor’s place to play, and I reminded him to come back in an hour so we could drive to Laguna to be with his sisters.
I did check the TV from time to time, finding out that in a number of cities, politicians had paid for PPV links, putting up big screens in plazas and other public centers for the fight. The entire nation was watching.
At around 1 p.m. I checked for news on local channels and found nothing. Curious, I checked the BBC news app on my phone and was shocked to read “Mayweather defeats Pacquiao.” I went back to local TV. Nothing. In fact, one channel was broadcasting an effusive documentary on the Pacman.
Half an hour later, still nothing. I checked the BBC posting again and it was already into analyses of the fight. I couldn’t believe it: a nation in denial.
Metro Manila was quiet, too quiet.
My son came in at around 1:30 with a long face, complaining that all he had done was sit and watch the boxing on PPV and after Pacquiao lost, his friends didn’t want to play anymore.
I said, let’s go and see your sisters. Instead of his usual grumbling and asking for more time to play with his “guy friends” because sisters aren’t fun, this time his face lit up. He was ready in a flash.
As we drove to Laguna, the lamentations began on radio, mainly about how the Pacman should have won, could have won, if it were not for his injured shoulder.
The billboards on South Luzon Expressway with Pacquiao endorsing products seemed almost out of place; the larger-than-life boxer was now looking smaller, almost dejected.
We say he’s still our hero, but I don’t know if it’s a way of consoling ourselves. We would be kinder to Pacquiao by not forcing ourselves to declare him a hero or making him live out superheroic expectations. He’s a great boxer, but he can’t box, much less win, forever. We should wish him well, give him the chance to quietly raise his family, work as a member of Congress. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see him do more good for Sarangani, for the Philippines, outside of the boxing ring.
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