Last week Manny Pacquiao went to New York City and visited the Daily News, and then traveled to Washington D.C. to meet President Obama at the White house. These stops are in part due to the promotion of his upcoming welterweight title bout with former three division champ Shane Mosley. Like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson and Oscar De La Hoya, Pacquiao has become a superstar and major presence on the world stage and once again, a pugilist has taken America by storm. Pacquiao's fights are events and more than just boxing fans look forward to watching him fight. Which also was the case with Ali, Leonard, Tyson and De La Hoya.
However, if you think about it, Pacquiao is different than the other fighters mentioned above in this sense. In reality, the only thing Manny shares with Ali, Leonard, Tyson and De La Hoya (Oscar is a tier lower than Ali, Tyson, Leonard and Pacquiao as being a natural fighter) is that he can flat out fight and is truly a once in a generation talent/fighter. If you think about it, outside of the ring Manny is very nice and somewhat boring. He's to the letter when it comes to political correctness, and that was years before he became a Philippine congressman. And in a thousand interviews you'd be hard pressed to find something he's said negative about anyone.
As much as he's routinely disparaged by Floyd Mayweather in the media, he responds by saying he prays for Mayweather to get his life together. Could anyone imagine Ali or Tyson having Mayweather dog them in the press like Floyd has Manny, and them responding like Pacquiao recently has? Not in a million years. Both Muhammad and Mike would've retorted and gone deeper into the gutter than Mayweather could ever imagine. As for Leonard and De La Hoya, they'd respond in some condescending manner and act as if they're above dignifying Floyd's antics with an acknowledgment. Yet Manny says he's praying for Floyd.
Another major contrast is Pacquiao is the only one who wasn't groomed to be a superstar from the moment he turned pro. All the fighters I mentioned were essentially stars before they'd even proven themselves. Pacquiao had been a great fighter for many years before he became a superstar. And looks also played a part in the fame behind Ali, Leonard and De La Hoya. It's no coincidence that all three of them had leading man good looks. Tyson, who was promoted as an animal, more like King Kong than as a human being, didn't need those kinds of looks. But would De La Hoya have been a star if he'd looked like Bernard Hopkins? These fighters were superstars partially because crossover boxing is show business, and they all had the faces to allow for the crossover.
For the last couple years promoter Bob Arum has been saying that Pacquiao is as big as Ali, Leonard, Tyson and De La Hoya when it comes to being an international superstar, (he's not at Ali or Tyson's level yet). But Arum promotes Manny and maybe he was lying yesterday and is telling the truth today. Then again maybe this time Arum really is telling the truth. Whatever you think about what Arum says, there's no denying that Pacquiao is currently as big as Peyton Manning, LeBron James and Tiger Woods in regards to being a superstar throughout the world.
If you compare Pacquiao to Ali, he's at a disadvantage. Ali was a the fastest and flashiest flashy heavyweight in history who became a member of the Nation of Islam, then refused to fight in the Vietnam war. He was out of boxing 43 months and made a successful comeback. Ali stirred the pot on race, politics, religion, and free speech. Tyson was a man-child who was promoted as the biggest life-taker since George Foreman, whose life outside the ring came apart once he became undisputed heavyweight champ. Ray Leonard was an Olympic hero who adopted the moniker “Sugar” from Ray Robinson and then took on Muhammad Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee, and his early fights were broadcast by Howard Cosell, another vein that traces back to Ali. Oscar De La Hoya was an Olympic star like Sugar Ray Leonard and was promoted as being the kid next door. And like Leonard, Oscar was managed and promoted by corporate millionaires on the way up.
Another difference between Pacquiao and the fighters mentioned above is, 90% of the fans who watch him fight are rooting for him to win. Whereas when Ali and Tyson fought, half the people watching wanted them to win and the other half wanted them to lose. And the same applied to Leonard and De La Hoya, who were perceived by many as being the beneficiaries of marketing and television executives who saw to it that they got every benefit of the doubt on the scorecards when they fought. Most likely the only people who watch Pacquiao fight that are rooting against him are die hard fans of Floyd Mayweather.
Other than being a great fighter, Pacquiao really doesn't have much in common with Ali, Leonard and Tyson, aside that his fists speak loudly in the ring. And it says something about the way Pacquiao's popularity has exploded being that he's not an American and was fighting as a featherweight when he first showed up on HBO. On paper, Pacquiao's popularity might be hard to translate into US standards, in that he's small (Americans are obsessed with heavyweights), he speaks English as a second language (Duran could get away with that because he had a persona that made him larger than life), and because, culturally speaking, US fans like their heros to trash talk a little bit, but there are cultures where modesty and piousness are actually bankable. Bear in mind that, for the Philippine people, Manny presents a very good image to the rest of the world, so there's every reason why they should love him.
Boxing fans in America are drawn to this Philippine fighter who speaks fondly of his opponents before and after the fight, and at the same time manages to provide thrilling and exciting bouts every time out, even on the nights that his opponents are not good enough to really push and challenge him. They also love that he genuinely wants to prove he's the best and winning really means something to him. Add to that that he's a clean liver and stays out of trouble, there's nothing not to like about him.
Frank Lotierzo can be reached at GlovedFist@Gmail.com