Fresh off doling a beat-down to Antonio Margarito in 2010, Manny Pacquiao took stock of his accomplishments and yawned. He told reporters at the time that wouldn’t box past 35. After riding the sport of boxing to messianic status in his native Philippines, he seemed to be already looking forward to his second act as national hero in a place where Filipino heroes go to die: elected office.
It’s amazing what four years, a dramatic kayo loss, and tax issues can do to pique a prizefighter’s interest in the rigors of the sweet science. Last week, he revised his earlier proviso to say he would complete his newly-minted Top Rank contract for five fights and then retire in 2016, which just so happens to be the year that the Congressman is openly mulling upgrading to the Senate. The center-left United Nationalist Alliance has recruited Pacquiao to be part of the 2016 election slate as a candidate for Senate on the same platform as Vice President Jejomar Binay.
Pacquiao remains one of sport’s most compelling and colorful characters. He dances, he sings, he’s deeply suspicious of needles, he loves to gamble, he delayed one fight to watch an NBA game and showed up for another apperantly heartbroken with marital troubles, he talks to God, he runs a de facto social services agency for the poor in his home province, he has pictures taken with Bob Dylan, he never stops smiling, and coming from the most modest of beginnings he has restored boxing’s love affair with flamboyant masters in the lineage of Jack Johnson, Archie Moore, Muhammad Ali, and Sugar Ray Leonard; all with a only a tenuous grasp of English.
It’s exactly this full-spectrum of extra-curricular activity that gives so many pause when considering the man’s future in politics. The thick layers of corruption and scandal that rule Manila is enough to make Washington D.C. look lily white.
Exhibit A: Chavit Singson. A man invariably described as a “warlord,” “Gangster Governor” or a “Filipino Al Pacino,” Singson rose by paying bribes in order to run illegal numbers games, using money and physical intimidation to wield influence that gradually expanded all the way to the top. When President Estrada threatened to institute a legal lottery system in 2000, Singson flipped on his erstwhile ally and played a role in sparking an impeachment by revealing that he personally had delivered bribe money to Estrada’s residence. When he’s not beating up his children’s mother, lion-hunting in Africa, or running his gambling empire, Singson can be found entering the ring and traveling with Manny Pacquiao.
Perhaps it’s inevitable, in order to make a Senator you gotta break a few scruples. But in the wake of Pacquiao’s unpopular decision to fight Chris Algieri in November, the mind reels. Pacman has always surrounded himself with an entourage Elvis would approve, but how many of the hangers-on are looking after his best interests?
Members of Pacquiao’s family have also ridden his name and money into office, and just this year his wife Jinkee and two of their allies were alleged to be responsible in a graft scheme. Another political ally and enoutrage member was charged with the murder of a political enemy in April.
We know his heart’s in the right place. When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines last year, Manny went right to the bank to support the relief efforts only to find his assests frozen in tax limbo that pegged him close to $50M in the hole. Months later, he found himself in similar hot water with monies owed to the IRS. The Congressman is famously generous and loves to gamble, but you’d think there would have to be someone minding the store.
He wouldn’t be the first athlete to squander a fortune, but he’d be the first athlete to so who has realistic presidential aspirations.
If Pacman goes on to establish an honorable career in Filipino governance, he will have conquered far greater odds than the street kid selling doughnuts had to to become a boxing champion. With a pezzonovante in Singson that would make Frank Carbo blush, cast those odds even longer.
Many of the Filipinos who love his boxing career fear how politics will transform their favorite son. This theory has often been floated to explain how Pacquiao lost his first bid at Congress in 2007, though the real explanation is likely a bit simpler. The Philippines is a poor country, but even there it takes great wealth to fund a political career; extending his career beyond the timeframe he set forth might have something to do with him suddenly finding his war chest being a tad light. Still, a boxer with narcissistic tendencies who claims a direct line to God and pals around with violent gangster types doesn’t strike me as fit for office.
We know his heart is in the right place, for whatever the phrase is worth. Boxers, more than most athletes, reveal the contents of their hearts. But if it’s ever not in the right place, is there anyone who commands his respect enough to let him know?