Much of the mystique surrounding the celebrity of Manny Pacquiao is based on his protean ability to transform and defy expectations both in the ring and in his personal life. Boxing heads have it committed to memory that the Filipino is an eight-division champ, winning belts close to 40 pounds over the weight he began his career with, but they should well consider his greatest achievement as living a transparent life of change and exploration.
Pacquiao is edging closer to a tabloid-version “international man of mystery” than any athlete alive, outside of Dennis Rodman. We knew that Pacquiao claimed to have the heavenly father on speed dial, but we had never heard of visions along the lines of Hildegard of Bingen.
Earlier this month the Guardian ran a story that provided the most detailed insight yet into Pacquiao’s religious epiphany in a quote that reads like the mediaeval diary of a mystic: “All the running around. In that time and age, I knew I could do whatever I wanted. But I changed when I heard the voice of God, and I can testify that there is a God. I saw two angels, white, long, big wings. I saw Paradise. God showed me about the end of time. This all happened within the last three years. That’s how I changed my life.”
For now I’ll spare the cynicism that such a claim from a political leader deserves and give Pacman a little credit for being brave (or simply narcissistic) enough to utter something so odd with such sincerity. Pacquiao, the Guardian discloses, has left his ancestral Catholic Church to become a born-again Christian, a much more charismatic form of Christian faith that often includes speaking in tongues, intense prayer sessions and a serious interest in prophecy.
By way of comparison, Tim Tebow is also a born-again Christian but I highly doubt he would get as detailed with a reporter about possible visions. He’s got PR people handling the message. For as bright as Pacquiao’s celebrity burns, it’s surprising that he seems to have no such team massaging his spotlight. In a world where 20 year old athletes are hip to building their corporate brand, it’s jarring to still see an athlete who wears everything on his sleeve. Chris Algieri expressed that he always wondered if the personality Pacquiao projected was real, whether he was just as gracious, humble and well, innocent in person as he was for the cameras. Algieri wasn’t disappointed.
It’s striking that Manny would leave the Catholic Church that he seemed such a devout adherent to over the years. It comes off as a particularly naïve political calculation as well, considering that 90% of the Philippines is Catholic. But the seeds for his mysticism were sown long ago. In Gary Poole’s biography Pacman he opens a section about Pacquiao’s devotion to a statue of Christ referred to as the “Black Nazarene.” “Manny Pacquiao has visions,” Poole writes, “he dreams of God.” Specifically, the God found in a half-burnt wooden statue from Mexico. And even before finding the Black Jesus in Manila, Pacquiao had to keep some element of hope and faith alive during a difficult childhood about which we may never hear the full story.
The mystique boxers usually carry is an undereducated tough-luck macho man with such lack of respect for his brain that he gives up its health for money. Maybe it’s because boxers enter the ring half-naked that we reflexively expect them to be nothing but bodies. It's been too long since Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard seduced the public's imagination. Pacquiao is firmly entrenched in the role of flamboyant eccentric that has been attached to boxing's past like an arm to its shoulder.
Bob Arum is looking to cash a similar check in the form of Pacquiao's November opponent, Chris Algieri. The subtext of Top Rank's entire campaign with respect to the Long Islander has been: “Can you believe that a boxer might also be well-spoken and intelligent? Neither can we!”
The Congressman's extraordinary rise from the dust of Sarangani province would make a believer of even the staunchest skeptic. It's no wonder the man thinks he talks to God, how else could he possibly explain to himself how he's cheated death repeatedly to become one of sport's highest earning stars?
Goofy singing bits aside, while Pacquiao may not be deep, but he's got depth. It's refreshing to examine a superstar who so openly and honestly experiments with the limits of human experience. No staged sparring wars or fake marijuana for reality TV, Pacquiao's on some sort of spiritual quest, that while may completely undo him, it still keeps him real.