By BERNARD FERNANDEZ
Some would say it’s just a coincidence, but the fact that the next ring appearance by the Philippines’ slammin’ Senator, Manny Pacquiao, is this Saturday night — just three days before the down-and-dirty slugfest that is the U.S. Presidential election goes to the scorecards — is another reminder that sports and politics increasingly go together like peanut butter and jelly, or maybe hooking off the jab.
OK, so Pacquiao (58-6-2, 38 KOs), who will be ending a brief retirement from the pugilistic arena that few really expected him to stick to when he challenges WBO welterweight champion Jessie Vargas (27-1, 10 KOs) at Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center, isn’t an American politician, which perhaps dilutes any parallels to the nasty Hillary-Trump duke-out. No U.S. boxer in modern times has ever held high political office, the closest probably being John V. Tunney, son of former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, a Democrat who served as the representative from California’s 38th Congressional District from 1965-71 before moving on to the Senate from 1971-77. Oh, and if you want to be picky, there’s Barbara Boxer, the junior Senator from California, who is not seeking re-election this year. A liberal Democrat, she’s picked a few fights with colleagues from the other side of the aisle, but, technically, she has the name more than the actual game.
In other sports, however, the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., and various City Halls and state houses have been populated by retired jocks who rode the wave of widespread name recognition that comes from on-field excellence with the voting public that never seems to forget its heroes. And the transference of loyalty applies to members of both major political parties.
Lining up for the Democrats are Bill Bradley, the former Senator from New Jersey and an inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame; the late Ralph Metcalfe, a former Congressman from Illinois and once the world record-holder in the 100-meter dash who won silver medals at both the 1932 and ’36 Olympics; Tom McMillen, a former NBA star and Congressman from Maryland; Dave Bing, former mayor of Detroit who also is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and Kevin Johnson, a three-time NBA All-Star and current mayor of Sacramento, Calif.
Their counterparts on the Republican side include Jim Bunning, the former Senator from Kentucky and a Hall of Fame pitcher; the late Bob Mathias, the Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon in both 1948 and ’52, a U.S. Congressman representing California; Steve Largent, a former standout wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who was a Congressman representing Oklahoma; Arnold Schwarzenegger, a seven-time “Mr. Olympia” and former governor of California, and the late Jack Kemp, the onetime Buffalo Bills quarterback who served in Congress from western New York and later as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President George W. Bush.
So why have ex-athletes fared so well in politics? Nicholas Coburn-Palo, who received his Ph.D. in political science in 2014, addressed that matter in his doctoral dissertation.
“I thought there might be something about the narrative of modern athletes and the skill set they get under the hot lights of the Internet and Twitterdom and everything else,” surmised Coburn-Palo, although social media would not seem to be a factor in athletes-turned-politicians who were elected well in advance of those technological advances. “I wanted to see, in a world where celebrity politics is coming at us and we can’t avoid it, are there some elements of real democratic thought and deliberation that might be going on behind this?
“The way sports have always been packaged in our country is a hero-and-villain storyline. If you can fall into the right side of that narrative, it can really work for you. Athletes perform in real time, and in an era when politicians aren’t trusted by people and are seen as unable to fulfill campaign promises, to see people perform under genuine pressure, unscripted, and rise to the occasion makes a strong statement.”
The two boxers who most typify Coburn-Palo’s theory of sports celebrity cause-and-effect are three-time former heavyweight champion Vitali “Dr. Ironfist” Klitschko and, of course, Pacquiao. The older of boxing’s heavyweight titlist brothers (Wladimir being the other), Vitali, now 45, posted a 45-2 record with 41 knockout victories in a career that spanned from 1996 until his final fight, when he retained his WBC crown on a fourth-round stoppage of Manuel Charr on Sept. 9, 2012. Now the mayor of Kiev, Ukraine, Klitscho began his political career in 2006 when he placed second in the Kiev mayoral race. In 2010, he founded the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) and was elected into parliament in 2012, setting the stage for his election as mayor of Kiev on May 25, 2014. He was re-elected on Nov. 15, 2015.
Pacquiao’s situation is different in that he again is an active boxer who, with his 38th birthday coming up on Dec. 17, would appear to be juggling what remains of his historic boxing career (he is the only fighter ever to win titles in eight weight classes) and his seemingly bright future as one of the Philippines’ most popular elected officials. A true renaissance man, the 5’7” Pacquiao also has interests in professional basketball (he is player-coach of his own team, the Mahindra Enforcer), the military (he is a lieutenant colonel in the Reserve Force of the Philippine Army), acting and singing. But make no mistake, it is his balled fists that pays the freight and has enabled him to branch out in so many other directions.
An upset victory by Vargas (a 7½-1 underdog, man-to-man) likely would bring an end to whatever remaining boxing ambitions harbored by the A-side of Saturday’s promotion, Pacquiao, who has not won inside the distance in his last 11 bouts, dating back to Nov. 14, 2009, when he lifted Miguel Cotto’s WBO welterweight belt on a 12th-round stoppage. But should “PacMan” win impressively, and again flash some of his old put-away power in doing so, the drums again will begin to beat to pair him with the presumably retired Floyd Mayweather Jr., who won a clear unanimous decision when they squared off on May 2, 2015, in what far and away was the highest-grossing prizefight of all time, with 4.4 million pay-per-view buys and gross revenues of half-a-billion dollars.
Make no mistake about this also: Pacquiao might still have a passion for boxing, but money is as much or more a reason for his return to the ring as the need to again scratch a familiar competitive itch inside the ropes. Despite his countrymen’s idolization of him, Pacquiao would seem to be hemorrhaging cash as fast as he takes it in. Although Forbes lists his net worth north of $200 million, still unresolved in Philippine Appeals Court is a tax situation in which the government claims he owes an almost-unfathomable $724 million in back taxes, penalties and surcharges. The Internal Revenue Service also wants to grab a sizable chunk of Pacquiao’s ring earnings, some $75 million on bouts that were staged on U.S. soil.
It isn’t inexpensive to seek political office, in the U.S. or in the Philippines, and it cost Pacquiao $7 million of his own money to pay for his first winning election to the House of Representatives in 2010. His winning Senatorial campaign came with a price tag of $10 million, and a rematch win over Mayweather, should that fight ever take place, might lead to a bid for the presidency, which could go as far toward bankrupting him as to making him richer.
“Running for (the Senate) will cost Manny a lot more than running for a seat in the House of Representatives,” Ted Lerner, a U.S. journalist who has lived in the Philippines for over 20 years, told the British-based Boxing News in April 2015. “If anything ruins Manny financially, it will be politics.”
Which again ties Pacquiao to the U.S. presidential bloodbath. Republican nominee Donald Trump’s fame owes, at least in part, to his days of his hosting major boxing events in Atlantic City in the 1980s and ’90s, including five Mike Tyson heavyweight championship defenses. Should The Donald outpoint Clinton on Election Day, might he go back to his roots and appoint Tyson as his Secretary of Defense?
In the realm of sports and politics, crazy things have been known to happen.