Religion isn't my thing. I grew up Catholic, not because I wanted to, but because my parents set it up that way. I attended church, but was bored by it. I drifted off mentally when at mass, thought about the next Little League game, scanned for the cute girls in attendance. I found the customs involved in the whole deal strange--men in sci-fi garb, and such-- and that much stranger as I got older, and read stories in the newspapers of cases involving priests' misdeeds.
I found it hard to conceive that any human being could successfully pledge their full-allegiance to an unseen deity, and rebuff internal urges to procreate, or fornicate. Year after year, I sipped the Kool Aid dutifully, trying to develop a taste for the Godstuff...and periodically, I will still try a thimble full here or there, whisper a prayer while lying in bed. But all in all, it ain't for me.
I try to keep an open mind for those who are believers; after all, knowing what we know about the world, anything that works as a salve, as long as it isn't a self-destructive substance, people should have access to it. And bless 'em if they find something that works.
But in many cases--maybe it's the journalist in me, the part of me that searches for the contradictions, the elements that can be fixed, for the betterment of the masses, not the uppermost classes--I tend towards the mildly jaded and cynical when it comes to those who worship overtly. Quiet reverence is one thing; a grandma who goes about her business, but pops into church every AM for some contemplation and devotion time, as she sends hopeful messages to a higher power, so that her grandkids lead a full and healthy life, and her sciatica disappears and her friend Bertha's cancer is removed, who the hell am I to say anything about? But those that worship, and proselytize, who feel a need to spread the good word, incessantly, in any context, well, the cynic in me often silently judges. Why the need to testify and try to sway wayward souls into the flock? I'm an each to his own guy, again, as long as your behavior doesn't affect others. You want to build an altar in your living room, and sip grape juice and pretend it's the blood of someone or another, really, that's your business. But if you're out and about, as a public figure, and you spend a bunch of your time extolling the virtues of your movement, and work like the dickens to sell us on that movement, a movement which I believe, all due respect, condones sexism and bigotry, against women and homosexuals...then I got a bit of a problem with that. Even if you are a person who seemingly believes fully and deeply that what you are spouting is the truth. Even if I sense that you aren't one of these folks who uses the "word of God" as a weapon, who uses your religious beliefs as a salve but also as a weapon, as a rationale to justify your views on same-sex marriage, or birth-control, or abortion, or other matters which are in my mind purely no one's business but your own, and certainly not the business of an elected government official to impact, or a church leader to influence.
Over the years, when coming across stories that hinted, or outright stated that Manny Pacquiao was a man of severe contradictions, that his humble, affable public persona hid another side, one that gave in temptation, and behaviors which impacted his loved ones negatively, I found myself looking past them. I found myself justifying them, glossing over them. When I heard about drinking, gambling, cockfighting, and so many "where there's smoke there's got to be fire" rumors about marital infidelity, I found myself looking past them. When Floyd and company alleged that many got help via PEDs, I frankly dismissed that grenade out of hand. Rightly, I think, because we've seen no proof of that, but wrongly, perhaps, because I took a shine to his personality. Manny doesn't come off as someone who would cheat, I thought to myself. I think regular readers know that I've been trying to come to grips with that of late, that I've tried to hash out in my brain if we, the press, have treated Pacquiao, because of that humility and affability, more favorably than, say, a less humble person, like Floyd Mayweather.
With Pacquiao's recent full-on immersion into his religion, his almost Born Again status, I have found myself looking at him with a new set of eyes. Or, perhaps, a new bias. Because of my personal belief that religion is too often a misused opiate of the masses, too often used as a tool of destruction, rather than what it could and should be, a means to achieve a measure of serenity and contentment that is difficult to attain, and a blueprint to aid man in overcoming his inherent selfishness, and move towards selflessness, I have looked and listened as Manny preached with a sense of detachment and even slight skepticism. When the Pacquiao-Ampong same-sex marriage flap erupted, I admit, my view of the Congressman took a slight dive. I see marriage as an issue of love, not gender, and dismiss the viewpoint that sees it as anything but as a biased one. I believe--and please get back to me in 20 years on this--that history will bear out my stance in coming decades, just as it did on the subject of the right of women and blacks to vote, for instance. Yet, I didn't scorn Manny because of his biases the same way I do some of the US politicians who portray themselves as good Christians..and then vote to reduce food stamps to needy children, or deny the right of two people who love each other to get married. Why? I guess because I sensed his faith, his recent immersion, was genuine. But...I don't know if it is. Nobody really does except for Manny. After all, before recent fights over the years, we heard about how he was in the best shape of his life, that he was training as hard as could be. Now, we learn that he was sometimes up all night partying, and showing up to the gym as fresh as Charlie Sheen mid-bender. Yes, yes, I know that the boxing business is one where promotion is instrumental in success. But sue me; I tend to believe, oftentimes, people at face value. When a boxer says he is coming to the ring looking to do damage, and then like David Haye fights like a scared Golden Glover, I feel cheated. That's naivete, you could argue. I don't fight it, because it shows I haven't tipped towards full-on veteran reporter cynical.
I am still trying to hash out how I feel about the new Pacquiao. Part of me feels duped, like I was sold some BS about the old Manny. But that is my issue, and, frankly, more germane to me personally, and my attempts to figure out my existence and the ways of the world, than it is to TSS. What is germane to TSS, though, is how Manny's conversion will affect him in the ring on Saturday night, against Timothy Bradley. Colleague Ron Borges wrote about how Bradley is something of a skeptic on "new Manny."
“I knew sooner or later all the distractions would catch up with him,’’ Bradley said of Pacquiao’s chaotic public and private lives to Borges. “He’s here. He’s there. He’s fornicating. Now he’s got his religion in place? I want to finish the job.’’
Good for Bradley, for articulating what too many of us are afraid, or unwilling, for whatever reasons, to voice. He is questioning the veracity of Manny's newfound faith. He's thinking that it only came about, to this degree of devotion, because it was forced upon him. Bradley, or so it has appeared as we've watched him these last two months, seems to possess a genuine faith in a higher power, and seems to actually walk the walk in his personal life as well. Unless it emerges later that we've been conned, it seems to me that he is reverent towards his wife Monica and kids, and doesn't need to fill any vacuums with drinking or screwing around or massive gambling. So, I'm left to wonder, will that true-blue devotion and seeming serenity manifest itself in the ring, and propel Bradley to an upset win on Saturday over Pacquiao?
I asked Pacquiao about the faith issue before the Ampong thing popped up. I wanted to know if the newly bolstered faith would impact him as a boxer. Why, I asked, did you indulge in untoward activities?
"I read the Bible, it's my manual for life," Pacquiao told me. "Before (my conversion) I pray, I always pray. I believed in God's dream to follow," he said, but that he wasn't sure how exactly to follow the directions to be "good." That, he said, is why he indulged in "gambling and girls" and the like. "I read the bible now to follow the commandments of God."
I asked Manny what Bible verses in particular spoke to him. Matthew 5:48, he said, is favorite: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Another is John 8:47, Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” I admit, that second especially throws me, as it seems to be a diss on those who don't follow God as Manny and members of his particular flock see him. If a person is good, and does good acts, I frankly don't give a hoot if he belong to the Church of the Potted Plant. He's doing good, being a benefit to society, and that's all that matters, to me. But I digress...
So, will the heavy duty faith keep you from trying to knock Bradley's head off?
"In the ring I get to entertain people," Pacquiao told me. "I want the people to be happy."
Trainer Freddie Roach also told me that the new faith level won't diminish his skills as a boxer. "Manny gave up all distractions, now it's just one distraction," he said. "It's not too hard reading the Bible. Now, he's not going away, not going to cockfights or casino. He hasn't drank in over a year. He's given up all that's bad for him. He realized his mistakes, him and his wife are getting along great. His life is less confusing for him and all of us."
Me, I'm of the Freddie school on religion, I think. (I bet he grew up a Massachusetts Catholic, as I did, lol.) But I wondered, has Manny yanked him into the flock?
"Manny hasn't invited me yet to Bible study. I'm waiting for that to happen. I'm not a religious person, but it won't kill me."
So, will Manny still go for the kill, or feel pity for the fool, if he gets Bradley buzzed?
"I worried at first," Roach told me. "I wanted to see his work ethic. He still beats the s--t out of me. He says "sorry," and hits me again. I was a little worried about that, not wanting to hurt people, but it's the oldest sport in the world. Maybe God was into boxing too. I'm not worried at all about him being soft, he's the same fighter, just no more distractions and vices... except for Bible, and that's a pretty good vice in my book."
You might recall George Foreman went through a conversion himself. He lost to Jimmy Young in Puerto Rico on March 17, 1977 (UD12). He went to his dressing room and was reborn. "I died in the dressing room and had my vision of Jesus Christ being crucified," he said after. "God wanted me to lose that fight so that I could lose my life. That's not an excuse; that's the truth...I walked out of that dressing room with peace of mind for the first time in my life." Foreman left the sport, became a preacher, and then re-entered the ring a decade later. His faith held steady, to this day. I reached out to Big George, to help get a better sense of the Pacquiao conversion, and ask if the infusion of faith will help or hurt the Filipino in the ring.
Has he been following the Pacquiao-is-reborn storyline?
"I've been kind of watching it," Foreman told me. "It seems to be sincere. That's what you want."
Foreman said he met Pacquiao at the birthday bash for Muhammad Ali in January. "We sat and talked religion," the ex heavyweight champion said. "He is sincere." Foreman said being the man is hard, that there is nobody surrounding you when you are out and about to tell you no, that isn't a good idea. "I was right and rich," he said of his pre-conversion days, "and who's going to tell me I can't say or do that?"
I did for the benefit of disclosure admit to Foreman my own stance on religion, by the way, so he could know where I was coming from. And, interestingly, without me mentioning Pacquiao's same-sex marriage flap, he touched on the issue of religious figures judging others and using Bible passages to justify it. "Just because you find religion," Foreman said, "you shouldn't shut the door on thinking. The Bible is the truest love letter." Foreman said we should give Pacquiao time, let him grow into the faith, and we will see if his actions match his words. "Like Mother Theresa, she went out and demonstrated her beliefs. You can't get tangled up in deeds. Show me how religious you are by the deeds you do. Those people that do the Meals on Wheels, I'd rather see that than preaching on the street or praying for five hours. If Manny has extra money, he can donate it to the Meal on Wheels program. That's full-time Holy Ghost religion."
Foreman agrees with Roach, that the new religiosity won't affect Pacman's ability to finish a foe. But he might be stung, Foreman said, if the cheers turn to boos. "If you're religious, and you get hit, and they go crazy, it's the most lonely feeling in the world," he said. "Pacquiao will have to deal with that."
All in all, Foreman stresses that we should be patient with Pacquiao. "We never wait and see. It will take time. It took me thirty years to figure out that I was not called to preach against anyone and anything, but to tell people how great God is. Because once you say it out of church, it's no longer religious, it's politics."