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We love you, Manny

Filipinos fawn over boxing champion and national hero Manny Pacquiao.

Philippine boxing hero Manny Pacquiao walks towards the presidential palace to attend a courtesy call with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in Manila, May 11, 2009. (Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters)

MANILA — In a nation starved of heroes, Manny Pacquiao has become what one writer called a “multi-tasking hero.” He is considered more than the world's greatest boxer: He embodies, it would seem, everything that Filipinos are hankering for these days.

People want Pacquiao to run for public office — for president, if possible. Officials want him to be a peace negotiator with rebels. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo just appointed him an “ambassador for peace and understanding.” The Philippine justice secretary named the boxer his “special assistant on intelligence matters,” whatever that means.

A week ago in Las Vegas, Pacquiao demolished Britain's Ricky Hatton in the second round of a 12-rounder, a fight now widely regarded as one of the best in the history of the sport. When he flew home on Monday, he received a grand welcome unlike any ever received by a Filipino: His motorcade paraded through the streets of Manila, blue, white and red confetti flying endlessly, Filipinos by the roadside stretching out their arms, almost in supplication. Not even the pope's visits to this deeply religious Catholic nation elicited such displays of admiration.

“I love you, Manny!” became a familiar shriek, echoing the country's sentiments toward a 30-year-old man who, when he was a teenager, sold cigarettes to commuters in the streets of General Santos City, trying to support a family wallowing in extreme poverty — the typical Filipino experience. As for many Filipino youths, boxing proved a way out for Pacquiao.

Today, Pacquiao wears Armani. He owns houses and properties here and abroad. He owns a basketball team. And his mother, Dionisia, sashays in front of television cameras glittering with gold and diamonds, wearing expensive clothes, clutching the latest Louis Vuitton purse.

People flock to his house in General Santos, a city in the south, and ask for financial help wherever he goes (he is now worth billions of pesos, having amassed more than $12 million from his recent fight). A recent report in the Philippine Daily Inquirer said that a woman shouted to him during Monday's parade to please give her children.

One city wants to build a statue of him, which could be illegal in a country where monuments can only be dedicated to dead heroes. The Philippine postal system has printed his image on a stamp, making him the first athlete to be given the honor.

And Pacquiao's singing career seems to be on the upswing: His CD is now a certified hit. When a Filipino singer was criticized for changing the notes of the Philippine national anthem he sang during Pacquiao's fight, the boxer, as if to spite the critics, offered to sing it himself the next time he steps into the ring.