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Filipinos fawn over boxing champion and national hero Manny Pacquiao.
Pacquiao inspires as much hyperbole as awe. Lennox Lewis, the former heavyweight champion, wrote recently in Time magazine's “100 most influential” issue, “The grip he holds over the Philippines is similar to Nelson Mandela's influence in South Africa.”
Lewis added that Pacquiao, included on Time's list, is “almost like a god” in the Philippines. Each time Pacquiao fights (he has won five titles from five different weight classes, a first for any Asian), soldiers and rebels stop fighting for a day, incidents of crime fall dramatically, and the streets stop heaving with traffic — stuff that otherwise happens only during Holy Week.
The Philippines has never had an athlete like Pacquiao. But many Filipinos contend that Pacquiao's popularity obscures the problems that beset the country.
“Never in the history of boxing has a fighter been so admired and loved by his people and served as a single unifying force in a country that regrettably resonates with divisiveness,” sports analyst Ronnie Nathanielsz told Newsday.com.
Apart from possessing the world's deadliest left hook — the one that landed on Hatton's chin, knocking him unconscious before he even hit the canvas — Pacquiao also has a golden touch, politically speaking. Politicians swarm all over him; they take every opportunity to be photographed beside him. (These pictures later appear in campaign posters and literature.) The few politicians he has endorsed during past elections have won hands-down.
He is not just the king of the ring — he has become a kingmaker of sorts in a political landscape that values personality over ideology.
Pacquiao's series of victories has provided the unpopular Arroyo administration with several public relations bonanzas, as the latest win over Hatton did this week.
"Did Hatton hurt you?" Arroyo asked Pacquiao during his courtesy call to the president on Monday. "Not so much," Pacquiao replied, and quipped, "He could not take the punch of the Filipino nation."
For a country enduring seemingly never-ending scandals involving corruption and politics, Pacquiao is a respite. Since his victory over Hatton, Filipinos have forgotten about these many scandals. He has dominated the press so thoroughly, boxing out other events, news and issues.
Most believe that it is impossible not to feel extreme pride about Pacquiao. “You can't be a Filipino,” wrote the columnist Conrado de Quiros, “and not marvel at the marvel Pacquiao has become.”
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