Friday, November 20, 2009

The Pacman Cometh

In his prize-winning play, The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill presents a drama about the human need for hope and illusion as a response to the conditions of despair. If ever the Filipino people needed a distraction from the wearying conditions of despair that surround them, now is the time and Manny “the Pacman” Pacquiao is the man to provide the hope and illusion. He is our Iceman.

With his spectacular victory over Miguel Cotto on November 14, Pacquiao has won an unprecedented 7titles in 7 weight class divisions. No one is ever likely to challenge that historic accomplishment - to go from a 112 pound flyweight prince to a 145 pound welterweight king in 10 years. Remarkably, it would have been 8 titles if he had won the light flyweight championship at 106 pounds when he started his fighting career.

With an electrifying performance which made believers out of even the most cynical of doubters, Pacquiao has cemented his claim as the best pound-for-pound boxer of our time. Whether or not his fight with Floyd Mayweather, Jr. materializes is immaterial to the claim because Mayweather has made a habit of avoiding the best boxers while they were at their prime (Margarito, Cotto, Mosley, to name a few). But not Pacquiao “the Mexecutioner”.

Pacquiao has also achieved the unimaginable for a Filipino. He is now up there in that rarefied territory of elite athletes who made history, achieved global fame, and transcended their respective sports. Think Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, David Beckham, and Michael Phelps. His promoter, Bob Arum, though often given to hyperbole, was really not exaggerating when he said Pacquiao is the best boxer of all time, better than Mohammad Ali.

Even before the Cotto fight, commercial interests were already voting with their dollars and lining up behind Arum’s post-fight statement. Nike’s famous swoosh was ubiquitous with special Pacquiao shoes selling briskly for $135 on retail and $500 on EBay. Even reputable publications like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times featured articles about the Pacman. Time kicked it up a notch and put him on the cover of Time Asia.

But Pacquiao achieved something else very noteworthy: He has made his very ethnic, very indio-like, brown Filipino face – with no trace of any Mestizo-ness whatsoever – seem “cool” and attractive to Filipinos. Consider all the TV and movie stars of the Philippines today, virtually all of whom showcase light European features. But now they all bow to the brown king Pacman.

Pacquiao’s appeal has crossed over to mainstream America. His easy smile with eyes that light up, the religiosity in his pre-fight motions, the charming grace under pressure, the humility in his words, have made Americans who have seen him on TV overlook his heavily accented and grammatically- challenged English. By all indications, the American public has been smitten with him as his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live showed.

In the process, Pacquiao has instilled national pride among Filipinos who, at the same time, are also finding out on their own that with talent and tenacity, success is possible even with an ethnic face and an accented English. This pride is evident in shirts and jackets and accessories all proudly sporting Pacquiao’s image and Team Pacquiao logos. It is evident in water-cooler conversations all across America – with Filipinos talking of their sense of affinity and similarities of provenance with The Filipino People’s Champ.

How did this poor boy from the poverty-stricken streets of General Santos City in the island of Mindanao get to this point? For sure, he could not have done it in sports like golf or tennis for, although they too are individual sports, the monetary costs of achieving competence in those fields are prohibitive. He certainly could not have achieved it in the sport he loves, basketball, where height is a major factor in success.

Truth be told, savage and primitive though it may appear to some, boxing is probably the most democratic and most meritocratic of all sports. It is “cheap”: poor kids dabbling in it just borrow gloves from each other and practice on their own without the need for any real expense. It is also capable of instant feedback: you get your butt kicked if you can’t hack it, and if you’re not willing to give it your all, you’re better off dabbling in something else before you get into real physical trouble.

For all the good things Pacquiao brings to the country, there is a dark side. In a country of 90-million plus, an overwhelming percentage of which is comprised of poor impressionable kids all dreaming of becoming the next Pacquiao, makeshift boxing gyms and unregulated boxing matches supposedly feeding into the hopes of these poor boys are on the rise all over the land. Most of the Pacquiao wannabes will discover, soon enough, that studying real science subjects in school is a lot easier than learning the “sweet science” of boxing.

In The Iceman Cometh, broken men with hopeful dreams await the arrival of the big-spending Iceman, Theodore Hickman. When he arrives, he encourages his cronies to pursue their ambitions, believing that only failure will make them face reality. “To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything…The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober,” he says.

Let's ride this pipe dream as long as we can. All hail King Pacman!

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