ATOMIC: The inside story of the hardest fight of Manny Pacquiao’s life: his multi-million-dollar campaign for a seat in the Philippine Congress
By Andrew Marshall
Author’s note: This story was written in June 2010, when we all still hoped—perhaps against hope—that Manny’s next opponent was Mayweather, not Margarito.
IT is 2 a.m. at a windowless poker joint in downtown Manila and Manny Pacquiao is doing something he doesn’t usually do: lose.
The best pound-for-pound boxer on the planet has just flown home to the Philippines from Cowboys Stadium in Texas, where he demolished Ghanaian challenger Joshua Clottey to retain his WBO welterweight crown. Now comes the post-fight therapy: a marathon session of Texas Hold ‘Em, played with the same searing focus that Pacquiao usually reserves for the ring. He is about to gamble for 12 hours straight, breaking only to pose for photos with fellow punters during toilet breaks.
I’m standing close enough to see the tattoo on Pacquiao’s left forearm. It is an asteroid which streaks up towards the fist that last year knocked out British boxer Ricky Hatton in the second round. (Hatton hasn’t fought since.) Tonight, however, Pacquiao is the one losing. He is down 750,000 pesos, or about £11,000—pocket change for the world’s sixth-highest paid athlete, with earnings of £27 million last year. But in the Philippines, where the average daily wage is £4, it’s a life-changing sum. Gambling it away looks bad, especially when Pacquiao is running for a seat in the Philippine Congress.
“I told him, ‘People look at you as their idol. It’s bad if they see you gambling,’” says his advisor Chavit Singson, an obscenely wealthy Filipino politician and himself a hardcore gambler. The last time Pacquiao ran for office, in 2007, he lost—badly. “I wasn’t prepared at all,” he tells me later. “I was very confident [because] I was famous. This time I’m ready.” The election is two months away. A victory will make him the first major boxer to hold high political office.
Playing cards, Pacquiao might argue, is no distraction. It is training for a grueling six-week campaign against a rich and ruthless political opponent. Pacquiao is about to play the highest-stakes poker game of his life.
Looming over the campaign is another fight. Soon, possibly in November, Pacquiao will fight American welterweight Floyd Mayweather, Jr. for a share of the largest purse in boxing history—at least $80 million. It is the most anticipated boxing match since Muhammad Ali met George Foreman in Zaire, in 1974. Mayweather is undefeated, while Pacquiao, on current form, seems undefeatable. It is also a clash of personalities: in one corner, a mouthy, money-obsessed American; in the other, a God-fearing Filipino who can step out of a bullet-proof Hummer, glance at his diamond-studded Rolex, and still look humble.
The fight will not only burnish or blot the careers of two remarkable sportsmen. It could also save boxing, which is being eclipsed by popular combat sports such as mixed martial arts. Boxing needs new fans and heroes who live up to the hype. It needs a 21st-century “Rumble In The Jungle.” Pacquiao-Mayweather might just be it.
But first Pacquiao must fight Roy Chiongbian. Roy who?
* * *
SARANGANI (pop. 411,713) is a remote province in the southern Philippines famous for three things: tuna, lawlessness and Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao. He grew up in nearby General Santos City.
It’s a true rags-to-riches story. Pacquiao’s mother was a market vendor. His father was a drunkard who, so the story goes, once ate a stray dog that the boy had adopted. Pacquiao first boxed for a fistful of pesos in public bouts, then at a gym in Manila, where this “lean, hungry, fistic marvel” (as one biographer put it) was also a construction worker. He went pro in 1995 and, after a fight in Las Vegas six years later, caught the attention of Freddie Roach, the celebrated American trainer.
Roach made him fast and ferocious. “Have you ever watched a Pacquiao fight from ringside?” Bill Dywre, the American sportswriter, asked me. “By round two, you see the look in his opponent’s eyes. Where is this shit coming from? What did I just get hit by? Where the fuck is he now?”
Today, Pacquiao’s homecoming celebration segues neatly into a political campaign. He is mobbed by fans at General Santos City’s tiny airport, then whisked off in a white bullet-proof Chevrolet Tahoe. Our destination is Kiamba town, where tonight Pacquiao’s political party, the People’s Champ Movement, will hold its opening rally. Villagers emerge from typhoon-tilted shacks to watch the Chevy rocket past.
I squeeze into its back seat next to a pyramid of Yves Saint Laurent suitcases. They belong to Jinkee, Pacquiao’s wife and the mother of his four children. She sits up front, absorbed in her two Blackberries. Does she enjoy campaigning? “It’s boring,” she replies. “And tiring.”
But “Sir Manny”—as staff reverentially call him—relishes it. He sits next to Jinkee. “I’ve already established my [political] machinery,” he says. He waves at the Chevy’s interior. “It’s like a car. It’s fixed already. You just have to get in and drive it.”
The road hugs a coastline fringed with coconut trees. We pass a checkpoint manned by heavily armed soldiers. There are at least a dozen Philippine provinces regarded as “election hotspots,” and Sarangani is one of them. So is Maguindanao, not far to the north, where last November gunmen belonging to a local despot massacred 57 people in a rival candidate’s convoy. The army is out in force to deter further violence.
Kiamba teems with people. The first thing Pacquiao does when he arrives is to feed them. Last November, when he returned after defeating Puerto Rican boxer Miguel Cotto (12th round, technical knockout), he bought hamburgers for 20,000 people. In Kiamba, everyone gets a free rice-and-chicken lunchbox and a bottle of “Pacman H2O”—his own brand of water.
Later, Pacquiao takes the stage in the town square. He wears jeans, a polo shirt, Nike sneakers and, between moustache and goatee, a grin of what seems disarmingly like disbelief. His arms barely move when he walks, almost as if he is carrying invisible dumbbells, or as if his fists are made of gold. He is so small—barely five feet seven inches—that his path through this dense crowd is marked only by an absence, like a whirlpool passing through a freshly chummed shark tank.
There are speeches by other candidates in the People’s Champ Movement, interspersed with entertainment: a martial arts demonstration, a magic act, dancing, and folk singing. Pacquiao watches it all from a plastic chair at center-stage. Soon, it is his turn.
He speaks in an intimate, conversational style, without notes. (“You speak from deep in your heart,” he explains. “It’s easy.”) He talks about his family’s struggle with poverty, how he and his five siblings often went hungry. “Even if I was the richest man in the Philippines,” he tells the crowd, “it wouldn’t change my personality. My heart still belongs to the poor.” He bangs home the message: “I feel what the people feel, because I was once poor. Unlike my opponent, who has never experienced poverty.”
The home crowd laps it up. Here, in the flesh, is the man they call Pambansang Kimao, or the “National Fist,” the man who snatched the title of World’s Most Famous Filipino from a woman—heavyweight shoe-collector Imelda Marcos. He is also very devout, which matters in this mainly Catholic country. “The most important thing as a leader is your relationship with God,” he tells the crowd. Many people are wearing T-shirts bearing the boxer’s face and the slogan, in English, “For God and Country.”
How can he possible lose?
His opponent is Roy Chiongbian, a wealthy U.S.-educated businessman almost twice Pacquiao’s age whose family has dominated Sarangani politics for decades. Chiongbian’s parents were both politicians—his mother was once Sarangani’s governor—and the current congressman is his brother. In this fight, Pacquiao is the underdog.
Chiongbian is a constantly smiling man with Chinese features and thinning, dyed-black hair. His family has a modest house in General Santos City, which they share with two pitbulls and a handful of bodyguards. Chiongbian is withering about Pacquiao’s chances. “Although he is popular as a sportsman, it’s very different being a politician,” he says, flashing his smile. “Tiger Woods is the number-one golfer, but he can’t be, let’s say, a race-car driver. We have our limitations and our skills.”
When I tell Pacquiao how relaxed and confident Chiongbian seems, he smiles too. “Very relaxed,” the boxer repeats. “Very confident. I hope he won’t get knocked out.”
* * *
WHEREVER he goes, Pacquiao is trailed by a bizarre and ever-ballooning entourage. There are sleazy politicos like Singson, who wears ostrich-skin cowboy boots and guards his Manila mansion with a Bengal tiger called Maxie. There is a puny lookalike called Manny Paksiw—in the Philippines paksiw means to cook with vinegar and garlic. There is a Filipino-Samoan bodyguard called Cris, a man-mountain who once played bad guys in Chuck Norris movies. “People think Manny is a god,” says Cris. “They touch him. They’re cured.”
Most of all, there is Mike Koncz, Pacquiao’s Canadian money-man and über-gofer, who discreetly orbits the boxer at all times. While Pacquiao played poker in Manila, Koncz peered protectively through pot-plants, one hand on a bag of cash. Koncz always looks unhappy, possibly the result of existing in the state of hyper-vigilant torpor that serving famous people demands. When Pacquiao wants something, it is Koncz’s job to help him get it, whether it’s a wedding anniversary cake for Jinkee or a seat in Congress. “If he wins,” says Koncz dolefully, “I’ll stop working for him.” He is joking, but it’s hard to tell.
Pacquiao has already dabbled in other careers, most notably acting. He has appeared in eight Filipino movies, but his latest one, Wapakman—in which he plays a single father-of-six transformed by an accident into a crime-fighting superhero—bombed. He has released a dozen songs, including “Pac-Man Punch (Knockout Remix),” but remains a karaoke-quality singer. Why does Pacquiao want so badly to be a politician? “He likes to help people,” says Singson. “That’s his nature.”
But for a 31-year-old boxer who has now fought five fewer fights than Muhammad Ali, and more rounds than “Sugar” Ray Leonard, health is a big concern. Both Ali and trainer Freddie Roach have pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome. Politics is a retirement plan: in the Philippines, public office can be parlayed into lasting wealth and influence.
But politics is also a dirty business: Singson calls congressmen “crocodiles” who gorge on state funds. Not wanting to see the boxer’s honest image besmirched, many Filipinos might not vote for him.
This is what Roy Chiongbian is counting on.
* * *
“BOXING is the exclusion of outside influence,” Norman Mailer once wrote. But politics is different. Outside influence—also known as “advisors”—can win or lose an election. At the next stop on his campaign trail, Pacquiao receives a master class in how to cheat your way into public office.
We are in Naga, the capital of Camarines Sur province, about 230 miles southeast of Manila. Pacquiao is appearing at a huge rally held by a major political party. Perhaps 100,000 people are packed into the city’s sports stadium.
The rally is low on politics. A presidential candidate takes the stage to croon a love song, followed by hip-grinding dancers in orange bikinis. Pacquiao sings a duet with another Filipino celebrity. There is rap, comedy, fireworks. The massive crowd surges. Stewards reach over the crush barriers and haul fainting women to safety.
The next morning, Pacquiao has a poolside breakfast at the hotel with some prominent politicians. Jinkee sits beside him, looking miserable. She is the only woman present, not counting the three teenage call-girls that one politician has flown in from Manila on his private jet. Impassive behind wraparound Oakley shades, Pacquiao vacuums back a plate of rice, eggs and fish, and listens.
One politician advises Pacquiao to appoint a leader at every presinto, or voting station, and give him 15,000 pesos to bribe voters with. “The presinto leader will distribute 100 each,” he says. “That way, you’ll be certain to win.”
Don’t forget to rent out all the public buses, or jeepneys, says another politician. “In the villages there are really only two or three jeepneys,” he tells Pacquiao. “Get them so only your supporters can vote.”
Another voice: “You should go swimming. We should see your body.”
“Here’s a really simple thing.” It’s the first politician again. He suggests dishing out free rice porridge to any undecided voter. “When the son-of-a-bitch walks into the voting booth, his stomach is still warm—thanks to you.”
“When he’s farting he’ll still be thinking of you,” enthuses another politician.
Teachers help illiterate voters fill out their ballots, so treat them well too. One politician says he rewarded a teacher with a vacation in Hong Kong.
“It’s so cheap, Hongkong,” he muses.
* * *
THE Pacquiao mansion in General Santos City has a small pool and a shooting range, but is poky by the standards of most multi-millionaires. The living room is decorated with photos of Pacquiao’s boxing triumphs. One shows him standing over Hatton, floored by that left-hook-from-nowhere. Afterwards, Hatton went to hospital. Pacquiao went out singing.
Today is is the last day of campaigning before the May 10 election. Pacquiao is asleep.
Waiting for him to wake up today are three American sportswriters and—looking alert and doleful—Mike Koncz. “Manny is predicting a landslide,” says Koncz. “I think it’ll be closer.”
Media coverage has been favourable. But then most local reporters are among the “thousands” of people on Pacquiao’s payroll, says Koncz. One newspaper runs a story about the “dismal and lackluster record” of Chiongbian’s older brother, the incumbent congressman. Another article begins, “Ghandi [sic] would have found a kindred spirit in fellow icon Manny Pacquiao”
Also waiting is a well-preserved 78-year-old with thin, gingery hair. This is Bob Arum, Pacquiao’s legendary promoter. A Brooklyn-born graduate of Harvard Law School, Arum has promoted Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya and—for his suicidal rocket-bike leap across Snake River Canyon in Idaho in 1974—Evel Knieval. “Manny Pacquiao is the best I’ve ever seen, including Ali,” claimed Arum earlier this year. The boxer repaid the compliment. “Without you,” he said of Arum during a recent speech in New York, “I can’t be what I am.”
Today, Arum is getting impatient. “I don’t care what anyone says. You don’t sleep on the last day of campaigning.” He turns to Koncz. “Get him up! We gotta win an election!”
But this is democracy, Manny-style. Everyone waits: foreign journalists, Filipino voters, even the promoter who has made Pacquiao many of his millions.
Koncz tells me that the campaign will cost at least 300 million pesos. That’s about £4.4 million, a fortune in this provincial backwater. Later, when Koncz emerges from a backroom with a Pacquiao-brand shopping bag, I snatch a glimpse of its contents: half a dozen bricks of bank-fresh pesos.
At 7 p.m., Pacquiao abruptly exits the mansion by a sidedoor and roars off in a Hummer. Arum and I pursue. We are heading for Malandag, for the final rallies.
They blur into one: guarded by soldiers with M-16s, Pacquiao gives the same speech (“I know what poverty is”) in ill-lit sports arenas with crappy sound-systems in one-horse towns. In one place, transvestites in hula skirts dance to the theme tune from Hawaii Five-O.
Everywhere, he is mobbed. Men shake his fists. Women steal embraces. Babies are held aloft. They touch him. They are cured.
* * *
LESS than 36 hours later, at 7 a.m. on Monday, the polls open. It is overcast, with storm clouds gathering.
Pacquiao votes early, then returns to the mansion to sleep. I arrive there to find, abandoned on a poolside chair, a stack of leaflets smearing Roy Chiongbian. “He would spend the whole day playing golf,” they read. “Worse, he was hooked on GAMBLING and was openly courting and dating girls.”
Clearly, the gloves are off.
Koncz and Arum are watching the election unfold on TV. Long lines form at polling stations. Voting is hampered by faulty counting machines and the usual violence. By lunchtime, at least five have died in bombings and shootouts at polling stations in nearby provinces.
Sarangani province is violence-free, but Koncz still looks worried. He’s heard rumors that the Chiongbian camp has secretly funneled cash to local leaders and pre-inked people’s right forefingers so they can’t vote. I will hear rumors that the Pacquiao camp has done exactly the same.
Nothing can dampen Arum’s mood. “I can’t see how Manny is going to lose this thing,” he says. “It’ll be a landslide.”
But in the afternoon I visit a crowded polling station at a Sarangani school to ask people which candidate they favour. Finding Pacquiao voters proves difficult. “We love him,” says one man, meaning Roy Chiongbian. “Noone can compare.” A woman says she won’t vote for a candidate just because he’s famous. “I’m using my common sense,” she tells me.
It starts to rain.
Back at the mansion, I report the results of this unscientific straw poll to Arum, Koncz and the rest of the entourage. Gloom descends.
“He’s gonna lose,” says Arum in disbelief.
“I still have hope,” says Koncz, sounding hopeless.
So, when he emerges, does Pacquiao. In fact, he is almost euphoric. “I’m confident,” he grins, throwing a playful right hook that’s almost too fast to see. “Same as when I’m boxing.”
With his American-born daughter Queen Elizabeth on his lap, Pacquiao confers with farflung staff via two-way radio. “Dragon Two, this is Dragon One. Update?” He is already getting results from some Sarangani towns. Maasim? “Eighty percent.” Alabel (where I’d found no Pacquiao voters)? “Doing well.”
Bob Arum is perplexed. It is hours until the polls close. How can Pacquiao be so confident?
“We dropped an atomic bomb,” the boxer replies, still grinning. “That’s why I’m confident.”
He won’t elaborate. For the Filipinos present, he doesn’t need to. It isn’t unusual for wealthy candidates to bombard voting precincts with last-minute incentives. It’s so cheap, Hongkong.
The tactic pays off. Darkness falls. We all head to “The Pentagon,” the codename for Pacquiao’s secret campaign headquarters in General Santos City. It is a cramped bungalow with computers and a dozen or so staff. They greet Pacquiao with hugs, handshakes and applause. Results are pouring in and so far Pacquiao is thrashing Chiongbian in every precinct.
“It’s big!” cries Arum. “It’s big!”
Pacquiao can’t quite believe it. “A congressman!” he exclaims, clearly still grappling with the concept. “It’s the first time in history.” Later, he composes himself to deliver some sportsmanlike—that is, dull—quotes. “I’m so happy with the result. But I’m not surprised. I worked hard for this election.” Then he picks up a guitar and sings everyone a song.
But the outcome isn’t certain yet. I set out for Roy Chiongbian’s compound to gauge the mood there. “Tell him I’ll give him two ringside seats for the next fight if he concedes,” says Arum. “If it’s Mayweather, that’s worth $4,000.” I arrive to find the Chiongbian compound in darkness. “Everyone has gone to bed,” explains a security guard. Suddenly, it felt official: Pacquiao really had won.
Thank you, Roy Chiongbian, and goodnight.
* * *
BOB Arum can’t stop rhapsodizing about Pacquiao’s win, and not just because promoting “the boxing congressman” will do wonders for those pay-per-view figures. “Ali was a wonderful person, but it was more about Ali,” he says. “This kid spent a fortune running for office. And he did it, not to aggrandize himself, but because he really believes he can make a difference.” Arum seems—and here’s a word not often used to describe him—humbled. “I came over here figuring I’d help lick his wounds. I never figured we’d win like this.”
Win like what? Pacquiao is undoubtedly popular, gifted and generous. But he won an election by dispensing cash, and not simply by (his words) “trusting God and dreaming big.” Local journalist Edwin Espejo sees the irony. “Pacquiao ran on an anti-poverty platform, yet spent millions of dollars,” he says. It was a price his opponent either couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. “Chiongbian folded,” says Espejo, plucking a metaphor from that windowless poker joint in Manila.
Some fans argue that financing his own campaign will make Pacquiao a good politician, since he won’t be indebted to donors once in office. Most fans couldn’t care less what kind of congressman he’ll be. They just want him to take on Floyd Mayweather.
Pacquiao hasn’t lost a fight for four years. He is the only welterweight alive with a chance of wrecking Mayweather’s undefeated record. But Mayweather is fast, powerful and defensive—and hasn’t lost a fight, ever. That’s why Pacquiao is considered the underdog. And that’s why everyone who knows him—everyone who campaigned or voted for him—is certain he will win.