Pacquiao’s Big Gamble

Written by Andrew Marshall

Posted on 30 March 2010

Pacquiao’s Big Gamble

Read the story in TIME magazine

There is one place where Manny Pacquiao is the underdog: Philippine politics

By Andrew Marshall

IF you’re looking for the headquarters of the People’s Champ Movement, the political vehicle of Philippine boxing god Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao, here’s some advice: take a torch. Lying at the end of a murky corridor in a building in General Santos, a city in the southern Philippines plagued by power shortages, the two-room office is cramped, sweltering and lit by a single candle. And the emergency generator? “Broken,” admits Grace, a staff member, fanning herself with an envelope.

It’s a very long way from the dazzling lights of Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where earlier this month Pacman demolished Ghanaian challenger Joshua Clottey in 12 low-thrill rounds to retain his WBO welterweight crown. The disarray at party headquarters suggests that his next fight — campaigning for a congressional seat in the nearby province of Sarangani in May 10 elections — won’t be so easy. His opponent this time is Roy Chiongbian, a U.S.-educated businessman from a wealthy and well-entrenched political dynasty. “Pacquiao is up for a very tough fight,” says Prospero de Vera, Professor of Public Administration at the University of the Philippines. “Sarangani is relatively poor and local politics is very traditional. The Chiongbians have had a stranglehold on power for decades.”

Breaking that stranglehold will take more than just popularity and money, both of which Pacquiao has by the truckload. On March 26, upon his return from the Clottey fight, he was mobbed by media and jubilant fans at the airport, before being driven in a bulletproof Chevrolet Tahoe guarded by armed police to Sarangani. Roughly the size of Rhode Island, Sarangani (pop. 411,713) is a coastal province where people scrape a living from fishing or farming. Pacquiao grew up in the province’s sleepy town of Kiamba, and with one eye on the congressional campaign built a house there in 2008. To run for office, Pacquiao must establish the fiction that he actually lives in Sarangani. He must also shake off the memory of his last foray into politics — a bid for a seat in the House of Representatives in neighboring South Cotabato province in 2007. Then, his opponent was also an incumbent from a political dynasty. “He was basically clobbered,” says de Vera.

Chiongbian is withering about his famous opponent’s chances this time around. “Although he is popular as a sportsman, it’s very different being a politician,” says Chiongbian, who soft-launched his campaign by celebrating his 61st birthday at his family’s 2,718-acre (1,100 hectare) plantation near Kiamba. “Tiger Woods is the No. 1 golfer, but he can’t be, let’s say, a race-car driver. We have our limitations and our skills.” He believes Pacquiao’s popularity plays against him: many voters don’t want their national hero dirtying his hands in politics. “People like to see him as a boxer, not a politician,” says Chiongbian, who has never run for public office before.

Pacman on election night. © Andrew Marshall

Still, “Sir Manny” — as his staff reverentially call him — is a more formidable opponent than Chiongbian will ever admit. Pacquiao is approaching round two of his political career with at least some of the searing focus he usually reserves for the boxing ring. “Last time, I wasn’t prepared,” he tells TIME, as he tours his would-be constituency. “I was very confident [because] I was famous. This time I’m ready.” And confident. Asked if he’s going to win, he flashes his delinquent smile. “Landslide,” he says.

That might be pushing it, but Pacquiao promises a slicker campaign this time. “I’ve already established my [political] machinery,” he says. “It’s like a car. It’s fixed already. You just have to get in and drive it.” He has the support of tycoon Senator Manny Villar, a presidential candidate, who joined him on his Sarangani homecoming. On the campaign trail, Pacquiao has fewer bodyguards separating him from adoring fans and voters. Warming up crowds on the campaign trail are his wife Jinkee and mother Dionisia, a.k.a. “Pac-Mom,” both household names in the Philippines who were largely absent from his previous campaign.

And while he is no Ali, Pacquiao is an effective speaker, telling crowds about his family’s struggle with poverty in an intimate, conversational style. “No notes,” he explains. “You speak from deep in your heart. It’s easy.” Pacquiao is also devout, which could win the support of bloc-voting church groups. “The most important thing as a leader is your relationship with God,” he tells the crowd while campaigning in Kiamba, where many people wear T-shirts bearing the boxer’s face and the slogan, in English, “For God and Country.”

Yet Pacquiao’s main pitch to voters has remained unchanged since 2007: I understand the poor man’s woes, while my opponent is aloof and élite. Roy Chiongbian doesn’t claim to have the Almighty on his side, but then perhaps he doesn’t need him so much. Sarangani is a family affair. The province’s borders were drawn in 1992 by Chiongbian’s late father; his mother was its first governor. The current congressman is his brother and the vice-governor his nephew. Incumbents have a natural advantage over challengers, since they have had years — in the Chiongbian family’s case, decades — to dispense favors and appoint loyalists. “Popularity is not enough to overturn favors which have been granted over several years or several terms,” warns de Vera.

Legendary American trainer Freddie Roach is credited with turning Pacquiao from a promising boxer into a world champion. It’s unclear if he has a political Roach, or if the ferociously single-minded Pacquiao would listen anyway. “I advised him not to run,” says Luis Singson, political kingpin of the northern province of Ilocos Sur, who gave Pacquiao the bulletproof Hummer that ferries him around Manila and who shares his passion for cockfighting and gambling. “I told him, ‘Give priority to your boxing. Later on you can go into politics.’ But he’s committed already.” What are his chances of getting elected? “Good,” says Singson, unconvincingly.

“Don’t run” isn’t the only advice Pacquiao has ignored. His first love is boxing, but cockfighting and high-stakes gambling — preferably both at the same time — come a close second. Singson warns that gambling will drain Pacquiao’s fortune and besmirch his populist image. “I told him, ‘People look at you as their idol. It’s bad if they see you gambling.’ So now he’s stopped [going to] casinos already.” Really? Less than two days after his homecoming, the boxer could be spotted playing Texas Hold’em at a windowless poker joint in Manila in the small hours. Peering protectively through nearby pot plants was his Canadian über-gofer Mike Koncz, who sat next to a bag of money. Twelve hours later, Pacquiao was still playing.

Running for Congress is a gamble with much higher stakes. Sarangani might be a small district, but political analyst de Vera estimates Pacquiao will have to spend up to $2 million “to stand a chance of winning.” That’s nothing by the standards of U.S. elections, but a fortune in a rural backwater with only about 270,000 registered voters. Eric Pineda, one of the boxer’s bewildering array of advisers, calls $2 million a “paltry” sum. Another adviser, Jeng Gacal, says “the sky’s the limit” when it comes to election spending.

For most Pac-Man fans the world over, the battle for Sarangani is a distant sideshow. The opponent that everyone really wants Pacquiao to fight is undefeated American welterweight Floyd Mayweather Jr. But first a deal must be sealed — the boxers could split $50 million, or the biggest purse in boxing history — and Mayweather must fight his compatriot Shane Mosley on May 1. Will Pacquiao take a break from his last hectic week of campaigning to watch the fight? Bet on it.

Pacquiao Wins Big: See my follow-up article in TIME magazine

1 Comment

  1. Chiqui Mabanta says:

    great article – so clearly written and funny in many ways. Glad to have been there in that windowless poker joint

Leave a Comment