Roach wanted him to fight in the ring, not throw his hat in it. “Now he calls Congress his real job,” says his trainer, who jokes that politics is the champ’s new girlfriend.
Pacquiao’s 2007 campaign drew crowds of thousands, who reached to touch him and chanted another of his nicknames, Pambansang Kamao—National Fist. Still, he lost to the incumbent, an entrenched politician who is said to have bought the election for the going rate: a bag of rice or 100 Philippine pesos (about $2) per vote.
Last year the champ ran again. At one rally he treated his followers to dinner: 20,000 hamburgers. At another he fed the multitude chicken, rice and his personal-label Pacman Water. “I am smarter now,” he said. “Ready to win.” Smart enough to count on Luis “Chavit” Singson as a political advisor. Singson, 70, is no buttoned-down American-style politico. The globe-trotting one-time governor of Ilocos Sur province and a national security advisor to former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo sports ostrich-skin boots, a leather jacket and aviator shades as he boards his $8.5 million private jet, his jet-black Elvis pompadour barely budging in the wind. Like many Philippine power brokers, Singson has been linked to bribery, beatings and vice rackets, with whispers of worse. His Manila mansion is guarded not by a watchdog but by a tiger that he feeds by hand. Singson’s watch-tiger scarfs more steak in a day than many Filipinos eat in a year. Still, the governor casts himself as Pacquiao’s kindly mentor, a right-hand man for the people’s champ. “I pressed him not to go into politics,” Singson says during takeoff from Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport. “ ‘Wait till you retire from boxing,’ I said. But Manny could not wait. He is the people’s hero.”
“What does he need to learn about politics?” I ask.
“The ropes! I mean, he spends his own money on constituents. I say, ‘Manny, there are agencies for that.’ But no, he follows his heart. One guy he gives money, another a car. Another poor guy, Manny took pity and bought him a house!”
With help from Singson and a war chest of nearly $7 million, Pacquiao won last year’s election in a landslide. Voting was relatively peaceful, nothing like the previous election day, when a partisan gunfight left 57 voters dead. On the day welterweight champion Pacquiao became Congressman Pacquiao, the first active pro athlete ever to win a national election, shootings and bombings killed no more than half a dozen Filipinos.
The two-fisted congressman went straight to work. He supported a bill to keep young girls from being bought and sold as sex slaves. He secured $4.55 million for a hospital in his home province. And in a bit of horse-trading any politician might admire, he stumped for Nevada senator Harry Reid, a former Golden Gloves boxer, during Reid’s 2010 reelection battle with a Tea Party Republican. Reid may owe his post as Senate majority leader to Pacquiao, whose support gave Reid a crucial edge with minority voters. In return, Reid is helping push the U.S. Congress to pass a trade bill that could create more than 100,000 jobs for fabric workers in the Philippines.
Why take time out of training to wage political battles? To Pacquiao, the answer is obvious. “I care about my people,” he says.
It’s such a cliché, delivered in the halting English-as-a-second-language that makes him the master of bland quotes. Pacquiao still thinks in Tagalog, a Philippine language perhaps better suited to the typhoons of emotion and, yes, spirituality of his homeland. He sees me roll my eyes as I write the line down, I care bla bla, and he looks pissed. He leans so close that I can see craters on the flaming-meteor tattoo on his left forearm, the arm that leads to his clenched fist. Then he touches the fist to his heart.
He says it again. “I care.”
In February he rode Amtrak from New York to Washington, D.C. His handlers hyped the trip as a political pilgrimage: Mr. Pacquiao goes to Washington. The idea was to promote his May 7 bout against Shane Mosley, but the champ was more interested in scoring political points in the power capital of the world. With his 24-7 camera crew in tow, three guys with boom mikes shadowing his every move, the champion led his entourage through the lobby of the U.S. Capitol, up marble stairs to the second floor and past busts of all-American crooks Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Soon he was posing for pictures with Reid, the 71-year-old majority leader. They squared off like fighters, fists clenched, both knowing Pacquiao could knock Reid’s block off the planet with a flick of his fist. They traded gifts: folded flags of the Philippines and the U.S. Then Reid shook hands with Pacquiao’s wife, Jinkee, a petite, curvy shopping champion wearing four-inch heels, a tight skirt and a diamond ring the size of a tooth. Next came the main event: Mr. Pacquiao meets Mr. President.
As Pacquiao led his crew to the White House, motorists leaned out of their windows to see the little guy and his camera crew. Bang—a four-car fender bender. Pacquiao, being Pacquiao, made sure the drivers were okay before he went on to meet Barack Obama.
He was nervous. Reaching up to clasp hands with the six-one Obama, Pacquiao thought, He’s so tall! He began burbling about NBA hoops. “Mr. President, I heard you like basketball. My team is Boston Celtics,” said Pacquiao, who’d climbed onto a stool for publicity photos with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
“I like the Celtics too,” Obama said, handing over three shopping bags full of presidential M&Ms and a wristwatch emblazoned with the Presidential Seal.
“I hope you come see me fight Mosley in Las Vegas,” Pacquiao said.
“Can’t do it,” Obama said, “but I’ll watch it on TV.”