Commentary

Manny Pacquiao transcends boxing

Updated: November 12, 2010, 8:50 PM ET
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- When Manny Pacquiao arrived in the United States in 2001 he was an obscure fighter from the Philippines known only to the hardest of hard-core boxing fans as a guy who had held the flyweight title for 10 months between late 1998 and 1999.

A decade later Pacquiao is a household name, the record-breaking pound-for-pound king who has transcended boxing.

He fights. He sings. He smiles.

He's a congressman in the Sarangani province of his beloved Philippines, where he also makes movies and was even summoned from training camp one day to meet with the president. (That didn't go over well with his trainer, Freddie Roach.)

He's humble. He's charitable.

He's become a beloved global figure.

"I really think that Manny Pacquiao is this generation's Muhammad Ali," said Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, who promoted 25 of Ali's fights. "And the fact that it happened with a non-American and a Filipino is, to my mind, absolutely astounding."

Unlike many top-flight championship fights, which get little mainstream media coverage, Pacquiao's fights bring media from around the world. Papers that don't cover boxing cover Pacquiao. General-interest publications and television programs cover him. When he fights, it's not just a fight. It's a world event.

Arum said when he began promoting Pacquiao he thought he could make him a star, but within boxing.

"I made a speech in the Philippines when I signed him that I would make him a crossover star," Arum said. "But I was thinking in terms of the usual boxing milieus. Not in terms of being a worldwide celebrity. But that's what he has become. It's a whole combination of things that appeal to people -- his story, up from poverty, coming up the way he did, fighting for a dollar and two dollars. Suddenly coming over to the United States and becoming better and better. Running for Congress while he was still a fighter. Now I am absolutely convinced that he can be president of the Philippines someday."

Pacquiao is not one to boast. "I'm so proud of myself. We are all proud in Asia," he said simply. "I am very thankful to God that he gave me this kind fame."

It has been an amazing run for Pacquiao, who returns to the ring at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET, $54.95) to face Antonio Margarito in an attempt to win a vacant junior middleweight belt. If Pacquiao wins, he will collect a title in a record-extending eighth weight division covering some 40 pounds.

Arum, of course, had no way to anticipate the heights Pacquiao (51-3-2, 38 KOs) would reach. Nobody did.

"The whole world is agog at the exploits of a young man from the streets of Manila who, by sheer determination, has elevated himself to the position he now holds," Arum said.

"Manny has accomplished what most people only dream of," said HBO PPV's Mark Taffet, ticking off some impressive statistics -- Pacquiao's 12 pay-per-view bouts have done 6.25 million buys and generated $321 million, with the past four fights averaging more than 1 million buys.

Pacquiao first showed up in the United States in mid-2001 as a late replacement to challenge junior featherweight titlist Lehlo Ledwaba on the undercard of an Oscar De La Hoya fight. Pacquiao destroyed Ledwaba in the sixth round to win the second of his record seven titles.

The next breakout fight for Pacquiao came 2½ years later when he stunningly pummeled Marco Antonio Barrera en route to an 11th-round knockout to claim the lineal featherweight championship. Other than a tight decision loss in a 2005 junior lightweight bout to Erik Morales -- Arum's Mexican star at the time -- Pacquiao has been near-flawless as he has beaten a who's who of boxing, and claimed fighter of the decade honors from the Boxing Writers Association of America.

[+] EnlargeManny Pacquiao
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesSmashing Lehlo Ledwaba was the first sign of things to come for Manny Pacquiao.

Arum's introduction to Pacquiao had come in 2001 in his fight after the win against Ledwaba. Ironically, Pacquiao fought on the undercard of a Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight on HBO back when Top Rank was grooming Mayweather for stardom. Now, Pacquiao against Mayweather looms as the biggest money fight in boxing history, but it hasn't been made because Mayweather has refused to fight Pacquiao.

So the PacMan fights on anyway. It's almost as if it doesn't matter who he fights. He drew more than 50,000 to Cowboys Stadium in March for a welterweight title defense against Joshua Clottey, an opponent with zero fan base who was not known outside of hard-core boxing fans.

No matter. The fight still generated 700,000 buys on pay-per-view, and the fight with Margarito is expected to draw more than 1 million.

"I have never promoted a fighter before that has so captivated a country and a people the way Manny has," Arum said. "He is idolized and followed by every Filipino, whether he is in the Philippines or anywhere else around the world. It is a phenomenon like I have never seen before. I promoted 25 Ali fights and other fights for Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and George Foreman, but I have never seen the enthusiasm of a people towards a fighter the way I see the enthusiasm for Manny Pacquiao."

The fascination with Pacquiao has expended to the American mainstream. He's on the cover of American Airlines' in-flight magazine this month with an article that covers seven pages.

With Nevada Sen. Harry Reid in a dogfight for re-election, Arum, who lives in Las Vegas, summoned Pacquiao there to appear at a rally for Reid, Arum's longtime friend. Despite Roach's misgivings, Pacquiao broke camp and flew on a private jet to Las Vegas, which has a healthy Filipino population.

The Filipino congressman and the majority leader of the United States Senate made a joint appearance at which Pacquiao endorsed Reid. Arum said those in attendance were mostly Filipinos, and he believes Pacquiao's appearance was a big boost to Reid's winning re-election.

"You've got to realize that next to the Hispanics, the Filipinos are the largest ethnic group in Nevada," Arum said. "Harry's victory was a result of tremendous support of both the Hispanic and Filipino community. Manny has to get a lot of credit for his help in backing Senator Reid."

From politics to the silly, Pacquiao sang yet again on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live," as has become a tradition the week before he fights. But this time took it to another level, singing John Lennon's "Imagine" in a duet with actor Will Ferrell in a slice of must-see TV.

And the coup de grace came Sunday when Pacquiao was featured on CBS' ratings juggernaut "60 Minutes," which, according to the network, drew 16.5 million viewers.

The joke about that piece goes like this: Because the first three-quarters of the episode was taken up by a major interview with President Obama, his first since his party was thrashed in the midterm elections, and the piece about Pacquiao closed the show, Pacquiao was the main event and Obama was on his undercard.

Pacquiao and the President. Pretty heady company.

"I don't want to get big head. My dream was just to be a champion," Pacquiao said. "But it's amazing what God gave me, these blessings. I can't believe this -- known as pound-for-pound, world champion, so I am so proud and I thank God for everything he gave to me."

Roach has watched Pacquiao's stardom blossom since he arrived at his Wild Card gym in Hollywood, Calif., basically just off the plane from the Philippines, looking for a trainer.

"I got two phone calls, one from a girl I met 20 years and one from a girl I met 10 years ago, after they saw '60 Minutes,'" Roach boasted. "He's so popular. '60 Minutes,' singing with Will Ferrell, crazy stuff most athletes don't get to do. He's as big as Muhammad Ali. He's the best fighter of his era, and I'm really just happy to be part of it."

As big as Pacquiao's reputation has grown in recent years as he has defeated a strong crop of opponents while winning title after title, it really took off in 2008. That's when Pacquiao gave up the junior lightweight title and moved up to lightweight. He won a belt with a decisive knockout of David Diaz, which was followed six months later by an audacious move to welterweight, where he was a significant underdog to the much bigger Oscar De La Hoya.

Before the fight that, many viewed it as an utter mismatch, giving Pacquiao no chance to even compete with De La Hoya, the six-division titleholder and then-reigning box-office star.

Pacquiao laid waste to De La Hoya, bludgeoning him for eight one-sided rounds before De La Hoya retired on his stool, and then retired from boxing.

"When he beat Oscar that was the start," Roach said. "Everyone thought the Oscar fight was a dream fight and that Manny couldn't win. That was the beginning of his stardom."

[+] EnlargeManny Pacquiao and Oscar De La Hoya
Jewel Samad/Getty ImagesThe world got to know Manny Pacquiao the night he dismantled Oscar De La Hoya.

Said Arum: "The Oscar fight called him to the attention of the public. Oscar was the biggest star, even though it had been a little eclipsed because of the Mayweather fight [that De La Hoya lost]. But Oscar was still the biggest box-office, and Manny came along and people became familiar with Manny from the boxing end. But Manny has become something outside of boxing now. He's become like a worldwide celebrity that people can't get enough of. It's something. The closest thing was Ali. So many people who have no interest in boxing are now talking about him."

Pacquiao says he wants to use his celebrity to help his people in the Philippines, which is why he said he ran for office.

"My concern is not just to make money," said Pacquiao, who is guaranteed $15 million to fight Margarito (38-6, 27 KOs), with millions more to come on his upside of the pay-per-view profits. "My concern is 'How we can give a good fight to the people?'"

He is also concerned with helping his poverty-stricken nation. He knows what it's like to have nothing.

"I feel what they are feeling, because I've been there," said Pacquiao, who turns 32 next month. "I tell you the truth. I slept in the streets. I ate once a day. Sometimes I didn't eat in one day. That's my life before. So hard. I feel what they are feeling.

"One day I just drank water, no food. That's why I always understand the needs of those people who need help. My heart [breaks] when I see people in the street sleeping. I can imagine and remember my past when I was young. I just was elected last May and we're starting to reach the things I am going to do. My dream is to be a champion in public service."

That desire means the end of his boxing career is probably nearing. But despite talk from some in his camp who say retirement is imminent -- especially if Mayweather continues to refuse to fight him -- Pacquiao said not to put him out to pasture just yet.

He'll continue to balance his public service with fame and boxing.

"With great power comes great responsibility," Pacquiao said, stealing a line from Spider-Man.

He said he wants three more fights.

"This is not my last fight," he assured.

Even when is he is done boxing, there could still be that next fight outside the ring -- an election run to be president of the Philippines.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.