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Is the Thrilla in Manila Gone?

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Pinoy pride. That's what Manny Pacquiao, with eight world title belts, inspires in so many Filipinos.

When the favored "Pac-Man" lost to Juan Manuel Márquez on December 8 in Las Vegas, the hope and pride he inspired began to wane. His wife, Jinkee, a conduit of the despair at his defeat, decried the sport and called for his retirement. Some feared that if he exited the boxing arena completely, he would take away hope and inspiration for Filipinos everywhere.

Now there are recent reports that Pacquiao will fight Márquez again in the fall somewhere in Asia.

If he retired, it would be a blow to Filipino cultural pride. When Team Pacquiao decamped from their Los Angeles home for the Philippines after the fight with Márquez, speculations about Manny's career path and its impact on Filipinos began to bubble up.

Boxing has the potential to be about both the boxer and what he or she represents. Called the biggest sports hero of the Philippines, Manny's unbeatability was a sign of the indomitability and resurgence of the Filipino spirit after centuries as Spain's and America's former and forgotten colony. His spectacular success dimmed the light on other, less favorable news items, like the presence of rebel groups in the South or terrorist takeovers of hotels in Makati, Manila. As with many boxers who transcend their abject circumstances, in his case extreme poverty, for a shot at success and stardom, he made it big as a world champion, signaling the new global presence of the Filipino.

He was the only Filipino on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people of 2009. He leads an international circuit of Filipino talent that includes singers like Charice Pempengco, top chefs, dancers from America's Best Dance Crew, aspiring Miss Universes, writers and actors, among others. Why and how does one or a small constellation of public figures stand in for an entire nation and its peoples?

Not since 1986, when ex-President Ferdinand Marcos was exiled to tony Makiki Heights in Hawai'i, has the presence of Filipinos in the U.S. been so apparent. The bad reputation of political graft, corruption, and repression of this U.S. puppet president had corrosive effects for his compatriots at home and abroad. As an unbeatable boxer with incredible talent, social consciousness, and a desire to help his country, Manny was the perfect counterpoint to Marcos.

His attention to the poor and dispossessed brought greater awareness to their plight. He became a congressman to access a pulpit for his concerns -- though he also ushered in family members to public positions, including his wife, to create a political dynasty and strategic alliances for a possible end run to the presidency, Marcos-style.

He is not without controversy. His positions on family, reproductive health, and homosexuality are guided by religious ideology and are deeply conservative, bordering on hate mongering. He's also known for his incredible extravagance as well as his generosity, often bankrolling travel for his large entourage.

Manny will disappoint. He is flawed. But the kind of courage and fight he has brought to his sports and political careers are beacons for others, especially Filipinos. We need more like him, who come out of nowhere and rise to the top, who give voice to the poor, who share what they have with those in need.

It should not be the role of a single person to bring pride and hope to an entire nation and its peoples, but his example will usher in many more.

If he wins his next bout, he will inspire a nation. If he loses, it will signal the slow decline inevitable in a sport that favors the young.

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