Manny Pacquiao is the Philippines.
And on the social Web -- where the often overlooked Filipino diaspora gather on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube -- today is Manny Pacquiao Day, when the 5-foot-6-inch boxer faces Puerto Rico's Miguel Cotto for a welterweight title at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Win or lose (and, for my money, he'll win), the 30-year-old Pacquiao has already secured his spot in boxing history. To his fans, he's "Pac-Man", "the fighting pride of the Philippines," "the best pound-for-pound professional boxer," "The Mexicutioner" -- referring to his wins over Mexican boxers Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez and Oscar De La Hoya.
No other boxer comes close, right now, to matching his popularity online.
On Facebook, the three biggest Manny Pacquiao fan pages total 350,000 members. On his official fan page, fans leave comments such as: "Manny, you are definitely a national treasure, here in Canada, your fellow Filipinos are so proud."
On Twitter, dozens of tweets come by the second. At 12:45 a.m. Saturday a user named BatJay, who describes himself as "an overseas filipino worker in california" in his Twitter feed, wrote: "nagluto ako ng chicken-pork adobo. para sa pacquiao party bukas. sobrang sarap - kailangang manalo si pacquiao para di masayang." (Translation: "I just cooked chicken-pork abodo" -- a popular Filipino stew -- "for tomorrow's Pacquiao party. It's very good. Pacquiao needs to win so it doesn't go to waste.")
Pacquiao's sit-down interview on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show early this month has become one of the most viewed clips on the show's YouTube channel. What's more striking than the online views, though, was the rousing audience that greeted the visibly shy Pacquiao -- a room full of of Filipinos. I'd never seen so many Filipino faces on American TV.
Numbering at a little under 4 million, according to recent figures, Filipinos make up about 1 percent of the American population. In some estimates, there are more Filipino Americans than Chinese Americans in the U.S. -- a shocking figure considering how under-represented Filipinos are in mainstream American culture. We are, in a way, an invisible minority, faceless and nameless and lacking an identity. There's more to Filipinos than a man who can throw punches in a ring, of course, but Pacquaio's success, in ways big and small, has unified and validated a sizable minority group from a country that, with 92 million people, is the 12th most populous in the world, just one spot under Mexico.
There's Pacquiao's naked torso on ESPN Magazine's Body Issue. There's Pacquiao on Forbes' list of the world's highest-paid athletes, ranking 6th and hauling about $40 million from the second half of 2008 to the first half of 2009. There's Pacquaio on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world. (To which my aunt Aida Rivera quipped, after flipping through the pages and finding the article: "Why is his write-up so short? Why is his photo so small?") A few months ago, during my grandmother's first trip to New York City, Pacquiao's face plastered on a billboard in Times Square stopped her dead in her tracks. "Pacquiao! Pacquiao!" she shrieked.
His is a rags-to-riches story. One of six kids, he grew up so poor in General Santos City, in the southern part of the Philippines, that he could only attend elementary school. Fighting was a way of life, survival the only option. "Kapit sa patalim," as Filipinos would say. Hold on to a knife blade. Do what you need to do to survive. He made his debut in pro boxing in 1995, rose up the ranks in Southeast Asia, then finally broke into the U.S. Market. He's trained by Freddie Roach, who previously coached De La Hoya and Mike Tyson.
In describing Pacquiao's fighting style in an insightful article in the latest Time magazine, Roach said: "He'll throw a combination at you. You'll think he's done, but then he'll keep pounding you. You'll think he's done, but then he'll keep pounding you. And there's not a dense hardness to his punch. It just jumps on you. It explodes."
And he continues to explode. His Wikipedia article is almost as lengthy, just as detailed and has more footnotes than the one featuring the president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
*** Watch Pacquiao's interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live! ***
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