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On a Saturday night in May 2009, I was alone in my apartment and surprised when my Twitter feed exploded with updates of the same, seemingly anachronistic event: a boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton.
A publicist I knew in Toronto wrote: What would Manny P do? A hipster friend in Texas tweeted: I wouldn’t trade places with Ricky Hatton’s jaw for all the Maker’s in Williamsburg. Mariah Carey observed: Pon de seats in the arena then This is really violent and then Woah. And then perhaps most strangely, several feminist critics wrote: Tagalog phrase: NANALO SI MANNY. English translation: MANNY WON.
Boxing is a disgusting sport, my mother always says. It’s all rich people watching poor people punch each other to death. Boxers aren’t poor, I say. Some get millions of dollars a match. But my mother is insistent. Look at tennis, look at golf, she says. Those are rich men’s sports; they don’t have to beat each other in the face. Yet for some reason, everyone I knew, from a vast variety of ideological backgrounds, had simultaneously fallen in love with a Filipino boxer who turns a coarse sport new again. On Saturday night, Pacquiao fights for the first time since May, in a hotly anticipated pay-per-view bout against Juan Manuel Marquez, a fighter he has battled twice before — the first bout ended in a draw; Pacquiao took the rematch, but barely.
Pacquiao makes boxing lovable by being lovable: He overcame immense poverty to become an international phenomenon worth millions. He is monstrously fast in the ring. He named his newborn Queen Elizabeth just because he likes Queen Elizabeth. He is humble and sweet-faced and appears amazed by his own success.
But dig deeper and you see something else about Pacquiao that is an unexpected gift. For Asians and Filipinos who were born and live in the West, Pacquiao offers a space where a diasporic people can feel closer to somewhere hardly ever seen. For a few hours they are united with all the other Asians in the world hunkered down in Pacquiao caps, socks and hoodies, trying not to gnaw off the rim of their beer glasses. Pacquiao closes a distance of thousands of miles so that they are at home.
That night in Toronto, it was just spring, the city still gasping from the end of winter. At an uptown bar called Sports Centre Cafe, all 50-plus flat-screen TVs pulsed with the golden words Pacquiao versus Hatton, over the side-profiles of the men in a stare-down, their triceps, pectorals and latissimus dorsi rippling. Fans huddled in huge clots, vibrating with anticipation. Max, the tweeting publicist, was there with a group of about 30, some of whom he’d known since he was small. He’d even brought his dad.
Max and his friends almost always get together on weekend nights to drink beer, argue about Israel and Palestine, debate whether or not Kim Kardashian is white, and watch sports. Max is excitable, a short stocky bundle of vociferation and enthusiasm, but this night his nerves kept him quiet. Hannah, a community health worker specializing in women’s health — not your typical fight-night spectator — was at the bar with Max. She first heard of Pacquiao at her grandmother’s funeral in 2004, when half the mourners retreated to the kitchen to watch TV. All of a sudden, they began screaming and hooting. They were watching Pacquiao fight. I ask if anyone was disapproving of sports fandom at a funeral. Hannah is emphatic, “Not at all. It was the death of a grandma … and the birth of Pacquiao. It was totally acceptable,” she says, “because he was Filipino, and because he won.”
It is not just that Pacquiao is Filipino — and classically, undoubtedly so, all the way down to his shameless adoration for karaoke and tendency to belt out George Benson hits on late-night American talk shows — it is that he is Filipino and he is Great. Pacquiao goes past Filipinoness or Asianness, rousing transracial unity for anyone who has a reason to back the ethnic underdog. Kai is black, and out of Max’s social group of publishing types and lawyers, stands out as the one with the most glamorous job — he is an actual rocket scientist. He says, “Pacquiao’s being nonwhite definitely was appealing for me. Not just that, but being from a third-world country and the fact that he came from struggle. So I kind of supported him in solidarity.”
Pacquiao has broken records and the laws of science, jumping through six weight classes to win seven world titles. This is the language of boxing, but all you need to know is this: Pacquiao is X-Man fast, flattening opponents experts say should destroy him. When Pacquiao was scheduled to fight Oscar De La Hoya – sports superstar and Pacquiao’s idol – in late 2008, commentators said the fight was a mistake. The idea of the matchup, an English sports writer said, made him queasy. De La Hoya is going to kill Pacquiao. What happened instead stunned the boxing world. By the eighth round, De La Hoya’s beautiful face was a mess of swollen purples. The crowd was a solid wall of unison: MAN-NEE MAN-NEE. As Oscar sat on his stool before the ninth round, his trainer Nacho Beristain, beseeched him, “There is no reason to continue with this. He is just too fast for you.” The fight was stopped before De La Hoya got truly pulped. The fans in the stadium were beside themselves.
If you are not a boxing fan, this description may not do it for you. Yuck, my mother would say, how is it a talent to destroy another man’s face? But this is where Pacquiao’s true appeal comes in. As Beristain announced his decision, Pacquiao ran to the middle of the ring and threw his arms around De La Hoya’s neck. This was the end of De La Hoya’s boxing career. The men swayed like slow dancers as their teams begin to swarm, like brothers-in-arms embracing for the last time. Then Pacquiao pushed passed the melee, falling to his knees in his corner to pray, his gloves cupped around his face like he was telling the post a secret. His team members reached through the ropes, trying to touch him, caress his head, hold his arms. The names tattooed to his arm, of his wife Jinkee, and his children, Jimuel, Michael and Princess, glistened under the sheen of sweat and the flashbulbs of the hysterical arena. And then Pacquiao squeezed his way back to De La Hoya to hug him again, ignoring attempts by legendary boxing analyst Larry Merchant to begin the post-fight interview. “You’re still my idol,” Manny said to Oscar, “No matter what happens, you’re still my idol.” “No,” Oscar said, “Now you’re my idol.”
In a sport defined by violence and the joyful arrogance of boxers like Muhammad Ali, Pacquiao is a weirdo. He is a sweetheart. His most famous body part, after his left fist, is his smile. In narrating his weigh-ins, boxing analysts appear to be speaking of an infant rather than a prize fighter, “And oh, there it is. There’s that smile. Look at that smile.” Equally compelling is Pacquiao’s origin story. The poverty of the Global South that Pacquiao came from is unimaginable to some American boxing fans, where Manny’s single mother was among the poorest of the poor in the world. Now GQ tells thick-growing fables of Pacquiao’s generosity: A man in his camp stole a huge amount of money from him, but Pacquiao simply forgave him, which led several members of his team to believe in God. On his 31st birthday he held a karaoke party for 3,000.
A Schwarzenegger-esque twist in “Pacman’s” story: In May 2010, Pacquiao won a seat in the Philippine Congress, by a landslide. Pacquiao’s logic for entering politics is typically charming — “I cannot turn my back on the poor … I don’t want to be just your boxing idol. I also want be your idol in public service.” My friend Janine, a poet and a Ph.D. candidate who was born in the Philippines, is not as starry-eyed about this win as Max and his friends. She asks, with some contempt, how getting hit in the head qualifies someone for government. But when I took Janine to her first Pacquiao fight last May, her logic dissolved. On a bar stool at Buffalo Wild Wings, a fan awoke. Janine covered her eyes when Shane Mosley upset Pacquiao’s balance and then yelled “That’s my guy!” when Pacquiao rallied. “I can’t explain it,” she said somewhere around the eighth round, “I’m just inexplicably drawn to him.” She gazed happily at the television screen.
For Asian fans, there is something exceptionally thrilling about Pacquiao: the joy of seeing ourselves whenever he is on TV. During an interview on “The Jimmy Kimmel Show” in 2010, Pacquiao sang “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You,” for no reason really, other than that he wanted to. I was transfixed by his warbling; he employed the exact same karaoke style as my Singaporean uncles. I had never seen such a comforting, familiar and unabashed presentation of Asianness on American TV.
It was as if the promoters of the Pacquiao-Hatton fight were goading on this ethnic rivalry. Throughout the lackluster undercard matches, the slogan of the main event kept flashing in different iterations: war of the worlds. battle of East and West. Or as Ryan put it, colonizer and colonized (though to be fair, the Philippines was colonized by Spain, not England). This was a bout underscored by nationality and ethnicity, even though boxing rivals fight simply for their name, not country. Pacquiao’s logo uses the rays and sun of the Philippines’ flag. Ricky Hatton’s trunks were cosseted by a sequined, tasselled Union Jack.
Boxing has always been about race. Sports in general are deeply racially coded, which is why Tiger Woods and Yao Ming are such fascinating figures. Colin, one of Max’s crew, tells me that boxing is history, a mirror of race relations across the decades. He recounts the story of Jack Johnson, a black heavyweight champion from the earliest days of boxing. White champions refused to fight Johnson, depriving him of a chance at the big titles. Then, when Johnson finally fought — and beat — the undefeated white heavyweight champion on July 4, 1910, race riots erupted across the U.S. Police interrupted multiple attempted lynchings. By the end of the night, the body count was at 25 — 23 of them black. As the title of a 2005 documentary about Johnson states, Johnson was “unforgivably black.” Colin is black and white, not Filipino, but he has enough Asian and Filipino friends to provide an analysis of what Pacquiao means. “Asian men aren’t usually shown as very masculine or athletic in mainstream media. So his rise is their rise. Pacquiao potentially knocking out Hatton, a white guy, is all the more significant.”
If Pacquiao could beat Hatton, it would undo — for at least a moment — the prevalent stereotype that Asian masculinity is limp and feeble; a stereotype that has dogged Asians in American pop culture for decades, and continues still today.
Asian men in movies and television are portrayed as Korean grocery store owners silenced by English, bumbling call center operatives or stereotypical comic book nerds. There’s the ubiquitous image of the Asian man as effeminate and emasculated like “The Big Bang Theory’s” Raj, or sexually stupid like Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles.” American pop culture in general seems uncomfortable with Asian men’s sexuality. When Hong Kong megastars like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yuen-Fatt tried to break into Hollywood in the late ’90s, they were repeatedly cast in awkwardly platonic relationships with American sexpots like Mira Sorvino and Aaliyah. Even a decade later, after Asian-American heartthrobs like Daniel Dae Kim, Asian men are still the butt of the joke in movies deeply concerned with manliness. In 2009’s “The Hangover,” Ken Jeong plays an Asian gangster named Mr. Chow who enters the scene by jumping naked out of a car trunk, and then spends the rest of the movie striking homophobic panic in audiences worldwide.
These stereotypes seem to loom in the minds of these friends. Instead of a picture of his face, Max’s brother Christian has a photo of his wife’s chest as his Facebook picture, with the words “Everyone Loves an Asian Boy” dancing across her bosom. Colin claims Anthony is morbidly obsessed with the number of Asian women he sees with white men on the street. Ryan admits that seething over that “white guy Asian girl thing” comes from a bad place and that as a younger man he struggled to get over this anger. But this anger comes from real pain; from hearing, day-in-day-out, that Asian men cannot be strong, sexy or desirable.
I wonder if Pacquiao, as a Filipino from the Philippines, knows what he means to Asian-American men; if he is well-versed in the American racial landscape, or the excruciating immigration histories that shape it. For almost 100 years, the U.S. and Canada both created laws to make Chinese people – the largest group of Asian migrants – illegal, starting with mandatory head taxes and a “pigtail ordinance,” up to a total ban on immigration from China, which lasted until 1943 in the U.S. and 1947 in Canada. Even before the ban, Asian men who immigrated to North America could not bring their wives or families, to prevent the growth of an Asian American population. These men often only had access to jobs that culture associated with women, like running laundromats and restaurants. And the only way Asian women could come to the West was as chattel: as sex workers or mail-order brides. This history has echoes that affect even Asian folks like me, whose families came to North America long after 1947. Things are different today, but it has been only a few decades since the laws shifted, and attitudes are slower to move. Hence Asian men are sex comedy, Asian women are sex property; on one side of the coin you have Mr. Chow, on the other you have yellow fever.
Max says one of the things he loves about the Age of Pacquiao is seeing black guys in Pacquiao shirts and gear. When I ask why, he says, “Man, I been copping black athletes’ gear for what, 20 years?” “Cross-cultural solidarity,” Ryan says. “Straight up,” Max says.
It is Colin’s happiness at seeing a bona fide, nonfictional Asian hero for his friends that draws him to Manny. When I ask the group if they think it’s OK to experience enjoyment at the sight of an Asian man beating a white man, Aruna, Christian and Anthony search for a tactful response. But Colin says, “Doesn’t it sort of feel gratifying though? I’m just thinking of all the times we’ve seen Asian men emasculated, and I just think Pacquiao can be symbolic of Asian pride. It’s kind of cool and satisfying to see one of us — ” Colin stops to correct himself here, pointing out that he can’t say “us” because he’s not Asian. But it’s clear that Pacquiao means something to him directly, not just via his friends. He continues, “For me, when Obama won the presidency, it was one of the greatest moments of my life: to see a black guy, a biracial guy reach the highest levels. You can dispute Obama’s policies or whatever, but seeing that win, I cherish that. I don’t think it’s wrong to necessarily feel a little pride, a little racial pride maybe, in seeing Pacquiao knock out a white guy out.” He pauses dramatically. “He put that guy to sleep.” Everyone laughs.
Boxing is honest about the thirst for blood that other sports obscure with penalty boxes. Its attraction is its simplicity — two players as opposed to the 20-odd of many team sports — the ease with which we can turn it into a clear narrative with heroes and villains. The appeal is instant, if you can get over the brutality and the mutilated septums. Maybe boxing gets its continuous staying power from the universal draw of a good story, when the two-dimensional masculinity and tightly held virility that once gave boxing its shine are outmoded. (Sort of.)
In Manny’s story, the villain is Floyd.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the antithesis of Manny Pacquiao. Mayweather seems to sunbathe in his own fast-talking cockiness. He has never been defeated, a fact that he is quick to relay to any microphone that finds itself in his face. During a September 2011 fight, Floyd’s opponent, Victor Ortiz, made the ill-considered decision to butt Floyd in the head. As Ortiz continued to say sorry after the bell rang to restart the round, Floyd sucker punched Ortiz in the middle of his apology, knocking him out and winning the fight. When Larry Merchant suggested during the post-fight interview that Floyd had taken advantage of Ortiz, Floyd shouted, “You never give me a fair shake! HBO needs to fire you! You don’t know shit about boxing! You ain’t shit!” Merchant lost his journalistic cool. “I wish I was 50 years younger,” Merchant screamed, “and I’d kick your ass!”
Personality aside, Mayweather is the other Best Boxer in the World, and fans are desperate for a Pacquiao vs. Mayweather showdown that will establish, once and for all, the true champion. Pacquiao began negotiations to fight Mayweather in late 2009. Then Mayweather requested Olympic-style drug testing for the match: random blood testing leading up into the week of the fight, on top of the official testing required by the boxing commission. Pacquiao refused. He said that having his blood drawn so close to the fight date would weaken him. Boxing went bananas. Negotiations stopped, started and stopped: years have passed and the fight still hasn’t happened. Fanbases remain balkanized, and the Internet screams that Mayweather is just a coward and a bully who can’t bear to be defeated. Or Pacquiao is a dope user and his superstition about blood drawing shows just how backwards this foreigner is.
Just before Christmas 2009, while the rest of the guys discussed whether or not sneakers were against the dress code at the club where they had New Year’s plans, Christian, Max and Kai got into one of the first of countless heated arguments over Mayweather and Pacquiao. At one point Kai looked to Colin, the only other black guy at the table to back him up. “Sorry guy, I’m neutral,” Colin said.
While Kai says there is still a lot to like about Pacquiao, he contends that Manny is shady and lied about why he didn’t want to do the drug test. And Christian and Max, according to Kai, are too blinded by their Pacquiao love to see Kai’s logic. Christian and Max say Kai is just fronting, and he actually likes Pacquiao. They say Kai only pretends to defend Mayweather because he’s “a contrarian” and because he “feels the need to defend every black public figure.”
When Kai says that Pacquiao and his team capitalize on things that Mayweather “would never have gotten away with,” I ask if he means that Mayweather as a black man cannot get away with what Pacquiao as an Asian man can get away with.
Despite the fact that Asians are an enormous community, the perception that they are soft-spoken and submissive, and therefore a “model minority” preferred by the white ruling classes, can create rifts among communities of color. It is ridiculous to state that over 2 billion people share a deferential nature; yet in the case of Manny, the irony is that the description fits. All the Pacquiao fans at my disposal describe him as incorrigibly gentle. Ryan says, “He is a tough guy within the ring, and that confronts stereotypes about Asians, but outside of that he seems sort of nonthreatening, and maybe that fulfills a stereotype. But that’s because he just does him.” Yet contrast this with the way African Americans are stereotyped and how Mayweather appears — loud, arrogant, violent — and when two boxers who both match a racial bill come up against each other, it’s war. In an echo of the Jack Johnson treatment, perhaps Pacquiao is forgivably Asian. But neither being forgiven nor unforgiven for your ethnicity seems so hot.
It is difficult to tell how much of the feud between Kai and Max is for real. The boys-of-color solidarity that buttresses their friendship is complicated by the truth that their ethnic experiences are parallel, but definitely not the same. Max and Christian call Floyd “Fraud” and “Gayweather.” Kai calls Pacquiao “Saint Pacbot” and “Princess Pacroid.” Max says Kai has no radar for sarcasm. Kai says the pot is calling the kettle Asian.
In a simpler time, everyone is watching as finally, Pacquiao and Hatton arrive in the arena. Some white Hatton fans near Aruna, Anthony and Hannah are making comments about “pilipinos” and “pinoys.” The friends ignore them and Aruna refuses to acknowledge the British national anthem. The bell for the first round rings. Ryan’s friend Joseph, an eccentric who owns an iguana named Shelley, keeps screaming “Here we go boys!” In the arena the onscreen crowd is chanting “MAN-NEE MAN-NEE.” The noise crescendoes and garbles and turns into the Ricky Hatton song which goes, “OooooOOOOoooo Ricky Hatton, OooOOOOooOOoo Ricky Hatton.”
Pacman and Hatton spin around the ring in a whirligig of limbs. The referee separates them, and then he separates them again. At one minute to the end of the round, Pacquiao knocks Hatton down. Hatton’s mouth opens in shock as his feet leave the mat. Joseph begins yelling, “It’s done son! It’s done son!” even though Hatton is clearly getting to his feet. Hatton resumes bouncing on the balls of his feet, looking unfazed. But Pacquiao is too fast. “He’s eating it!” Ryan yells as Pacquiao’s glove connects with Hatton’s face. The British boxing analysts cry, “This looks so bad for poor Ricky Hatton!” At five seconds till the end of the round, Pacquiao knocks Hatton down again, who gets to his feet once more as the bell rings.
“I felt conflicted seeing Hatton down,” Aruna said later — “he was a good guy.” Hatton starts backing away from Pacquiao, on the tips of his toes, as if he is always about to fall over backwards. Now everybody in the bar is on their feet, one large organism reacting with a single OH! every time Pacquiao’s glove crunches Hatton’s face. It is as if Hatton’s gloves are full of sand. And then at eight seconds until the end of the second round, Pacquiao catches Hatton in the jaw. Hatton goes down like a push-button umbrella. He lies flat on the canvas, landing with his arms above his head. And then his arms retract neatly to his sides, as if he is settling in for a peaceful nap. The referee doesn’t even bother with the count. Six minutes into the event, the fight is over.
The Sports Centre Cafe detonates. A drumming sound like the onset of monsoon rain swells as people slap their hands against the low ceiling, literally hitting the roof. Max runs around the room, giving all the Filipinos he can find high fives. Joseph buys a round of drinks for a table of random Filipinos. Anthony notes that even the Hatton fans, bummed out as they are, are applauding out of respect. The screen begins to run replays, and the crowd cheers all over again. Mariah Carey tweets Woah.
“We knew he would win,” they all say, “but we just didn’t think it would be so fast.”
GQ quotes a boxing reporter for the Philippine Star who talks about how Pacquiao’s riches mean that he can live wherever he wants in the world. Necessity drives 3,000 Filipinos a day away from the Philippines to work overseas; the global economy has turned the Philippines into a country that is used to being left. Yet Manny has elected to stay. “Not just in the Philippines,” the reporter says. “In his hometown. The place he started. You cannot understand how this has stunned us Filipinos. That Manny Pacquiao chose us.”
Because in the end, this is the reason for the pure, tears-in-the-throat elation that he inspires. He is Manny Pacquiao — ultra-human boxer, colonized defeater of the colonizer, archetypal Asian man karaoke singer — and he belongs to us.
Thea Lim is a nonfiction editor at Gulf Coast and former deputy editor of Racialicious. Follow her on twitter: @theapants.More Thea Lim.