Manny Pacquiao: The Philippines’ Barack Obama?

Not since Lapu Lapu killed the colonizer Magellan (April 27, 1521) has there ever been a fighter like Manny Pacquiao.

Pound-for-pound, at 5’6″, 145 pounds, Pacquiao’s the best boxer in the world.  And he’s 100 percent pure Filipino.

All the traits are there.

He’s so religious he sounds like my mother. (“Believe in God, always pray,” he said at the news conference).  At the same time, the guy fights like a harried cock in spurs ready to bloody you to kingdom come.

And on top of it all, there’s that disarming Filipino charm.  The champ exudes charm.

It’s a formula that makes promoter Bob Arum’s jaw drop.

“He’s got a tremendous personality,” Arum told me after the baseball/boxing press conference (See it on this blog’s  first video entry). “He’s very promotable, and he’s become the best fighter in the world. That’s a dynamite combination.”

Arum should know. He had a piece of Oscar de la Hoya, the one time “Golden Boy” whom  Pacquiao turned into salsa and bean dip last December. Now Arum moves forward with Manny without missing a beat, like he’s  punching a speed bag filled with cash.

When I saw Pacquiao totally dominate De la Hoya, I wondered if Manny would ever reach the kind of media prominence that Oscar did with all his endorsements.

After all, at first glance he didn’t appear to have the same Hollywood-style of Oscar, the smooth-talking LA barrio glamour boy.

I mean, he looked like the kind of Filipino immigrant who you walk by everyday on Muni.

But Arum feels Manny’s potential is far greater than Oscar’s.

“We believe Manny has a bigger appeal worldwide than De la Hoya ever had,” Arum said. “Manny is making an impression on the world that Oscar never did. Oscar’s appeal was more regional and national. Big, but not what’s happening with Manny.”

Arum sees Pacquiao’s popularity set to rise like global warming. On May 2nd Manny moves up in class against the Junior Welterweight Champ Ricky Hatton of the UK. Billed as “The Battle of East and West,” the potential payoff to Pacquiao for the Las Vegas fight? A cool $20 million.

It’s just the beginning for a guy with Pacquiao’s irresistible “Everyman” appeal.

Indeed, the cross-promotion with the Giants was a way to test the broader market along with his ethnic base.

How did “Everyman” mesh with “Every Filipino”?

Quite well.

The Giants drew a paid crowd of 39,813 on a warm Tuesday where the ball park felt like Springtime in Manila. Though everyone of Filipino descent in San Francisco County could fill the seats at AT&T, the Giants drew a more than respectable portion of the Bay Area’s estimated 400,000 Filipino population for Heritage night.

There were people like Lynn Lazo, who held her ballpark nachos tightly as she shooked and cheered for the champ as he walked by the third base line.

“He’s the true pride of the Philippines,” said Lazo, 43, from San Francisco, whose parents are from Pampanga in the Philippines. “This is the first game I’ve been to at AT&T Park.”

Where she been all these years? It took the lure of a Manny sighting to bring her out, which has always been the genius of the Giants and their way of making baseball a part of our public existence.

“It’s the park as public square,” Larry Baer, the president of the Giants, remarked to me just before the pre-game festivities when he handed out a $50,000 donation to local Filipino charities.

This was one big lumpia of a night filled with cultural dancers, drummers, Filipino rappers, World War II vets, and elected officials. It was all things Filipino at the ball park.

And kicking it off was the first pitch by an all-Filipino American battery. Lefty Pacquiao took the mound and threw to the catcher, current Cy Young winner and Giants marquee player, Tim Lincecum, himself half-Filipino.

The pitch? If you were a left handed batter, Pacquiao put it low and outside and made you golf it out of the park.  If you were right handed, he would have plunked you in the knee. But it was all good, ending with pitcher and catcher in a warm embrace.

The Filipino thing aside, other sports fans, including athletes themselves marveled at seeing the diminutive Pacquiao move through the stadium with a mini-throng in tow.

“He’s a one man wrecking crew,” Giants’ All-Star reliever Brian Wilson remarked, calling Pacquiao an inspiring force. “He just dominates his sport. And every athlete wants to dominate his sport.”

As the pound-for-pound champ, it’s unclear for how long Pacquiao can continue dominating at the 140 pound weight class. So for the last month or so, the talk has turned from “next fight” to “next stage.”

What’s that stage? Manny loves to sing, as do all Filipinos. His CD comes out in May and his debut single is set to serenade him to the ring for the Hatton fight.

There’s also talk of politics.

Politics? Yes, politics. In the Philippines.  He’s not exactly a neophyte. He had an unsuccessful run a few years back. And his fame is only a help. No other person, in or out of political life has quite captured the imagination of the Filipino people.

He’d have to work on his oratory, of course. But his natural soft-spokenness plays into his natural humility, his populist appeal. He comes off a tad shy in English, but in Tagalog, the guy’s a tiger and in his comfort zone.  He’s already bigger than Marcos, more inspiring than Cory Aquino.  And who’s the president now?

Pacquiao is also as religious as Cardinal Sin. At the press conference, he told a young person, “Believe in God. Always pray…” Just like my mother. Later, Manny told me he prays before and after workouts; goes to mass before and after a fight. After he beat de la Hoya, the first thing Manny did was go to a corner, rosary in hand, for a few seconds of solace.

The majority of Filipinos eat that stuff up. I’m not saying he’s running for Malacanang as his first office. But if  politics is in his future, given the scalawags who have wrecked that country, I’d make Manny odds on right now to get to the top in short order.

Bottom line: As the most popular Filipino on the planet, Pacquiao is the fighter who could be the Philippines’ answer to  Barack Obama.  OK, he didn’t go to Harvard Law or even Ateneo.  Pacquiao’s no elitist.  He’s a true Filipino populist, a man who has fought his way out of the barrio, made himself into something. And now he wants to help.

What can he do? He’s someone who can inspire real hope, change and a belief in the future.

Who else in the Philippines can do that now for its people?