Column: Pacman, Bisdak!

An example, I guess, of what Frank Kermode calls “knocking copy.” Sad to say, I had too much fun writing this. Published November 17, 2009.

I find myself agreeing with my friend Billy Esposo so often that I thought it might be instructive, and fun, to discuss a subject where we disagree. In two columns last December, Billy made the case that the Pacquiao-De la Hoya fight was not the great fight it was made out to be.

On Dec. 18, he wrote: “It’s true that the fight turned out to be a mismatch. But a great fight it never was. To herald that bout as one of boxing’s finest encounters is to further promote the lies and illusions that victimize this nation.” On Dec. 23, emboldened by sympathetic feedback from his readers, he raised the stakes: “The positive responses were reassurances that there are many Filipinos out there who are not idiots, defined as those who do not know the truth. They were not fooled by the hype of these big boxing fights.”

In less than a week, the poor Filipino fan of that “Dream Match” had degenerated from “victim” to “idiot.”

I want to be clear on one point, before I go on: There is more than one way to define a great fight in boxing. Billy thinks there is only one definition. The following sentence from his first column is representative: “Ali-Frazier III [perhaps the most famous fight of all, the ‘Thrilla in Manila’] was a great fight because both combatants were capable of knocking out each other.” In other words, a great fight is a dust-up, “actual ferocious ring combat,” in Billy’s words, with the outcome uncertain.

As a boxing fan, I think Billy is missing half of the picture; some fights end up as classics because they turn out to be the unexpected revelation of power or athletic grace. The Ali-Foreman fight in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire is a great fight because it showed an older fighter using superior smarts and skill to defeat—in that thrilling, unforgettable eighth round—the most feared heavyweight before the coming of Mike Tyson.

Eleven months after the “Dream Match,” I am even more convinced that Pacquiao’s unexpected domination, his methodical demolition, of De la Hoya in Las Vegas will be regarded as a great fight in the second sense: The demonstration of a great warrior’s fighting gift.

One of Billy’s readers, quoted in his second column, wrote an “analysis” of such beguiling stupidity it is worth quoting at some length. The following passage all but accuses Team Pacquiao of selecting only the easy fights, and then makes a fearless forecast. “Undoubtedly Pacquiao is a great boxer—however, it seems his handlers wanted to insure this ‘goldmine’ keeps on winning fights. This was why they have been arranging match-ups with has-beens who were crowd-drawers in their prime but have either retired or about to retire. And it is also for this reason why I think they will skip Ricky Hatton this time because the guy is still in his prime.”

If you will allow me, I would like to borrow Billy’s choice diction: Only an idiot could have written that.

With the singular exception of De la Hoya, Pacquiao fought the best of his era when they were at the peak of their Hall of Fame-bound careers: Barrera in 2003 and 2007, Marquez in 2004 and 2008, Morales in 2005 and twice in 2006—and of course Hatton and Cotto in 2009. That today these gallant warriors look past their prime (with the possible exception of Marquez) is partly Pacquiao’s doing—that is why the talk about Pacquiao has now shifted from pound-for-pound to all-time-great.

As for De la Hoya, many boxing analysts thought, going into the fight, that even at that late stage in his career he was simply too big, too strong, too savvy for a small man like Manny Pacquiao.

Perhaps because he has had his share of manufacturing hype, in his stellar career in advertising and marketing, Billy thinks all the excitement over the Pacquiao-De la Hoya fight was “created more by media hype.”

I wonder if he still thinks the same way. Like other media consumers who respect the power of the iconic image, he places a great value on the Time cover: he has written more than once about Cory Aquino appearing, famously, in that space. (She was Person of the Year in 1986.) But could Pacquiao have followed in Cory’s path and landed on the cover of the Asian edition of Time magazine if he had not beaten De la Hoya, and pushed him into retirement?

De la Hoya, when he fought Pacquiao, was boxing’s true superstar. He was the one boxer viewers in the world’s biggest media market could be counted on to watch in large numbers; thus, like a coronation, Pacquiao’s complete victory over him represented a transfer of power. Boxing fans knew it, advertisers and sponsors knew it—and Pacquiao himself knew it.

Pacquiao considers the “Dream Match” to be the biggest fight of his career. Does that make him victim or idiot?

* * *

I still smart when I hear educated Filipinos joke about Pacquiao’s “atrocious” English. What they mean is that he does not have the American twang of a radio DJ or a call center agent. But parse his words; he makes sense. If grammar or idiom alone were to be the gauge of the intelligent use of spoken English in an international context, why don’t educated Filipinos make fun of Rafael Nadal’s fractured English? Because, well, he’s Spanish—not Bisaya.

The Time cover story provocatively raises this issue of accent: “What would they think of someone who pronounces everything as eebreeting? Snobbery is the unvoiced rationale behind some of the opposition to Pacquiao’s political ambitions: He’s not really one of us.” There you have it, the last taboo.

We Bisaya like to indulge ourselves in verbal humor; we call ourselves “BisDak,” for instance, a pungent shortcut for “Bisayang Dako.” Idiomatically, this means a real or home-grown Bisaya. But with Manny, we’ll settle for another meaning: Bisaya, writ large.

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