Column: Ambassador Pacman’s boxing diplomacy

Published on June 8, 2010. I forgot to include in my short list in the first paragraph one unexpected encounter with a Pacquiao fan: In Hong Kong, a Sri Lankan war reporter asked me: So, do you know Manny Pacquiao? When I told him that as a matter of fact I had covered a training camp of his in Los Angeles, his eyes lit up, and he started talking, in fascinating detail, of Pacman’s most recent fights.

On business trips in recent weeks, I got a first-hand look at the worldwide fame of Manny Pacquiao. Whether it is a banker in Hong Kong or an airline employee in Jakarta or a taxi driver in Singapore, Pacman is now “top of mind,” when talk comes round to the Philippines.

It was in the last encounter, with a pleasantly loquacious cab driver on the (relatively) long drive to Nanyang Technological University [in Singapore] last Friday, that I began to see a pattern—and an idea began to seize me.

Now, like any journalist, I’m a little wary of cab driver stories, because drivers are quite adept at tailor-fitting their stories to the (perceived) needs of their transitory audience. This one, however, was different.

He spoke of Pacquiao as a true fan, and dismissed Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s drug-test demands as unreasonable, and perhaps a sign of cowardice. (Okay. On this point, I have to admit, I had the sneaking suspicion that he may have been merely humoring his passenger.) But he discussed Pacquiao’s fights with genuine knowledge, and listening to him talk I realized that Pacquiao is now truly the world’s most famous Filipino—and that he is good for our image abroad.

Perhaps the next administration can turn this fact to our collective advantage?

I have seen Pacquiao in training camp; it is an impressive experience, in part because of the furious energy he throws into his training, and in part because the strategizing and the discipline that have made Pacquiao the all-time great that he is today are on living display. (To be sure, the role of Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s Parkinson’s-hobbled but Hall-of-Fame-bound coach, cannot be overestimated.)

What if the Philippines harnesses this phenomenon, to practice a kind of boxing diplomacy? In the few instances when President Noynoy Aquino does travel abroad, he can invite Pacquiao to conduct a boxing clinic—as a way to engage the youth (and the children of host-presidents), but also as a means to get front-page media attention in cluttered media markets.

A Pacquiao boxing clinic will draw in the crowds in Hong Kong or Jakarta or Singapore, or indeed anywhere else where boxing is followed. It will impress upon the audience, not only that a fellow Asian, a physically small man by Western standards, is the best boxer in the world (indeed, American boxing writers just voted Pacquiao “Fighter of the Decade”); but also that greatness in this brutal sport is not a matter of brute strength, but grace and speed, strategy and patience.

It will attract the kind of media mileage that presidential visits from developing countries cannot even hope to achieve. And it will be good for our image.

* * *

A pet peeve of mine is Filipinos-who-ought-to-know-better making fun of Pacquiao’s Bisaya accent. But as I’ve written before, he makes logical sense. So does five-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal. But I don’t know of any Filipino who makes fun of Rafa’s accent, or indeed his grammatically challenged English. After winning the French Open last Sunday, for instance, he said: “After this tournament last year was a difficult year, and I worked a lot to be here. I was very nervous during all the tournament, because I know before that I was ready to try to win another time. And I saw the chances there.”

We get what he’s saying, despite elisions and mistaken tenses. Same thing with Pacquiao— except that, as Time magazine suggested in its cover story on him, accents are the last taboo.

* * *

The cab driver and I had time to discuss English, of all things. (Like I said, it was a relatively long ride.) He said he wasn’t any good at it, having flunked it in school. Then he said: I can read English, but when I read “I cannot visualize” what I’m reading, “I don’t have the right perspective.” (The quotes are word for word.) When I pointed out to him that somebody who uses “visualize” and “perspective” in the same sentence couldn’t possibly be poor in English, he laughed out loud, and then said, Maybe I’ve improved a little!

* * *

At the National Library in Singapore, I found a copy, in near-perfect condition, of “Farthest Westing: A Philippine Footnote,” the selected letters of Rizal biographer Austin Craig and his sister Josephine. (It’s not exactly a rare book, I know, but this 1940 original looked almost as good as new.)

A passage from a letter of Austin’s, about the use of English in the Philippines, struck me as well worth looking into, sometime in the future. The letter is dated Aug. 20, 1931: “The adoption of English in the Philippines was largely the work of Rizal’s brother, General Paciano Rizal Mercado, who followed Rizal’s idea that the people ought to know the language of the sovereign power so as to be able to understand the laws and to argue against injustices. In the Orient, it was a radical step forward …”

* * *

Priests who teach in school suffer from a unique occupational hazard. They end up celebrating their students’ wedding Masses, or baptizing their students’ children, or (surely the saddest burden of all) officiating at their students’ funerals. Former teachers and old friends, Fr. Mac Reyes and Fr. Rene Javellana, fulfilled that unfortunate duty the other week, and their former students or “guidance counsellees” are deeply grateful.

Another good friend, Fr. James Castro, marked his 13th anniversary as a Claretian missionary priest last May 31. His gift was a request for more prayers. “I am not worthy to be His servant yet He has chosen me,” he texted friends and relatives. It is this essential humility, I am convinced, that lies at the core of a true vocation.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics, Readings in Religion, Readings in Rizal

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