Manny Pacquiao for president?

In the twilight of the twilight, Manny Pacquiao is doing the same things in the same place. The autograph hunters still gather outside Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles, crowding into the shopping plaza at the corner of Santa Monica and Vine. The workouts inside resemble those from 10 years ago, right down to the bamboo stick that’s jabbed into his abdomen.

The differences now, though, are striking and important. They speak both to why he’s still fighting and why that choice is dangerous—even more than usual, in the most dangerous of sports. They illuminate the boxer’s future plans, on horizons near and far. And they point to grand political ambitions, even beyond the senatorial office he’s held since 2016. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that when he meets Yordenis Ugas for a welterweight crown on Saturday in Las Vegas, there’s more at stake than boxing legacy.

Like, potentially, the presidency of the Philippines.

Pacquiao is 42 years old now, hair graying at the temples. His entourage is smaller, stripped of most everyone beyond the core. A champion in eight divisions, winner of 62 bouts and fighter of the decade more than a decade ago, he can seem like a boxer with nothing left to fight for. But that’s not exactly true, especially now.

After a July workout in L.A., he says God has higher plans for him. He has not yet announced that he will run for president—the election is scheduled for next May—but he has overtly signalled his intentions, releasing commercials on YouTube that look like the start of a campaign. He also told Sports Illustrated, “I’m destined to be there.”

And that’s exactly why the last few months took a complicated turn, one that pitted Pacquiao against a powerful former political ally and led him to take a fight against Errol Spence Jr. that many believed he would lose. Spence was forced to withdraw due to a torn retina in his left eye. But the sentiment, the why-now-why-again for Pacquiao remains: He is fighting more for his political future than his boxing legacy—both this weekend and beyond.

To explain that landscape, from Pacquiao’s presidential chances to the obstacles in front of him, Antonio Trillanes IV takes a Zoom call from the Philippines. A retired officer in the Navy, he served as a senator from 2007 to ’19, emerging as a primary critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration and accusing politicians of stealing money from public coffers and calling the president’s drug war policy a state-sanctioned murder campaign against poor people.

Many Filipinos view Trillanes as a controversial figure; he led coup attempts against Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s government in 2003 and ’07. Post-Senate, he’s still not backing down, trying to explain politics in the Philippines to a Western audience that doesn’t understand the terrain. Not that Western politics make all that much sense to begin with. The point is: They’re not the same.

“Of course it’s possible,” Trillanes says of PacMan’s chances. “But there are many factors getting in the way.”

Start with the cancelled fight against Spence, a mainstay near the top of boxing’s pound-for-pound rankings and an opponent even Pacquiao had called “perhaps the most difficult of my career.” Should Spence have throttled, retired or even simply beaten Pacquiao, Trillanes did not think the boxer would have mounted a run.

Still, a massive upset over Spence would have given Pacquiao momentum and a relevance boost; a win over Ugas, even a knockout, is not likely to mean as much. A loss either way would have hampered, if not ended, a presidential bid; a loss to Ugas, a solid opponent but not a high-risk or particularly sought-after one, would hurt Pacquiao’s chances even more.

Even then, say Pacquiao beats Ugas and garners what can be garnered in way of support and fanfare. Because of his ongoing feud with Duterte, he has been stripped of his title as president of PDP-Laban, the ruling party that features a fist in the centre of its insignia. Meaning, unless his status changes, he would need to run as an independent or switch parties, which is common in the Philippines and which Pacquiao has done numerous times before.

It’s possible Pacquiao could gather enough support within the party and reinstall himself as its leader. But that’s unlikely. If he did try some sort of appeal, Trillanes notes that the Commission on Elections is governed by Duterte appointees. Plus, there’s also roughly only a month between the Ugas matchup and the due date for the first certificates Pacquiao must file to make a presidential run official.

(One current senator in the Philippines—there are 24 total, including Pacquiao—also spoke to SI, but on background and to confirm details. That senator was granted anonymity because they said they feared for their safety and career retribution. The details in this story were confirmed by at least two people with direct knowledge of the political landscape in the Philippines.)

Say Pacquiao wins, and say he files, then Trillanes says the expectation among politicians in the Philippines is that the Filipino champion will try to make a fight with Terence Crawford later this year, to give his campaign another boost. This would present logistical challenges, in a sport where the most-anticipated bout of this generation—Mayweather-Pacquiao—took six years for managers to negotiate the terms. Plus, Spence has stated his desire to face the winner of Pacquiao-Ugas. Let’s assume, for the purposes of this political hypothetical, that Spence’s wish is the most likely to be granted.

Say Pacquiao topples Ugas in spectacular fashion, is able to make the Spence fight happen in only a few months and then claims an emphatic, against-all-odds victory—a scenario that seems improbable, an unrealistic best case. That’s his best chance to become president of the Philippines next May, or, at least, a sequence that would significantly improve his odds.

Like all things political in the Philippines, Pacquiao’s relationship with Duterte is complicated and grounded less in policy than in political aspirations, expediency and self-preservation. Their history, intertwined and undone by those exact factors, is the strange saga of how two powerful men—once friendly, now not—arrived here, sniping about politics in relation to a boxing match.

Duterte campaigned in 2016 on fighting corruption, crime and illegal narcotics. He then urged police officers to kill drug users and dealers, promising to make the fish in Manila Bay “fat” from the bodies his government planned to dispose of.

As Pacquiao’s own political aspirations grew, he aligned more closely with Duterte. Other politicians viewed his support as shallow, a way to hitch his ambitions to a wildly popular president, not unlike Pacquiao’s backing of Duterte predecessor Noynoy Aquino’s vastly different policy agenda.

Once in office, Duterte launched that war on drugs and government forces killed with impunity, making good on the deaths he promised. Tens of thousands of Filipinos, most who, like Pacquiao once did, lived in extreme poverty, were gunned down by police or vigilantes without due process, their deaths sanctioned by their president—and their hero.

Pacquiao did not come out against the drug war; instead, he threw his support behind it. One of Pacquiao’s first acts as a senator was to file a bill to reinstate the death penalty, mostly for drug-related crimes. In 2019, the boxer said he favoured executing drug traffickers by “firing squad.” He also joked that it would be cheaper to kill them by hanging.

Again, context matters here. The drafting of that bill—which never ended up actually going anywhere—has been, fairly, vilified. But Duterte did not face a national backlash over his policies, leading politicians who supported him, such as drug war architect Ronald dela Rosa, to ride his popularity to victory in the 2019 midterm elections. Those politicians appeared, like Pacquiao, to make choices based on improving their own political standing.

To those familiar with that landscape, advocating for the death penalty in light of the drug war always seemed like more show than substance. The casualties of the war resulted from lists made by neighbourhood leaders, lists of names that were not checked, vetted, investigated or sent to trial. The thousands killed were slain without due process, before any sort of penalty at all could be invoked. Pacquiao’s bill, then, struck others as a way to align messaging. Still, his advocacy of state-sanctioned violence raised questions about what kind of president he might ultimately become.

The war earned the Duterte administration abysmal marks on human rights and led the International Criminal Court to launch an initial investigation. The ICC released a preliminary report last year that argued there is “a reasonable basis to believe that crimes against humanity of murder, torture and the infliction of serious physical injury and mental harm” had been committed. The ICC will soon decide whether to proceed with a full investigation.

Meanwhile, of the 180 countries ranked in the latest iteration of the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, the Philippines ranked 115th in 2020. That’s 14 slots lower than when Duterte assumed office.

Five years into a six-year term, Duterte’s administration has been accused of countless examples of corruption, coverups and general malfeasance. But he has yet to be hurt politically by any one claim or the totality of them.

Even during this reign of terror, Duterte remains extremely popular. Polls in the Philippines show that he still enjoys some of the highest approval ratings on the planet for a politician. Most fall somewhere between 75% and 90%. Well-documented instances of social media manipulation and fear of retaliation are factors, but a significant portion of the population does credit Duterte for cleaning up the streets and doesn’t hold the lawless and inhumane way he’s gone about it against him.

If Pacquiao wanted a better shot at a higher office, this alliance appeared to work, for him, at least early into his political dance with Duterte. Only a few years ago, at the boxer’s lavish 40th birthday party, the president floated the notion that the boxer could succeed him. Now, Duterte is calling his old pal a “s-” in weekly addresses to a nation fighting a global pandemic.

And, Trillanes says, “Right now, he is waging a war against Manny Pacquiao.”

There’s a reason for the newer clash, boxer vs. president. Both Trillanes and the anonymous senator expect Duterte to be charged by the ICC once he leaves office. Duterte himself seems to share that expectation, as he has said publicly that he’s seeking the vice presidency for immunity. (Most believe Duterte’s interpretation of that immunity stands at odds with the nation’s constitution. He also withdrew the Philippines from the ICC in 2019.)

One daughter, Sara, has been tabbed as a potential successor; there’s even an early slogan: Run, Sara, Run. PDP-Laban’s executive committee recently endorsed a presidential ticket topped by longtime Duterte confidante Senator Bong Go, whose reputation for appearing in numerous publicity photos earned him the nickname “the National Photobomber.” The vote leaves open the possibility that a Duterte administration could become a Go-Duterte one and then a Sara Duterte one, effectively putting the current president’s family in charge for 18 years.

Pacquiao would like to upend Duterte’s plan, further complicating their tense back-and-forth. When the champion started to publicly criticize Duterte earlier this year, Trillanes and others saw a shift designed to distance the boxer from his associate—an equal but opposite act of political opportunism, once toward Duterte and his policies, now away from them. The boxer labelled his president as soft on China after a territorial dispute and announced his plan to investigate graft in government, calling this administration three times more corrupt than its predecessor and promising to release findings from his own investigation.

Duterte responded by describing Pacquiao as “punch drunk,” adding he was “best in the boxing ring, and probably not as good elsewhere.” Duterte also chastised the ICC for “threatening” him, while denying his “due process.” Soon thereafter, when Duterte loyalists moved to oust Pacquiao from his party leadership position, they did so with the president’s tacit approval.

Their exchanges began to feel like political counterpunching. Pacquiao said the president should concentrate on slowing the spread of the deadly Delta variant of COVID-19. Duterte mocked the boxer for leaving for the fight in the U.S., saying that if he knew so much about this alleged corruption, he should remain in Congress and finish his investigation.

In Los Angeles, in that quiet moment after a workout in July, Pacquiao laughs off Duterte’s jabs the way he would an opponent at a news conference who’s trying to pierce his unending calm. He says, “I hate corruption,” in the politics back home, that his counterparts are “stealing money from the government,” while poor people suffer through COVID-19. He says that, if elected, he will charge and jail hundreds of crooked politicians. He says that the war on graft should supersede the war on drugs, adding, “Corruption is the cancer of our country.” His stance on the drug war has not changed, at least not publicly, which also struck other politicians as strategic, his attack focused on Duterte’s salient weak points rather than an atrocity that brought scorn on the Philippines from the rest of the world but has not led to similar pushback at home.

In Trillanes’s view, Pacquiao “didn’t make any mistakes” in his recent spat with Duterte. If anything, Trillanes says, the boxer was “taken for a ride” as his own political career took off, with Duterte using PacMan’s immense popularity for his own gain but never actually intending to back Pacquiao for the office that he held. It’s one thing for Pacquiao to be iconic in the Philippines and another thing entirely to seize sovereign power, the kind that families will do anything to hold on to.

There’s also the matter of wanting to help versus actually being able to, even in the still-unlikely chance that Pacquiao does win. Trillanes points out—and the other senator agrees—that despite Pacquiao’s anti-corruption stance, “he has surrounded himself with notoriously corrupt people.” Duterte is the most obvious example, but they also point to others, including Luis “Chavit” Singson. A regular member of the Pacquiao entourage—although not seen as much recently—Singson is among the most feared politicians in the Philippines. He delivered kickbacks to President Joseph Estrada in the late ’90s, then flipped from bagman to witness, testifying against Estrada in impeachment hearings that led to Estrada’s ouster in 2001.

With that in mind, Trillanes argues that it’s “too late for [Pacquiao] to use anti-corruption as a proxy for his run.” But, according to Trillanes, that isn’t Pacquiao’s only potential political weakness.

Throughout that half-hour Zoom call, Trillanes remains measured, supportive and critical of Pacquiao, depending on where he stands. His sharpest criticism centres on Pacquiao’s time in office, his gaffes and his marks as a legislator, plus his associations with the exact types he’s now railing against. “While he’s extremely popular, he’s generally perceived as an intellectual lightweight,” Trillanes says. “I don’t mean that in a degrading way, whatsoever. But that’s how he’s being perceived.”

For example, Trillanes notes the anti-LGBTQ comments the boxer made during his 2016 Senate campaign, when he said people in same-sex relationships are “worse than animals.” (Pacquiao later apologized.) Duterte retains immense popularity despite his own vile statements, like the rape jokes he has made on more than one occasion, but the issue many supporters took with Pacquiao’s comments related as much to his critical reasoning—which seemingly relied on his literal interpretation of the Bible—as the actual substance, bad as it was. But while it may have been easy to dismiss Pacquiao then as an overzealous, uncritical congressman, combining that credo with presidential power would be far more problematic.

As for his actual record in the Senate, Pacquiao has filed bills in support of ex-boxers, free internet and National Bible Day. He co-wrote an act while in the House of Representatives in support of entrepreneurship and financial literacy. Separate of his time in office, he has helped support poor Filipinos for decades. But other politicians find his in-office accomplishments lacking, and they cite his rigorous training schedule as an impediment to his Senate duties.

Why Pacquiao would even want to step deeper, willingly, into this cauldron is another question without an answer. Duterte has proved he’s both capable of anything and, in Trillanes’s view, “desperate” to avoid prison.

Worst case, Pacquiao could be in physical danger, especially if his campaign gains real momentum. If that notion seems overdramatized, there is precedent: Ninoy Aquino, the ex-senator and leader of the political movement opposing Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship, was assassinated in 1983. The boxer shrugs. Physical danger is his other job description. “When you are strong, they attack you, grab you down,” he says.

For years, the idea that Manny Pacquiao could win the presidency of his country was floated by his boxing handlers—and bought wholesale by journalists covering the sport, self included—until it became part of his story and part of their sell. His longtime trainer Freddie Roach says that from 2007 to now, Pacquiao never explicitly said to him that he would for sure run. But the possibility loomed in the background of every fight.

Roach, long ago the president of his high school class, a benevolent upperclassman who once set up a drive selling Christmas trees so they could give away yearbooks, believes that Pacquiao would make for a good leader. Roach says this because he knows the man, knows his heart, although the trainer disagrees with some of Pacquiao’s stances.

The boxer says fighting the corruption in his government will be “easy,” because that heart is pure and because God stands in his corner. He says that most Filipino politicians enter that arena to fix the same problem, only to become part of it. But he doesn’t need money; he already gives billions of pesos to the poor. He says, “I am not eaten by the system” and “I’m not a materialistic person.” He wants to upgrade the technology for government spending, so there are records, making it more difficult to graft. He hopes to build shelter for poor families, and he has already done that, constructing entire neighbourhoods and moving people in.

“Objectively, Manny Pacquiao the person is a good man,” Trillanes says. “But I believe he lacks the academic preparation to make change. Politically, he can be naive. He has set the bar too low, and, for sure, the standards need to be higher.”

Even if they were—or are, for those who disagree with Trillanes—the former senator does not believe anyone can change the current government or its deep-rooted, endemic problems. “That may be hard to believe, but that’s where we are now,” he says. “As far as cleaning up the bureaucracy, that’s not going to happen. Neither is changing the Philippine National Police from being the criminal syndicate it is now.”

To his point, Noynoy Aquino also was elected in 2010 on a virtuous, anti-corruption platform but made little progress in changing the political landscape. There’s little reason to believe, even if Pacquiao never used his political position for personal gain, that he would be able to stop corruption at other levels of government.

Still, Trillanes adds, “Of course, Pacquiao is not going to kill people the way that Duterte did. But I don’t think he can stop his political friends from plundering the nation’s coffers.” Again, that’s a matter of emphasis. He’s saying that if Pacquiao became president, it’s unlikely that he would pursue the drug war with a Duterte-like vigour. The boxer has never offered a personal guarantee that the officers and vigilantes who kill the people named on those lists will not face consequences, the way Duterte did, for instance.

The more pertinent question about an unlikely Pacquiao presidency relates to his eventual advisers. Who would be in the room, and what views will they hold? Any concerns, or hopes, that could be pegged to his potential administration would start not with how he backed Duterte, but with whom he will align next.

With all that swirling as the backdrop, the fight against Ugas can seem almost like an afterthought. This isn’t the part of Pacquiao’s career when he ran through the toughest opposition, from Erik Morales to Marco Antonio Barrera to Juan Manuel Márquez, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto and Shane Mosley. Now there’s the larger fight for the presidency, the stakes higher than ever. “God has a plan for me,” Pacquiao says again. “I want to be a legend in boxing and a legend in politics. That is my legacy.”

That’s also the crux of what’s possible in Las Vegas on Saturday. Still, in this new world of his, Pacquiao is telling the same story. He is the most famous underdog in a country full of underdogs, and if a boy who slept on the streets and begged for food scraps could rise to where he stands now, there’s no reason to think he can’t pull off another miracle. In reality, there are plenty of reasons. But the anointed one moves forward, choosing to ignore them.

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