Every country and every culture has its heroes—those individuals, whether politicians, athletes or entertainers that we elevate onto a pedestal, making them bigger than they actually are. America has Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan and Lady Gaga, while England swoons over Prince William and Kate. Brazil elevates its football stars from Pele to Kaka to Neymar, while Nelson Mandela, Charlize Theron and Oscar Pistorius sit high atop the South African psyche. But nowhere on earth is anyone more unanimously embraced and revered than the Philippines’ very own national hero: Manny Pacquiao.
Supporting himself from the age of 14 by winning chump change in street fights, Pacquiao fought his way out of poverty and became one of the most successful boxers in the world. While his professional career has hit some bumps in the past year, which tends to happen with age, he was the world’s “Fighter of the Decade” in the 2000s, earning hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. His success in the ring has led to a cult following outside the ring, as he was elected to the Philippines House of Representatives in 2010, and has also enjoyed success as an actor and a recording artist.
While all national heroes and icons obviously enjoy popularity, you would be hard-pressed to find any figure in the past 50 years who has reached the cult status that Manny has reveled in. If you know anyone who is even of Filipino descent, then you know what I mean. When Manny fights, it’s like Christmas—entire families, friends, cousins, friends of friends, cousins of cousins and friends of friends of those cousins gather to watch. And cheer. Loudly.
It just so happens that Filipinos are also among the more religious people in the world—it seems that everyone is Catholic, proudly attending mass every Sunday, from Manila to California. But I’ve always joked that if Manny Pacquiao—himself a devout Catholic—decided to break from the church and start a religion of his own, the pews of those Catholic Churches would be empty within a week. Instead, everyone would flock to the new Church of Manny to get their fill of the spirit.
Before you get all bent out of shape, relax. I’m just joking. Well, unless Manny actually decides to do it!
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