One of the perverse joys of following boxing is fooling yourself into thinking you understand its inner workings. You learn to sift through the jetsam of promotional hype, hidden agendas, half-truths, and outright lies to arrive at what feels like a more or less accurate picture of what’s going on in the sport. The reality for most fans and media, though, is that—as Roger Mayweather once eloquently put it—we don’t know shit about boxing.
Saturday’s fight between Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley Jr. is a reminder that—as much as has been written about the Filipino boxing legend, basketball player, and politician and as public as his life has been—boxing fans still don’t know shit about Pacquiao’s future and what his legacy will hold.
Pacquiao, who began promoting this fight back in January by calling it his retirement bout, has spent much of the past week backing off that claim. It’s been nearly a year since Pacquiao’s loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr., and while some observers worry that the Filipino champion will show ring rust after a long layoff and surgery to fix a torn rotator cuff that Pacquiao claimed affected his performance last May, others doubt the injury was much more than an improvised excuse and question if the operation ever occurred. That last conspiracy theory tiptoes along the line of tinfoil-hat territory, but Pacquiao’s proclamations that he recovered from the injury through the power of prayer and regular dips in the ocean sounded no less loony.
So Pacquiao may or may not be retiring, he may or may not be coming off a serious injury, and he may or may not be distracted by his ongoing campaign for the Philippine senate.
On top of everything, the lack of excitement around what might still be Pacquiao’s final bout and low expectations for pay-per-view sales could recast the way boxing experts understand and remember his superstar career. Since Pacquiao defeated Oscar De La Hoya in 2008 and Mayweather returned from his first dalliance with retirement in 2009, Pacquiao and Mayweather had been seen as near equals as the sport’s standard bearers. Now that they finally fought and Mayweather won, U.S. public interest in Pacquiao—even in his supposed farewell fight—appears to have fallen off a cliff. It’s possible to look at Pacquiao’s plummet and wonder if his popularity among American fans was just a corollary to Mayweather’s fame. We needed to believe that Mayweather had a worthy adversary, that some opponent out there could beat him, and Pacquiao was the guy who boxing sold to us. We thought he could be Mayweather’s greatest challenge—maybe even be the first to defeat Floyd—once again proving that we don’t know shit.
Of course, in the Philippines, Pacquiao is much more than a Floyd Mayweather foil. There, his rise from nearly inescapable poverty and his 15 years of bringing athletic glory to the nation have made him a symbol of Pinoy pride almost on par with the Philippine flag. Yet even Pacquiao’s image at home faces new questions in the hazy murk of this potentially final bout. Unless something spectacular and unexpected happens on Saturday, the event will probably be best remembered for Pacquiao’s homophobic remarks regarding gay marriage in the lead-up to the fight, which were made during an interview about his Senate candidacy with a Philippine TV network. (Disclosure: I occasionally write for Sports5, the online sports portal that this network owns, and I am covering the Pacquiao-Bradley fight for them.) Pacquiao’s stance didn’t surprise anyone. It’s common for politicians in the staunchly Catholic Philippines to oppose same-sex unions. But the degrading way Pacquiao compared LGBT people to animals drew swift condemnation from Filipino internet users and inspired powerful rebukes from prominent gay celebrities Vice Ganda and Boy Abunda. The outrage was genuine and widespread and led to a dip in his February poll numbers, but the most recent Pulse Asia survey suggests Pacquiao’s support has rebounded, and he remains likely to be elected to the senate in May. Still, the episode could have a lasting impact on how he is viewed at home and abroad.
If it makes any difference (and perhaps it should not), the full video of Pacquiao’s statements comes off as less malicious than the three-word translated description of gay people—“worse than animals”—that appeared in many U.S. media outlets. Instead, it sounds to me like Pacquiao is repeating a nugget of idiotic folk wisdom that he picked up in a Bible study session. But even if this suggests his language wasn’t intended to resemble hate speech, it doesn’t soften the negative impact and ugliness of Pacquiao’s words. He’s still telling LGBT Filipinos that they don’t deserve the same basic rights as their fellow citizens. Coming from Pacquiao, the nation’s greatest-ever athlete, a hero to millions of his countrymen, and a figure whom Filipinos of all sexual orientations and gender identities have rallied around for a generation, that message of exclusion is particularly hurtful.
Pacquiao’s anti-gay speech feels as if might end up being a tipping point, the moment when a significant portion of the Filipino public saw his human flaws catch up with his boxing heroism. In the United States, by contrast, the response to Pacquiao’s “animal” remarks were part of a standard outrage flare-up for sports fans and media consumers—something that came and went in a week and that will resurface in relation to the Bradley fight before we all move on forever. But in the Philippines, it’s one of a number of factors that is shifting the way many Filipinos view Pacquiao, from a national emblem of uplift into an occasional burden. He’s still beloved, but it’s becoming difficult to justify that love for the Pambansang Kamao. Much of that shift is related to Pacquiao’s political aspirations. For starters, If Pacquiao were just a private citizen, his views on issues like gay rights and reproductive health would be objectionable but not as damaging as they are coming from the mouth of a sitting congressman and senatorial candidate. But a larger concern is the widespread ambivalence Filipinos feel for the country’s government and elected officials and how that rubs off on Pacquiao. For many Philippine politicians, a career in public service has more to do with extending the wealth and power of their family dynasties than with finding solutions to the country’s problems. To his credit, since he was elected to the Philippine House of Representatives in 2010, Pacquiao has seemed dedicated to his version of good governance, which mostly involves giving food to the poor, building hospitals, and improving infrastructure in his province in Southern Mindanao. (His record as a legislator is less sterling.) The fear, however, is that when he finally retires from boxing and the $20 million purses are no more, Pacquiao may be tempted to profit by the same nefarious means as some of his political colleagues.
It’s hard to imagine the Philippines ever turning its back on Pacquiao. He has become entwined with national identity, one of those inseparable commonalities, like basketball or rice for breakfast, that can unite Filipinos across generational and class lines. But supporting Pacquiao in 2016 is not the ride on a gravy train it was back in 2009. Where cheering for Pacquiao and sharing him with the world used to be unequivocally joyful, now, when he stumbles into controversy, supporting him can feel like a sheepish obligation. The U.S. can say good riddance to Pacquiao whenever he decides to hang up his gloves, but the Philippines owns him and all his warts for all of history. And whether or not Saturday’s fight ends up being his last, Pacquiao’s continued rise in the rapacious world of Philippine politics will remain a threat to taint his legacy. The hope is that after all his years of bringing pride to his countrymen, he can steer clear of actions, like the “worse than animals” moment, that bring the country shame and risk making people forget the impossible, inspirational story of his rise from nothing. He should be remembered as that raggedy street kid who stowed away on a boat to go to Manila and become a fighter, who went on to become one of the greatest and highest-earning boxers of all time, and who always returned home to the Philippines, to share the glory and the riches with his people. Here’s hoping that he doesn’t do anything else to prevent us from thinking of him that way.