A new patch of real estate in one of Manila’s poorer district is testament to Manny Pacquiao’s greatness.
There’s a brand new building at 1057 Paquita Street in Manila’s Sampaloc district and it stands out like a sore thumb. The colourful panels of the exterior don’t really blend in with the ramshackle concrete walls and wooden doors that jostle for position on this scruffy alleyway barely wide enough for a Jeepney, the dwarfish and flamboyantly painted buses that serve as the city’s main mode of transport. It’s also seven-storeys tall, jutting high above the mainly corrugated iron rooftops that make up much of the surrounding skyline. But the most notable difference is that it sparkles with the sheen of some recent investment in a neighbourhood that looks as if it has been neglected for some time.
The investment has come from blood, sweat and tears; Manny Pacquiao’s to be more precise (although the blood and the tears are more likely that of his opponents). This is the M.P. Tower, his new Manila headquarters, and it has cost him approximately 50 million pesos ($1.1 million) to build.
Sampaloc may seem like an unusual choice of location for the Philippine’s greatest living sportsman and someone estimated to have earned in excess of $40 million over the past 12 months. Just a taxi ride away, through some of Asia’s worst traffic jams, is Makati, the far-glitzier financial centre lined with glass-fronted offices and high-end shopping boutiques and bars favoured by businessmen and expats. On the outskirts of the vast sprawling Metro Manila (which is actually made of 17 cities), the lush hillside of Tagaytay is also famous as one of the more exclusive districts to hold fort. In 1979, Imelda Marcos used the public purse to build ‘The Palace in the Sky’ for Ronald Reagan’s visit. Reagan didn’t come, and the ostentatious mansion became the People’s Palace in the Sky, a symbol of the Marcos regime’s excess, but Tagaytay remains the residential choice de jour among local high-earners and still bustles with new development.
Here is Sampaloc, however, cockerels sit tied to lampposts and scruffy roadside stalls offer the only real nod to commercialisation. But for Manny it holds far greater value. Less than 18 months ago, this small patch of real estate housed the L&M Gym, where he first learned how to box.
The story of Emmanuel 'Manny' Dapidran Pacquiao’s is a well-thumbed affair across the Philippines. He came to Manila in the early 1990s. His family, living in poverty in General Santos City on the island of Mindanao some 500 kilometres away, had eventually grown unable to support him, so he arrived as a penniless 14-year-old. There were odd stints as a gardener and later as a construction worker, but it was really his love of boxing – sparked when he watched James ‘Buster’ Douglas defeat the seemingly invincible Mike Tyson on television in 1990 – that kept him going. It also housed him, as for the first few years he would sleep in the L&M Gym, sometimes even in the ring.
After competing for some time in illegal street bouts, Manny eventually turned pro in 1997, becoming a star on a weekly Filipino boxing show, earning around $2 per fight (which was sent home to his family). By 1998, at the age of 19, he’d won the World Boxing Council flyweight belt in Thailand.
Everything was to change in 2001 when he was called up as a late replacement to fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas against Lehlohonolo ‘Hands of Stone’ Ledwaba. It was his first fight in America and he knocked out the South American in the sixth round. More importantly, his ferocious hand speed caught the eye of renowned trainer Freddie Roach. This bespectacled former boxer, now considered one of the sport’s very best coaches, has steered Manny’s career since, transforming him from a 5’ 6” raw brawler with a pair of lightning quick fists into Pac-man the Destroyer, the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet and the only boxer to hold seven world titles in as many weight divisions.
And it’s these achievements that have helped provide the investment for the new M.P. Tower.
M.P. Tower is so new, in fact, that I’ve arrived just as the final licks of paint are being applied and the last loose strands of wiring hanging from ceilings hurriedly tucked away. There’s a frantic bustle of activity suggesting a deadline is looming and the huge banner hanging from the front of the building explains why. The building’s official opening, or ‘blessing’ (Manny is a devout Christian), is taking place tomorrow, along with a victory parade celebrating Manny’s straightforward overpowering of Miguel Cotto in Las Vegas just a couple of weeks earlier.
“You should come to the party, he’ll be here,” says a jovial looking man as I read the poster outside. He introduces himself as Jojo Dela Cruz, the Pacquiao family’s driver. Sadly, the party is after my flight, but Jojo agrees to a pre-opening tour to make up for my disappointment.
He leads me beyond the metal shutters into the ground floor, to be used as Manny’s garage. “He’s got a special Hummer made here in the Philippines,” says Jojo. The second floor pays tribute to the building’s past. In the main room, a full-sized boxing ring sits squarely in the middle, Manny’s name beaming proudly from the corner paddings. Various pieces of gym equipment, still unwrapped, sit around the sides, as do several pairs of boxing gloves. I’m extremely tempted to don some mits and jump into the ring, but with the building still ‘unblessed’, it doesn’t seem polite.
Above the gym, on the third floor, sits what will become Manny’s main Manila operations centre. In the corner, beyond several unopened boxes of furniture, lies the glass front of a relatively small office. Inside, on a slightly curved but otherwise unspectacular black desk, sit two pairs of boxing gloves behind a wooden name plate. ‘Manny Pacquiao, Board Chairman, MP Promotions’. A cabinet by the wall houses several plaques and awards, along with a photo of Manny with his wife Jinkee. It’s a bizarrely unassuming room for someone recently hailed as a greater pugilist than Muhammed Ali.
If anything is symbolic of Manny, it’s this humble office and the fourth to seventh floors of M.P. Tower. The corridors of these floors, painted in a rather minty pastel shade of green, are lined with dormitories filled with wooden bunkbeds (although the mattresses haven’t been delivered yet). It is here where M.P. Tower shows its true identity, that of cheap accommodation for students in an area known as Manila’s ‘university belt’. “He came here without anything so wants to make it easier for others. They can sign up to use to gym too,” says Jojo, adding that some will be living there for free. And it gestures like this that have only added to Manny’s god-like status.
To suggest that Manny is idolised in the Philippines is like saying the country has hosted a few colonialists in its time. On his home island of Mindanao, Islamic rebels have been battling for a separate Muslim state for decades in a bloody conflict that has claimed over 100,000 lives. When Manny fights, it is said that the guerrillas form a truce with the national forces. Across the country, the crime rate plummets. Such is this man’s importance that it is written into Filipino law that if either he or his family are in trouble, the army must go to his aid.
Understandably, Manny’s commercial value is astronomical. The Philippines is a country that embraces its own national celebrities and the billboards that line Manila’s traffic-ravaged streets bear the grins of Filipino TV and music stars clutching all manner of household cleaning product or stir-in sauce. Manny is by far and away the most prominently featured. His face sits aside everything from the local San Miguel Light beer to Knorr Chicken Cubes.
But, unlike many success stories in the rags-to-untold-riches world of professional boxing, Manny hasn’t squandered his fortune in a sea of hilariously ostentatious excess. Pac-man is no Iron Mike. There are no white Siberian tigers growling in the corner or crystal-encrusted hangers on leeching at his millions. He isn’t Mayweather Jnr either. There is no gratuitous bragging about his earnings or anything approaching a Philthy Rich Records (Mayweather’s own hip hop label).
“He hasn’t forgotten where he came from,” says Jojo as we admire the view of Manila from the M.P. Tower’s rooftop. And that’s just it. Manny is a simple and extremely humble Filipino who just happens to be the greatest boxer on the planet and someone who isn’t prepared to turn his back on a country where third of the population live on under a dollar a day. And they love him for it.
Whenever he returns home, it is said that people line up at his house for monetary gifts and he struggles not to pay each of them.
On his home island of Mindanao, his family may now sleep in a presidential-style mansion, but it’s one of only a few displays of extravagance. For Manny, giving back to his country is just as important as winning in the ring. “This is why he’s such a hero,” explains Jojo.
While the dorms of M.P. Tower may be a more physical testament to his charitable efforts, there are also the 250 children in his hometown he is funding through school, plus his equipping of various hospitals across the Mindanao with imported beds and ambulances. Whenever he returns home, it is said that people line up at his house for monetary gifts and he struggles not to pay each of them. Manny was in the Philippines in October training for his fight with Cotto when Typhoon Ketsanas poured a month of rain on Manila in just one day. Aside from donating one million pesos, he travelled the 10-plus-hour trip to the capital with food supplies, disregarding warnings from his camp that it would interrupt his workout schedule.
There’s also a mini industry now working around Manny, from security guards, to trainers to Jojo the driver. “He has around 200 people working for him,” says Jojo. Inside the M.P. Tower I meet a friendly woman carrying a huge cardboard box full of t-shirts bearing Manny’s image. “I sell this in Vegas for $25,” she laughs, as she gives me one for a much more reasonable $10.
With his place among Filipino sporting legends already assured, Manny has thrown his hat into the political ring, announcing last December that he would be standing for seat in the lower house of the Philippines congress in this coming May’s elections. It’s not his first time, having unsuccessfully bid for a seat in 2007. Unaccustomed to defeat, Manny quickly discovered that this new arena can be a much tougher fight than anything he may have experienced on the canvas.
How far he’ll go in politics is unknown. The Philippines has already seen one celebrated personality, a film actor, attain presidential power with disastrous results. Joseph Estrada lasted a mere three years before he was impeached for corruption in 2001. While some suggest Manny has what it takes to rise to the top, others claim he is ill-equipped and should simply aim for a position such as mayor in his home town.
I wave goodbye to Jojo as he runs off to help with the preparations for the M.P. Tower’s big opening. Outside, a group of small children in scruffy t-shirts chase after a badly deflated football. Across the road, a cheery Middle Aged gentleman perched on an old stool shows me photos from his days as a boxer some 15 years ago.
Manny’s venture into politics may never achieve the same successes as in sport, but it’s clear that here in Sampaloc, and no doubt across many similar areas of the Philippines, he’ll be their biggest hero for generations to come.