Wednesday December 16th, 2009

It may only be games, but nothing in culture can galvanize a nation the way a world championship can, and, it just so happens, in the months ahead there will be nearly a surfeit of sports nationalism. It's only a few weeks now before the Winter Olympics, and then, come June, the soccer World Cup, which is by far the most passionate international competition of all. Yet in 2010 there is one little athlete who can mean more to his country -- and to his sport -- than all the skaters and skiers and soccer teams in the world.

The man is a boxer, Manny Pacquaio; his country, The Philippines -- and what he signifies to his people everywhere is perhaps unmatched in sports history. Lennox Lewis, the thoughtful former heavyweight champion, has even said that Pacquaio's "grip" on his country "is similar to Nelson Mandela's influence in South Africa."

The Philippines, of course, is an impoverished island nation, which has led to a diaspora of its people. In fact, Filipinos make up the third largest group of immigrants in the U.S., after only Mexicans and Chinese -- and they've shown well what they can do with the main chance. Filipinos here are far better educated and wealthier than the American population at large. But Pacquaio is so special to all ethnic Filipinos, rich or poor, in the islands or abroad, because his country has never before produced any champion that it could hold high before the world. No Filipino has ever even won a single Olympic gold medal.

Pacquiao is so beloved that when he ran for Congress a couple of years ago, he was soundly beaten largely because, as the adored national icon, his fans voted against him to keep him out of office so he wouldn't dilute his attention to the ring. Surely, would every politician in the world like to say: "I lost because they love me too much." No, sorry -- only Manny Pacquaio, ever.

He's an extraordinary boxer, the first ever to hold seven world titles, for he began fighting at a tiny hundred and six pounds and now, incredibly, holds the welterweight crown at one-forty-seven. Already there are those experts debating whether he is the greatest fighter ever -- better than Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, better at his craft than anyone who ever has laced on a pair of gloves -- and at a time when boxing has descended so in popularity, Pacquaio has come to mean almost as much to his sport as to his countrypeople. Who even knew there was a heavyweight championship fight last week?

But boxing is lucky that Pacquiao is as exciting in the ring as he is talented. When he fights the undefeated American, Floyd Mayweather Jr., in the dream bout that appears to be set -- probably on March 13 -- it will almost surely produce the largest gate in the history of the sport.

Should he win over Mayweather, himself previously acclaimed the best pound-for-pound fighter, Pacquaio's place in the boxing pantheon will be sealed. But already he has taken this brutal sport and distilled from its blood and guts the pretty pride that Filipinos never shared before. For all its faults, sport can still do that for a country.

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