Poor Manny Pacquiao. All the boxer wants to do this week is return to the ring after a seven-month retirement, take the WBO welterweight championship belt from current champion Jessie Vargas, and make millions of dollars, but the outside world keeps interfering, demanding to know not just what the longtime fighter thinks of his chances against Vargas but what the new senator thinks of his country’s draconian anti-drug policies and recent self-destructive geopolitical maneuvering. What a fucking hassle.
This whole week leading up to his comeback fight Pacquiao has been answering questions about his new life as a senator and support of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose ultraviolent war on drugs, affection for extrajudicial killings, affiliations with anti-narcotic death squads, and self-confessed similarity to Adolf Hitler have made him the most-hated man among the international community’s human rights advocates. All the while Pacquiao has been supportive of his old friend, leading the charge in the senate for the reinstatement of the death penalty for drug dealers and ousting the chair of the committee tasked with investigating Duterte’s connection to violent vigilante groups.
But it’s not easy preparing for a boxing match while simultaneously being a vocal partisan for a madman. Just ask Pacquiao, who warned those gathered at a recent press conference for Saturday’s fight in Las Vegas that mixing sport and politics is tiring work.
“It’s going to be a historical fight because it’s my first fight being a senator,” Pacquiao said with a smile. “I’ll tell you this: Don’t do this. Being a senator and a fighter is not easy.” Then Pacquiao laughed and the pressroom and the ring girls laughed with him.
But even first-term senators devoted to murderous tyrants with a discipline fetish have their limits. And apparently Pacquiao’s came this week, after Duterte’s long nose-thumbing campaign against the United States and President Barack Obama (who Duterte called a “son of a bitch” in September and told to “go to hell” in October) culminated with his calling for the removal of all U.S. troops and military bases from the Philippines and blowing off reports that the U.S. will halt the sale of 24,000 guns to his government’s national police over Duterte’s approach to fighting drugs by calling American leaders “monkeys” and “fools” and saying he’ll just get those guns from someone else, like Russia.
(Though the gun deal may be off, don’t worry: There have been no such reports about the $9 million in aid the U.S. State Department is set to give to the Philippines to help fund their counter-narcotics programs in 2017 or the $32 million Secretary of State John F. Kerry pledged this summer for their law enforcement programs. Rest easy, America.)
The problem here is that despite his love for Duterte, Manny Pacquiao’s devotion to the country that gave him the chance to turn his boxing skills into a fortune is probably just as strong, if not stronger. After all, without the United States, there’d be no fight this weekend. And there might be no fight after that. In fact, you look at the biggest money fights in Pacquiao’s long career and just about all of them took place here in the U.S. $500 million dollars’ worth.
So it’s no surprise that Pacquiao has been trying to put the brakes on any talks of a split between the home of his birth and the land that made him rich. Speaking to TMZ late last week, Pacquiao assured the world that he and Duterte government will not be “cutting off the relationship with the Philippines and the United States.” His old friend Rodrigo Duterte just needs to “cool down … and realize everything.”
Poor, poor Manny Pacquaio. So much money to be made and so many unhinged despots getting in the way of his being able to make it.
But this is just sports in 2016, I suppose, when you can no longer separate the athletes and teams you love from the stances they take and the ideas they affiliate themselves with. The way it’s hard to feel quite as much sympathy for the losers of last night’s World Series game 7, the Cleveland Indians, as you would if they didn’t have such a racist logo. Or the way you lose your taste for a particular football player when you find out he’s been abusing his girlfriend, or his team when you find out they’ve been covering that abuse up. Or the way it’s simply become hard to imagine rooting for Manny Pacquiao the way we used to now that he’s thrown in his lot with a tyrant and mass murderer. The man may be one of the greatest artists the boxing ring has ever known but after a certain point it becomes hard to appreciate it, or even care.
If it’s any consolation, Rodrigo Duterte still appreciates and cares about Manny Pacquiao. In fact, he’s even a little worried about him. Earlier this week, in an interview with the Manila Times, Duterte, who recently said he’d be happy to slaughter 3 million of his own countrymen to purge the Philippines of drug addiction, said he worries that the 37-year-old Pacquaio could get tired if his fight this weekend goes on too long.
“[I]f it goes beyond seven to eight rounds, he could tire out. He might lose his punching power,” Duterte said. “I hope he can do it within the first two rounds. Manny can hit him, knock him down.”
See that, Manny? You’ve still got someone in your corner.
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