SENATOR MANNY PACQUIAO is sitting in the second row of a black government Escalade, his left foot on the center console, a 9 mm handgun in the seatback in front of him. A security van hugging the back bumper is filled with Pacquiao’s assistants and several members of the National Police, their fingers on the triggers of the M16s that lie across their laps. There are two police motorcycles in front, weaving around Manila traffic, their cartoonish horns burping out pleas for space that doesn’t exist. Outside the windows, the alleys and side streets clog with people and motorbikes and bicycles. The city closes around us like a fist.
The Senate session has recessed for Christmas, and the holiday traffic has turned a 10-minute drive on Manila’s main highway, the EDSA, into an hour. Pacquiao looks out the window at the endless scroll of tired faces peering down from dirty buses and up from tiny cars on this eternally congested beltway. They have no idea the country’s most famous man is behind the darkened windows and chirping motorcycles. It’s his 41st birthday, and preparations for tonight’s massive and lavish party — an annual exercise in opulence, idolatry and patronage — have been in the works for weeks.
Pacquiao’s birthday is only half-jokingly considered an unofficial national holiday. During the past week, I have seen him be serenaded with “Happy Birthday” an infinite number of times in a near-infinite number of places: a sporting goods store in a high-end Manila mall, his Senate office, the Senate floor, his home. Home is where this line of cars is eventually headed, where two makeup artists and two hairdressers are setting up shop. Three laundry-sized bags of boxing gloves sit in the entry, waiting for his signature. Ten cases of red wine are about to be hauled into the living room for the after-party.
Pacquiao’s phone is ringing continually in the car, and each time the theme from “The Godfather” fills the sealed cabin. After a few notes, it’s clear he’s not going to answer the calls or stop the music. The song ends, then starts again. Each time, he looks at the phone to check the caller and places it back in his lap. The music continues, and by the time it becomes clear the Godfather theme is going to take this ride with us, Pacquiao’s assistant, David Sisson, motions for me to begin asking questions. I have been waiting for the music to stop, or for the phone to be answered; Pacquiao, apparently, has been waiting for me.
I have come here to spend a week observing Pacquiao as a political entity and to see firsthand how his alliance with Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte has turned him into a front-runner to succeed Duterte when the country elects a new president in 2022. Mostly, I am here to see firsthand how the most popular man in the Philippines became one of the most powerful athletes in the world.
Pacquiao’s life is like scripture in the Philippines. It is an argument against limits, a source of pride amid despair, and hope amid hopelessness. His story is so well-known, so ingrained in the minds of the Filipino people, that it long ago became a commodity. He is a vessel into which everyone, regardless of circumstance, can pour their visions of a country and its people. He is the first boxer to win 12 titles in eight weight classes and a man who has parlayed his reputation as the champion of his people into a political career that earned him Duterte’s imprimatur as his chosen successor.
How did this happen? How did the boy who grew up in a homemade hut with a dirt floor and a coconut-leaf roof, who claims to have made his way through unimaginable deprivation by adhering to his mother’s commandments — don’t beg; don’t steal — become this man, one of the Philippines’ 24 senators, protected by heavy artillery as he is escorted across town to a glass-and-steel mansion? He is a symbol of the possible, and his utility is boundless. The rich and powerful, the poor and desperate — they can all find what they want or need in this man and his story.
It is a tribute.
It is a warning.
THE PHILIPPINES IS a complicated place, and the country’s problems are not hidden. The abject desperation in many areas of metro Manila is obvious. Near the airport along the EDSA, as motorcycles and bicycles split lanes with the barest possible clearance, the driver motions for me to look out at a 20-foot wall that fronts the road. There are three young men sitting atop the wall, swinging their feet and carrying on an energetic conversation over the pungent exhaust and endless noise of the world’s worst traffic.
“How did they get up there?” I ask.
He chuckles (left unspoken: stupid American) and tells me about what I can’t see on the other side of the wall. It’s a cemetery, he says, and those three guys mounted the wall from that side because they live there. Still confused, I wait until we reach the next intersection, where I can see that the cemetery is a matrix of concrete walls with compartments on the side, probably eight high, like a condo for the afterlife. The slots that have yet to be filled by caskets house some of Manila’s poorest families, the living awaiting eviction from the dead.
We pass over and around similar scenes as the Escalade makes its way from the Senate building to Pacquiao’s home. Every vein in this metropolitan area of more than 13 million is clogged with people and vehicles and plasmic energy. These are his people, the ones who draw strength from his story, who stop their lives every time he fights, and the ones who will decide whether he is the country’s next president. The global rise of populist strongmen like his ally Duterte, men who have weaponized the rhetoric of strength, is predicated on its supposed ability to elevate and protect these people. It is a phenomenon Jonathan Miller, in his book “Rodrigo Duterte: Fire and Fury in the Philippines,” calls the Strongman Paradox. Citizens believe they are empowering themselves by electing such a leader, when in reality everything the strongman gains, the populace loses.
But when I ask Pacquiao whether he sees himself as an heir to Duterte’s populist throne, he thinks for a moment and says, “Populist? I’m not thinking about that. What I’m thinking is to share my knowledge about humanity, relationship to God, about being fair to everyone and compassionate.”
The answer is emblematic of Pacquiao’s political platform: anodyne, with no discernible ideology. “Where I am right now is God’s will,” he says 10 minutes and three Godfather themes later. “I think it is a calling.” He pauses and giggles as a prelude to a punchline: “We make this country great again.”
“Some people would say his political future is fate, or destiny,” says Sen. Richard Gordon, a longtime power in Philippine politics and a former presidential candidate. “I think he has all the tools to prove he can handle it, but he has to be careful choosing his friends.”
Is Pacquiao capable of governing a complex country of 100 million people? Is the presidency something he wants, or something he feels obliged to pursue as the country’s most famous man? Those questions seem increasingly irrelevant. His ascendance feels preordained, as if the arc of his story demands it. His Senate term ends in ’22, so he will either have to run for reelection to the Senate, run for vice president or run to succeed Duterte. There have been breadcrumbs; he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Makati University in December through a fast-track alternative education program. He still pines for one more megafight payday — Pacquiao-Mayweather 2? Conor McGregor? — to cushion the demands of his expensive lifestyle and the ever-changing, endless menagerie of paid help. Still, he will be 43 by the time Filipinos elect their next president; it’s difficult to imagine that he’ll remain a credible boxer beyond that point.
His status as a national icon could easily carry him to the presidency. What comes next would be far from simple. “The country is very complicated,” Gordon says. “It isn’t easy to just come in and say ‘I’m going to be president.’ He’s going to have to answer to the population.” More than 20% of the Philippine population lives in extreme poverty, which means more than 20 million people are subsisting on $1.90 or less per day. Pacquiao’s family was once part of that group; now he is worth an estimated $200 million. As the turn signal clicks endlessly at a traffic light, Pacquiao says, “The solution to this traffic is first more overpasses and skyways — and discipline.” His eyebrows bounce as he says the word; it’s a gesture he employs often to punctuate a point or convey approval. “Yes — discipline.”
This is his story: the discipline to lift himself out of the grimmest circumstances to become this man, in this car, with this security detail, heading to that shining house. And see: It could be everybody’s story. By my third day in Manila, the idea that Filipinos can lift themselves out of poverty — and traffic — through discipline begins to feel like bumper sticker politics. Duterte’s policies — cleaning up the streets, waging war on drug cartels, dealers and users — were described by Pacquiao himself as proof that God “anointed” Duterte to discipline a country that had lost its soul, as if the lack of opportunity that leads to desperation and drug abuse is a moral failing and not a societal one.
“Anytime [Pacquiao] is in the ring, the entire nation is united,” says professor Severo Madrona Jr., dean of the school of law at City University of Pasay and a city attorney for Pasay, a city inside metropolitan Manila. “But if he starts with his political — and religious — tirades, there goes the division.”
A POLITICIAN WHO aligns himself with Duterte aligns himself with Duterte’s drug war. It is the third rail of Philippine politics, and inside the country — and especially inside the Pacquiao camp — it is believed that nobody from the outside can comprehend the extent of the problem. Outsiders can’t bend their minds around the vast number of shipping lanes and ports to offload shabu — the regional term for meth — that exist in a country of more than 7,000 islands. Nearly everyone I encountered during a week in metro Manila professed to be affected by the scourge of drugs. An airport policeman recounted the drugs he and his colleagues confiscated in the span of two weeks — 15 kilograms of shabu this week, 8 kilos last week — and says the problem is so bad for him and his family that he calls the police to intervene at his apartment complex because he fears retaliation against his children. “And I’m a police officer,” he says.
The efficacy of the drug war has been called into question; Vice President Leni Robredo, who leads the opposition to Duterte and briefly headed an anti-drug committee, announced in January that Duterte’s policies have not resulted in a reduction in drug trafficking. (The vice presidency in the Philippines is an independently elected office.) She estimated that just 1% of the local drug supply has been intercepted during Duterte’s presidency. There is significant debate regarding the number of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines since the onset of Duterte’s drug war. Over a year ago, the United Nations’ Commissioner for Human Rights estimated more than 27,000 deaths.
“This is all unfair to the president,” Pacquiao says when I mention the killings. It is all so obvious to him, and he has adopted the tone of someone who has explained this a thousand times and is willing to do it just once more. “This is reality: It’s unfair to the president that he’s criticized by other people and other countries. He’s not doing everything they are claiming that he is doing — the extrajudicial killings.”
Of course, Duterte has boasted of killing drug dealers himself. During a meeting with business leaders in Manila in 2016, Duterte said, according to The Manila Times, “In Davao, I used to do it personally — just to show to the guys that if I can do it, so can you.” He claims to have ridden around in a motorcycle “looking for a confrontation so I could kill.” When confronted with this fact, Pacquiao dismisses Duterte’s rhetoric, saying, “Duterte is very smart, and because of that he is good at psychology. He talks like a warning. That’s his style.”
If it is a psychological tactic, it’s hard to deny that it’s working. Duterte — who enjoys the nickname “Duterte Harry” — had an approval rating of 87% in a Pulse Asia Research Inc. survey conducted in December. (While Duterte was mayor of Davao City, his favorables were even more Putinesque, leading many critics to believe they arose from fear of expressing dissent.) Hearing the support for Duterte’s ruthless policies among Filipino citizens can be jarring. A journalist in Manila who has covered Pacquiao told me, “The people who are being killed are the people who deserve to be killed.” But what about due process, I ask, and the potential for police or vigilantes to kill their enemies and justify their actions by claiming the victim was part of the drug trade? He just shrugs.
“People love him,” Pacquiao says of Duterte, “because actually he’s not doing all of those abuses. In fact, more than 1,000 policemen have been dismissed from the service. Duterte told them, ‘Do not abuse, because I will not tolerate you.’ Do not abuse your power — this is what he said. If you’re performing your duty and putting your life in danger, why let them kill you? You kill them.”
Pacquiao is obsessed with chess. He plays every day, and often through the night, in his home office. He sits quietly, in a big chair behind a big desk, scrutinizing the board as if it’s speaking to him. His opponent — often his personal lawyer, Tom Falgui, known in these circles only as Attorney Tom — sits on the other side surrounded by men of varying employment who would prefer he lose to their boss. As Pacquiao surveys the traffic and talks about Duterte, his friend of 15 years and a man he once credited for organizing one of his early fights, I begin to wonder whether these answers are a byproduct of seeing life through the prism of pieces moving on a board. Even if Pacquiao did disagree on policy, Duterte’s popularity and stranglehold on power turns even the mildest dissent into political suicide.
“Certainly, Pacquiao’s not the first one to deny the killings are happening,” says Carlos Conde, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who specializes in the Philippines. “It’s not even just denial — it’s a willingness to mislead people. I don’t think he’s that misinformed about what is happening. He’s doing his bit to deflect criticism of the drug war. To deny this is happening is offensive to me as an advocate.
“Again, that tells you where he’s headed when he becomes president. These issues are going to be around longer than Duterte.”
Pacquiao’s devotion to Duterte’s authoritarian policies could seem to conflict with his image as a humble boxer and benevolent philanthropist, but there is almost nothing in his legislative record that prioritizes the poor or disenfranchised. His rhetoric on LGBTQ rights is shocking — he once said homosexuals “are worse than animals” before issuing a qualified apology (“I’m just telling the truth of what the Bible says”) — and his reliance on his fundamentalist religious views as a guide to his political decisions is seen as problematic by the human rights community.
The words of a Filipino journalist who has documented the drug war in some of Manila’s poorest neighborhoods bounce through my head. “With his background, Pacquiao could be the voice of the masses,” he told me. “I live for the day when he stands up and says, ‘Stop killing the poor.'”
ON A SATURDAY morning in December, word spread that Pacquiao planned to stand in his driveway and distribute money to the poor people of Manila. The line began forming before sunrise, starting at the house and snaking down street after street, past mansion after mansion, until it extended out past the development’s security gates and beyond the neighborhood. The line grew, and grew, until it seemed impossible that a rich man — even this rich man — possessed the generosity and patience it would take to get to the end of it.
Pacquiao emerged from the house midmorning, surrounded by some of his employees, the most trusted — and fearsome — of whom held a bag filled with stacks of cash. Sean Gibbons, the manager of MP Promotions, stood off to the side, recording on his phone. The poor people were told the rules: The line was too long for photographs, handshakes or conversation. They were to approach, take the 1,000-peso bill (the equivalent of roughly $20) and move on. The procession was orderly — the poor of Manila are accustomed to the indignities of waiting — but many of the recipients took the opportunity to bow reverently as they accepted their money, as if approaching the altar to receive Holy Communion. For Pacquiao, this massive line of humanity was a penitential rite, a way to atone for his incomprehensible success and share it, as if the miracles he makes with his hands in the ring belong to everyone.
By the end of the day, more than 5,500 people had stood in Pacquiao’s driveway. Eventually the line dwindled. After three hours of handing out bills to those who live as he once lived, it was gone, along with $110,000 of his money.
AS THE TRAFFIC comes to a dead stop and the officers in the motorcycles ahead give up their incessant chirping, Sisson pulls out his phone to show drone video of a housing development for the poor on property Pacquiao owns in Mindanao, near the city he grew up in, General Santos City. The overhead tour shows a large piece of land with rows of new homes, 150 of them, with the ocean in the distance. With so many poor, how does he choose? Pacquiao tells me he visits squatters areas in the city and pulls people out of the squalor. “I tell them, ‘You are getting a new home,'” he says. “Pretty nice, huh?” He smiles. The eyebrows bounce. Sisson says there is a plan for another 300 homes on a parcel owned by Pacquiao in Cavite, a province outside of metro Manila.
“I don’t think his generosity is just theater,” Conde says. “I think it is the purest expression of his appreciation of where he came from. A lot of Filipinos who become rich and famous do that, and he does it more than most.” Conde tells the story of Rolando Navarrete, a former WBC super featherweight champion also from what is colloquially known as GenSan. Navarrete was once known for similar generosity in the 1980s, but personal and legal problems — he was convicted of rape in Hawaii — left him destitute. He is now among those who line up to benefit from Pacquiao’s largesse. “The irony is too rich,” Conde says.
But when I ask Krista Gem Mercado, Pacquiao’s chief of staff, for examples of legislation initiated by her boss that would help the poor, she cites the senator’s disdain for bureaucracy as the reason he prefers to use his own resources. “I think the advantage I have is Jesus,” Pacquiao tells me. “When you have God in your life, you’re not playing to any material things in this world.” But there is pending legislation, Mercado says, and she prints out a copy of a bill Pacquiao has introduced titled “An Act Imposing Death Penalty and Increased Penalties on Certain Heinous Crimes Which Involves Manufacturing and Trafficking of Dangerous Drugs.” Perhaps sensing my confusion, she says, “It’s for the big cartels and not for the users or the small-time dealers.” The bill’s compassion is found in its specific targeting; users are spared death.
The Philippines suspended the death penalty in 2006, but Duterte has made its reinstatement for drug traffickers one of his hallmark promises to impose order. Pacquiao has defended the death penalty on biblical grounds. “God allows governments to use capital punishment,” he said to reporters in 2017. “Even Jesus Christ was sentenced to death because the government imposed the rule then.”
In the Philippines, as Miller posits in his biography of Duterte, civil liberties are viewed as being reserved for those who can afford them. The same could be said for positive media coverage. Pacquiao’s critics decry the lack of scrutiny Pacquiao has received for his political views; outside of a few outlets, mainly the Filipino news site The Rappler, much of the media coverage to which he is accustomed is not just favorable but slavish. His fame comes with a valuable perk: the means to purchase insulation. For years Pacquiao has paid airfare and accommodations for a squad of writers and photographers from the Philippine press to cover his fights in Las Vegas and around the world. Two sources within his camp told me Pacquiao purchased 2,400 tickets to his most recent fight, a win over Keith Thurman last July, for family, friends and various hangers-on. As we were leaving a ribbon-cutting ceremony that Pacquiao headlined at an Anta sporting goods store in a high-end mall, a sportswriter for a Manila newspaper unapologetically put several items of clothing on an MP Promotions credit card. “It’s different here,” he told me. Some of Pacquiao’s employees joke about the holidays being “envelope season” for many of the local journalists who cover him.
“People are willing to look the other way because he’s such a fabulous boxer and has wowed and entertained us for decades,” Conde says. “Filipinos forget about their troubles when he has a fight, and that drives me crazy. I hope he uses that for good when he becomes president, but looking at it right now, I don’t see it happening. It’s a pity because this country needs heroes like Manny Pacquiao, but his entry into politics has turned him into a heel. We will wake up to see a Manny Pacquiao who is not the Manny Pacquiao of yore — saddled by his incompetence and the political patronage he has embraced.”
He is the people’s champion, but are they his? “It’s compassionate because you have to give them warnings,” Pacquiao tells me of his justification for the drug policy. “First warning, second warning, third warning — then you have to face the consequences. We are all bound to the governing authority. That’s why there’s a government. We submit to the authority of the government.”
Duterte grew up privileged in the same province where Pacquiao grew up washing dishes in carinderias — sidewalk food stalls — in exchange for meals. Pacquiao’s drug use as a young man is part of the lore of his story, the preface to his awakening as a disciplined fighter whose career has destroyed all probability.
“He grew up in these communities where a lot of people are dying in the drug war,” Conde says. “Take away the boxing that gave him a lifeline and he’s probably one of the dead bodies now. To his credit, he got out of that predicament using his boxing skills, but a zillion other Filipino youths don’t have that privilege — that’s why the drug war is such a horrendous policy. It takes away the possibility of a life like Manny’s.”
HIS STORY IS one in a million, or 10 million, or whatever celestial number comes to mind. Its very existence proves its ludicrousness, and even though he is held up as the avatar for what can be achieved with dedication, work ethic and self-belief, in reality Pacquiao’s story is more than an outlier; it’s a near impossibility.
Over the final two Senate sessions of 2019, it is clear that Pacquiao is treated with utmost reverence everywhere but within these chambers. “There are always oohs and ahhs,” Gordon says, “but you have to make sure you push the right buttons and communicate your ideas well.” Pacquiao’s first bill as a senator, calling for the formation of the Philippine Boxing and Combat Sports Commission, took two years to pass and caused the Senate minority leader to call out Pacquiao on process and “basic” elements of legislation. The Philippine government, which is modeled after the American bicameral system, is a monument to patronage and heredity — Ferdinand Marcos’ daughter is a prominent senator — and Pacquiao is a relative newcomer after serving two terms in Congress. (For that reason, it’s unsurprising that Pacquiao’s strongest competition could come from Sara Duterte, Rodrigo’s daughter. She is widely considered the only person whose candidacy could wrest her father’s endorsement — and, presumably, the presidency — from Pacquiao.)
Despite his relative inexperience, Pacquiao is in the process of building his own dynastic political family. His brothers, Bobby and Ruel, are congressmen. His wife, Jinkee, is a former vice governor of the Sarangani province. His co-trainer, Buboy Fernandez, is the vice mayor of Polangui. It’s hard not to see the similarities as he makes the gradual career shift from boxing to politics; those who rode the coattails of his boxing success are making the transition along with him.
“A lot of people think he’s not serious about this job because he’s doing boxing at the same time,” says Mercado, Pacquiao’s chief of staff. “But actually, his boxing is only during scheduled recess. When we’re in session, he’s in the office. He doesn’t miss any work.”
Pacquiao does schedule his fights during Senate recesses; his most recent fight, the July win over Thurman, took place two days before the Senate reconvened. Pacquiao missed the opening day but traveled back to Manila after the fight to report for duty. But his attendance record tells a different story. In 2019, Pacquiao had the worst attendance among the country’s 24 senators, with 12 absences in 61 sessions.
After learning that I attended the Senate sessions, a close business associate of Pacquiao’s pulled me aside while Pacquiao played chess. Knowing objectivity is in short supply in an ecosystem where Pacquiao is either The Champ or The Senator, he asked in a hushed tone, “Tell me: Is he credible? Is he respected?”
There’s no easy answer. I asked Madrona, the Pasay city attorney, who said, “It depends on the economic/social class. For classes A and B [the wealthy and educated], Pacquiao is not credible and respected. However, for classes C, D, E, he is a popular leader.”
The final two days of the session were dominated by a sin tax bill Pacquiao co-sponsored with Sen. Pia Cayetano. During much of the debate, Pacquiao stayed in his seat and out of the fray while Cayetano and her staff huddled to calculate numbers and answer questions from skeptical senators. Cayetano stood on a podium fielding questions for nearly 10 hours. Her staff scrambled to figure out the budget ramifications of proposed alterations to the bill while Pacquiao sat at his desk and watched. When the president of the Senate announced the “Pacquiao Amendment,” there was a murmur amid the Pacquiao camp in the spectator section. “Here comes the senator,” one said, inching to the edge of his seat as Pacquiao stood at the microphone and read a three-paragraph amendment that would prohibit the sale of cigarettes to nonsmokers. After a tie vote on the amendment, Senate President Tito Sotto cast the deciding vote in favor of Pacquiao’s amendment despite saying he disagreed with it. He finished the night by lifting his gavel, nodding to Pacquiao and noting in his stentorian voice that “our champion” is mere minutes away from his birthday.
EARLIER THAT SAME morning, Lourdes and Michael Mesa left their home in Cavite and embarked on a four-hour journey on public transportation through the hellscape of Manila traffic to visit the Philippine Senate in Pasay City. Their destination was Pacquiao’s fifth-floor office, and their goal was an audience with the champion.
This is where they come to wait, and hope. Michael is a 29-year-old blind masseur who holds a ukulele in one hand and a white cane in the other. Lourdes, his mother, is helping him navigate the lobby of the office, where one couch is the only conventional seating. They arrived at 11 a.m., roughly three hours before the Senate session and two before Pacquiao, with one goal: for Michael to play “O Come, All Ye Faithful” for Pacquiao.
Lourdes has one spot on the couch, Michael is on the arm closest to her. Others — an emaciated young man wearing a sash of some kind, an older woman holding a photograph of an elderly man, a legless man in a motorized wheelchair holding a folder in his lap — crowd the doorway or sit on the floor. Throughout the hall, there are carolers at the entrance of senators’ offices; schoolchildren, mostly, but also a cadre of nuns whose voices sound so pure they might actually be the celestial chorus.
“Every day, people come here,” says Mercado, Pacquiao’s chief of staff. “He wanted to professionalize it, but it’s really his heart for the poor. He always says he came from there, he knows what it’s like to have no roof over the head and no food to eat, so he can relate.”
Inside the office, two guys who won a volleyball gold medal in the SEA Games are waiting to see Pacquiao. John Riel Casimero, the WBO bantamweight champion who fights under Manny Pacquiao Promotions, is waiting. Word is Casimero, who defended his title three weeks earlier in England, is in line for a bonus check that only Pacquiao can approve and deliver. Casimero and his brother sit slumped in the staff area of Pacquiao’s office under one of the many posters that read, “Mark 3:24-25: If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”
Pacquiao, wearing a gray windowpane suit with a purple shirt and tie, is at his desk in his private office, surrounded by eight aides going through vote counts for the sin tax. Everyone knows it will be a long night. Lourdes and Michael are in the lobby when Pacquiao uses his private office exit to go downstairs for deliberations, and they’re still there five hours later during a break. “If he sees them,” says Mercado, the senator’s chief of staff, “then he will give them what they need.” The deliberations are long and tedious; at one point, Adam and the apple were invoked in relation to vaping. And at 11 p.m., 12 hours after they arrived at the Senate building, 16 hours after they started their journey, Michael and Lourdes are standing outside the Senate chamber. Michael’s ukulele is still tucked under his left arm. “Is he almost finished?” Lourdes asks of Pacquiao.
More than an hour later, after the Senate president breaks the tie, the session ends and the Senate floor empties like a drain. Pacquiao heads for a private exit that leads down a flight of stairs to a Senate parking lot. Casimero didn’t get his check; the volleyball players didn’t get their handshake. Michael and Lourdes are somewhere inside the building, their quest into its 17th hour. Pacquiao hops into the running Escalade, two police motorcycle escorts out front, the security van in back, and leaves without ever knowing they were there.
THE MOOD IN the Escalade is definitely looking up. We’re off the EDSA. We pass the Manila Polo Club and turn into Pacquiao’s neighborhood, and the motorcycles veer off like fighter jets. The talk bounces from the enduring glow of last night’s successful tax vote to the birthday party that’s mere hours away.
The theme of the party, not surprisingly, is “The Godfather.” Manny arrives in the grand ballroom at the Makati Shangri-La Hotel wearing a black tuxedo topped by a tiny black fedora. Quotes from the movie (“Among reasonable men, problems of business could always be solved”) are cast on enormous electronic boards at the front of the room.
There is an open bar and a lavish seven-course meal, including chilled salmon tartare, beef tenderloin with foie gras, and mushroom cappuccino custard. The entrance to the ballroom has been transformed into an extravagant shrine to Pacquiao; a fountain filled with rose petals backed by “MANNY” in neon letters 2 feet tall. One of Pacquiao’s business partners estimated that the cost of the flowers alone topped $50,000.
There’s an entire table of international ambassadors, including the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines. Numerous senators either attended or passed through to pay their respects. Ronald Dela Rosa, one of Pacquiao’s closest Senate confidants, is here. Nicknamed “Bato” — Rock — Dela Rosa was Duterte’s chief of police in Davao City during the implementation of the drug war and became chief of the Philippine National Police after Duterte’s election. (Roughly a month after the party, the United States revoked Dela Rosa’s visa as part of a crackdown on human rights violators.) Everything about Dela Rosa is square — a bald head, a body with the dimensions of a playing card. For many Filipinos, his ruthlessness is the embodiment of Duterte’s authority.
Duterte himself is a regular guest at the party, but he stayed in Mindanao after a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck during a weekend visit to his hometown of Davao City. It was two years earlier, at Pacquiao’s 39th birthday party, when Duterte stood before a crowd nearly identical to this one and anointed Pacquiao as his chosen successor.
There are seven musical performers, including a philharmonic orchestra and a Christian singer who crooned “Jesus Paid It All,” a song that includes the lines “Sin had left a crimson stain/He washed it white as snow.” Two emcees banter back and forth like sitcom spouses. Nearly every media outlet in Manila is represented. A television reporter conducting an on-camera interview with Pacquiao’s mother, Dionesia, ends the conversation by saying, “The greatest gift is your son Manny.”
The highlight of the night — and the highlight of every Pacquiao birthday party — is the end-of-the-night raffle, where tickets are drawn, numbers are read and the winners receive cash — anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 a shot — or a car. Three days earlier, Pacquiao had stood in his driveway handing out $20 apiece to the poorest of the poor, and here he is, in an opulent ballroom decorated to his wishes, handing out money to some of the richest people in the country. The wealthiest man in the Philippines, multibillionaire real estate mogul Manny Villar, a man commonly called an oligarch, sits at the head table with stacks of cash in front of him. Pacquiao raffles off two new cars. One of the winners is Lorelei Pacquiao, the wife of Manny’s brother, Bobby.
There are speeches, so many speeches. There is a video tribute to Jinkee, Manny’s wife, who sang a song to her husband. When she is finished, Manny thanks everyone for coming and says, “I hope this is just the beginning of my achievements in life. I have accomplished a lot with my imagination.”
One of the final speeches is delivered by Congressman Enrico Pineda, Pacquiao’s former manager and a longtime business partner. “Everything I have and everything I have ever done I owe to you,” Pineda says, his voice cracking. He looks down at Pacquiao and takes a moment to compose himself. The room is unsettled; the attention span for speeches like this one seems to have expired, and Pineda’s weepiness is becoming uncomfortable. Holding the microphone in his left hand, Pineda puts his right hand over his heart and says, “And come 2022, we will be there for you.” As he taps his hand over his heart and Pacquiao nods in appreciation, the cheers begin slowly and rise to fill the building. That number — 2022 — and its many implications provide the jolt. Chairs are pushed away from tables. Half the room stands and cheers.
None of this could possibly surprise Pacquiao. Constant adulation is woven into the fabric of his daily life, yet he manages to retain the ability to look astonished. It is one of his many gifts. He sits and smiles, back in the familiar embrace of his people, his eyebrows bouncing beneath his gangster fedora, his head nodding as the cheers of the faithful — sycophants and true believers alike — wash through the room. He looks around, the intensity of his focus at odds with his smile, and it’s impossible not to imagine that he’s seeing pieces moving on a board. The possibilities are limitless, each carrying its own risk and reward. The cheers continue. He gives nothing away.