MANILA — Manny Pacquiao lost his biggest fight in the ring, but that won’t stop him from plotting a bigger comeback – in the political arena that is.
In a country where elections are also entertainment and political programs secondary, candidates often win because of star power and money.
Pacquaio, who earned more than $100 million despite losing the Fight of the Century against Floyd Mayweather Jr. last weekend, certainly has that working for him.
But can he overcome his poor record as an incumbent congressman, his humble origins and lack of political savvy to win a Senate seat, or even higher office?
Having established himself as a local politician, the natural path for the 36-year-old Pacquiao would be the 24-seat Senate, a national position, which has been used as a springboard for vice president or president. His most ardent supporters say he can be a future president.
The Bible-quoting boxer, who by law cannot run for president before turning 40, has said his “thoughts on the presidency … are merely aspirational.” His first presidential race would be in 2022.
That could be harder than defeating Mayweather., but he can take comfort in the thought that Filipinos love the underdog. His rags-to-riches story – rising from extreme poverty to becoming the wealthiest Philippine congressman – has captured the imagination of the millions in his Southeast Asian nation.
Pacquiao the underdog played well at home after it was disclosed that even with his shoulder injured he still fought aggressively against Mayweather, said political analyst and public administration professor Prospero de Vera.
He said the way Pacquiao lost the fight “actually enhances his political viability” and could help him win as senator in elections next year.
But the higher the office Pacquiao seeks, the fiercer the competition and the closer the public scrutiny he will face.
Two popular athletes have been elected to the Senate in the last 30 years. One had first served as a city councilor, the other was a businessman and sportsman before running for the upper house. Both worked full time as legislators, unlike Pacquiao.
But, winning an election “most of the time is not connected with being prepared for the job,” de Vera said.
So far, Pacquiao doesn’t have much to show as one of 292 representatives in the lower house – he hasn’t successfully sponsored a single bill and is a top absentee in the chamber over the past five years.
Many Filipinos see Pacquiao’s loss as his cue to retire from boxing. For them, Pacquiao has already sealed his legacy not just as one of the world’s greatest boxers but also as a source of national pride. Others want him to also withdraw from politics and enjoy the fruits of his 20-year boxing career.
Yet others don’t believe he will retire anytime soon from boxing or politics. For one thing, his fight winnings are too big to ignore.
Pacquiao, who according to Forbes was worth $82 million before the latest fight, is often approached for financial support by individual constituents or even entire villages for anything from a community basketball court to funding for fiestas and scholarships. He also shoulders the expenses of his large entourage of relatives, friends and an assortment of hangers-on.
“I think he is not yet ready to retire,” said Raul Martinez, mayor of Pacquiao’s hometown of Kiamba and his wedding godfather. “Not everything is in place yet. He has so many commitments that if you sum up (his money), it won’t be enough.”
Doling out benefits and building a patronage network is a Filipino politician’s staple.
Pacquiao gives at least 50,000 pesos ($1,125) to each of the 144 villages in his impoverished southern Sarangani province and over 500,000 pesos ($11,285) to each of its seven municipalities every year just for fiestas – like celebrations of local patron saints. He also pays professional fees for show-biz personalities he invites to appear at the parties, Martinez said.
Martinez said he will try to persuade Pacquiao to run in next year’s election for governor instead of senator for practical reasons – he will most likely be unopposed and he can save a lot more money on a local election compared to a national campaign for a Senate seat, where he is also expected to contribute to the campaigns of provincial governors and thousands of municipal officials whose support he will seek to win votes.
Some fans still want a rematch because they felt cheated by the lackluster Pacquiao-Mayweather bout, which boxing analyst Ed Tolentino calls the “Fiasco of the Century.”
Tolentino said that pending investigations by Nevada authorities into whether there was fraud or “other shenanigans” in the bout, “the rematch is as good as dead.”
Pacquiao lost by unanimous decision after 12 rounds. He said he thought he won despite his injured right shoulder. He is facing several damage suits in the United States for alleged fraud in connection with the injury from people who spent money to watch or bet on the fight.
“When the injury had not yet been disclosed, people were blaming Floyd Mayweather for the lackluster fight because he resorted to hit-and-run tactics, but now people are blaming Manny Pacquiao for robbing them of the `fight of the century,'” Tolentino said.
He said, however, that Pacquiao can still retire without soiling his record as a champion. “I do not believe that his legacy will be defined by the performance in the Mayweather fight,” he said.
Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.