The Nobel Fighter and the Shadows of Empire

This Saturday, Floyd “Money” Mayweather will step into the ring with Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao for one of the most anticipated matches in boxing history. It will also be one of the highest grossing. Once released to the public, tickets sold out in less than a minute. Tickets on third party websites were priced at over 500 percent more than face value. Early reports listed the average ticket price at close to $12,000, with the least expensive tickets, having a face value of $1500, being sold for $8780. Overall, the fight is expected to generate a live gate of 74 million dollars.

With all the hype surrounding this fight, one must ask if the excitement is indicative of the success of boxing as a sport or the two elite boxers fighting for bragging rights. Social scientists have long examined the media representations and narratives that surround spectacles to better understand our values and beliefs. The American media portrayal of Pacquiao, as a deeply religious, generous, and kind individual who has overcome challenges in and out of the ring, makes him the poster boy of the noble, mild-tempered, respectable individual. This stands in contrast to the portrayal of Mayweather, who is presented as the arrogant, trash-talking villain consumed by money. While Mayweather showers himself with high-end consumer goods, Pacquiao humbly accepts his achievements and gives away his fortune.

The cultural narratives embedded in this media representation of Pacquiao seem innocuous, since they portray him in a positive fashion. However, these narratives reinforce the model-minority stereotype and continue to mask the history of the Philippines being colonized for over 400 years by Spain and the United States, as well as the long-lasting effects of that history. Ultimately, by minimizing this history and exalting the myth of the model minority, the media is able to ignore the marginalized position Filipinos hold, both currently and historically, to make generalized statements that reinforce beliefs about Filipinos and the Philippines.

Although media images of Manny Pacquiao may be accurate depictions of the boxer as an individual, the portrayal draws on stereotypes, especially as it casts Pacquiao as a national icon and embodiment of everything that is essentially Filipino. Pacquiao’s sincere demonstration of his pride in being Filipino, often seen through his ring attire that prominently showcases the Philippine flag and its blue, red, and yellow colors, has enabled others to portray him as a representation of his country. His recent music video for the song “lalban ako para sa Filipino,” which switches between scenes of Pacquiao crooning in a church set up as a recording studio, succeeding in memorable matches, and participating in humanitarian aid efforts in the Philippines – all interspersed with images of Filipino children – further positions Pacquiao as the icon of the Philippines. The chorus, which translates to “I am pinoy. We are pinoy. I will fight the world with my life at stake. I will fight for all Filipino,” presents Pacquiao as the warrior fighting not for himself, but on behalf of the Philippines.

The construction of Pacquiao as a national icon, which draws upon his demonstrated pride in his country, enables others to use his characteristics as a representation of all Filipinos. For example, Bob Arum, CEO of the Top Rank promotion company, stated that he “remember[s] the Philippines for their graciousness and kindness” in accepting refugees during the Holocaust. He then suggests that these traits are embodied by all Filipinos. Arum stated in a press conference, “We know what kind of graciousness and kindness the Filipinos show. We have to only visit a hospital in California or Nevada. Eighty percent of the nurses are Filipinos because they are gracious and kind people.” By suggesting that graciousness and kindness are inherent traits of Filipinos, the colonial and legal history that created a pipeline from the Philippines to the United States for nurses is completely ignored. It disregards the common immigration pattern from colonized nation to colonizer, the fact that Filipino nurses earn significantly more in the United States and thus leave their home country, and US legislation – the Pensionado Act of 1903, the 1948 US Exchange Visitor Program, and the changes to immigration laws in 1965 – which either encouraged Filipinos to pursue nursing as a career through rewards or eased restrictions that limited movement between the two nations.

This history is easily ignored when the media can point to Pacquiao, whose sport is antithetical to the compassion that nurses must exhibit in their work, and praise him for exemplifying Filipino graciousness and kindness through his willingness to “give fortunes away [to] support charities in the Philippines.” Individuals like Muhammad Ali have voiced their support for Pacquiao for his out-of-the-ring contributions and others have suggested that Pacquiao is so kind he is an easy “target of exploitive people.” While being kind and generous are worthy traits, their reduction to essential national characteristics supports a dangerous rhetoric often used to explain Filipinos’ over-representation in the service sector.

Furthermore, this construction of Filipinos not as leaders but as kind helpers reinforces a belief that harks back to the American colonization of the Philippines – the belief that Filipinos and the Philippines need the support of the United States to thrive. Pacquiao, an Evangelical Christian, attributes his success to God (he has said that he would like to share God’s word with Mayweather after the fight). Bob Arum, on the other hand, credits Pacquiao’s rise to more worldly powers. According to the promoter, the poor fighter from the Philippines would not have been propelled to success without an American company’s intervention. Arum stated at the press conference announcing the Mayweather match:

Manny Pacquiao has been backed by HBO since he beginning of his career. The first time he came on the scene was as a substitute when he was brought in and he won a world title in his first appearance on HBO. And since then HBO has been behind him 100 percent. They built his career. They built his image. And they made him the personality that the public sees today.

This narrative, which still situates the United States as savior of the Philippines, combines with the belief that Pacquiao’s 2010 election to the Philippine House of Representatives was simply because of his popularity. While his popularity in boxing may have increased his political reach, the reduction of his election to Congress to being a boxing icon reaffirms the view of the Filipino government as dysfunctional. It suggests that Pacquiao would not be a politician without western help and aid, again in the form of HBO. Although Pacquiao has a record of absenteeism as a congressman, his commitment to being a civil servant has been recognized by his trainer, Freddie Roach, as well as fellow members of Congress. The suggestion that he was elected simply because of his boxing fame ignores the fact that Pacquiao was driven to politics to combat poverty – a social ill that greatly influenced his childhood – which is clearly shown in his political work. He has spoken out against human trafficking, which disproportionately victimizes the poor, fought to increase the minimum wage in the Philippines, and has been instrumental in securing funds for classrooms, water supply systems, educational scholarships, and other structures that improve the quality of life in communities across the Philippines.

It is important to note that Filipinos may find validation in the construction of themselves as gracious and kind fighters, who succeed not on their own, but thanks to God and luck. Many individuals express this view in the popular saying “sinuwerte lang,” which roughly translates to “I was only lucky” or “it was only because of luck.” Perhaps this self-perception is part of the reason the diasporic Filipino community comes together to watch the humble and generous Pacquiao fight. Manny Pacquiao probably does exhibit these traits and should be commended for being a person who gives back to his community. However, media constructions of the boxer from the Philippines over-simplify these characteristics as essential elements of being Filipino, ignoring the diversity of experience and sociopolitical circumstances that shape an individual Filipino’s life chances. By falling back into these stereotypes, we entrench our view of the Philippines as a struggling nation in need of American help and characterize the people of a country made up of thousands of islands into a single image digestible for the general American public.

Ultimately, elevation of Manny Pacquiao as the representation of the Philippines does not challenge our conceptualizations of Filipinos or the Philippines. Instead, it ignores the history of the Philippines as a US colony and territory and reduces Filipinos to a stereotype that affirms American ideology. Pacquiao should be commended for his accomplishments, his generosity, humanitarianism, and his role in generating Filipino pride; however, to exalt Pacquiao as one of the only individuals whom Filipinos can be proud of shifts attention away from the likes of Carlos Bulosan, Emilio Aguinaldo, Jose Rizal, and Bernigno Aquino. These figures remind us of the American colonization of the Philippines, the injustice faced by Filipinos globally and in the United States, and the marginalization of the Filipino community. For the American media, Pacquiao is the perfect candidate to represent the Philippines. His story can be framed in a way that supports the myth of the model minority and Americans’ amnesia surrounding their own history as a colonial empire.