Of the 62 bouts former world champion Manny Pacquiao won in his 26 years in boxing, his favorite was against Oscar de la Hoya, who was taller, heavier, and arguably the bigger star when they battled in 2008.
“It was amazing. I mean, nobody expected that I was going to win the fight,” Pacquiao said in a live interview with VICE World News on Nov. 8. “But, like I told [my team], in God all things are possible. As long as you believe and have faith, you can have it.”
For his many fans who watched him rise from hungry street kid to multi-millionaire boxing icon, 42-year-old Pacquiao has already achieved the impossible. Now that he’s officially retired from boxing, he hopes to accomplish yet another unlikely feat: to become president of the Philippines.
He insists on running for president in the upcoming May 2022 national elections because he believes he can make a difference.
“I’ve been helping people since 2002 until now, and there are so many people suffering and starving. And what I saw in the government is these politicians—most of them are corrupt. They’re stealing money from the government, stealing money from the people,” he said
He names corruption and poverty—the country’s perennial and intertwined problems—as the enemy. Recent Philippine history is replete with high-profile corruption scandals, and every politician who’s ever aspired to become president has promised to eliminate the issue.
Pacquiao spoke of the corruption he said he witnessed in the government earlier this year, as the election season drew near and it became apparent he wouldn’t receive the backing of President Rodrigo Duterte—whose mandatory single term is ending—despite them belonging to the same political party.
Now, he is making the same promise Duterte made when he campaigned in 2016: a ruthless purge of corrupt officials. What makes this pledge different coming from Pacquiao?
“I think the difference is my sincerity—my love for the Filipino people, my love for my country,” he said.
No presidential aspirant can claim to know the troubles of ordinary Filipinos like Pacquiao, who used to wait at stores for leftovers to feed his family. But how far will this sincerity go if he wins the presidency, and those corrupt officials turn out to be friends and allies who supported him in his fights?
When he announced his retirement from boxing in September, he thanked some four dozen people and families who had helped him along the way, many of them politicians. Would he have the courage to put friends in jail?
“I’m serving the people, not my friends. So if you have an issue of corruption, then [there is] no compromising,” he replied. “I will send you to jail.”
The Duterte administration is currently embroiled in a corruption scandal regarding millions of dollars’ worth of seemingly irregular purchases of medical supplies during the pandemic. Duterte has repeatedly lashed out at senators conducting the investigation, and defended his allies allegedly involved in the scam.
As a senator himself, Pacquiao is part of the panel running the probe.
“I criticize the president because I’m against corruption. Corruption is the cancer of this country,” he said, stopping short of saying Duterte himself is corrupt.
“I mean the people around him. The people around him—there’s a lot of issues. That’s why we are trying to investigate all those issues of corruption.”
But Pacquiao’s opponents for the presidency are formidable and experienced politicians—they include a dictator’s son, a movie star who’s now mayor of Manila, a police general who’s now a senator, and the incumbent vice president.
He lags behind most or all of them in different public preference surveys for presidential candidates. But armed with his faith and sure of his intentions, Pacquiao says he is unfazed.
“Even me, I’m asking myself why I’m in politics, why I’m here,” said Pacquiao, who became a congressman in 2010 and is currently a senator. “I understand that God put me here for a purpose—I’m here to discipline and clean this country from corrupt practices of politicians.”
Until recently, Pacquiao had not been vocal about the country’s problems. Critics have panned his lackluster performance as a lawmaker, and he’s often ranked the top absentee at congressional sessions owing to his boxing matches and training.
Pacquiao used to be a staunch defender of Duterte’s most controversial policies: namely the war on drugs, that has killed at least 6,000 people according to official data, and his push to reinstate the death penalty. No longer a Duterte ally, he now has a nuanced approach to these issues.
“I will continue the drug war, but in the right way,” he said. “You don’t need to kill them in the streets without due process to defend themselves in court.”
Pacquiao said he is putting a death penalty bill he filed on hold, acknowledging problems in the judicial system. “I don’t want innocent people to be punished by death.”
But this compassionate stance ends where his evangelical faith draws the line.
“I’m against same-sex marriage. Being a Christian, I am against that. In terms of belief, I am against that,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean that I condemn them.”
There are many members of the LGBTQ+ community among his staff and in his family, he added. “I’m not condemning them. I love them.”
But for Pacquiao, the tenets of religion supersede any other law or principle.
“Everybody should be bound by the authority, the law, the government. Because the authority is established by God and instituted by God,” he said. “Even the president is bound by the authority.”
Besides moving to jail corrupt politicians, if he does become president, Pacquiao says the first thing he will do is “plan how we can give jobs to people, how to make the economy normal.” He was unable to give firmer details, however, as to how he plans to improve livelihoods and spur economic growth.
He had ready answers to questions about every major issue confronting the Philippines: The COVID-19 pandemic? Mass vaccination. The South China Sea territorial dispute? Talk it over with China. Poverty? Create more jobs by helping out small businesses.
But he is also acutely aware that he still has a lot to prove to win the country’s top post, a challenge he said he is familiar with having been the perennial underdog, even in boxing.
“My dream is to be a champion in different weight divisions in public service,” Pacquiao said, alluding to his status as the only boxer in history to win 12 titles in eight weight divisions.
Boxing taught him “determination, action, focus and sincerity,” lessons that he says can make a good president.
To the critics who doubt his capabilities—just watch, he tells them.
“Although they belittle me, I will do everything to amaze them, just as I had done in boxing.”
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