Yes, Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao gave American fighter Keith Thurman his first professional loss over the weekend. While his super welterweight title win wasn’t as clean as fans wanted—a 2-1 split decision—he gave an impressive, dominant performance throughout the fight.
No one can deny he’s spry for a 40-year-old. He even did a little Muhammad Ali shuffle there. Indeed, it looks like Pacquiao has more than some fight left in him. A real living legend, right?
But wait. Are we really giving Pacquiao a pass the moment he gets into the ring? The Philippine Senate’s top absentee? The same Pacquiao who lost a contract with Nike after uttering a homophobic statement? The same Pacquiao who supports putting 9-year-olds in prison and imposing the death penalty on drug users?
It seems that after a Pacquiao victory, the world miraculously forgets the boxer-turned-politician's problematic policies. Even Senator Risa Hontiveros, chief proponent of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression Equality bill in the Philippines and staunch LGBTQ+ advocate, congratulated Pacquiao’s win on Twitter. Other high-profile celebrities also took to social media to congratulate him. Philippine media corporation ABS-CBN reported that his match had the highest viewership ratings compared to the other TV channels, during the time it aired.
So why do Filipinos adore Pacquiao even though they don’t agree with his values?
For Filipinos, charisma and personalism might be valued higher than ideological beliefs, according to Corazon Baterina-Kawi, director of the guidance center in Saint Louis University, and a registered psychologist, guidance counselor, and psychometrician.
“His accomplishments in boxing stands alone as the reason why majority of Filipinos support him even if he does not measure up as a senator,” Baterina-Kawi told VICE. “Historically speaking, Filipinos are prone to cognitive biases, or generalizations. If he is good in sports, he must also be good in politics.”
Baterina-Kawi admits that cognitive biases are seen across every nationality, but it’s very apparent when it comes to Filipinos who make first impressions based on external cues.
“When someone’s pretty, or rich, or influential, we end up treating them with more respect,” she said.
But aside from “the respect” Pacquiao has earned in the ring, rooting for him might also be a matter of nationalism or Filipino pride.
“People indirectly fulfill their wish for success or achievement through Pacquiao’s success,” Joseph Pineda, a registered psychologist, added. “Most people see Pacquiao as the successful boxer first and the politics side of him comes second.”
It could also, he said, have something to do with the appeal of sports, forcing our brains to separate Pacquiao as a politician and Pacquiao as a world-class athlete.
“Politics is often a polarising issue anyway while sports can do the opposite. His achievement in sports may unite, inspire and motivate people, but his politics is a different story.”
Pineda adds that the concept of hero worship is also at play. “Pacquiao makes most [Filipinos] (and even non-Filipinos) proud because he manages to fight against the best of the best on the international boxing stage… This is the [Filipino] spirit we want to identify with and support.”
So what should we do the next time we find ourselves cursing Pacquiao when he says something homophobic, but jumping for joy when he wins another world title belt?
"For those who truly have well-meaning intentions, they may have the courage to share their thoughts or unsolicited advice on how Pacquiao can improve in an area he may still be learning how, such as politics," Baterina-Kawi said.
"His supporters can express their support by letting him know how he can be better."