Conquering hero returns

MANILA, Philippines -- Huge crowds cheered Filipino boxing star Manny Pacquiao as a convoy paraded him from Manila's squalid slums to the presidential palace in a government-declared national celebration Monday for his latest win.

Pacquiao's second-round knockout that dethroned IBO light welterweight champion Ricky Hatton at the MGM Grand on May 3 cemented the Filipino's image as the world's best pound-for-pound fighter and his massive popularity at home.

His victory set off celebrations across the impoverished nation, where the 30-year-old has created a fanatical following that bridges the divide between rich and poor.

Shanty dwellers jostled along filthy sidewalks in Manila's Tondo slum district to get a glimpse of Pacquiao, whose phenomenal rise from crushing poverty as a street vendor to world fame has become the subject of at least one film.

Pacquiao smiled and waved while children threw mock punches as his long motorcade passed by.

"He's still my idol, though I didn't get a cent from his big win," said garbage collector Renato Baldivia, 43, flashing a toothless smile.

The parade was abruptly cut short to allow Pacquiao to go to the Malacanang Palace, where President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, her Cabinet and members of Congress showered him with confetti, praises, a cake emblazoned with the Philippine flag and a sumptuous Filipino lunch in a chandelier-lit banquet hall.

Three tenors serenaded him with a rendition of his songs -- one of his many side interests.

Pacquiao presented his IBO light welterweight champion belt to Arroyo and gave her and her husband his team's sports jackets. Arroyo wore it over her elegant fuchsia dress, grabbed a microphone and threw questions at him like a fan.

"Did Hatton hurt you?" Arroyo asked.

"Not so much," Pacquiao replied. "On top of the ring, I thought he was bigger and stronger. But no, he could not take the punch of the Filipino nation."

Arroyo presented him with an encased copy of a presidential proclamation, which called for a national celebration Monday for Pacquiao. It described him as a "boxing legend" whose "life and victories inspire the Filipinos to have resiliency and dedication to triumph against all odds."

Arroyo declared Pacquiao a special envoy of peace and unity.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, citing World Health Organization advice, urged Pacquiao last week to postpone his homecoming and observe a self-quarantine for five days because the swine flu virus has spread in Los Angeles, where Pacquiao remained to rest after his bout.

But Pacquiao defied the advice, saying he and his entourage did not have flu symptoms. He flew home Friday and shook hands of well-wishers and then drove to Quiapo church in downtown Manila, where a mob of fans awaited him.

Pacquiao has unsuccessfully run for a congressional seat but is planning another attempt next year.

Now basking in fame, he has become the object of detailed scrutiny. A reporter asked him Monday who cut his hair, and prominent sports analyst Ronnie Nathanielsz wrote about his change in attire.

"He used to sleep in cardboard boxes and wear hand-me-down shirts," Nathanielsz wrote in Manila Standard Today. "Now he dons Armani suits as befits the world's top ring gladiator."

Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.


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