You could argue the closest we have to him is the president-elect, a person who can excite and unify masses while performing on a platform of hope. Barack Obama has promised change. Manny Pacquiao allows others to live it.
National treasures to us are often architectural or artistic or cultural figures. Our forests. Our parks. Our monuments. Our rivers.
Filipinos look to a man neither 5 feet 7 inches nor 150 pounds, but a giant in their needy eyes. Pacquiao won’t be fighting just for himself when he encounters Oscar De La Hoya in a welterweight main event at the MGM Grand Garden on Saturday night. He hasn’t for some time.
He again will be joined in spirit by the millions of Filipinos who view him far more as savior than fighter, who line up outside his home in General Santos from dawn to dusk, not asking for autographs but for the money and food he so freely supplies. Those who wait hours with the hope of being near him, at the thought of merely touching his hand.
The Philippines is defined as much by poverty as religious devotion. Nearly 6 percent of children are orphaned. There is a widespread shortage of medical care and an even greater scarcity of certainty in much of anything beyond one’s God and a certain fighter who over time has helped Filipinos discover a sense of pride they might not otherwise know.
"It is unimaginable, the thrill and excitement he gives our people," said Jose Atienza Jr., former mayor of Manila and now the government’s secretary of environment and natural resources. "He has become a legend. What he has is loyalty — to his friends, his country, his faith. It’s a rare quality, and people know it … . Our country has been through many, many trials. We have been struggling. But we consider him an international treasure.
"He brings honor to Filipinos."
Try to grasp this level of adoration: The city of General Santos is a large producer of such things as corn and coconuts and asparagus and rice. It also can be a dangerous and volatile place of political unrest, with extremists, Muslim separation groups, communist guerillas and other violent factions patrolling the streets.
But within each group, Pacquiao has his own security detail. He is known as the People’s Champion and protected by all, even those intent on bringing hostility and brutality to others.
The fear of those closest to him is that his generosity ultimately will cost him too much, that he is without the capacity to say no. Pacquiao will earn $11 million plus a percentage of pay-per-view buys to fight De La Hoya, but it won’t shock Bob Arum if all the money is gone in five years.
"It doesn’t concern me because the other guy I had who gave it all away without gambling or pissing it all away was Ali," said Arum, Pacquiao’s promoter. "He gave it all away, but he was such an icon, it all came back. He lives a good life now.
"(Pacquiao) will always live well because his people will see to it that he never wants for anything. He’ll run out of every cent he makes in this fight. I know it.
"It’s a (generosity) that comes from living in a cardboard shack when you’re growing up. From working your way up not from being poor or from a tenement but from living on the frigging streets. Someone like that, if he has any heart at all, will feel for his people and those less fortunate. And he does. I’ve never seen anyone like him anywhere."
The bracelet dangling from Pacquiao’s wrist has a wooden cross on it. He will wear a rosary into the ring Saturday, as he does for all fights. He won’t train in a gym without having a crucifix present.
If there is an immense pressure inside him to win for his country, a place of more than 90 million that essentially will stop living and start watching when the opening bell goes off, he conceals it within a devout belief in a higher being.
Pressure to win for Filipinos?
Think of it in these terms:
He is every major sporting event and every superstar athlete America knows and enjoys rolled into one. He is Obama times tens of millions.
"I am happy for bringing honor to my country," Pacquiao said. "When you die, you can’t bring all that you have from this world. The thing is, ‘What did you do when you were here?’ "
Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.orgVideo and Slideshow