Manny Pacquiao as American pop culture icon

Manny presents MP8 Cologne to Melrose store shoppers in L.A. Photo: Chris Farina

By Daniel de la Rosa

The iconization of Manny Pacquiao has begun.

The Filipino boxer, who has won eight world titles, is now the flag bearer of CBS (whither Charlie Sheen?) and is lending his name to a men’s cologne. The first time something as memorable has happened to a great American athlete was football legend Joe Namath hawking pantyhose in his name in the ’70s.

Almost half a century ago, boxing was a staple on American television.

Around that time, a jabbermouth pugilist named Cassius Clay was about to shock the world and Sonny Liston. Gabriel Elorde, a Filipino, was starting his seven-year run atop the world junior lightweight division. Even then into the ‘70s, boxing was big time.

Sugar Ray Leonard came out of the Olympics to headline the sport in a series of battles against Roberto ‘Hands of Stone’ Duran, Tommy ‘The Hitman’ Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Those were good years for boxing, and television was front and center in bringing the fights to American homes.

And then the fun times dried up. Boxing faded from the scene around the 1990s when it migrated to cable, specifically HBO. There was no boxer who captured the imagination of fans, and the American fighters who were good were not exactly lovable. Hello, Floyd Mayweather.

Quick. Can anyone even remember who the heavyweight champion is? George Foreman is selling cooking grills and the benefits of healthy eating. Mike Tyson is doing bit parts in a movie after serving time for assaulting women and chewing on earlobes.

With host Jimmy Kimmel on his late-night ABC show. Photo: Chris Farina

CBS President Leslie Moonves wants to put boxing back into the consciousness of Americans. With no American boxer matching the legendary status of a Muhammad Ali, Moonves, Showtime and Top Rank’s chief Bob Arum hitched their star on our own Manny Pacquiao. He almost singlehandedly brought boxing back to life in the United States, took on everyone in sight and beat them all.

He forced Oscar de la Hoya to stay on his stool by beating him to a pulp. He whipped Miguel Cotto in a fight that had everyone at ringside gasping in awe at the bell-to-bell action before forcing the ref to end it in the 12th round. He caught Briton Ricky Hatton with as perfect a left as anybody has ever seen and knocked him out cold at 2:59 of the second round.

Pacquiao has sold out Cowboy Stadium in Texas for another fight. The prospect of a fight with the undefeated Floyd Mayweather has floundered. When Pacquiao finally agreed to the blood-testing rules Mayweather asked for, the man came up with another reason to derail the fight. Plainly, he is ducking Pacquiao because the General Santos native is more than capable putting a 1 in his 41-0 record.

Now, the Pacman is headlining the attempt by CBS to put boxing back on American television. In the buildup to his next fight against Shane Mosley, CBS will air a series of shows that follow both boxers through their respective training camps.

It is of course patterned after the HBO formula of showing the fighters, their trainers, families and hangers-on as they embark on the road that eventually takes them to America’s playground – Las Vegas. I caught a few minutes of the show with Manny’s cute young daughters telling him, “You’ll win the fight, Daddy, because you’re stronger.”

The Wild Card gym where Pacquiao trains in Los Angeles was like a hole in the wall up a flight of stairs. Pacquiao’s entourage rented a series of rooms nearby. They cooked their meals here or bought cooked dishes from a Chinese-Malaysian restaurant a short drive away. As the Pacman became more successful, a trickle of American celebrities begin showing up at the Wild Card, including Mark Wahlberg and Mario Lopez.

With the fight against Mosley coming up on May 7, the Wild Card gym has a new sign that garishly proclaims its existence. Today, the gym looks, well, richer. It’s still a gym, but success has its benefits.

Like Ali, Pacman has one thing going for him. His fights are never boring. His two-fisted style and quickness endear him to the casual fan and the boxing purists, even to the people who think boxing is a gory past-time.

Daniel de la Rosa is a freelance journalist who writes sports and business.


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