Wednesday, November 10, 2010
This generation's Muhammad Ali
It’s not often that the President of the United States serves as an opening act for another politician, but to boxing promoter Bob Arum, that’s exactly what happened Sunday on “60 Minutes.”
After Steve Kroft’s interview with President Obama, a profile of Manny Pacquiao, the true star of the show in Arum’s eyes, was broadcast.
Pacquiao – Congressman Manny Pacquiao, to those in the Sarangani province of the Philippine Islands – has become not only the best boxer in the world, but also the most beloved since Muhammad Ali.
CBS correspondent Bob Simon, who traveled to the Philippines to do the “60 Minutes” profile and was twice stood up for interviews by the notoriously hard to pin down fighter, opened the segment by noting “We haven’t done many stories about boxers, but there’s good reason to do one now.”
[Photos: See Pacquiao as he prepares to fight Margarito]
Pacquiao, who meets Antonio Margarito on Saturday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the World Boxing Council super welterweight title for what could be, depending upon who is doing the counting, a championship in a record eighth weight class, has a global influence now that extends far beyond the borders of his beloved homeland.
At Arum’s request, Pacquiao left training in Los Angeles on Oct. 29 to fly to Las Vegas to help boost Sen. Harry Reid’s chances of re-election. Reid, the Senate majority leader and one of the most powerful politicians in the country, was in the toughest race of his career. The local newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was gleefully reporting his demise and leading the charge against him. Reid’s negatives among would-be voters were astronomical. He trailed upstart challenger Sharron Angle in nearly every public opinion poll.
Las Vegas is home to a large Filipino population and Reid needed all the help he could get in what was a very tight race. When Pacquiao arrived for the joint appearance with Reid and Arum at Orr Middle School, the crowd looked as if it could have been in Manila. The gym was filled with Filipinos.
Reid won the election by about 40,000 votes.
Pacquiao, publicist Fred Sternburg noted, didn’t simply lend his dazzling smile to Reid’s re-election effort. Sternburg was in Los Angeles with Pacquiao, coordinating his public relations effort, and discovered Pacquiao researching the Nevada campaign and Reid’s stances on the issues.
“He didn’t just want to show up and smile and wave and then fly back (to Los Angeles),” Sternburg said. “Just in the time I’ve worked with him, he’s grown tremendously. Since the (Joshua) Clottey fight (on March 13), I’ve noticed a visible change in his temperament, in his demeanor. I think he realizes that being a public servant is his calling and that this is what he was meant to do.”
Arum has promoted boxing for nearly a half century, and for much of that time, he’s had to beg, plead and cajole the media to take an interest in his shows.
Boxing is largely a forgotten sport in the United States, particularly among the mainstream media, and only when a truly major bout come along does it get even cursory interest outside the boxing press. The Washington Post doesn’t cover the sport at all. The New York Times rarely does. The same is true of the Chicago Tribune.
Arum promoted a bout in Las Vegas on Saturday between Juan Manuel Lopez and Rafael Marquez that was legitimately touted as a potential Fight of the Year candidate. No reporter from a major newspaper outside of Las Vegas bothered to make the trip. Even the Associated Press, which has one of its national sports columnists based in Las Vegas, skipped the event, hiring a stringer to write a short piece.
But Arum wasn’t bemoaning the lack of coverage of a stellar fight on Saturday because he could barely wait for the “60 Minutes” piece on Sunday. It was the latest in a series of profiles of the one-time street urchin by major media outlets which usually shun boxing.
Media at all levels, from tiny, boxing-specific websites to monolith media outlets such as CBS, have all taken a crack at profiling the man that biographer Gary Andrew Poole says “is a much bigger character than just a boxer.”
Sternburg was hired as Pacquiao’s publicist in 2005, just before a fight with Erik Morales. By that stage, Pacquiao was already a legend among boxing insiders, but he was a virtual unknown among the wider audience in the U.S. In order to generate attention for Pacquiao and the pay-per-view fight, Sternburg resorted to gimmicks such as the mysterious “Manila Ice” punch that Pacquiao was supposedly working on in secret. Now, Sternburg has to play traffic cop and sort out the incredible list of demands for Pacquiao’s time down to a manageable few.
Pacquiao appeared on the ABC late night talk show “Jimmy Kimmel Live” last week and sang a duet of the John Lennon song, “Imagine” with actor Will Ferrell. He was profiled in Time Magazine and appeared on the cover of its Asian edition. CNN International did a half-hour segment on him. Magazines such as Esquire, GQ and The Atlantic, which rarely cover sports, let alone boxing, did profiles of him. The New York Times regularly sends a reporter now to cover Pacquiao. NPR’s Weekend Edition did a long segment on his plans to help his countrymen a few days before his 2009 fight with Ricky Hatton. He’s also on the cover of the November issue of American Airlines’ in-flight magazine, which has never before profiled a boxer.
Pacquiao has become one of the most recognizable athletes in the world and the most significant boxer on the world stage since Ali. He’s beloved in the Philippines, where his name recognition, as Poole says, “is probably 101 percent.”
“He is adored,” Simon said of the love his countrymen have for Pacquiao on “60 Minutes: Overtime” that aired on the Internet after the show was over on television. “I can’t think of any other person in the world who has ever been so adored by his people.”
Poole, whose recently released biography of Pacquiao, “PacMan,” is the best-selling boxing book on Amazon.com, spent two weeks in the Philippines and got a first-hand glimpse of that adoration.
He tagged along with Pacquiao as the boxer was on the campaign trail, running for a seat in the Filipino Congress representing the Sarangani province.
“I followed him out into the jungle where he was making a campaign speech and that’s when I realized the depth of the love they have for this guy,” Poole said. “We’re in the middle of a jungle – Who here could even imagine a campaign stop like that? – and there were literally thousands of people there. They were looking at him like a demigod. When he’d walk the streets, they’d just reach out and try to touch his shirt.
“We love our sports figures in the U.S., but he’s bigger than a sports figure over there. When he speaks, it transcends all class and cultural boundaries. Everyone listens. He’s a one in a 92 million story.”
Pacquiao had a sense early in his life that he was put on Earth to serve his countrymen. As his success as a boxer has increased and he’s become wealthier, Pacquiao has been able to do more for his country. The day after he was sworn into office, Pacquiao went scuba diving in order to promote tourism.
He’s worked tirelessly to build a hospital in Sarangani and took time off from training for the Margarito fight, much to the consternation of trainer Freddie Roach, to fly to Manila to discuss the project with Filipino President Benigno S. Aquino III.
“What this guy means to that country is something that you couldn’t understand in a hundred years unless you went there and saw it,” Arum said.
During the “60 Minutes” piece, Pacquiao noted that he’d reached all of his goals in boxing. He’s held world championships at flyweight, super bantamweight, super featherweight, lightweight, super lightweight and welterweight. He didn’t win a title belt at featherweight, but stopped the great Marco Antonio Barrera in 2003 to win the linear championship. And on Saturday, the man who began his career as a 106-pounder will meet Margarito for a super welterweight belt.
Pacquiao told Simon, though, that win or lose against Margarito, he’s accomplished all he’d set out to do in boxing. He’s widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world and is rapidly moving up the all-time rankings.
“I already achieved my goals in boxing, my dreams in boxing,” Pacquiao said to Simon. “And what I want to achieve more is in public service, you know. I want to be a champion there.”
Arum has gone on record numerous times suggesting that Pacquiao is the greatest fighter he’s even seen, including Ali. And the venerable promoter, who was once a U.S. Attorney in the Kennedy administration, believes that Pacquiao will some day be elected president of the Philippines.
It would be an extraordinary rise for a young man who came from one of the poorest families in one of the poorest countries on Earth. But after what he’s seen in the last five years, nothing Pacquiao can do will surprise Arum.
“There isn’t a shadow of doubt in my mind that he’ll be the president of the Philippines,” Arum says, resolutely. “None. He’s an incredibly bright guy. I watched him campaign for his seat in Congress and he was going up against a very established, entrenched opponent. Manny ran in 2007 and he didn’t have the right people around him and he didn’t campaign the right way and he lost.
“But he learned from that and he ran a brilliant campaign. I was out there watching him and he was speaking in all these different dialects and it was a side of him I’d never seen. It was awe-inspiring. I was so touched by what he was doing, I can only imagine what it must have been like to have been a Filipino listening to him. There’s never been anyone like this kid and there probably never will be.”