I don't know if I could ever be considered a Manny Pacquiao fan. I always wanted him to win, but being a fan implies positive feelings of support or a participation in excitement and joy. Mostly, what I felt was dread. During the height of Pacquiao's winning streak, I was worried about how this would all end. As a Filipino, I could not his significance to the people around me or the entire archipelago of the Philippines. I joked that should he ever lose, there would be a string of suicides in Manila, but underneath the hyperbole I believed the core of it. I didn't enjoy the suspense of his matches, or at least, I enjoyed them the way one might enjoy a horror film. The eventual victories were just sighs of relief until the next stressful bout.
It's not a reasonable way to think by any means, but I've come to understand it as part of having an identity, whether it's based on ethnicity or hometown or shared hobbies. It's not purely that Pacquiao was Filipino, and therefore, I was obligated to emotionally invest in his career. It's just that I recognized a common ground, and that made him relatable, likable, and inclined to transpose all my hopes & dreams onto him (if you want to deconstruct it that far.) It would have been the same if I found out he listened to Titus Andronicus or read Batman comics. For a group starving for representation in even the most inconsequential of venues (So You Think You Can Dance! American Idol! Top Shot?) every chance to root for someone that looks like you is a gem.
Of course, this kind of identification has boundaries. Comedian Hari Kondabolu has a great bit where, upon deciding that there are now plenty of Indians in American mass media, he now feels free to openly hate some of them. While I don't think I've personally reached that level of saturation, I understand the idea of divorcing those that don't line up with the rest of your identity. There are figures you'd think I would identify with (Say, half-Filipino singer Bruno Mars), but they do things that I absolutely don't see myself in (cheeseball R&B songs). My tendency as a minority participant in pop culture has been to relate to someone until they do something that says, nope, sorry, you can't.
Such was the case with Manny Pacquiao. It started when Manny's bouts became less climactic destructions and more simple scoring decisions. The lack of adrenaline caused by a knockout, or a fear of one, made the stress more manageable, like finding out the spooky shadow was just a cat. But what completely flat-lined my investment in Pacquiao was when, last year, he made it abundantly clear that the commonality I saw was small by speaking out against sex education and contraception. Suddenly, I couldn't jive with a guy whose anti-contraception argument was that one of those sperms might become the best pound for pound boxer in the world. It only got worse with his ideas on gay rights.
It's not that my loyalty was so thin that it could hinge on a single difference of opinion. I still appreciated his skill and sincerity and ability to win over people, even those that laughed at him at first on Jimmy Kimmel. But the emotion of it, the zeal that creates dread and obsession, sprang from the idea that he was one of my kind. We all gravitate to public figures that we can relate to, and it's one of life's greatest bummers when the wider picture reveals something antithetical to the image you constructed. The old phrase is, "never meet your heroes," but in today's mass media and constant exposure, it's unavoidable.
When he later lost a sham decision to Timothy Bradley months later, I wasn't even watching anymore. I didn't attend the family party to yell at the TV, I didn't even read any blow-by-blow liveblogs. I found out when someone I knew tweeted about it. Despite what I had once felt, Manny's first loss in over 10 years wasn't the end of the world. It wasn't even a bad day.
Things were continuing along this path until Manny Pacquiao's fight with Juan Manuel Marquez this past Saturday. It was the 4th meeting of their legendary rivalry, and a long time ago it might have been an exciting, suspenseful conclusion to me. Yet, I was less interested than ever before. I had personally moved my overinvested stress onto Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin, hoping he would prove himself to be at least the 4th or 5th best person on the team. That, by the way, is not working out at all for either of us.
But then an impossible thing happened that night: just a second before the end of the 6th round, an aggressive Manny Pacquiao was knocked into Arizona by a perfect and incisive counterpunch. Juan Manuel Marquez had finally slayed his personal dragon, wholly and completely, and jaws around the world dropped. I watched it on animated gif, the premiere graphic expression of our time.
As I watched Manny lay there for too long on the mat, a moment made even longer by the gif loading every frame, I began to feel concerned. Everyone was. He had leaned into a textbook wallop, the kind of hit you imagine could kill somebody. Even Marquez looked surprised that he had dropped Pacquiao. Fortunately, he was fine, but that concern stuck with me. I didn't want him to get hurt, I didn't even want him to lose. Suddenly, the empathy came back as I saw a guy who had been handed his second straight defeat.
I took in the reactions of those around me. Some felt the weight of the loss, others exhibited the good-natured sportsmanship of the fighters themselves. Then there was the case of my uncle: he had placed a bet that the fight would end in round 6 and won a small sum of money, albeit not in the way he wanted to. It didn't matter, anyway. He had also bet a much larger sum of money in Pacquiao's favor, a sum he couldn't really afford on his paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle. I may have had one foot out of Manny Pacquiao's bandwagon, but that didn't mean anyone I cared about followed. To them Pacquiao wasn't simply a target for their adulation. They didn't dread anything; they had a sincere faith that he wouldn't let them down. He would make their lives better.
That meant more than just winning bets. It meant representing where their identity as immigrants of a particular experience, of being an ideal of achievement and exceptionalism. And if things weren’t personally going your way, if the homelands in disarray or you’re still troubled with assimilation, he was an escape. It's hard to see that, out cold on a mat. I'm sure they're all still fans, and Pacquiao continues to fight, they'll be right behind their man. But the luster is gone, that once unshakeable belief that he was a superman is no more. I wish that Pacquiao had won, or at least lost in a less brutal manner. The fire he inspired in others was one of a kind, and I hate to see something so rare go out.