From poverty to presidency? The many transformations of Manny Pacquiao

Rolling with the punches has been a Manny Pacquiao skill in and out of the ring.

His is a story straight out of a movie – dirt poor to billionaire, unorthodox boxer to world champion, and absentee congressman to presidential aspirant.

Almost his entire life was spent overcoming, disproving, until succeeding – only now to repeat the cycle. Having  lost to Yordenis Ugas, Pacquiao is now facing his biggest battle yet: his presidential campaign.

Much has been said about him as a boxer, but how is Pacquiao as a colleague, friend, leader, and politician?

Pacquiao’s family in General Santos City was so poor that he had to quit school at age 14, move to Manila, live on its harsh streets, while both working as a construction worker and trying to make a career in boxing.

In Pacquiao’s early decade as a professional boxer, close friend Jayke Joson, who has known Pacquiao since 2004, recalled how brands either ignored or belittled him. It was always an uphill battle for Pacquiao until 2003, when he won against Mexican Marco Antonio Barrera in what many consider as the defining moment of the Filipino athlete's career.

A series of successful matches turned Pacquiao into a wealthy athlete, party animal, gambler, and serial womanizer. Pacquiao has a child out of wedlock and also – according to reports that his friends and associates confirmed – had an extramarital affair with an actress he met more than a decade ago.

Pacquiao’s dalliances were not unknown to wife Jinkee. But it was Pacquiao’s affair with the actress that almost broke his marriage.

At the time, there were even separate teams rooting for the wife and for the actress within the athlete’s boxing camp, Joson said, as the actress would also join the trainings.

In a 2011 Philippine Star article, Jinkee said that Pacquiao had plans to leave the family to be with the actress. By then, the husband and wife were no longer talking for four months.

 “They had plans of moving in together. There were other girls who were linked with him before. But even Manny said that woman is different. The woman is caring and she hangs out with the boys of the team when there is a boxing fight," Jinkee said in that interview.

But by late 2009, Manny and Jinkee were able to iron things out. A few months later, in 2010, the actress married a friend of Pacquiao in the US.

People close to Pacquiao credited Jinkee for the continued success of the senator – from standing by her husband, investing his money wisely, to taking care of the family. Without Jinkee, they said, Pacquiao would have lost most, if not all, of his money to his previous extravagant ways.

Faith and policy

The years 2009 to 2012 saw Pacquiao undergo what his friends call radical change.

On his 32nd birthday in 2010, Pacquiao received a Bible gift that would later prove pivotal in his transformation. Growing up in a Roman Catholic family, he became a Christian in 2012, surprising his family, friends, and associates.

Noong bago pa lang siya na born-again Christian, hindi pa kami maniwala na totoo eh,” said lawyer Brando Viernesto, who has worked with Pacquiao since 2010 and is currently a consultant in the senator’s office. (In the early days of his conversion as a born-again Christian, we could not believe it was true.)

Sabi namin, sandali lang 'yan, isang buwan lang 'yan. Pero totoo pala, grabe,” Joson said. (We all said, that won't last long. It will only last for a month. But it was for real.)

Simula noon, wala na, lahat ng vices out,” said Arnold Vegafria, Pacquiao's longtime business manager. (Since then, he stopped all his vices.)

Pacquiao had also given away his thousands of roosters used for cockfighting. Now, he would reprimand his staff who drink or gamble.

What triggered this 180-degree transformation? For Pacquiao, it was what he believed was the voice of God in his dream in 2011 that changed him.

Joson and Vegafria said it was a combination of two factors: Pacquiao’s breakup with the actress between 2009 and 2010 and his knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012.

“Kasi ganoon ang Panginoon eh, 'di ba? Ginigising tayo. Noong na-knockout po siya kay Marquez, doon talagang gumuho 'yung mundo niya. Iniwan siya [ng aktres], pero 'yung pamilya niya and'yan pa rin.. 'Yung na-knockout siya, 'yung as in totally knockout, 'yon. Do'n nag-umpisa – as in, naging born again na siya. Naging pastor na siya, as in totally hindi na siya tumingin sa babae, hindi na siya nagsugal, zero," Joson said.

(That is how the Lord works, right? He brings us to our senses. When he was knocked out by Marquez, his world was shattered. [The actress] left him, but his family stood by him. When he got totally knocked out, that was when it started. He became born again. He became a pastor – as in, he totally did not look at other women anymore, he stopped gambling, zero.)

It was Pacquiao's new faith that has been his sole basis for making decisions on the most complex and controversial issues, oftentimes being simplistic.

On the Senate floor, where legislations and issues are dissected and discussed in detail, he would conveniently use the Bible to explain his positions.

In his first-ever privilege speech as a senator, Pacquiao said that God is for the death penalty. He later on said that "God allows governments to use capital punishment" and that "even Jesus Christ was sentenced to death because the government imposed the rule then."

It was again the Bible that he cited to back his opposition to divorce, same-sex marriage, and abortion – at times using interpretations that were inconsistent with each other.

Pacquiao’s tendency to use broad strokes is evident in his speeches and interviews on and off the Senate floor – a characteristic that could be advantageous for a politician running for office. However, the actual work of an elected official goes beyond rhetoric and requires a considerable working knowledge of issues and, most of all, processes.

Generosity

Joson, Vegafria, Viernesto, and several of Pacquiao’s staff all attested to the senator’s generosity to friends, family, staff, and people in need. Even before becoming a politician, Pacquiao would use his own money to help people in his hometown General Santos City – a practice that opened his eyes to the idea of politics.

"It was just a simple realization for him. We’re giving away his own money and it’s not enough. He said, 'What if I become a public servant? Then we can help more people,'" Joson said.

Vegafria said Pacquiao is the type “who would not hesitate to give even before he is asked.”

To emphasize the billionaire's generosity, another staff said in jest, “When it rains, it’s a tidal wave.”

Loyalty, favoritism: Pacquiao as a boss, manager

Pacquiao greatly values loyalty. But other people around him, including some staff, frowned upon this, citing his tendency to play favorites.

“Once you become his favorite, it’s going to be heaven for you. But sometimes his favorites end up acting all too powerful,” said a former staff, who requested anonymity due to lack of authority to speak with the media.

His confusing management style is common knowledge among many insiders. There is no clear boundary between Senate staff and Team Pacquiao members, while infighting is an ongoing issue.

Even within his boxing team, there were supposed factions: the teams for the wife and girlfriend in 2009, and the reported tension between coach Freddie Roach and Pacquiao's trainer and longtime friend, Buboy Fernandez.

“What you allow will continue. So, ang dating ay 'yung mga tao niya binibigyan niya lahat ng power to be the boss. Lahat ng tao nagiging boss,” said Joson. (So it appears he is giving his people the power to be the boss. Everyone becomes the boss.)

Joson said Pacquiao is “too kind” to a fault, as he could not fire people – a sentiment shared by other staff.

Some also accuse Pacquiao of being easily swayed or influenced. Asked about this, Pacquiao told Rappler: "If it were true, then my close friends would not have left. It's because I did not want to compromise. I have friends who are using my name for money."

Another 180-degree-turn: From Duterte ally to enemy

No one could have predicted that Pacquiao, once the administration’s greatest defender, would exchange blows with President Rodrigo Duterte.

Duterte even once endorsed Pacquiao as fit to become the next president. Since joining the ruling party PDP-Laban in 2016, Pacquiao has carried out almost all of Duterte’s wishes.

In fact, in the Senate, Pacquiao could easily be tagged as the staunchest Duterte ally, even stronger than then-PDP-Laban president and Senate president Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, who criticized Duterte’s granting of a hero’s burial for the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

When opposition Senator Leila de Lima launched a probe into the spike of extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s first few months, it was Pacquiao who, according to senators, volunteered to move for De Lima's ouster as justice committee chairperson. He also defended the drug-related killings, saying drug lords, not policemen, kill people.

Now, Pacquiao has been criticizing Duterte and his administration over the drug killings, violation of the Constitution, and corruption issues. His attacks against Duterte came after the two met in Malacañang in February 2021, when Duterte, the senator recalled, told him that Pacquiao had no machinery to run for president – short of saying, "Manny, do not run."

Vegafria and two other Senate staff claimed that the senator is not corrupt.

“I can see it because, as a business manager, I'm the one looking for money for additional income. He’s not corrupt so he has the integrity and character beyond reproach," Vegafria said.

So, what made Pacquiao go against Duterte? Vegafria, Joson, and Viernesto said Pacquiao had long entertained the thought of running for higher office. But it was in 2020 during the pandemic that his resolve grew stronger. All three said Pacquiao believes it is his “destiny” to be president.

“It started last year during the pandemic when he saw that there's no direction anymore. A lot of business are suffering. So he said, it's time to lead the country into a different direction," Viernesto said.

But the timing of Pacquiao's actions against Duterte was uncanny a few months before a presidential election. In politics, after all, there are no permanent allies. Pacquiao, who has shifted political parties in the past, is no stranger to that.

Biggest fight yet

Pacquiao’s campaign team is currently in disarray over differences in strategy, opinion, and personalities. Some believed the attacks against Duterte came too early, while others felt Pacquiao could hold his own against the President.

Vegafria, Joson, and Viernesto are not considered part of it, at least for now. Vegafria said he has asked Pacquiao to “unite” the campaign team but the latter has yet to do it.

“I asked him to unite the team. I told him several times to unite the team, and he told me, 'Why don’t you start it? I’ll give you freedom to start and unite the team. Talk to them and fix it. And then when I come back to the Philippines [after Ugas fight], let us all meet,'” Vegafria said.

It has been two weeks since the senator ended his quarantine upon arrival in Manila, but he has yet to “unite” them.

One thing is for sure: Pacquiao is not one to back down. We know this is true in the ring, where his unorthodox style has won him world championships. He has proven his doubters wrong. If anything, Pacquiao is a man of focus. When he sets his sights on something, he will do everything to get what he wants.

"If I listened to the naysayers before, those who said that I am not good, that I'm only for amateur, then I would not have become Manny Pacquiao," he said in a Rappler Talk interview.

But the fight for the presidency is an entirely different arena he has never fought in before. Can he win against his record as a politician, as a congressman, as a senator? Can he win against the positions he has taken on critical issues and how he has styled his versions of right and wrong? Can he reinvent himself?

It may turn out that the fight of his life will be one of Manny Pacquiao versus Manny Pacquiao. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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