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The Beatdown That Heals: Pacquiao-Rios

Manny's resurrection in Macau and its meaning in the Philippines

When welterweight contender Brandon Rios absorbs a sharp, hard punch, he smiles. Among boxers, that’s not uncommon, but the delighted sneer that spreads across Rios’s face after his bell gets rung is in a class of its own. It’s more sinister and more demented than the others. It’s a cousin to the twisted grin painted across The Joker in Batman films, brimming with charisma and menace.

Rios got plenty of opportunities to flash his million-nightmare smile Saturday night, when he fought Manny Pacquiao at the Venetian casino’s Cotai Arena in Macau, China. The first chance came near the end of the first round, when Pacquiao ducked under a Rios jab and sprang back up with a counter straight left that snapped Rios’s head back and made the hair of his faux-hawk momentarily stand on end. Rios, who has shown time and again that he possesses one of boxing’s sturdiest chins, looked more stunned than hurt by Pacquiao’s early assault. He flashed his hyena’s smile, nodded his approval, and returned to his corner after the bell.

The far greater concern — really, the question that loomed over the entire fight — centered on how Pacquiao would handle Rios’s shots. The Pacquiao whom boxing fans have followed over the past decade, the one who topped pound-for-pound lists and blitzed weight classes from super featherweight to junior middleweight, also used to smile after he got hit. Only Pacquiao didn’t get a chance to smile after the last punch he took before entering the ring Saturday, the counter right hand from Juan Manuel Marquez that provided the dramatic, chilling knockout ending to their fourth fight last December. That blow erased Pacquiao and his aura, launched a thousand memes, and colored the perception of the Rios bout. If Manny had recovered from the trauma — both physical and psychological — stemming from Marquez’s punch during his year off from boxing, then he would likely be too quick and too good for Rios. Pacquiao would pepper him from all angles, like he’d always done against big, lumbering opponents, from David Diaz to Joshua Clottey to Antonio Margarito. But sometimes there’s no such thing as recovery from the kind of pitch-black ending Pacquiao suffered. And if that was the case — if he could no longer take a punch, or if the knockout had snuffed his ferocious, kinetic, joyful style of fighting — then Rios might be rugged and cruel and determined enough to retire Manny Pacquiao.

Well, Manny answered that question: He’s back. Sure, boxing diehards will dissect his performance feint-by-feint and blow-by-blow, and the ones who have always considered him overrated will find flaws, and the Pacquiao faithful will post YouTube evidence that he hasn’t lost a single step, and none of them will be totally correct. But Pacquiao won a dominant unanimous decision Saturday and never seemed hurt, despite taking a handful of hard punches. He deserves his spot among boxing’s elite, and he’s not a broken-down shell of his former self, as many feared prior to Saturday night.

From the very first meaningful action in the bout, when Pacquiao double jabbed and then drilled his left fist into Rios’s chest, he established that he wouldn’t have much trouble landing clean punches. By the fourth round, Pacquiao had found a rhythm that would keep Rios turning and turning in the ring, never able to set his feet and chop away at Pacquiao’s body. Instead, Pacquiao would dart in, pop Rios with quick combinations, and then pivot off to the side before Rios could fire back. And that’s what happened, again and again, throughout the remainder of the fight. There were moments later in the fight when Pacquiao seemed to become bored with tagging Rios, who could probably remain upright while being whacked with a crowbar for 36 minutes. As long as Pacquiao stayed active, he had the same advantages of movement as a fly buzzing circles around a horse’s head. Of course, if he slowed down or relaxed for too long, he ran the risk of getting swatted.

Early in the 12th round, Pacquiao pounced for a right hook–straight left attack that rattled Rios’s head from side to side and then up and down. Rios lowered his gloves and smiled one last time, although by now he had no menace left in his mien. Blood was trickling from a cut above his left eye, where Pacquiao’s hooks had landed around Rios’s guard. The swelling over Rios’s right eye, where Pacquiao had pounded in dozens of his trademark power shot, the straight left, was beginning to resemble a Nerf football growing from the side of his head. Rios’s expression was no longer the smirk of a ruthless punisher; it was more like a sigh from a sad zombie. He could still take a punch — the last stand of this proud fighter — and he would finish on his feet. The rest? Pacquiao beat that out of him.

Philippines Bangon.

In Tagalog, it means to get up. Sometimes it’s just the simple act of getting out of bed. But it can also mean to pick yourself up off the ground or to bounce back from some form of hardship. In English, bangon is often translated as “to rise again,” which is why ever since Juan Manuel Marquez knocked him cold, Manny Pacquiao has been saying “We will rise again.” And, being a “Bible-quoting maniac,” Pacquiao is probably conscious of the echoes of Resurrection in his choice of words. But he couldn’t have known, back in December of last year, what these words would come to mean by the time he fought Rios.

Bangon Pilipinas and Bangon Tacloban are among a slew of inspirational catchphrases being used to rally support and solicit donations on behalf of the survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan, whose official death toll climbed past 5,000 over the weekend. Every Pacquiao fight is charged with meaning for the country, the preferred theme some variant on the bootstrapping of Pacquiao’s rise from poverty to become one of the most beloved and highest-paid athletes in the world. When he burst onto the scene with unexpected victories against Lehlohonolo Ledwaba in 2001 and Marco Antonio Barrera in 2003, Pacquiao, with his raw talent and naked aggression, was the stand-in for an underdog nation hungry to prove itself. With his dominant wins over Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton, Pacquiao’s significance continued growing. It was no longer about shocking the world, but about molting that underdog skin to assert greatness. The Philippines remained a developing nation with no shortage of troubles during Pacquiao’s streak, but Pacquiao helped the country get a taste of grandeur.

And now this: Pacquiao’s vow to rise again from what will likely be remembered as one of the most devastating knockouts in boxing history, along with his vow to dedicate the fight to the typhoon victims after their homes were leveled and lives shattered by Haiyan’s storm surge, made the Rios match the most important symbolic moment of his career. New York had the Yankees’ return to the Bronx after 9/11. New Orleans had the Saints’ Super Bowl XLIV win in 2010, as the city continued to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. It’s not a stretch to compare those moments to Pacquiao’s win over Rios and its meaning to the Philippines. One could sense it in Macau before the fight, when the Filipino majority among the crowd of 13,200 belted out the last two lines of their national anthem. One could sense it in the hugs exchanged among Filipino broadcasters and reporters after the decision, even though the outcome was never in question. The country needed this one.

In Tacloban, the city worst hit by Haiyan, massive screens were set up to project the fight for thousands of displaced storm victims at the airport, city hall, and the municipal basketball arena. “It felt like I got my house back,” one resident told the Associated Press after Michael Buffer announced Pacquiao’s victory. Another raised a handmade sign that praised Pacquiao and read God Bless Tacloban Babangon Kami. “We will rise again.”

Philippine typhoon survivors Throughout fight week Pacquiao spoke of his desire, as a patriot and a politician, to abandon his training for a day or two and visit Tacloban to deliver aid and raise the spirits of his storm-battered countrymen. Ultimately, he decided to send relief goods while remaining devoted to his fight preparations; a win was more important for the Philippines and for his career. And although it probably was no factor in Pacquiao’s choice not to rush to the disaster area, staying away from the postapocalyptic hellscape and political hornet’s nest that was Tacloban following the storm was arguably the smartest move for Pacquiao’s public image. As the comebacking dynamo who put a beating on Brandon Rios, Pacquiao could be seen as a sportsman and hero. As the congressman who arrived in Tacloban with not enough medicine or water or food to feed an entire city of desperate, mourning typhoon victims, he might have come off as yet another ineffective politician.

Even now, aid is slow to reach many of the people affected by the storm, bodies are still being recovered in the streets, and hundreds of thousands of people are using little more than tarps for shelter. But just over a week ago, when Pacquiao would have made his visit, the situation was even more impossible. Say he had arrived at the airport with a plane full of food, water, and antibiotics. Then what? The roads would have been blocked by debris. If they cleared the roads, there wouldn’t have been enough trucks to deliver the aid. If they got trucks, gas shortages and interrupted supply lines would have limited their range. The scale of destruction was so vast and unprecedented that the Philippine government, the United Nations, and Doctors Without Borders all struggled in their initial relief efforts. Chances are that Team Pacquiao — through no fault of its own — wouldn’t have fared much better.

Not to mention that just about every Philippine politician who has been prominently involved with typhoon recovery efforts has suffered in the public eye. Tacloban mayor Alfred Romualdez has been blamed for the local government’s outright disappearance in the storm’s immediate aftermath. President Noynoy Aquino has been criticized for seeming more concerned with managing the perception of the storm’s official death toll than with figuring out how to rebuild the nation. Some have even suggested that Aquino has been unenthusiastic about helping Tacloban because the Romualdez clan is part of the Marcos political dynasty, who are the Aquino dynasty’s political rivals and whose now-deceased patriarch, former president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is believed to have ordered the assassination of current president Aquino’s dad in 1983.

Got that?

There’s more.

Vice-President Jejomar Binay has been lambasted for the crass move of allowing Binay-branded relief packs, and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, once considered a first-tier presidential hopeful in 2016, has taken the brunt of the blame for what many consider to be a slow and disorganized response by the national government. Roxas’s wife, a prominent newscaster named Korina Sanchez, might be the most hated person on Philippine social networks these days, mostly because she badmouthed Anderson Cooper’s storm coverage.

Between the typhoon aftermath and an ongoing corruption scandal in which several prominent senators are suspected of pocketing millions of dollars earmarked for development projects, the rancor Filipinos feel toward the country’s political class seems angrier than it’s been in years. Pacquiao the politician seems like he’ll benefit more by retreating within the safe confines of Pacquiao the boxer and using the Rios fight to help the country feel whole again. He accomplished that Saturday, and perhaps it will help him win election to the Senate in 2016. One thing is for sure — if Pacquiao continues his political career, figuring out a way to be a public servant who puts the needs of the Filipino people ahead of money-grubbing self-enrichment will be the biggest upset of his career.

A final note on the fight: Even if Manny Pacquiao has managed to fully recover from his knockout at the hands of Juan Manuel Marquez, I’m not sure if Pacquiao’s fans ever will. Saturday was the fourth time I’ve seen Pacquiao fight in person, and about halfway through the bout I realized I was feeling an undercurrent of terror that I’d never experienced before. There was no particular reason for me to be racked with anxiety — the fight was one-sided but provided plenty of action, and Pacquiao was dominating. Instead of excitement, however, I felt dread. In the sixth round, when Pacquiao paused to complain about a low blow that landed on his hip and the ref didn’t stop the action, Rios leaped in and landed what looked to be his first big, sweeping right-hand punch of the fight. Manny’s head swiveled with the blow and he sat down on the ropes for a split second before springing upright and spinning out of danger. I gasped and pitched forward in my seat. This was the first heavy right hand to catch Manny flush since Marquez’s, and I found myself wondering something I don’t think I’d ever wondered before about Manny Pacquiao during a boxing match. Is he OK? Is he hurt?

And that’s because at the end of Pacquiao’s most recent fight, one spectacular counterpunch forced me to wonder, Is he alive? Marquez, who swears that he will never fight Manny again, must feel pretty damn satisfied knowing that he has changed the way so many fans will react to any punch that lands against Pacquiao, perhaps for the rest of his career. Is he OK?

For now, Manny Pacquiao seems more than OK. He has risen again. But this is boxing, and fighters tend to get knocked down.