'Pacman' goes into politics
San Miguel - The pounding beat of "Eye of the Tiger" from "Rocky III" blared from speakers as Manny Pacquiao's black Hummer pulled up at an open-air basketball court on a recent humid evening.
The world welterweight boxing champion, seeking a seat in the Philippine Congress, waved to hundreds of cheering fans as he emerged from the vehicle in jeans and a blue vest bearing the name of his political party, the People's Champ Movement.
His earlier life as a poor laborer and baker only a memory, the world's best pound-for-pound boxer and one of the wealthiest men in his impoverished homeland is now trying to translate his enormous appeal into votes in the May 10 election.
"I don't want to be just your boxing idol," he told the crowd from a makeshift stage on the back of a truck. "I also want be your idol in public service."
If successful, Pacquiao would join many other Filipino celebrities and former athletes who have won seats in Congress in the past two decades, a departure from the past when the legislature used to be the exclusive domain of powerful landed dynasties and old clans.
Some celebrity candidates have been the butt of jokes for their inability to craft complex policies and engage in debates. Movie star Joseph Estrada, a college dropout, was ridiculed after winning the presidency in 1998 and forced out over corruption allegations in 2001. He is back as a long-shot candidate for president.
Pacquiao, who lost a congressional race in 2007, faces an uphill battle against an opponent from an entrenched political family, said political analyst Ramon Casiple. Voters today look for a record of service and don' vote on popularity alone, he added.
The 31-year-old boxer known to his fans as "Pacman", the holder of seven world boxing titles, has added to his fame - and riches - since then.
He made at least $12m in his latest win over Joshua Clottey in March, after pocketing $30m for beating Oscar De La Hoya in 2008 and Ricky Hatton in 2009, according to Forbes magazine, which lists him as one of the world's richest athletes.
Pacquiao also has a side career as a singer, and his smiling face adorns ads for dandruff shampoo, food products and Nike shoes.
"I could just sit back and relax and not have anything to do with politics. I could just travel around and enjoy my life with my family," Pacquiao told the crowd in San Miguel, a remote corn-farming village in Sarangani province in the southern Philippines. "But I came from a very poor family, and I cannot turn my back on the poor."
He spoke of how he slept on cardboard in the street as a child. When there wasn't enough money for rice, his family ate coconuts and bananas. He dropped out of school to earn money and focus on boxing and passed a high school equivalency test only in 2007.
The boxing champ said he knows poverty all too well, so he can relate to the populace in a country where a third of the people live on $1 a day and 3 000 Filipinos daily leave for jobs abroad.
He describes his platform as "very simple, very basic" - giving small boats to fishermen and financial support to neighbourhood stores so people can build livelihoods, plus offering free education and medicine and medical care to the poor.
"The reason why so many people are poor is that politicians think of nothing except how to recover the money they spent during the elections," he said.
His opponent, Roy Chiongbian, questions whether Pacquiao has the experience to be a lawmaker.
"If a person looks at him as a world boxing champion, then I don't have any problem," he told The Associated Press. "But if a person looks at him as a politician, then I do have a problem."
Chiongbian, 61, hails from a politically powerful and wealthy family. His father authored the 1992 law that created Sarangani province and became its first congressman. His mother served as governor and his nephew is the current vice governor.
He wants to succeed his elder brother, Erwin, who is stepping down after nine years because of term limits.
Chiongbian said he and Pacquiao have similar programs, but he is banking on his family's track record, citing a well-paved highway linking all seven provincial towns.
He has the vote of 34-year-old fisherman Munib Tan. "This guy is knowledgeable," he said. "Pacquiao is only good at boxing."
But Reynaldo Junas, a 46-year-old motorcycle taxi driver and charcoal trader, wants to give Pacquiao a chance. "Let us try someone who has not yet been in power," he said. "If he doesn't perform, he won't get re-elected."
Win or lose, Pacquiao would not comment on a return to the ring.
Negotiations for a proposed megafight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. fell apart early this year amid a dispute over drug-testing, and Pacquiao said that his mother, Dionisia, wants him to quit.
"We haven't talked about that - maybe after the election," he said, then added with a chuckle, "Mommy D. will decide that."