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Opinion

Manny Pacquiao's weekend fight sets up 2022 Thrilla in Manila

Boxer-turned-senator is shaping up for a shot at the presidency

| Philippines
Manny Pacquiao attends a news conference in Las Vegas on Aug. 18: the boxing sensation has emerged as a potential ally for the anti-Duterte opposition.   © AP

Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" and the "The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery."

I will be getting up early on Sunday to join millions of my countrymen and women in watching our national obsession: boxing. Specifically, would-be president Manny "Pacman" Pacquiao's last fight as he returns to the ring after a two-year absence to reclaim his world super welterweight crown.

But the reason for my excitement has nothing to do with boxing, and everything to do with politics. No less than the fate of the 2022 presidential election -- if not the country's besieged democracy -- could very well depend on the outcome of this highly anticipated showdown.

Should Pacquiao, 42, who was elected to the Philippine Senate in 2016, decisively defeat Yordenis Ugas and win back what was once his, he will likely decide to run for president, putting him on a collision course with outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte. Constitutionally barred from running again, Duterte is eying a run for vice president with his daughter Sara at the top of the ticket.

If Duterte's dynastic succession via the ballot box plan succeeds, the Philippines will never be the same again. And Pacquiao, a former Duterte ally, has unwittingly emerged as one of the favored candidates of those most desperate for change.

Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter Sara, pictured in Tokyo in October 2019: President Duterte is eying a run for vice president with Sara at the top of the ticket.   © Reuters

Pacquiao's journey from impoverished roots on the southern island of Mindanao to an unprecedented 12 major world titles in eight different weight divisions turned him into a global icon, paving the way for his meteoric rise in Philippine politics.

By all indications, Pacquiao is already eying the presidency. As he confessed in a recent interview, "I didn't become a boxer to fight in four-rounders or 10-rounders. I boxed to become a world champion. Any politician, even a barangay chairman, dreams of becoming president."

But Pacquiao's burning ambition, and historical sense of destiny as a national savior, has triggered an unexpected clash with his erstwhile patron, Duterte. Make no mistake. Pacquiao has been a staunch supporter of the Filipino populist, if not one of his most influential enablers.

Both hailing from the long-marginalized island of Mindanao, the two men have been vocal critics of what they see as the "imperial" Manila elite at the center of the more prosperous northern island of Luzon. Each man sees himself as the voice of long-forgotten ordinary Filipinos.

Loyal to a fault, Pacquiao publicly backed Duterte's most controversial policies, including his scorched-earth drug war and the burial of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the cemetery of national heroes.

Illiberal by instinct, Pacquiao besmirched the LGBTQ community as "worse than animals" and backed the restoration of the death penalty by "firing squad." Delighted by Pacquiao's unwavering support, Duterte has at times even promoted the boxer-turned-statesman as a potential successor.

"I told him while we were alone, I want you to become president... I know you can do it," claimed Duterte following a meeting with Pacquiao in 2017. Banking on Duterte's support, Pacquaio himself nurtured bigger dreams, especially after the president backed Pacquiao's bid to lead the ruling PDP-Laban party, effectively making him the standard-bearer of the administration.

But just at the moment Pacquiao thought he had everything figured out, all hell broke loose earlier this year when Duterte's PDP-Laban cronies started pushing for Duterte-Duterte joint ticket in next year's presidential election. In response, the boxer-turned-senator lashed out at the president's allies, threatening to expel them from the party.

A born fighter, Pacquiao further raised the stakes when he openly accused Duterte of soft-pedaling territorial disputes with China and threatened to expose corruption scandals within the administration. Duterte responded in kind, openly insulting Pacquaio as a dull-witted boxer who had no place in the presidential palace.

Duterte and his allies even went so far as to accuse the boxing sensation of tax evasion, deposed him as PDP-Laban party leader and threatened to expel Pacquiao from the ruling party altogether. Despite suffering such a setback, Pacquaio remains undaunted.

Time is of the essence. Approaching his retirement years in boxing, and with few legislative achievements to show as a largely absentee senator, Pacquiao sees next year's elections as his best and likely final chance to make a run for the highest office in the land. And a triumphant victory on Sunday seems like the ideal launchpad for a presidential campaign.

Perhaps most astonishing of all is that Pacquiao has suddenly found himself at the center of a courtship being carried out by Duterte's political opponents, led by Vice President Leni Robredo, the de facto leader of the liberal opposition. So far, surveys suggest that Pacquiao is, at best, among the top five contenders for the presidency, way behind the other top contenders.

Still, any presidential run by Pacquiao could end up splitting the president's "Solid South" base in Mindanao. And should he choose to become running mate to any of Duterte's rivals, the boxer-turned-politician could rally southern support behind the ticket.

Either way, Pacquiao has emerged not only as a potential kingmaker, but also -- however unwittingly -- as a potential ally for the anti-Duterte opposition. It is a bizarre twist of events, but many of his erstwhile liberal critics will probably be cheering him for this weekend when he steps into the ring at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

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