MANILA There is a modest boxing gym in a small, dusty town in General Santos City on the Philippines' Mindanao Island in the south called People's Champ Boxing Gym. It was built for local hero Manny Pacquiao. The 37-year-old boxer is one of only two people to have ever become the world champion in six weight classes.
At the gym, which is built with corrugated metal and lacks air conditioning and fans, a dozen young men are training. One of them is Vince Paras. As a child, he supplemented his impoverished family's meager income by collecting recyclable trash. When he was a grade school student, he encountered Pacquiao by chance. Paras plucked up the courage to ask the champion for money to pay for his father's medical bills. Pacquiao readily offered money to the boy, who was a total stranger. Paras later enrolled at Pacquiao's gym.
There is a wide gap between the rich and poor in the Philippines, and one quarter of its population of 100 million lives in poverty. Since there is not enough work for job seekers in the country, some 10 million Filipinos work abroad and support their families with overseas remittances.
Alon Dy works in Kuwait and has lived away from his family for more than five years. While his life 8,000km away from home is hard, he steels himself by looking up to the boxer as a role model. "Pacquiao did not surrender. He also helped poor people in the Philippines, sharing all his blessings from Above," said Dy. "That's how I want to be."
Pacquiao's star power can also get warriors to lay down their arms. In Mindanao, Muslim separatists have been fighting the Philippine army for nearly half a century. Amid this conflict, a spontaneous cease-fire occurs whenever Pacquiao enters the ring. "Military troops and Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels do not officially declare a cease-fire every time Manny Pacquiao fights in the ring," said Restituto Padilla, a Philippine armed forces spokesman. "However, an undeclared and unofficial truce occurs since everyone, military and rebels alike, takes time to watch Pacquiao fight."
HUMBLE BEGINNINGS Pacquiao was a poor farmer's son and his parents divorced when he was a young child. He dropped out of junior high school and sold cigarettes on the street to support his mother and himself. He became a boxer to collect modest amounts of prize money.
When he made his debut as a professional boxer at 16, he earned just 100 pesos ($2). He then went from strength to strength using his left arm as his main weapon. According to Forbes magazine, his income in 2015 was $160 million. He became the second-wealthiest athlete in the world next to his rival, Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Even after achieving success, Pacquiao never left behind his local roots. He still lives in General Santos and practices in a gym he built for himself there.
On Dec. 6, with a Bible in his hand, he preached at a church he had built in his hometown, urging congregants to be tolerant and love their neighbors. "The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control," the boxer said. Unlike his fierce self in the ring, the champion spoke very gently to a captivated audience of some 600 people. Religion is particularly important for Pacquiao, who lost his way once and became addicted to liquor and gambling but put those difficult days behind him with the support of family and friends.
Because of its political turmoil and poverty, the Philippines used to be labeled "the sick man of Asia." The country has since transformed itself and become one of the fastest-growing economies in the region. Its middle class accounted for just over 50% of its population in 2011, but the figure will near 70% by 2020, according to some estimates. Amid growing optimism, many Filipinos aspire to make their dreams come true, just like the world-conquering champion.
Pacquiao is nearing the end of his career as a boxer, but he still has great ambition. "My dream is to spread the word of God, to preach the gospel and evangelize the people. You have to be born again to reduce poverty and help the people. I want us to become a godly people, God-fearing and improving our lives, and especially the urban poor.
In the upcoming general election in May, he intends to run for a seat in the Senate. The Philippines was once ruled by a film star-turned-president, Joseph Estrada, and will likely be ruled by the former boxer, some admirers say. Pacquiao's career as a people's champion seems to be far from over.