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What Manny Pacquiao Means to Us, in Victory or Defeat

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It was grandiloquently billed as "The Fight of the Century" -- albeit in a century that's still in its adolesence. Last weekend's much-anticipated, much-hyped boxing match between Floyd "Money" Mayweather, Jr. and Manny "Pac-Man" Pacquiao failed to live up to the expectations of nearly everyone who longed to see the two welterweight titans of the world duke it out at long last -- especially those who paid the $99.95 Pay-Per-View cost to watch it on television.

Perhaps the most disappointed were Filipinos -- from the ones in the homeland, to the worldwide laborer diaspora, to the ones living here in the U.S. -- myself included -- who had to witness our homeboy, our hero, our kababayan lose by unanimous decision to Mayweather.

True, the media hype was overinflated. But at the same time, the 2015 edition of Pac-Mania produced a surreal experience: For Filipinos, especially Filipino Americans, who are used to seeing our culture mis-represented, overlooked, mistaken for others, or even ignored outright, a Filipino has become a household name worldwide. At least for the first time since Corazon Aquino toppled Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship in 1986.

Pac-Mania has yielded a pair of hilarious Foot Locker commercials, inspired the L.A. Times to send out tweets in Tagalog, and even motivated talk show host Jimmy Kimmel to sing Pacquiao's own schmaltzy ballad on his late night program in his best phonetic Tagalog.

At the same time, Pac-Mania is a uniquely Southern California-born phenomenon. His Hollywood celebrity connections notwithstanding, the boxer makes Southern California his stateside home base, from his new Beverly Hills mansion to his training headquarters at Freddie Roach's Wild Card Boxing Gym on Vine Street in Hollywood. You could even catch the champ making his training runs through Griffith Park and other locales. The Southland's large Latino population, passionate boxing fans themselves, had become honorary Filipinos for the May 2 match and overwhelmingly rooted for Team Pacquiao, as his rags-to-riches narrative closely echoed that of their own countrymen's fighters. And while the boxer hardly gets around the Philippines without his security detail, he is relatively accessible here in So Cal, stopping by his favorite local supermarkets, karaoke joints, and Filipino restaurants. In June of 2008, I was even able to meet the Pac-Man himself at a public training event that took place at Lake Street Park in L.A.'s Historic Filipinotown. Over 500 people lined up for photos and autographs with the champ, and at the end of the day, every single one of them left with their photos, autographs, and moment with Manny.

For Filipinos across Southern California, May 2 became somewhat of a cultural holiday. Nurses and caregivers who worked the Saturday evening shift took the night off. Some of us even traveled to Las Vegas, if only to soak in the town's associated fight night energy. But most Filipinos either attended or threw fight night parties.

Across Southern California, Filipinos staged fight night parties, such as this one in the backyard of the Sayo residence in Sun Valley. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

On the night of The Fight of the Century, I was invited by my friend Luis to his parents' residence in Sun Valley, where Pacquiao fight night parties have been a tradition for years.

The fight night party is not a new thing for Filipinos; I recall going to relatives' houses in West Covina as a child to watch Sugar Ray Leonard fight Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns in the big fights of the day (The Philippines, colonized by the U.S. for half a century, selectively adopted certain American sports; the country's tropical climate favored indoor, individual or small-team sports such as boxing and basketball over outdoor, large-team sports such as baseball and football). But in the Pacquiao Era, the fight night party had become a mandatory cultural ritual. Think Super Bowl Party, multiplied by 10. No, multiplied by 100.

At the Sayo family's eastern San Fernando Valley ranch-style house, over two dozen relatives and friends converged to watch the big fight. And "big" was the operative word here: A large projection screen and 5.1 audio system was set up in the backyard by Luis' cousin, and lawn chairs, folding chairs, and even a couch was arranged, theater-style for us to view the match. There was even a friendly betting pool as to who could predict the outcome of the fight.

And there was food. Lots of it. Adapting the tradition of Philippine town fiestas and family parties, a table overflowing with traditional Filipino dishes such as lumpia shanghai, Philippine-style menudo, and pandesal rolls was set up adjacent to the garage. A barbecue grill cooked up chicken, steak, and sausages. A Philippine flag, waving in the gentle breeze, hung between the food table and the viewing area. There is nothing in the world quite like watching a Pacquiao fight with a bunch of Filipinos. This was exactly where I wanted to be on Saturday night.

When the fight was officially announced in February, after five years of messy negotiations, I told myself not to believe it was true until they both walked out and stepped onto the ring. But just like that, on this large backyard projection screen, it finally became real.

Ding-ding-ding!

And just like that, after what seemed to be the shortest 12-rounds ever, which featured more running than the New York Marathon, and more hugging than the arrivals level at LAX's Bradley Terminal, the So-Called Fight of the Century was over.

A table full of mostly Filipino dishes is a mainstay at Pacquiao fight night parties. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

As expected, the winner thanked God and humbly complemented his opponent, while the loser of the fight defiantly insisted that he himself was the winner -- only this time, the winner and loser weren't the ones we had hoped to be.

For many Filipino Americans, the highlight of a Pacquiao match isn't as much the result as it is his epic post-fight interviews, an unpredictable, meme-worthy quote of familiar Pinoy-isms that's the source of many inside jokes and references for us. Previous post-fight interview quotes have included paraphrasing singer James Ingram, or mis-hearing the maker of his boxing gloves as something else. This time, Pacquiao awkwardly (or profoundly) quipped, "That's fight."

I didn't feel angry or disappointed, just rather numbed and a little disillusioned. Even the Clippers-Spurs Game 7 match earlier in the evening had more excitement. I left the party a few minutes before midnight, with a full stomach, and my body feeling like it was only 9 p.m. Go figure. That's fight.

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But our Manny has lost before, and has come back victorious. Beyond his nationality and heritage, perhaps it is both his winning and losing that forms part of his worldwide appeal. Most of us dream of having the 48-0 record of a Mayweather in life, but in reality we can all more identify with the Pac-Man's 57-6-2 record. Filipinos have withstood oppressive regimes, damaging earthquakes, and devastating typhoons. A Pacquiao loss is either insignificant in the bigger picture, or a perfectly poetic metaphor. We succeed, not because we avoid defeat, but because we overcome from it. I get knocked down, but I get up again, as that song from the 1990s goes.

While there may or may not be a Mayweather vs. Pacquiao rematch to look forward to, it's understood that most of our own champ's boxing career is already behind him. Manny has become the archetype for a number of aspiring young boxers in the Philippines, including some of my own relatives, who have staged their own professional boxing careers, to varying amounts of success. Some are already trying to look toward the horizon for "The Next Pacquiao," which is most likely Filipino American fighter Nonito "The Filipino Flash" Donaire.

Pac-Mania has given Filipinos of all ages and citizenship statuses a single, unified, rallying point, and a tremendous source of pride. But pride can be at times be a passive, superficial, vicarious, spectator activity. By the time Manny hangs up his gloves for good, I can only hope that what he's left us behind is not a mere idol to worship, but an inspiration for our own lives, careers and aspirations, whatever they might entail. We might not always win the title, but we can always be great, and in the process, be an inspiration to others ourselves.

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