Trinidad's Pacific Storm: Dispatches on Pacquiao of the Philippines begins with an epigraph from Ernest Hemingway, stating that "courage above all is the first quality of a warrior" (p. 1). But in my own engagement with both Filipino boxing -- and with the amazing life story of Manny Pacquiao, currently deemed to be (pound for pound) the greatest boxer in the world -- I think I would have to disagree. I do believe that boxing requires courage -- this seems obvious. But from what I have learned in my own short study of these subjects, I would argue that if Pacquiao or any boxer is truly a warrior, then the "first quality" that distinguishes the greatness of Pacquiao is not so much courage as endurance. It is easy to understand why a commentator on boxing would emphasize Pacquaio's courage: when one is raised in American culture where the public face of boxing has been defined for a very long time either by Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson, then surely Pacquiao looks like the definition of courage, for physically he is certainly a David rather than a Goliath. But Pacquiao is able to triumph against such odds for the reason that his trainer, Freddie Roach, gives in Pacific Storm: "Nobody in this world trains as hard as Manny…He's a marvel!" (p. 5)
But Pacquiao's story is not only a story of personal courage and determination, but also a cultural one. Pacquiao is a native Filipino and, as a result, Pacific Storm frequently emphasizes the way in which Pacquiao's international reputation is a way of asserting Filipino identity on the national stage. This is where Pacquiao's story becomes fascinating, for the history of the Philippines is particularly remarkable from an American perspective. Those of us who were raised in America and studied elementary school civics classes in which we talked about America's centuries-long commitment to liberty, freedom and democracy -- and those of us who went through secondary education when President George W. Bush was justifying military intervention with talk of America's commitment to the spread of democracy abroad -- are not often aware of America's less-admirable track record in the Philippines. Originally a Spanish colony, by 1898 the native population was in open revolt against Spanish leadership -- indeed, the Rizal Stadium, where most of Pacquiao's most important boxing triumphs occurred on his native soil, is named after the writer Jose Rizal, who could be described as the Thomas Paine of the Philippines, writing tirelessly to encourage native Filipinos to overthrow the Spanish. In 1898, the U.S. Navy under the leadership of Admiral Dewey entered Manila Bay, and easily defeated what remained of the Spanish fleet. But America did not then grant the Philippines their independence. In a notorious phrase dating from the time of the Spanish-American War, America decided to "take up the white man's burden" -- and the Philippines then became an American colony for several decades.
Even when the Philippines gained a nominal independence, we need to consider the nation in which Pacquiao was born in 1978: at that time, Manila was still dominated by an American military base, and the Philippines was ruled by the American-supported dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It was only in Pacquiao's boyhood that this ugly political situation began to change. If we imagine that the vicious authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos only fell when Pacquiao was a boy of 10, then we can understand what sort of country into which he was born -- one which had only recently gained a grasp on true freedom and democracy, of the sort that Americans enjoy, but in the case of the Philippines it was America that prevented such freedom for many years. We need to understand the way in which Manny Pacquiao really feels like he is representing his race, and defending it after decades of official racism directed toward the Philippines by America. If it seems strange to discuss politics here, we must remember -- Manny Pacquiao is currently, in 2011, not only a world champion boxer but he is also an elected politician in his native country. Pacquiao is more than an athlete, and more than a celebrity: he is trying to be the best possible representative of his country, with all its poverty and disadvantage, by showing that through sheer determination and effort, all these things can be overcome. Pacquiao's sheer talent as a boxer is able to wipe away an entire history of racist condescension. In this fact, Pacquiao's personality can be seen as actually similar to Muhammad Ali's -- Norm Frauenheim is quoted in Pacific Storm making this comparison (p. 33) -- there is an important political element to his boxing. He is not only making himself into the best boxer in the world, he is making a statement to the world about the strength and determination of his whole nation, in addition to himself personally. Frauenheim goes on to state that "In Pacquiao, Filipinos see their own resilience and ability to come back from defeat" (p. 33). This also seems to be something Pacquiao understands: he knows that his personal narrative is similar to the Filipino national narrative.
I do not think that anyone who is raised in America can consider himself to be raised in less fortunate circumstances than Manny Pacquiao was in the Philippines. Obviously America has not abolished poverty and racism, but we can still ask how many American 14-year-olds run away to big cities and are forced to live homeless when they are still little more than children? That is what Pacquiao had to do to get to Manila, in order to begin his grueling physical training as a boxer. How many American boxers have to undergo such difficulties to get to a gymnasium to train? Nobody would claim that Mike Tyson grew up in a privileged background, but even Mike Tyson did not have to run away from home and live on the streets in order to find a gymnasium. This is why I emphasized at the beginning of my discussion that -- although nobody would deny that Manny Pacquiao is courageous -- I nonetheless think that we miss the meaning of boxing when we emphasize courage over endurance, or even "resilience" as Frauenheim puts it in Pacific Storm. My own journey as a boxer is obviously vastly shorter than Pacquiao's journey, but already I can understand that Pacquiao's greatness surely must come from his training. Indeed, the way Pacquiao's training is described in Pacific Storm is the most electrifying thing imaginable: it sounds almost more amazing than his boxing! Trinidad describes the regimen early in his dispatches: "punching the mitts, jumping the rope, slugging the speedball, riding the tread mill, floor calisthenics, shadow-boxing, all on top of the blazing sparring sessions. He does these exercises attuned to an automatic three-minute-round timer early in the afternoon. But the daily regimen doesn't yet include the long, lung-busting run through uneven terrain early in the morning." (p. 6). Trinidad occasionally compares Pacquiao's physical style to complicated kinds of dance or gymnastics, and it is easy to see why: training as a gymnast is all about physical preparation involved in making difficult physical feats look easy and graceful. In order to appear as ferocious and unstoppable in the ring as he does, Pacquiao has to prove to himself every morning that he is ferocious and unstoppable enough to do a run of several miles through rough territory -- the kind of physical feat that most people would have to train to be able to do at all, and certainly would not make the "warm-up" phase of an even more grueling daily routine.
This gets to one pivotal difference between boxing and Filipino boxing. Pacquiao's earliest training came on the streets, and it came from "fighting barefoot…