A nation of Manny wannabes dreams of a happy ending

Like an old boxer who knows the value of every considered punch, Ruel Durano, scar tissue embroidering his eyes, is also careful with his words. We're in Paranaque City, south of Manila, the day before the fight, in a gym named after Flash Elorde, the late Filipino world junior lightweight champion.

Fierce sunlight is held at bay in this shadowy, uncrowded gym. Sweat is on faces, in the air, mottling the canvas of two rings, in damp splotches on the silent congregation of heavy bags. An amateur skips backwards like a dancer in front of a sea of mirrors. This is fighting territory, this truly is Manny country.

"I loved boxing, but boxing never loved me back," says Durano, 48, with the plain truth of men who know pain and defeated dreams. Once a professional flyweight - the BoxRec website says he won seven, lost 15 - he now coaches young fighters and overweight people who think this sport is fun yet never is.

Then Durano pauses. "Manny loves boxing and boxing has loved him back." He's the one who made it, who got out of gyms like this, who escaped poverty, who is proof of possibility.

Manny is the one-word vocabulary of a nation restless for the bell to ring today. Everyone's seen Manny training. Everyone's heard of Manny's fortune (roughly US$400 million). Everyone's offering a "live" telecast: in my hotel, in the nearby bar, in a stadium, in movie halls.

Everyone will watch today. Almost everyone. But not the white-robed priest who is blessing a car at Baclaran Church, quietly chanting as the car owner quietly stands next to his new vehicle.

For the priest, who'd rather not give his name, boxing is "immoral", he dislikes its "violence". He speaks painfully of an Australian boxer who died this year after a fight with a Filipino rival and it doesn't sit comfortably with his faith. He understands Manny's rags to riches story but he knows "life isn't like that most of the time". Gently he says he won't be giving any blessing to this fight, but he smiles: "Maybe a chaplain with a love for boxing will."

The priest has the weathered face of a man who has heard too much in confession. But in the other house of less peaceful worship, the Elorde gym, Dennis Laurente has the face of a man who has felt a lifetime of violence.

His nose mashed, his knuckles rippling with calluses, Laurente - BoxRec record is 49 wins, 5 losses - knows Manny because he's fought four times on the undercard during Manny fights. He's 37, a year younger than Manny, and fights not for millions but for $10,000 when he can get a fight. Same fighting planet, different fighting worlds.

Boxers don't do overt affection but Laurente's words reveal what he thinks of Manny. "He's super kind, very generous to boxers." Every time, he says, when Manny meets him, he tries to slip him money. "Sometimes $2,000, sometimes more." Manny hasn't forgotten where he came from and where he's gone and where these men still are.

People say Manny, whose knockouts have dried up, has misplaced his killer instinct, his ruthless, manic edge, but Laurente, as if reminding himself that age doesn't dry talent, says: "That instinct never goes away."

Laurente insists Manny is "as fast". Durano adds that Manny was always small "but has the power of a much bigger man". Both men are clear: Manny has to knock down Floyd Mayweather, make him fall to the same canvas their life has unspooled on.

"If he knocks Mayweather down 2-3 times, he will win," says Laurente. "He has to get inside," says Durano, inside Mayweather's intelligent defence. "He has to knock him out, because if he doesn't, Mayweather is a dirty fighter who will do anything to win."

People boxed in this land before Manny but many fight now because of Manny. Filipinos box because Laurente says "we have a natural love for it. We're not tall and can't excel in other sports". But maybe they fight because boxing, everywhere, has been the promised road out of poverty. It's less painful than being poor. It's a chance. It's a dream. Just look at Manny.

In one forgotten corner of the Elorde gym, James de los Santos, bare-bodied, shoulders as wide as a doorway, works a heavy bag. Left jab, left jab, right cross. Perspiration gives him a shiny coat, but he's dripping ambition.

He's 20, brand new to boxing, a month into dreaming of a pro career, and he looks too old to be starting out. But the son of a jeepney driver - a vehicle which functions as a sort of taxi - has lost his job in construction. He finished only grade six, his grandfather agreed to pay for his training, and so here he is, trying to earn a living. Trying to be some version of Manny. Any version.

The priest says he will be busy at mass today. De los Santos will be tuned to his own service, arriving via satellite from Las Vegas. Once the fight is over, maybe he will return to the gym, look at the mirror and see Manny in the reflection. The great pugilist means so many things to so many people here, but maybe most to boxers, these men of the lonely ring, who throw punches like him yet never quite as well or as fast as him.

When we leave, de los Santos is shadow-boxing, dancing alone inside the ropes to a music only he hears. From outside, the roar of a cockfighting crowd streams into the gym and maybe he thinks it is for him. Near one corner of his ring, an advertisement is pasted on the wall. It is of Manny endorsing Rexona deodorant and the tagline reads: "It won't let you down."

Boxing mostly does. It breaks noses, then hearts. It lets you down. But win or lose, for these people, Manny never will.

rohitb@sph.com.sg

rdancel@sph.com.sg