A nation swings with every punch by its icon

With two days left before his much-anticipated "fight of the century" with the undefeated American Floyd Mayweather, Filipino boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao has become as ubiquitous as the air in this archipelago of 7,100 islands.

A tourist can be forgiven for mistaking Pacquiao as the Philippines president, and that "RP" stands for the Republic of Pacquiao.

The man's bearded face is on billboards looming high over highways, advertising everything, from deodorants and phone cards to bank loans, motorcycles and cars.

He is on T-shirts, baseball caps, jackets, boxing gloves, US$565 (S$744) vinyl dolls and 500,000 postage stamps.

Theatres have been screening Kid Kulafu, a film about the 36-year-old Pacquiao, titled after his old monicker when he was just a backwoods boxer few people knew.

On television, he is on every commercial break advertising products by any company that can afford a piece of him.

A music video he released two weeks ago - Pacquiao dabbles as a singer, actor, professional basketball player, and a politician in his spare time - is being looped constantly by the major TV networks.

In it, he sings the song he'll be marching to as he makes his way to the ring to face Mayweather: "Lalaban ako para sa Pilipino, I will fight for the Filipino."

On both traditional and new media, Pacquiao's months-long preparation for his May 3 date with Mayweather is being covered like a tectonic-shifting historic event.

A small army of journalists from the Philippines have been following him since he left for Los Angeles a month ago, with the top-selling Philippine Daily Inquirer saying it has dispatched its "dream team" of editors and sports reporters,

There are morsels of news about him on TV by the hour, about where he ate, what he ate, when he jogged, who he jogged with, where he went, who came to see him practising, what he sang, what he preached to his hangers-on.

Even his nine-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Pacman, is getting its share of publicity, with the Inquirer serving to its over 300,000 readers a day-in-the-life photo spread about the spunky canine.

Online, a search for "Pacquiao-Mayweather" yields over 57 million results. Facebook timelines are as saturated as newspapers with bits and pieces about Pacquiao.

Memes abound, with one showing a photo of a mom-and-pop restaurant offering free "paper" view of the upcoming boxing spectacle.

On Twitter, there is an abundance of trending hashtags: #sugodmanny (forward, Manny), #oneforpacman, #pacmay, #pacmanmayweather.

It is everything that Pacquiao represents that feeds the adulation. Short, stocky and mahogany brown with a rogue's mischievous eyes and grin, he is the quintessential, karaoke-loving, macho Filipino.

"He is the ideal aspirational model for ordinary Filipinos, the underdog who, through perseverance, manages to make it to the different portals of power: cultural, political, economic," pop culture expert Rolando Tolentino, of the University of the Philippines, told The Straits Times.

Even Pacquiao's past faults have never been a liability. There had been tales about his womanising and gambling, vices that a largely patriarchal population regards as what makes a real man.

Pacquiao has also reinvented himself into a born-again Christian, after his wife threatened to file for separation, earning for him the respect of a religious crowd normally queasy over the brutality of boxing.

That he has remained devoted to his mother, and even forgiving to a lout of a father who ate his pet dog, makes him endearing to a nation that prizes filial affection.

Boxing analyst Ed Tolentino predicts that the "intangibles" that Pacquiao brings with him because of what he has gone through will carry him through on Sunday.

"On paper, Mayweather can win it handily, but I like the heart and resiliency of Manny Pacquiao. The power, the heart," he said.

On Sunday May 3, the Pacquiao fever that has gripped the Philippines will peak. Over 100 million people gather around their TVs, and in cineplexes, pubs, public parks, stadiums and auditorium to cheer for Pacquiao, their Cinderella man.

rdancel@sph.com.sg