Thursday, January 26, 2006

Pacquiao, Onyok, Ali and life

I am not a boxing fan but I did wait with bated breath for Manny Pacquiao’s Sunday confrontation with Mexican legend Eric Morales. And I did let out some expletives with some punches from either side.

The closest I have been to boxing is in our weekly taebo sessions at the Inquirer. When our trainer John Q yells ``Attack!’’ we demolish imaginary foes and when it is ``Defense!’’ we duck under our fists. You have to be fully focused and cannot allow the mind to wander otherwise you’d get lost in the footwork. It is during the post-taebo crunches and push-ups that I do my out-of-body flight that helps me make it (arrrgh!) to the last count.

The last time I wrote about boxing was 10 years ago when Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco Jr. won the silver at the Atlanta Olympics. (Onyok is Ilonggo endearment for Junior.) The Inquirer's banner photo of our champ on the podium waving a Philippine banderita and wearing that gentliest of smiles brought tears to my eyes. I remember that look that outshone his silver medal. After having been brutally battered by the judges (but not by the Bulgarian) Onyok emerged unbowed, with a countenance so serene, so beautiful, so gently Ilonggo. That photo spoke a thousand words.

That is why I wrote about it. The human side of it, not the brutal sport. But how does one separate the two? Our sports guru Recah Trinidad will tell you, you can’t. And where is Onyok now, I want to know.

Boxing is the sport of the underdog. I have yet to know of a boxer who was born rich. But they could die rich, that is, if they use what they know of boxing in navigating through later life.

Like boxing, long distance cycling is also for the anak pawis. Although every other rich kid now owns a mountain bike, I have yet to know of one that would want to join The Tour. In boxing and long-distance cycling, one has to have a high threshold for pain. They are not for the faint of heart. In golf (which also needs discipline), you take your sweet time walking and you have to have lots of money too, unless you are a caddy with access to the green.

Much has been said about Pacquiao, how he made the nation rise as one in jubilation. What he said, thought and felt; what he wore and ate and his hopes for this fractured nation. Pacquiao’s famous victory quote: “Sana magkaintindihan na tayong lahat.” (Literal translation: “I hope we would now understand one another.”) But we all know that magkaintindihan (from entiende) means more than just understanding, it means settling differences and living in peace and harmony.

Being mainly a feature writer, I am interested in knowing more about the so-called “Pacquiao Team” that got a little of the limelight. Who are they, what are they?

I have kept all these years the April 25, 1988 issue of the Sports Illustrated magazine with “(Muhammad) Ali and His Entourage” as cover story. It is about “The Greatest” and the people who waited on him when he was the greatest. The story by Gary Smith is a great one. “The champ and his followers were the greatest show on earth, and then the show ended. But life went on.” The gleaming black-and-white photographs by Gregory Heisler are probing. It is a story about greatness and decline. It is also about moving on.

Here again are the men and woman who doted on the champ long after the show had ended. All together, they paint a portrait of Ali, even as they paint a portrait of themselves.

Of Ferdie Pacheco, the doctor: “The first signal of decline was in Ali's hands. Pacheco began injecting them with novocaine before fights, and the ride went on. Then the reflexes showed, the beatings began, the media started to question the doctor. And the world began to learn how much the doctor loved to talk...The slower Ali spoke, the more frequently spoke the doctor.”

Of Gene Kilroy, the facilitator: “He has covered the walls of his rec room with 50 Ali photos. He reminisces every day. He watches videos of old Ali interviews he helped facilitate....”

Said Lana Shabazz, the cook: “I call him, ask him what he's eatin'. People ask me all the time how he's doin. Know how that feels, when people ask you how's your child, and you don't know what to say?”

Of Luis Sarria, the masseur: “I remembered (those hands), working endlessly up and down the smooth ripples of Ali's body until he drifted off to sleep. His hand I remembered, but I could not remember him.”

Of Pat Patterson, the bodyguard: “(He) had to sit on the corner stool and watch helplessly when his man needed protection most, in the ring when the end was near. `Watching him get hit was like watching someone stick my mama with a knife.'”

Of Herbert Muhammad, the manager: “His dream of building 49 more mosques like this first one, using the money Ali and he could generate, was drifting further and further from his reach. Ali slurred words and shook and didn't want to be seen on television.”

Of Drew (Bundini) Brown, the motivator: “...the ghetto poet who motivated Ali and maddened him, who invented the phrase, `Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee'...who licked Ali's mouthpiece before sliding it in but never said a yes to him he didn't mean; who could engage the champion in long discussions of nature and God and man, then lie in the hotel pool before a fight and have his white woman.”

Despite his immense wealth, Ali remained trapped in a ghetto.

The world of boxing is a surreal world, a gold mine for stories. Consider the many movies (``The Champ’’, ``Raging Bull’’, ``Million-Dollar Baby’’) and novels--Norman Mailer's among them. I don't like boxing but I like boxing stories.