Monday, May 11, 2009 | midnight
Huge crowds cheered Filipino boxing star Manny Pacquiao as a convoy paraded him from Manila’s squalid slums to the presidential palace for Monday’s government-declared national celebration of his latest victory.
Pacquiao’s stunning second-round knockout that dethroned IBO light welterweight champion Ricky Hatton in Las Vegas on May 3 cemented the Filipino’s image as the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter and his massive popularity at home.
His victory set off celebrations across the impoverished Southeast Asian nation, where the 30-year-old has created a fanatical following bridging the divide between rich and poor.
Shanty dwellers jostled along filthy sidewalks in Manila’s Tondo slum district to get a glimpse of Pacquiao, whose phenomenal rise from crushing poverty as a street vendor to world fame has become the subject of at least one film.
Pacquiao smiled and waved while children threw mock punches as his long motorcade passed by.
The parade was abruptly cut short to allow Pacquiao to go to the Malacanang Palace, where President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, her Cabinet and members of Congress showered him with confetti, praises, a cake emblazoned with the Philippine flag and a sumptuous Filipino lunch in a chandelier-lit banquet hall.
Three tenors serenaded him with a rendition of his songs—one of his many side interests that includes acting.
Pacquiao presented his IBO light welterweight champion belt to Arroyo then gave her and her husband his team’s sports jackets. Arroyo wore it over her elegant fuchsia dress, grabbed a microphone and threw questions at him like a fan.
“Did Hatton hurt you?” Arroyo asked.
“Not so much,” Pacquiao replied. “On top of the ring, I thought he was bigger and stronger. But no, he could not take the punch of the Filipino nation.”
Arroyo presented him with an encased copy of a presidential proclamation, which called for a national celebration Monday for Pacquiao, who was described as a “boxing legend” whose “life and victories inspire the Filipinos to have resiliency and dedication to triumph against all odds.”
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, citing advice from the World Health Organization, urged Pacquiao last week to postpone his homecoming and observe a self-quarantine for five days because the swine flu virus has spread in Los Angeles, where Pacquiao remained after his bout.
But Pacquiao defied the advice, saying he and his entourage did not have flu symptoms. He flew home Friday and shook hands with well-wishers before driving to Quiapo church in downtown Manila where a mob of fans awaited.
Pacquiao has unsuccessfully run for a congressional seat but is planning another attempt next year.