It's 9am in Abu Dhabi and thousands of Filipinos are going wild. Why? Because 13,000km away at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, their national hero Manny Pacquiao is being cheered from the boxing ring after another successful defence of his world title.
ABU DHABI // Manny Pacquiao is 66kg of solid charisma - and in the early hours of yesterday morning you would have found no one in the UAE to disagree. The boxing sensation known as "Pac-Man" has captured the imagination of everyone from sports fans to political observers. Even the entertainment world has taken note. He is a national hero in his native Philippines and recognised worldwide for a remarkable career that includes championships in seven weight classes, all won with a dashing style that he carries off whether in the ring, fronting his pop band or running for public office.
He added to the legend yesterday, retaining his World Boxing Organisation welterweight championship with a 12-round decision over the Ghanian Joshua Clottey before a crowd of more than 50,000 spectators at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Hundreds of thousands more watched the fight via pay-per-view in the Philippines. And in the UAE, thousands of his compatriots gathered at cafes and restaurants in the early hours to see the fight.
Woodrow Mangalino, a nurse at the Gulf Diagnostic Center Hospital in Abu Dhabi, was among a crowd of about 200 that showed up at Khalidiya Mall to watch the fight on big-screen TVs. Mr Mangalino, who planned the day off from work more than a month ago, arrived at 4am to assure he got a good viewing position. The fight did not start until almost five hours later, but it was worth the wait. "It was another great fight for Manny Pacquiao," he said. "With all the corruption and dirty politics in our country, he's one of the reasons why I'm still proud to be a Filipino. He will always serve as an inspiration to every Filipino living and working overseas and those back home."
Mr Mangalino and his colleagues threw punches into the air and ducked their heads with each blow Pacquiao rained down on Clottey. A roar erupted when Pacquiao was awarded the victory by unanimous decision. The response was even more jubilant in the Philippines. "It's inexplicable and hard to pin down what the Manny Pacquiao phenomenon is," said Francis Ochoa, 35, the deputy news editor at the Philippine Daily Inquirer in Manila and a long-time Pacquiao observer.
"Basically, you admire a fellow Filipino who excels in a field internationally. That alone is a big part of a phenomenon. Filipinos find affinity with the underdog and the masses relate to his rags-to-riches story. "But it goes beyond that. We look at his penchant for entertainment. He doesn't shy away from singing before a large audience. He is charitable, very religious and God-fearing." Pacquiao charmed American audiences when he sang George Benson's Nothing's Gonna Change My Love For You during an appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel Live chat show this month.
Mr Ochoa said that fans realise the fighter is "not perfect" but are willing to accept his flaws, which may include a fondness for cockfights and actresses. His accessibility, grace and sportsmanship allow fans to "relate to him more", he said. "You roll all these traits into one and you come up with a package." Pacquiao also has political aspirations. With the backing of the Nacionalista Party, he is running for a legislative seat for a second time.
Not all his fans think he should enter politics. "Pacquiao's influence is stronger than our local politicians and celebrities because he rose from poverty and we revere him for his talent inside the ring," said Buddy Suarez, 33, a cook from Abu Dhabi who was at Khalidiya Mall to watch the fight. "I hope he doesn't enter politics; it isn't for him." Dr Ron Villejo, a Filipino-American psychologist in Dubai, said the fighter's popularity stems from the way he "provides inspiration" for Filipinos.
"In the history of the Philippines, we have been fighters," he said. "We were colonised by Spain and we had to fight for our independence and respect. When Pacquiao wins, it gives Filipinos a sense of strength and well-being." There was certainly a sense of well-being among his fans at Khalidiya Mall. The crowd watched on four overhead projectors and six flat-screen TVs installed at the Goto King restaurant.
"In the Philippines," said the managing director, Ashraf al Barkawi, who is from Jordan, "I imagine that when there's a fight, they momentarily forget that they don't have money or food." Janice Piape, 26, a hotel receptionist, wore a specially designed sports jacket with the colours of the Philippines flag. "I've always been a Pacquiao fan," she said. "Not only because he's Filipino but because he's good and he's a real fighter. In the Philippines, there's zero crime rate whenever there's a Pacquiao fight. I hope it stays that way."