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The heartbeat of an entire nation

Manny Pacquiao was late, so we all stood around in the courtyard of Manila's colonial-style city hall, listening to the 30-piece band that greeted me upon arrival. The first note was struck the second the van door slid open, but it took a few seconds for me to realize it was part of my official welcome. I shouldn't have been surprised, especially as it was just one of countless surreal scenarios that unfolded during my 11-day stay in the Philippines in 2004.

And it was about to get even stranger.

Pacquiao arrived about 15 minutes later to the cheers of the crowd that had gathered to greet him. He looked sleepy and reeked of morning breath, but nobody cared. We were hustled inside, where Mayor Lito Atienza made a brief speech and presented me with the key to the city. A few minutes later, I was back in the van as the driver struggled to keep up with the motorcycle escort leading the way to Malacanang Palace, the official residence of the president of the Philippines.

After a protocol briefing, I met then-president Gloria Arroyo, a small perky woman with a professional smile -- and who would be indicted on corruption charges after leaving office. We joined Mayor Atienza, Rod Nazario (Pacquiao's former manager) inside Ceremonial Hall, where I presented Manny with The Ring magazine featherweight championship belt he had won by stopping Marco Antonio Barrera.

Sportswriters are not considered dignitaries in the Western world, but I was treated like visiting royalty. The extravagant hospitality and seemingly endless series of media events had little or nothing to do with me personally. It was the Filipinos' abiding love of boxing and the fact I had come halfway around the world to honor one of their own that had turned the occasion into a weeklong extravaganza.

Although it was the highest-profile event of my visit, presenting the belt at the Philippines' version of the White House was only one indication of the special place boxing holds in the hearts of the Filipino people. Virtually every move I made became headline news in the surprisingly numerous English-language newspapers. There were so many news conferences, interviews and visits to various luminaries that there was little time to relax. At one point things got so crazy, a TV reporter emerged from the bushes as friends and I ate dinner poolside at the Manila Hotel.

Most likely, boxing would never have become so popular in the Philippines if it were not for the United States' occupation following the end of the Spanish-American War. In an effort to reduce the rates of desertion, suicide, sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse and drunkenness among U.S soldiers and sailors stationed in the Philippines, commanders offered boxing as a potential solution.

According to an article by Joseph R. Svinth, which appeared in the July 2001 edition of the Journal of Combative Sports: "Many early boxers in the Philippines were African-American" as they "formed a significant percentage of the American soldiers serving in the Philippines between 1899 and 1902." There were also white soldiers who boxed in the Philippines, the most notable of whom was New Jersey's Mike Ballerino, who returned home to win the junior lightweight championship in 1925.

For most of the first decade, Filipino boxers were usually limited to preliminary bouts, but by 1919 they were fighting main events. Manila-based American promoter Frank Churchill, along with Stewart and Eddie Tait, opened a venue called the Olympic and helped the rise of indigenous boxers. It was Churchill who was responsible for the development of Francisco Guilledo, who would become famous after changing his name to Pancho Villa in honor of the Mexican revolutionary.

Villa -- who fought in a nonstop, perpetual-motion style -- became such a huge ticket-seller that Churchill decided he could be just as popular in the United States and make significantly more money. Villa launched his American campaign in June 1922, and fans soon fell in love with the diminutive dynamo with his shock of jet-black hair and engaging personality. He further endeared himself by holding the ropes apart and helping his opponents into the ring. Once the bell rang, however, Villa was nowhere near as friendly, and tore into adversaries in much the same fashion Pacquiao would 80 years later.

In 1923, Villa won the flyweight championship by knocking out Jimmy Wilde in front of a large gathering at New York's Polo Grounds. He returned to the Philippines in 1925 for two bouts -- a non-title knockout of Francisco Pilapil and a 15-round decision over Clever Sencio in defense of the title. Little did anyone expect that it would be Villa's final victory.

He was back in the U.S. by July and accepted a non-title match with future welterweight champion Jimmy McLarnin. The day before the fight, Villa, who suffered from ulcerated teeth, underwent dental surgery. He entered the ring the following day against his doctor's advice, his swollen jaw clearly visible to ringsiders.

After losing a decision, Villa's condition worsened as the infection spread to his throat. On July 14, he died on the operating table at the age of 23. His death is usually attributed to blood poisoning, but contemporary newspaper accounts claimed it was an overdose of anesthesia.

Villa's success in the U.S. was the start of a wholesale invasion of Filipino fighters. So many steamed across the Pacific Ocean that they were referred to as the "mosquito fleet." Among the many who followed Villa were such stalwarts as Little Dado, Small Montana, Speedy Dado, Young Tommy and Ceferino Garcia, who became middleweight champion in 1939.

It wasn't until the late 1950s that another boxing golden age blossomed in the Philippines. This time it was Gabriel "Flash" Elorde who galvanized the nation and carried boxing to greater heights than ever before. He was already a popular attraction when in 1960, he knocked out Harold Gomes in front of more than 36,000 fans at Araneta Coliseum (site of "The Thrilla In Manila" 15 years later) to win the junior lightweight championship. Elorde held the title for seven years, making nine successful defenses. Throughout much of his reign, he also held the Oriental and Pacific Boxing Federation lightweight title and defended it on a regular basis.

Elorde's long and prolific career helped stabilize boxing in the Philippines, but it was his impeccable personal life as much as his fighting prowess that made him a national icon. The modest and munificent Elorde always befriended his opponents and invited them to dinner at his home following the fight. He purchased a piece of land in Sucat, just outside of Manila, and built the Elorde Sports Center.

Elorde died of lung cancer in 1985, but his family is still involved in boxing and runs the sports center that features an eclectic mix of boxing, cockfighting, ballroom dancing and swimming. Today, Filipino children read about Elorde in their history books as a beloved hero whose accomplishments in and out of the boxing ring have withstood the test of time.

There were numerous Filipino titleholders between Elorde's time and the arrival of Pacquiao, including, but not limited to: Erbito Salavarria, Ben Villaflor, Rolando Navarrette, Dodie Boy and Gerry Penalosa, and Luisito Espinosa. None of them, however, have come close to equaling Villa, Elorde or Pacquiao.

Multi-talented Nonito Donaire, who fights Guillermo Rigondeaux Saturday in a junior featherweight title unification bout, is widely considered Pacquiao's heir apparent. Whether he can transcend boxing to the same extent as Pacquiao is a moot point, but there is no doubt he is from the same tradition of Filipino fighting men.

That tradition dates to 1521, when Chief Lapu-Lapu and members of his tribe fought off Spanish invaders and killed Ferdinand Magellan at the Battle of Mactan Island. Due to the fact that foreign countries occupied the Philippines for roughly 400 years (from the 1540s until after World War II), most outsiders have forgotten what proud warriors Filipinos were before being subjugated by modern weapons wielded by imperialists.

Centuries of oppression under the thumb of foreign rulers did not, however, take away the Filipino people's inherent fighting spirit. It instead has been sharpened by the kind of desperation that leads to a what-have-we-got-to-lose mentality so noticeable in most of its boxers.

"Of course not every boxer in the Philippines is on the level of Pacquiao, but there is an earthy grittiness about Filipino boxers and they always fight with their hearts on full display," said American journalist Ted Lerner, who has lived in the Philippines almost 19 years.

Although a fighter like Pacquiao is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, the future of Filipino boxing looks promising. Moreover, with an annual per capita income of less than $2,500, there is no shortage of recruits.

"Boxing has a long and proud history in the Philippines, and the sport is deeply ingrained in Filipino culture," Lerner said. "Filipinos love boxing, and the fighters intrinsically know it, which gives the sport a deep meaning and significance. This is why the Philippines was, is and always will be a serious boxing country that produces exciting, world-class fighters."