Pacquiao fight rivets, lifts a nation

Standing 5-foot-6 and weighing 130 pounds, boxer Manny Pacquiao certainly warrants the junior-lightweight class designation.

But his small frame is fashioned with strong shoulders. In fact, his shoulders have to be strong. He carries with him the hope of a nation.

The Filipino boxer is a superstar in his homeland of more than 80 million people. Fight fanatics crowd outside electronics stores to listen to his
bouts and his homecomings are celebrations replete with parades and well-wishes from Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and other elected officials.

Pacquiao's story is a Cinderella tale of overcoming unbeatable odds. And in a rural country in which poverty and strife are daily realities, Pacquiao's success has reached mythical proportions. As he readies for a rematch Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET) against Erik Morales in a WBC title eliminator in Las Vegas, excitement is reaching fever pitch in the Philippines.

"In the Philippines, it's like time stops when he fights," said Valerie Nicolas, a native Filipina who now lives in Oakland, Calif.

"No one is suffering, no one is worried, no one is tired. Our president can't even unite the people like that, but [Pacquiao] can."

In the U.S., Filipinos often play host to fight parties on the night of Pacquiao's bouts. Nicolas, 18, plans to watch the fight with a group of friends.
The first meeting between Pacquiao (40-3-2, 31 KOs) and Morales (48-3, 34 KOs) was a unanimous decision against her hero. She said the bout should have been a draw.

"The day of the fights, I always get nervous for him," she said.

"Two hours before the fight, I get sweaty palms. I feel like I'm going to fight. I have a lot of faith in him and he knows the Filipinos are praying for him. He's going to kick ass."

Pacquiao embodies the idea of a true people's champion because so many Filipinos identify with him, says Edgar Badajos, spokesman for the
Philippines Consulate in New York.

"He comes from a poor family, but because of his determination and fighting spirit, he was able to reach the top," Badajos said.

"The light in the country is not so bright. In the rural areas, you can see large swatches of poverty. Many live below the poverty line. They see Manny as a symbol of
hope. Maybe they, too, can do something to improve their lives."

Pacquiao's fairy tale began with a poor childhood in General Santos City. His father was a laborer in the city public market and his mother was a homemaker, according to Newsbreak, a news magazine that is published in the Philippines.

When Pacquiao's parents split, he dropped out of elementary school to help support the family. He sold bread and doughnuts on the city
streets to help provide for his mother and siblings.

Pacquiao always displayed an interest in sports, the magazine reports, participating in boxing, track and field and volleyball. At age 16, he
stowed away on a ship to Manila in hopes of pursing his boxing dream. He worked as a gardener and construction worker before finding success inside
the ring.

Today, the southpaw is 14-1-2 in his last 17 bouts, with all victories by knockout.

Recently, Pacquiao took a break from training to reflect on his growing status as a cultural icon. He said he tries to find a balance
between pleasing his fans and preparing for the fight.

"My countrymen's hopes and dreams are on my shoulders," Pacquiao said via an interpreter.

"Our country has been through a lot. One of the good things in their eyes is that I keep winning. When I was young, I had high hopes, but I
never imagined I'd get to be this big. It's a blessing."

By many standards, Pacquiao has achieved the American dream. He's married, is father of two sons and owns several homes
in his native country. His boxing success has even given birth to burgeoning careers in action films and music. Yet his commitment to the Philippines
remains evident.

Earlier this month, he released a CD in the Philippines called, "This Fight Is For You." The title track of the adult contemporary album is dedicated to his people.

"The song is a source of inspiration for my countrymen," he says. "It's a way for them to become one. I'm trying to uphold the Philippines in a good light."

The boxer's general goodwill and philanthropic efforts are hailed.

Other successful Filipinos are now showing their affection for
the boxer. Apl.de.ap, a member of the hip-hop group The Black Eyed Peas, has
penned "The Champion," a song written to honor his fellow countryman.

Although not yet released commercially in the U.S., the song has made the playlist on MTV in the Philippines. Pacquiao plans to use the song as part
of his entrance music against Morales.

As Pacquiao readies for the show down, Filipinos are also preparing.

Roy Samaniego, owner of the Palayok A Taste of Philippines restaurant in Dallas, is planning a fight-night party at his establishment. He expects the
excitement in the room to border on pandemonium.

"Younger people in the Philippines are now excited about boxing again," Samaniego said.

"They know that success can happen. When somebody makes it like that they say, 'It's possible. We can dream.' It's hope."

Peyton D. Woodson is a freelance writer.