Happy 31st birthday, Manny

Today, we greet an ordinary man turned extraordinary superman. He started poor. Dirt poor. Because, literally, it was dirt and ashes and sand and gravel that he carried and shoveled when he first worked in construction as a teenager. He could barely feed himself then. One meal a day. Two meals a day. Very often, unlike some of us who have the luxury of gorging on three unlimited platefuls per 24 hours plus cups of coffee and slices of toasted bread in between, he could not afford the same. Yet, it was this same bedrock, this same painful and gritty upbringing that fabricated his mettle.

Today, long after he climbed past the mountain called poverty and millions of minutes after he’d spent sweating inside the boxing gym to pound on punching bags and skip on skipping ropes, he has become our warrior. Our Philippine eagle.

If Sweden had a Bjorn Borg in the 1970s to catapult tennis to smashing heights, if U.S.A. had Jesse Owens in the 1930s to embarrass Adolf Hitler, if Brazil had Pele in the 1960s to proclaim that they owned the most powerful football kick on earth—we have our own version.

He looks like us. Has a mustache like many of us. He’s not tall. He eats tinolang manok. He speaks Bisaya, converses in Tagalog. He’s brown-skinned, black-haired, just like us.

Yet, unlike us, he has become the lone sunlight amidst the Philippine darkness. In this land where corruption is ingrained in the ladders of government, where natural calamities like Ondoy and Pepeng have destroyed our habitat, where our sports delegation to an international meet like the SEA Games is not one but two squads—as if there existed two different Philippines—he soars alone as our Philippine eagle.

He has inspired us. He has made the forgotten name “Filipino” into a much-talked about word when we visit Europe or America or Australia. For, in those continents, when we say we’re from the Philippines, they smile, shake our hand and not say, “Oh, you’re from the same country as Gloria Arroyo!” They say… “You come from the land of today’s Bruce Lee.”

Think about this Filipino. Boxers, we know, are no cowards. For who coward will allow himself to get stabbed by an uppercut or to bleed from the nostrils? But this Filipino boxer is much more than a boxer. Because, unlike some who evade the most robust of opponents, he’s undaunted by whoever famous name stands before him.

De La Hoya? Marquez? Cotto? Barrera? Hatton? Morales? All these fighters, almost surely, will land in the Hall of Fame. And our Filipino was never intimidated to face the finest of the best. Unlike Money, The Weather-Weather.

Money? The Cash? The Gen-San native has lots. While, when he started fighting, the prize money amounted to only hundreds of pesos, now it’s in the hundreds of thousands. No, millions. Computed in pesos, billions. And just as Bob Arum is almost never wrong, our birthday celebrant today will receive, in his coming fight, the biggest prize money in all of boxing. More than Ali. More than ODLH. More than Hagler or Hearns or Evander or Sugar Ray L.

But, to me, what distinguishes our countryman more than any other is his passion for life. Be it singing in front of thousands at the Mall of Asia concert grounds or singing while his ears are bloodied and his face swollen hours after he TKO’d Miguel Cotto, this we know of him: he enjoys life.

He loves cock-fighting. He loves to place a gamble in casinos. He plays basketball as often as he wants—like he did against us Cebuano sportswriters two years ago in a series of every-Sunday games. In those games, he drives down the lane and attempts a Michael Jordan-like leap. Never mind if this endangers millions of dollars if he injures his ankle or knee.

He’s an actor. He’s Wapakman. He’s a billiards marksman. He’s a darts marksman. Congressman?

Above all, we see a man who relishes each second of each hour of each week of his life. God bless our Philippine eagle.

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