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PacMan v Duterte Harry: It’s set to be a true thriller in Manila as boxer Manny Pacquiao lines up a run for president

The twelve-times world champion, 42, could take power in the Philippines next year by defeating the populist incumbent Rodrigo ‘the Punisher’ Duterte, 76, but it’s likely to be his toughest and dirtiest fight to date.

The Philippines, I’m fairly sure most of my Filipino friends would agree, is a bit of a nut house; that’s especially true when it comes to politics.

Nothing is really sure, nothing is truly stable. There is often a feeling that someone with a tank and a few soldiers could knock on the doors of the presidential palace at any given moment. Or maybe just take over a hotel, as they did when I was a correspondent down there a dozen-or-so years ago. 

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There had already been loads of other coup attempts since the effective dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in 1986. It was something of a national pastime. 

Underneath the country’s thin democratic veneer, it’s kind of a feudal system dominated by a handful of families. It’s a bit like ‘Game of Thrones’, but without the dragons. 

And they do so love the proverbial ‘strong man’ as a president down there. Just ask the Beatles.

The Fab Four played in Manila in 1966, but politely declined an invite from President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, to visit the presidential palace. Hundreds of kids were there waiting to meet the Beatles, including the Marcoses’ three children. Imelda Marcos – famous for her vast collection of shoes – and her hubby were not used to being snubbed. Oh no. And the Beatles were chased to the airport and had to take cover amongst a group of nuns. 

When we got on the plane, we were all kissing the seats,” said Paul McCartney. “It was a feeling as if we’d found sanctuary. We had definitely been in a foreign country where all the rules had changed, and they carried guns.”

We’ll just never go to any nut houses ever again,” said John Lennon after they made their escape. He also reportedly said: “If we go back, it will be with an H-bomb. I won’t even fly over the place.”  

That’s maybe a little harsh, John. The Filipino folk are lovely and warm and hospitable, though many of them live in absolute poverty. It’s just their politicians that can be a bit out on the fringes of what would normally be expected in this day and age… maybe.

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They reckon the Marcoses, by the way, stole around $10 billion from the state. Yet big-spending Imelda even won political office herself a while later when she returned from exile in Hawaii. Her son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr – nicknamed ‘Bongbong’ – is also a political force in his own right who could well become president sooner or later. 

After the Beatles snubbed that little family soiree, eight-year-old Bongbong was quoted as saying: “I’d like to pounce on the Beatles and cut off their hair! Don’t anybody dare me to do anything, because I’ll do it, just to see how game the Beatles are.”

That’s kind of what I mean. The Philippines is a strange political land, and they’re very forgiving, those 108 million Filipinos. They’ll vote in their masses for a big name, a strong man. Or strong woman.

A heavyweight boxing match followed a few years after the departure of the Beatles, Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier – dubbed ‘The Thrilla In Manila’ – in 1975. It was said to be one of the best and most brutal clashes ever, with Ali winning by a technical knockout. 

There could be an even more brutal match next year: PacMan v the Punisher.

In the red corner, we have Manny ‘PacMan’ Pacquiao, a boxer who has won TWELVE major world titles at EIGHT different weights. PacMan is probably the most famous Filipino there has ever been, and he’s loaded. He’s perfectly poised to be president of the Philippines. He’s already a senator and was, until Saturday, the leader of the ruling party.

And in the blue corner, we have the current president, Rodrigo ‘the Punisher’ Duterte (well, more likely his daughter, Sara, due to laws dictating a president can serve only one six-year term). The Punisher has always reminded me of a gangster from a 1930s Hollywood flick, except dressed in Asian attire instead of a suit. He likes machine guns. So much so, he allegedly personally shot dead a justice department official with an Uzi. 

That’s a catchy slogan you don’t hear so much in the West.

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Assassins, some of them female, roam the Philippines on mopeds killing drug dealers as part of the Punisher’s – quite literal – war on crime. Thousands have been killed. When running for office, Duterte promised to kill 100,000 criminals during his first six months in office. He vowed: “I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay and fatten all the fish there.”

Anyway, the Punisher’s six-year term is almost up, so he can’t run again. Yet he is hugely popular with voters, and the 76-year-old has suggested he may run for vice president instead. Particularly as it would protect him from prosecution when he leaves office. His daughter, Sara – who is already mayor of the family fiefdom of Davao – may be the presidential candidate. 

That is, believe me – I lived there for two years – all very, very Filipino when it comes to politics. It’s a family business.

PacMan has backed the Punisher when it comes to wiping out drug dealers and the reintroduction of the death penalty, but has opposed his ‘soft’ position on China and record on corruption, so Duterte and his cronies dismissed Pacquiao, 42, from his position as president of the ruling party on Saturday. 

But not to his face. PacMan is actually in the States, training for a welterweight title fight in Las Vegas against Errol Spence Jr next month. The Punisher was once supportive of PacMan one day being president. Not anymore; now he says PacMan is “punch drunk” after the criticisms of his policies: “When you are a champion in boxing, it does not mean to say that you are a champion in politics. He is blubbering his mouth.”

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PacMan says the Punisher should stop the politicking and focus on fighting coronavirus. “If (Duterte’s allies) think that politics is more important now, so be it,” he said. “In the end, only one question needs to be answered: with whom will the people side?

Oh yeah! That sounds like fighting talk to me! PacMan has yet to show his hand, but next May’s presidential election is shaping up to be a true thriller in Manila. PacMan v the Punisher and his daughter. I’d put my money on PacMan, for sure.

A boxer as president, though, that’s nuts. Ridiculous! That could never happen in the UK or the US. No way. 

Oh yeah? Before we Westerners get a bit too smug and superior about those backwards folk in the Pacific, as we are apt to do… Err? How about President Donald Trump? An orange-faced reality TV star as president? That could never happen. 

And Boris Johnson as prime minister? Isn’t he that posh-boy buffoon and dodgy journalist with floppy blonde hair who bumbles away on TV shows like ‘Have I Got News For You’ and such like? He could never be PM, don’t be daft. 

I reckon Marcus ‘Free School Dinners’ Rashford MBE should hang up his football boots and have a bash in 2024, and put that penalty miss behind him.

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