, PHILLIPINES, Feb 24 – Manny Pacquiao still trains with the joy that has been a trademark of his spectacular boxing career, but outside of the ring he speaks in ominous, Biblical tones about his political crusade against wickedness.
The 37-year-old, who famously hauled himself out of poverty in the Philippines to become one of the world’s greatest and wealthiest boxers, is nearing retirement.
After a recent training session in his impoverished southern hometown of General Santos, Pacquiao told AFP he was looking forward to hanging up his gloves after fighting Timothy Bradley in April, and pursuing a political career.
Pacquiao, already a congressman, is running for a Senate seat in May elections — with an eye on an eventual presidential run — and his star power in a nation famed for its celebrity-obsessed politics is likely to see him win.
But the diminutive boxer, loved for so long in sporting circles for his friendly demeanour and reluctance to trash talk opponents, offered no spirit of compromise to his political foes.
He couched his political ambitions with an intense religious fervour borne out of a late-career switch from a playboy-lapsed Catholic to a devout evangelical Christian.
“My goal is to serve the people honestly and to expose the wickedness and detestable things in God’s eye that most of the politicians do,” Pacquiao said when asked about his political ambitions.
Pacquiao’s newfound religious fury ignited a global controversy last week when he homosexuals were “worse than animals”.
“It’s common sense. Do you see animals mating with the same sex? Animals are better because they can distinguish male from female,” Pacquiao told Filipino television station TV5.
“If men mate with men and women mate with women, they are worse than animals.”
– ‘Detestable’ –
Even more inflammatory comments were then posted on his Instagram account, but quickly deleted as his advisers tried to limit the battering to his international reputation.
“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable,” the post read, quoting a Bible passage from Leviticus.
“They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
In the United States — where Pacquiao has fought most of his bouts, earned the bulk of his riches and long been a fan favourite — the response to Pacquiao’s comments was a mixture of shock and horror.
Nike, Pacquiao’s major global sponsor, cancelled its endorsement deal with him, describing his comments as “abhorrent”.
Asked by AFP to discuss his views on homosexuality and the international outrage, Pacquiao was unrepentant.
“What I did wrong was just comparing the people to animals, but you know what I am telling is the truth,” he said.
“I mean I am just telling what the Bible says. We believe God and then we should honour the word of God.”
Pacquiao’s religious fervour extends to other social issues — he is a public opponent of divorce, abortion and contraceptives.
As a congressman, he voted against a bill to give poor Filipinos free condoms and safe sex education.
– ‘Headed for hell’ –
It is a sharp turnaround on the sanctity of the family for Pacquiao, a father-of-five whose wife used to speak publicly about his infidelities before he turned to religion, and who was also well known for gambling and drinking.
“I do realise I was a weak person before. If I had died the other year, I believe my soul would have ended in hell,” Pacquiao told reporters in 2012, shortly after entering politics as a member of the nation’s lower house.
Pacquiao’s conservative social views are expected to help his quest to become leader of the Philippines, where about 80 percent of the 100 million people are Catholics.
Even his gay slurs are unlikely to hurt, according to Clarita Carlos, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines in Manila.
Carlos said was this not because people endorsed his views on homosexuality.
“We are a very, very tolerant society,” Carlos told AFP.
She said it was rather because the tens of millions of poor Filipinos who idolised Pacquiao, and were his natural political base, had more pressing issues to worry about.
“They barely have three meals a day so what do they care about these things. They care about food, they care about their homes,” she said.
Pacquiao’s political narrative is indeed heavily focused on helping the poor, and in his home province he is genuinely loved by many for spending some of his fortune on his constituents.
In the interview with AFP, Pacquiao described his “joy and happiness” at personally funding new housing for more than 1,000 families in the southern Philippines.
But the former street kid added he had a more important reason for voters to choose him.
“I have a pure heart,” he said. “I am serving with the guidance of the Lord and I am serving with the fear of the Lord.”