MARAWI, Philippines, Jul 2 – Millions of boxing fans in the Philippines including those displaced by fighting with Islamist militants walked away in stunned disbelief as national hero Manny Pacquiao lost his world title to Australian Jeff Horn in a major upset on Sunday.
Pacquiao, 38, is an elected senator and a unifying figure in the Southeast Asian nation beset by conflict, grinding poverty, and frequent natural calamities.
Residents of a war-torn southern city had hoped for a respite by watching the 12-round fight in displacement camps but their idol’s defeat silenced cheers and prompted many to stand up even before the announcement was over.
“We were expecting his hand to be raised as a winner but you cannot always win,” provincial government spokesman Zia Alonto Adiong told AFP after helping organise a public viewing in war-ravaged Marawi city.
“Our morale is at its lowest but Pacquiao remains a symbol of resilience. In the same way that he is already a boxing icon, this crisis does not define who we are.”
Islamist militants who went on a rampage in Marawi on May 23 have triggered intense fighting that has killed more than 400 people and forced nearly 400,000 people to flee their homes.
In Manila, soldiers wounded from the clashes in Marawi watched a bloodied Pacquiao from screens set up in a military hospital.
Pacquiao had bled profusely from cuts to the head high above both eyes, prompting boos from crowds gathered in gymnasiums in the capital.
“Pacquiao lost, but a battle is really like that. He is a true soldier because even if he is wounded he keeps attacking the opponent,” armed forces chief General Eduardo Ano told reporters.
Pacquiao, a staunch ally of President Rodrigo Duterte, received huge praise from the presidential palace.
“Nothing will change: Senator Manny Pacquiao will remain our people’s champ, national fist, and national treasure,” said Duterte’s spokesman Ernesto Abella.
Pacquiao’s rags-to-riches story, from high school dropout to millionaire world boxing champion in an unprecedented eight weight divisions, is a huge source of pride in the Philippines.
In keeping with tradition, many Filipinos watched Pacquiao’s fight, which took place around midday on Sunday in the Philippines time zone, in public places, including in restaurants and watering holes.
However crowds have gradually become thinner as Pacquiao hits the twilight of a glittering career.
“I don’t think he lost. He was cheated! He still came out a strong fighter,” construction worker Rudy Merano, 30, told AFP in a public square of Manila’s Marikina suburb.
“But I think Pacquiao should retire and just focus on being senator. He is clearly ageing.”