MANILA: Manny Pacquiao will enter the ring for boxing’s “fight of the century” with an entire country in his corner as the Philippines grinds to a halt to dementedly cheer on its favorite son against Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Streets will be empty on fight day — Sunday morning local time — as a nation of 100 million cheers its “National Fist” in huge open-air screenings, cinemas, bars and homes.
Pacquiao’s image is ubiquitous, emblazoned across giant billboards lining major highways and on shirts, dolls and stamps in stores everywhere.
“The world will stop on Sunday. Everybody is excited,” 32-year-old Manila taxi driver Glenn Yago said on Friday.
Yago said he would not work until the fight is over to catch hordes of boxing fans leaving malls and bars.
“There will be mayhem in the streets after the fight,” he said.
The rags-to-riches story of Pacquiao, along with his famously humble manner, has made him a towering national hero.
For many of his fellow countrymen the 36-year-old, winner of an unprecedented eight world championships in different weight divisions, symbolizes their hope of escaping the grinding poverty that afflicts one in four of his countrymen.
Hundreds of cinema screens will show the fight from Las Vegas, displacing the Hollywood smash Avengers: Age of Ultron, according to screening schedules.
The country’s three biggest networks said they would air it on free television. Giant screens will be set up in covered courts, village halls and military and police camps.
On Palawan Island, the electricity utility has even urged its customers to turn off their refrigerators to avoid electricity shortages that could black out TV sets.
In the southern area of Santa Catalina, still reeling from a rebel siege two years ago, hundreds will cram into several houses with pay-per-view access to the fight, said village leader Jimmy Villaflores.
And to ensure uninterrupted viewing, Villaflores said he had rented several generators. A supply shortage is causing up to six-hour daily power cuts in the south.
“Pacquiao has a proven impact on the occurrence of crimes. The crime rate goes down because everybody is holed up watching him fight,” national police spokesman Senior Superintendent Bartolome Tobias told Agence France-Presse.
The fight has taken on an epic hue, pitching the modest David of the Philippines against an American Goliath, the brash—and undefeated—Mayweather.
Even God is on the side of the born-again Christian, according to many in Asia’s bastion of Roman Catholicism.
“He is a very prayerful man. He has the spirit, he has the faith,” said Mona Soriano, after she took part in a sparring session in a Manila boxing gym.
The “Pac-man”, who started his career as a fish port worker, is now also a member of parliament, actor, basketball professional and popular singer. His supporters want him to run for the presidency.
“He put the Philippines on the world map… I’m a huge fan. He is the best boxer in the world,” beef-stew hawker Arvel Oquendo said at his sidewalk stall in Manila.
“The whole country may be in disarray, but for a few hours, we will forget all our problems,” said the 26-year-old.
Oquendo said that in November he won 3,600 pesos ($80) betting on Pacquiao — 600 pesos for each of the six times his last opponent, American Chris Algieri, fell to the canvas.
“This time, I couldn’t find anyone who would bet against Pacquiao. Everyone believes he will win,” he said.
Security guard Brando Tachado, 31, is another who sees Pacquiao as a projection of national pride for a country beset by not just poverty but also corruption and serial natural disasters.
“His victory will bring honour to our country,” said Tachado.
But in a nation wearily used to overcoming adversity, Oquendo said he would remain a devoted Pacquiao fan come what may.
“It’s okay if he loses. We Filipinos know how to handle defeat. We rise from it,” the street hawker said.