AT NAT'S Thai Food, a one-room joint wedged into a minimall in Hollywood, a microphone awaits the national treasure of the Philippines. As gentle piano chords drift from a karaoke machine atop the counter, Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao carefully mats down his black bangs, rises from his table and announces to his entourage, "Beatles! Beatles!" Then, grinning impishly, the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world leaves his chicken satay for a song. ¶ Had his dulcet rendition been any less genuine, the choice of a ballad—Let It Be—might have come off as awfully ironic. Manny Pacquiao (pa-KEE-ow) is the least passive pugilist of this era, a 5'6 1/2" Uzi of a puncher who climbs weight classes (from 106 to 147 pounds in 13 years) as smoothly as he does octaves: In 2006 he had a hit single in the Philippines. Back home, in fact, Beatlemania pales in comparison to Pacmania. Pacquiao, 29, is an aspiring politician. He is both the star and subject of movies. He hosts a reality TV show. He even has his face on a postage stamp.
Pacquiao overshadows just about everything, national security included. Last March, before his victorious superfeatherweight rematch against Juan Manuel Márquez, the Philippine military declared a seven-hour ceasefire in its war against communist insurgents. But what of the rebels, sir? "I suggest," said the army's chief of staff, "that they also watch the fight."
"We can't even train in the Philippines," says Freddie Roach, Pacquiao's trainer of seven years. "Everyone wants a piece of him."
So the boxer comes here, to Roach's Wild Card Gym on Vine Street, just 20 feet from Nat's. While clusters of fans have spent hours in the parking lot waiting for Pacquiao, the scene is merely a simulacrum of the madness back home. "I haven't seen anything like it, not since Ali," promoter Bob Arum says. And it's only getting more surreal: On Dec. 6 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Pacquiao (47-3-2, 35 KOs), a world champion in four weight classes, will jump to welterweight to face Oscar De La Hoya (39--5, 30). Of all the titlists the Filipino has vanquished, none would be greater, literally or figuratively, than the Golden Boy, a 5'10 1/2" former middleweight.
The fighters' disparity in size hasn't diminished interest—or hurt the balance sheet. The Grand sold out almost instantly, and the $17 million gate is the second largest in history. Throw in the international audience, and promoters predict that it will be the most profitable fight ever, surpassing De La Hoya's bout against Floyd Mayweather Jr. last May. As Mark Taffet, vice president for HBO PPV, puts it, "It's a fantasy sports matchup."
For a nation of 96 million, it is even more. "Manny is our people's idol and this generation's shining light," Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo says. "He is our David against Goliath, our hero and the bearer of the Filipino dream.... You can feel the excitement throughout the country every time he is in the ring."
IN THE dusty barrios of the southern Philippines, excitement is not the first thing one feels. Instead it's the oppressive humidity, along with fear: More than 100 civilians have been killed in the region since August, casualties of a conflict between Islamist separatists and the government. But in these parts, the best Asian prizefighter in history is not only an inspiration; he's also a neighbor. While De La Hoya long ago relocated far from his home in gang-ridden East L.A.—and understandably so—Pacquiao, with his wife, Jinkee, and their three children, proudly reigns over the sport from General Santos City.
His 12,000-square-foot estate, built two years ago, is not far from the streets where Manny, the second of four children, peddled rolls of bread at age 12. Beyond the passel of bodyguards toting assault rifles is the port where Pacquiao boarded a ferry as a 14-year-old, stealing away to turn pro in Manila without his mother's permission. (He had his first title bout two years later.) Why return? "I want to bring glory to my country," Pacquiao says. "And I love GenSan because it's where I came from."
Both Catholics and Muslims are Pac-Man fans. When he fights, the streets empty, the crime rate plummets and the government grinds to a halt. "I'm probably the most powerful person in the Philippines," Arum jokes, "because I decide which politicians get to take a photo with him in the ring."