Some Call It Ballin'

Issue 3: Fall 2014

"...but in joy create for others the house, the poem, the game of athletic beauty" — Dudley Randall

Pacquiao vs. Rios: Contemplating the Filipino in Macau

by Patrick Rosal

Illustration by Nicholas Rosal

Four days before the main event, I find myself at St. Dominic’s Church, one of the central landmarks of Senado Square in Macau. The day is bright. The weather mild. The church’s clean white molding and yellow facade sting the eyes at mid-day. I made my way into Macau from my hotel in Cotai just 15 minutes over the bridge via shuttle and public bus.

St. Dominic’s reminds me of the churches in and around Vigan where my father grew up, old cobblestone streets and 17th-century Iberian inflected architecture. Senado Square is essentially a gigantic outdoor mall – clothes and sneaker stores, jewelry and gift shops. Right on the church’s steps, local merchants sell handmade wares alongside Hello Kitty merchandise. Once I’m through the threshold, the shut door mutes the marketplace rumble.

The air inside the church is gold fog. A center aisle splits wooden pews into two rows. Square columns, unfluted with ornate capitals, launch into a series of arches on either side. Behind the altar, the apse is adorned with a painting of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus — the heart itself hovers exposed over Christ’s garments, a cross planted on top of it, the whole coronary organ afire and crowned with thorns. In a recessed space below the painting is a standard statue of Mary and Holy Child.  The Madonna is flanked by two other statues, one of whom must be St. Dominic himself.

In Macau, the bus drivers speak no English and I don’t speak a lick of Cantonese. But I recognize Filipino faces in transit. So my sketchy Tagalog gets me where I need to go in the city. I’m curious how Filipinos feel about the lionized Pacquiao fighting in Asia for the first time in seven years. The first bout on the card is scheduled for 8:00 am Sunday morning. That’s a 5:00 pm start time on the American West Coast in order to accommodate U.S. audiences paying to watch on cable. I wonder if the good Filipinos of Macau will have to choose between combat and communion.

*

In December of 2012, more than a million boxing fans watched a ferocious right hand by Juan Manuel Márquez drop Manny Pacquiao cold. The fourth face-off between the old rivals ended with the Filipino face down, stone-still on the canvas, his own right hand tucked — threatless — under his hip.

Pacquiao is the only boxer to win eight belts in as many weight divisions. He earned his first world title in 1998 at 112 lbs. For the next 14 years he climbed classes to dominate men much bigger than him, Antonio Margarito, for one, whose eye socket cracked from the little man’s assaults. Pacquiao’s loss to Márquez, however, was his second straight. Many believed it meant the grim finale to a hall-of-fame career.

And just two months before Pac-Márquez IV, Brandon “Bam Bam” Rios had beaten Mike Alvarado in a bout dubbed Fight of the Year. Rios and Alvarado traded mace blows for six and one third rounds (almost one thousand three hundred total punches thrown in the abbreviated matchup). Both fighters delivered wreckage, but Rios finally knocked Alvarado out in the seventh. They met for a lively — though not nearly as brutal — rematch in March of last year, when Alvarado edged Rios for the decision.

Didn’t matter. With the Alvarado fights, Rios put himself on the map as a puncher willing to risk his chin to try and put the other man away. “To me, boxing is better than sex,” Rios would tell HBO’s 24/7. “That’s my orgasm.”

Pacquiao kneels in his corner to pray before and after every fight. Rios is a shit talker. Both of them are high action fighters. The challenger’s youthful ego and ambition could be his undoing; the champ’s homeland was just devastated by one of the most deadly typhoons in the country’s history. Matchmakers bet they could sell the Pacman vs. Bam Bam story: young, hungry punisher against the aging titlist coming off back-to-back defeats; the perverse v. the pious; the American v. the Filipino.

*

Outside my hotel room window, a tall building across the block dominates the skyline with its sign: CITY OF DREAMS. At night, it consecrates the casino strip in neon. I came to Macau for a story. But I’m just excited to watch Pacquiao fight live and in person for the first time.

A friend of mine recently asked me how I got to be a boxing fan. My earliest recollection is vague. I must have seen TV promos for an Ali fight. Maybe Ernie Shavers or Holmes. I remember Ali standing next to Howard Cosell. And even this memory is not just visual, but musical. I hear the call and response between Ali’s quips in occasional triplets countering the Cosell trochees, which are both string-plucked and melismatic.

There wasn’t a chance in hell I’d become a boxer, let alone heavyweight champion of the world. Now that I think of it, my father did offer once to pay for boxing lessons at the Y, where he sometimes took me and my older brother on days when there was no one to watch us. I remember being drawn to the heavy bag. I remember pressing my fingertips against it and then my whole palm – I was probably five. I gave the bag a soft smack and then another. I made a fist, drawing it to my right shoulder, and let my first punch fly.

In this vault of a room, a harbor of echoes, a small knock, the size of a walnut, popped out the leather — some slayed animal’s hide struck by the smooth, as yet unscarred, light brown skin pulled over the round whittled bones of my hand. —Don’t hit that.

I turned my head but not my body and stared at the man easily twice my size, dark maroon t-shirt and khakis and busted up gym shoes. You’re going to break your hand if you punch that without gloves. I gave the bag a short shove with my fist. Go ahead then and see what happens. My first and last formal boxing lesson ended there.

*

For a moment, take Ricky Hatton, a pressure fighter and puncher a lot like Rios. (The Filipino put Hatton to sleep with a nasty check hook in the second round of their fight in 2009.) Neither Hatton nor Rios is particularly fleet of foot or quick in the hands, but they are big compared to Pacquiao and powerful. Researchers at the University of Manchester measured the typical punch of the then-28-year-old pugilist at 25 miles per hour. Based on the Manchester study a professional boxer’s fist moves 3.67 feet or 132 inches per second. If the distance is 36 inches from Rios’ release point and his opponent’s top lip, Pacquiao has only .27 seconds to react. Incidentally, it takes a 90mph fastball almost twice the amount of time to reach home plate from the pitcher’s hand.

*

A couple nights ago, six days until the fight, the Venetian lobby was filled with loud music, ring girls, red carpet, dozens of photographers, media, and a few hundred early-arriving fans. First, the challenger, Rios, was brought out. The crowd was clearly pro-Pacquiao, but hostilities were minimal. Organizers got the fighter in for a three-question interview then ushered him out the back way pretty quickly. I found a spot in the vestibule alongside the red carpet anticipating Manny’s entrance. In minutes, I caught my first-ever live glimpse of the Pac-man through the broad bodied security guards in mustard jackets. The prevailing thought in my head was, “The champ is shorter than me.”

The floors of the lobby are painted in shiny brick colored squares meant to suggest marble. Columns ascend some twenty feet to ornate Renaissance-ish ceilings along a wide hallway that leads directly to the casino. Beyond that are shops and the Cotai Arena where the fight will take place. They call the opening event “The Grand Entrance” — the official welcome.

*

  Photograph by Patrick Rosal

Photograph by Patrick Rosal

There was a quirky and simple dimension to my early fascination with Ali: he knew what the Philippines was, he knew where it was, he fought there, he made history there. I didn’t care that, by then, Ali was already older and slower – that the slick showtime talk was no longer a distraction from the danger in his hands, but perhaps now a distraction from the lack of danger. Even then, I was aware of how anonymous my parents’ motherland was to America. I was stupefied by the invisibility of my own face and the face of my brothers, my mother, and father. It was as if Filipinos were not real people and the Philippines was not a real place until its name was spoken aloud.

*

There are more than 30,000 Filipinos now living and working in Macau, an island of about 500,000 people, only one hour away by ferry from Hong Kong. These are two neighboring cities among many worldwide that have syphoned millions of domestic laborers from the Philippines for decades.

I was just in Laoag earlier in the year, spending a few weeks in my mother’s barrio. When I go back, most of the faces are the same, just older: plowman, jeepney driver, konsehal, gas tank runner, butcher, assassin, builder of all things bamboo. Then there are faces who quietly disappear: one cousin gone to Taiwan as a nurse; another cousin, Cherry, has departed for Hong Kong as domestic help. She has left behind three children in our family’s barangay (or village). Cherry and her oldest daughter text one another across the South China Sea. She comes home maybe a couple times a year.

Most of my life, I took it for granted that my parents were the first in their families to leave the Philippines and come to the U.S. Every time I leave America, there’s a thread of anxiety of being an outsider. I try to imagine my own parents, much younger than I am now, landing in a country that has been — at best — conflicted about accepting foreigners.

Filipinos, known for their hospitality, have not always been the beneficiaries of cordial receptions, particularly in nations where they are hired to mop floors, scrub commodes, or corral, bathe, and feed children much richer than themselves. A quick search online for Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) opportunities in Macau yields a few construction jobs, a couple bar and restaurant gigs, with most of the need, it seems, in janitorial services and domestic help. An American friend of mine, an ex-Lutheran from Iowa who is fluent in Spanish and spends half the year in Spain, tells me that one of the Castillian colloquialisms for maid is filipina. That’s what you call your maid regardless of where she’s from: mi Filipina, tu Filipina, su Filipina (my maid, your maid, his/her maid).

OFWs pay thousands of dollars to agencies for placement in host countries. Another cousin, a nurse now in Chicago, said that she paid $5000 dollars to her agency in addition to her one-way flight. She was welcomed by the representative thusly: “My God. You are so small.” It was a dig and it was mostly harmless but also indicative of a common attitude toward Filipino workers.

*

When Ali said that he didn’t “have a quarrel with the yellow man,” he was echoing a sentiment of black intellectuals going three quarters of a century back – a tradition that includes W.E.B. Dubois and Aimeé Cesaire, writers keenly aware of the colonial wreckage incurred by America in the Philippines at the turn of the century.

Of course, Ali was a complicated figure. In mythologizing himself, he trafficked in problematic tropes of blackness, calling Frazier a “gorilla” for example. Despite that, Ali was a model for me of one who inherited a master history and found agency to construct his own role in it. I latched onto this at a gut level: there is an alternative story – probably many alternative stories – and to narrate them, I learned from Ali, there are also many kinds of English. I learned the body has a language of its own and that every language has a style.

*

  Photograph by Patrick Rosal

Photograph by Patrick Rosal

Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos risk their lives to cross borders. Many of them traverse war zones. They are packed in trucks; they hide from authorities; and if they make it through and find a place to work and live, they are sometimes even discouraged from gathering in public – as was the case once in Rome, where Filipinos started a makeshift market near a bus stop before they were chased away by police and forced to set up shop underneath a grimy bridge.1

OFWs are often seen as treacherous, sometimes by one another, but more preposterously and dangerously, by their employers. The cruelest expressions of that rage and fear have resulted in OFWs being raped and murdered. Eden Abarientos, an OFW caregiver in Taiwan, jumped through a second-floor window to escape her employer, who had been sexually harassing her, groping her daily and, according to Abarientos, made threats to kill her and put her in a plastic bag. And just three weeks ago, Melanie Nobleza fell from a 12-storey building in Hong Kong while cleaning windows.

These are exceptionally cruel (and tragically common) manifestations of the more chronic struggle OFWs face throughout Asia, Australia, Europe, America and the Middle East. I would bet that nearly every Filipino can recite the story of a despedida, a departure, a farewell and then the arrival in a place where one does not choose the standards of being seen or unseen, where the story of your public identity – at a bus stop or grocery queue or hotel-casino marquee – is almost always constructed in a language other than the one you dream in. And that identity must be reinvented every day. It is most often crafted in private. At times, it must counter the circumstances of one’s macabre past. This secret making of the self consists of the ability to observe, to gather all sensual and sensory data, to assess menace, and at the same time consult the true thrill of one’s own body – which is to say, such invention consists of naming one’s fear and facing it. It is a practice honed for survival and it is hard won.

*

The bout is all but over in sixty seconds. To be clear, they fight the full twelve rounds. Both Brandon Rios and Manny Pacquiao are still standing in the end. Pacquiao will win the unanimous decision, but the Filipino learns everything he needs to learn in the first minute of the fight.

In the first round, Pacquiao catches one jab with his peek-a-boo guard. The next time Rios launches his left, Pacquiao dips slightly to the right and at the same time throws a counter left at about ¾ speed. Rios’ jab misses between Pacquiao’s ear and shoulder. At about the 61st second of the opening stanza, Pacquiao slips the jab in earnest for the first time and fires a quick, hard counter to Rios’ grill. 

.27 seconds.

This is the move that opens up the entire fight for Pacquiao. He builds from it. He expands his repertoire in each round, creating variations, never resolving his body in predictable ways, sometimes slipping the jab inside and countering with a right hand. Sometimes he dips outside to the right, pops Rios with a counter, then rolls completely out of danger. Throughout the fight, a Rios jab will once or twice catch Pacquiao, but most often it will not so much as graze him. He’ll slip the punch by an inch or less. Some of Rios’ missed shots wind up close enough to Pacquiao’s chin that the champ could rest his cheek on leather if his foe left his hand out long enough.

Pacquiao continues to batter Rios, doubling his hooks, throwing three, four, and five punch flurries. He pummels the right side of the younger fighter’s body and head, so Rios is forced to keep his lethal right hand frozen. Pacquiao becomes so adept at slipping the Rios jab and pivoting out of harm’s way that by mid-fight, the Oxnard fighter, on more than one occasion, throws a wild left only to find the quicker Pacquiao already standing behind him, waiting for him to turn around.

Between rounds, after the most dominant attacks, I’m on my feet.  There are notes of red around Rios’ eyes by the third round. He shows swelling by the sixth. Everyone is screaming, including me. “What now! Look at your goddamned face now!”

*

My ancestors weren’t athletes exactly – musicians, yes, and farmers, all of whom believed in Heaven and Hell in varying degrees. Every Sunday, every holy day, and just about every First Friday, our parents took us to church. For years I could recite the whole mass from memory. I loved the songs and music. Our parish had a big old pipe organ and the noon mass often had a singer to lead our tone-deaf Jersey congregation. Well, I loved the organ, the legato chord progressions pulled over our heads like a small lake, tilting back and forth, and a single melodic note circled its taut raven body above, and then there were the big wood-beam bassnotes to hold the whole sound up!

Here, the church, is one of the places I must have first contemplated greatness. If not beauty, then the more abstract, intuitive impression of things larger than oneself. And sure enough, while four hundred parishioners knelt and bowed down in the presence of bread and wine consecrated into the body and blood of Christ, I could look up above the altar and see an eight-foot statue of Jesus nailed to the cross…. It was an image of tranquility and brutality. I was taught to genuflect under symbols of violence. It’s how I was taught to pray.

*

It’s early afternoon when I make my way back to my hotel room after the fight. I cross an archway that is supposed to look like Venice’s Rialto Bridge. The steps are long and wide, scaled more for horses than people, though I’m certain no four-legged beasts walk through here. Concrete bannisters painted white run along both sides. Where the bridge pitches to its peak, a statue of a woman with a vaguely Mediterranean face and perfectly braided hair stands with one leg bent inside a five-foot niche.

The statue makes no sense to me whatsoever. Her left hand appears to clutch her tunic. In her right hand she’s holding a stick or rod, thicker than her wrist. It could be a bundle of sticks tied together – like the walis ting ting used to sweep floors in the Philippines. It’s pointed toward the ground. It looks like an upside down torch.  Or if it’s not fire, then hair seems to spill out of its bottom end – or maybe they’re the fat ropey strands of a mop. The image gets stranger. The strands sprawl and swirl over a helmet and shoulder armor on the ground, as if there were a soldier buried to his armpits at her feet. But the soldier has no head. I can’t figure out if this is an image of labor or battle or both.  No one seems to know who the woman is.

Her face is perfectly tranquil. She looks blankly down at the street, toward the crosswalk where the prostitutes of Cotai make their pitch to potential johns at night. It’s a weird tableau with the CITY OF DREAMS sign hovering in the background, dull in this afternoon sun. Like everything else in this town, I can’t tell what the statue is made out of, but it looks like brass or bronze. Even the patina is painted in.

*

I run into Brandon Rios in the Taipei airport the day after the fight. I am, as they say, killing time, until my connection back to New York. Rios is sitting with members of his team in Starbucks. He made $4 million, the biggest purse of his career. After Pay Per View, Pacquiao is likely to earn more than seven times that. As in Vegas, high profile sporting events, especially the blood thrill of boxing, will be an important draw in the Asian gambling capital. For Macau, 2013 will be the most lucrative year for its gaming industry to date, exceeding $45 billion in revenue and obliterating Vegas’s 2012 gaming revenues, which were $6.2 billion.

The numbers are an utter abstraction to me. But Rios is not – not at the moment. He’s in front of me. I’ve got a grande coffee in my hand. And he’s wearing sunglasses, which can’t hide the bruising around the upper curves of both cheekbones. I say something stupid like, “Thanks for a great fight.”

He peers up at me through his shades as if he could wish me away or punch me.

It’s true. I’m looking at his face. I can almost see him now. 

1 This anecdote comes from Servants of Globalization, by Rhacel Salazar Parreñas. In fact, I was at a loss in terms of being able to abstract about the experiences of OFWs until I read Parreñas work. Her study of OFWs in Rome and Los Angeles constructs a moving study of the experiences of Filipino workers abroad and was crucial in writing a good portion of this essay.


PATRICK ROSAL is the author of three full-length poetry collections, most recently Boneshepherds, honored as a notable book by the National Book Critics Circle and the Academy of American Poets. He has also won the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, Global Filipino Literary Award and the Asian American Writers Workshop Members' Choice Award. His poems and essays have been published in GrantlandTin HouseHarvard Review, as well as the anthologies Language For a New Century, Fishouse Poems, Spoken Word Revolution Redux, and many others. He is a founding co-editor of Some Call It Ballin’, a sports quarterly, and a former Fulbright Fellow. He has performed and/or been published in the UK, Greece, South Africa, Argentina, the Caribbean, the Philippines, Australia and all over the United States. He teaches on the faculty of Rutgers University-Camden's MFA program.