Reporting from Grapevine, Texas —
Manny Pacquiao's ability to produce national celebrations in the Philippines on his fight nights is the stuff of legend.
Now, he aspires to a higher calling.
"I want to be a champion of public service," Pacquiao said Tuesday, after a workout for his Saturday night world junior-middleweight title fight against Mexico's Antonio Margarito at Cowboys Stadium.
Since taking political office this summer as a congressional representative of the Sarangani province, Pacquiao has focused on improving his countrymen's livelihoods, starting with improved medical care and education.
The causes are rooted in Pacquiao's childhood memories of surviving poverty, sleeping on dirt floors and selling cigarettes on the street.
"No money to buy food, hungry," Pacquiao said. "I'll always remember my past. When I was young, I had no one to help [me].
"I believe I'm supposed to be doing this."
The boxer-congressman has introduced two bills, one to provide funds for local medical aid — barely more than a quarter of his country's population have health care — and another to construct his province's first hospital.
"Before, if you get sick there, you have no medicine," Pacquiao said. "They'd tell you to rest, drink water and maybe eat some [healing] plants.…
"There's a lot of people there, people who don't even have a place to live. They need help."
Much has been made in the weeks leading up to Pacquiao's fight about his inattentive training.
"He told me in the first week we were together that he misses his [political] job," Pacquiao's boxing trainer Freddie Roach said. "I'd never heard anything like that from him."
Roach also bemoaned Pacquiao's decision to interrupt training for the Margarito bout to meet with Philippines President Benigno Aquino III. "I honestly wondered if he'd come back to me the next day," Roach said.
Pacquiao explains that meeting was crucial in his attempt to push his hospital construction bill. More than 500,000 people live in Sarangani, and Pacquiao's legislation calls for a new $4.7-million medical facility.
For some of the area's underprivileged citizens, a doctor can be one hour away. "If it's an emergency," Pacquiao said, "you die. I've talked to the president about it. He said he'd help me out. That's why I'm working hard in there."
Despite Pacquaio's attention on politics, oddsmakers still make him a 6-to-1 favorite over the slower-footed Margarito in the 150-pound catch-weight bout.
Roach said Tuesday that Pacquiao, 31, has returned to peak shape, and intends to out-speed the bigger Margarito, who might step into the ring outweighing him by 10 or 12 pounds.
Pacquiao, however, is clearly moving toward a new life.
He says he wants to be his country's vice president in 2016, and if that happens, a 2022 presidential run is a slam dunk.
"You do anything too long, as he's done with boxing, it gets old," Roach said. "He wants to be president one day. The only way to do that is to be a good congressman.
"When he gets dressed up and goes in there [to congress], very professionally, proud and proper, he takes it very seriously. I've seen it. It's like having a new girlfriend. All the conversations he's having with those people now are fresh to him."
The importance of the new work was clinched while campaigning, as Pacquiao peered into empty and desperate eyes that reflected his own upbringing.
Pacquiao says he donates about $25,000 every three months to help youths defray high school and college costs. He wants to introduce a bill to boost student aid.
The government has also asked Pacquiao to explore the problems of human trafficking in the Philippines.
With so many heavy topics, has boxing become trivial for Pacquiao?
His promoter, Bob Arum, insists Pacquiao is " enjoying building a tremendous legacy in boxing" that could still end with a super-fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Roach has fretted about Pacquiao's focus, so he pulled the boxer aside as they shifted their training base to Hollywood late last month.
"I know [politics] means a lot to you," Roach told Pacquiao. "But boxing is what got you to where you are. This is what you do best."
"Coach, I understand," Pacquiao said. "I promise I won't disappoint you."
Pacquiao last week reeled off the best few days of training yet, unleashed his typical exhaustive workouts and flashed rapid punching power in the ring. "My focus is the fight, but it's not my whole day," he said.
In Pacquiao's off hours, he sang John Lennon's "Imagine" with Will Ferrell on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and followed President Obama on a "60 Minutes" segment.
"I came from nothing," he noted Tuesday.