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After the typhoon, Filipinos rally around Pacquiao's punches

Filipinos dealing with Typhoon Haiyan come together to watch national hero Manny Pacquiao fight. His victory is a morale-booster.

November 24, 2013|By Frank Shyong
  • Host Flor Ross takes her baby Mary Catherine, 2 months, from Agnes Ma, right, at a Manny Pacquiao party at Ross' Arcadia home. Pacquiao is a national hero in the Philippines, and his victory over Mexican American boxer Brandon Rios was a morale-booster for a country devastated by Typhoon Haiyan.
Host Flor Ross takes her baby Mary Catherine, 2 months, from Agnes Ma, right,… (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles…)

The ladies of the Filipino ministry of Holy Angels Roman Catholic Church discuss Typhoon Haiyan over a table strewn with grilled fish, ribs, sliced pork belly, chicken wings, chili and a massive platter of mixed rice and flour noodles called pancit.

"The typhoon hit here," says Pinky Santos, pointing to the map in gold thread on her blue polo shirt. "My family is here," she adds, moving her finger north.

For many Filipinos, it's been a somber month of sharing links to donation websites on social media and organizing aid trips to affected areas. More than 5,000 people have died in what some consider the most destructive typhoon to hit land, and Flor Ross, the night's cook, is still waiting to hear from her uncle in Tacloban City. Three of the children in the church group are considering joining aid missions.

It's hardly a time to celebrate. But it's Saturday, and Manny Pacquiao fights tonight. Filipino tradition demands a gathering.

Even in Tacloban City, where the storm hit hardest, cable operators set up TV screens inside a sports stadium to broadcast the fight to survivors. At the Arcadia home of Tom and Flor Ross, the women drape Philippines flags and cook a feast that seems far too large until about 30 people show up. They start a betting pool, with the proceeds going to typhoon survivors.

Agnes Ma begins the dinner with a prayer.

"Let us pray. God is great. Thank you for the food and Tom and Flor and this beautiful house and for hosting the fight, and help the people who have been affected by the typhoon. Give them hope ... and a victory for Manny Pacquiao."

Everyone grabs paper plates sagging with the weight of grilled meats and rice, and the church group divides into two viewing parties: adults and children. Two television screens set up in separate rooms show the pre-fight broadcasts, and the household's allegiances becomes clear.

Brandon Rios, Pacquiao's opponent, is seen warming up, and many remark on how nervous and sweaty he looks. Then HBO shows the clip of Pacquiao toppling face-first to the canvas in his fight with Juan Manuel Marquez, and there is a collective groan. Ma's son, Andrew, clad in a T-shirt from Pacquiao's gym, has to look away.

"Man, I really hate watching that," said Andrew, 23. "I cannot watch that."

Filipinos tend to take Pacquiao's victories and defeats personally, Andrew said. Last year, Mexican and Filipino friends of his gathered to watch the Marquez-Pacquiao fight. He and his Filipino friends left immediately after Marquez knocked out Pacquiao. A Mexican friend even broke up with a Filipino girlfriend that night.

Pacquiao appears on screen warming up, and Ma makes the bracelets on her hand jingle with her pointing. She leaves to find her Pacquiao jacket. Jessica Sanchez, a half-Filipino "American Idol" contestant, sings the U.S. and Filipino national anthems, and the women joke about her nails. Santos hums along. Finally, the announcer lays out the stakes for the fight: "When the dust settles, is it the end or rebirth of an era?"

That gets everyone riled up, and bellows of "Let's go!" and "C'mon, Manny!" fill the house.

When the first round begins, you can keep score by listening to Ma: staccato cries of "Ai! Ai! Ai!" and "Not in the corner, not in the corner!" when Pacquiao is getting hit, and an exultant "Ooh! Yesss, yes, do it, Manny!" when Pacquiao's punches are landing.

Both rooms explode when Pacquiao lands his first big combination. Rios has a habit of shaking his head and smirking at his opponents after they land a punch to show he is unhurt.

In the sixth round, Rios starts to bleed above the eye. In the seventh, announcers remark on how Pacquiao has begun to build momentum. The ninth and 10th rounds are tense. Plastic spoons freeze mid-scoop in bowls of guinataan, coconut milk soup. Plates heaped with cooling pork ribs are ignored.

Pacquiao is landing more punches and winning more rounds than his opponent, but it's becoming clear the fight won't be decided by a knockout. There is some dark muttering about the controversies surrounding recent judging decisions in boxing. The fight ends in the 12th round.

As they await the judge's decision, it is silent in the Ross home for the first time all night. The television shows Pacquiao kneeling in prayer in the corner of the ring.

Then both groups erupt in a hooting crescendo of delight. It's a unanimous decision for Pacquiao.

"He's back, yes! I can bring out my Pacquiao gear again," Andrew Ma says. "Though it would have been good to get a knockout, for the typhoon victims."

Agnes Ma heaves a sigh of relief.

"Thank God," she says. "Thank God he won again."

The younger viewers take out their phones and make Instagram pictures of Pacquiao's victory speech. Everyone heads to the dining room to eat more. Their laughter is a little louder. They go for seconds on dessert. Ma and a few of the women break into Filipino Christmas carols, rolling with laughter. She counts the money they raised: $107. It's not much, but it's a start, she says.

"We're back, baby," Ma says. "Manny is always our Filipino hope."

frank.shyong@latimes.com

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