Manny: more than just a portrait of an icon

A mural showing a younger Manny Pacquiao. (Eric Molina/


Boxing is a cruel sport. It demands so much but gives very little. And what goes on inside the ring is but a microcosm of a boxer’s life outside of it – a continuous struggle not just to survive the opposition, but to defeat it, as well. And watching the documentary film Manny (shown under limited release last week), we got to see the nuances of the sport while simultaneously witnessing a detailed profiling of not just one boxer, but perhaps every boxer who has had the courage to step inside this brutal industry.


The documentary

Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Leon Gast and debuting director Ryan Moore, Manny is a well-paced chronicle of the Filipino champion’s rise from the muck of poverty to an iconic status worthy of a Hall of Fame induction. The attention to detail coupled by the unflinching honesty of both Gast and Moore elevate this documentary way above the genre’s best in recent times.

And Gast, perhaps most known for his Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings (1997), is the perfect director to helm this project. His knack for social commentary was deeply felt when he chose to chronicle Muhammad Ali’s historic fight in Zaire against the hard-hitting George Foreman. And for the longest time, a select few boxing and film aficionados have waited for the New Jersey native to make a follow up to Kings. There’s a hint that the filmmaker was just waiting for another boxer to transcend the sport like Ali. And now he has found Pacquiao, a fighter whose boxing style resembles an entire culture and whose ideals greatly echo the values of a nation.

However, it is his life that takes center stage in this 2-hour cinematic experience. And what challenge it is for the filmmakers to make their documentary stand out, as boxing and film have had one of the longest-running love affairs in history. The old “boxer fights his way out of poverty” yarn has been spun too many times already, not to mention the fact that Manny is one of the most documented athletes today.

This obvious hurdle, however, was surpassed by the filmmakers’ dedication to fish out the most telling moments in Pacquiao’s storied 20-year career. Gast and Moore reviewed more than a thousand hours of footage and hundreds of archived videos to effectively forward the plot and send their message across. The former boxer in me finds this effort very commendable as the unseen subtleties and undisclosed truths get surfaced in blunt view.


The jabs of the job

Having had a career as a pro fighter, I have come to learn that the sport is one of the most demanding of all—physically, psychologically, even financially. An average new-comer (someone with a record of no more than 5 fights) today will only make five thousand pesos or less for a four-round fight. And after paying his trainer and the cut of the manager (if he has one), a fighter will only take home a measly amount that is barely enough to get him through another fight (which happens in an average of once every two months). And while suffering an economy that is dwindling during his time, Manny started out much like everybody else, earning as little as one hundred Pesos ($2) for his first professional fight. With no other skill set that can bring money to the table, Manny (and every starting young boxer) is forced to take extra income as a personal trainer to middle to upper class citizens while at the same time using the gym as his surrogate home.

Another truth that I have come to accept is the fact that in boxing, the sport and the industry are two different things. And the film does not shy around in revealing this as well. Boxers are like matadors and bulls in an arena crowded by people hungry for violence. But beyond the fighting, the blinding lights, and the incessant shouts are the select few who sit at a safe distance, watching the events unfold with little care for the well being of the fighters. Those whose pockets are getting heavy by every punch connected with violent intent. The promoters, the managers, and the media are the ones making the most money in the industry, while the boxers and the trainers are the ones who still believe in the sanctity of the sport, despite not making as much. There is something broken in boxing, where only one or two fighters can get to make millions while about 90% of all pros struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis. And this might be beyond fixing if not for films like Manny, which dances on thin ice as it depicts what really lies beyond the lucrative business of prizefighting.


Rolling with the punches, literally, for his country

As revealed with scathing honesty by Leon Gast and Ryan Moore, Manny is not just a documentary that highlights the drama of a sport loved by so many Filipinos. It ventures into places we’ve never seen and makes us appreciate what Manny, our idol, has gone through. The cruelty of it is not seen in the rigorous training regimens or the ferocious battles in the ring, but outside, where real life happens – inflicted by those who have nothing to do with boxing itself.

Despite this unkindness, we see Manny Pacquiao lace up his gloves, walk his way towards the ring with a cheerful smile, and fight with so much zest for life. Why? From the lips of the Fighting Congressman himself, “it’s God’s will.” Such is the greatness of this man that after all the struggle and defeat he has had over the last two decades, he continues to fight not for himself, but for something that is far bigger than him or the sport combined. And with the help of Gast’s gift for narrative and Moore’s ardent devotion to the craft, Manny’s life becomes solidified in boxing lore, and further sheds light to the idea that life is like boxing, defeat is realized not when you get knocked down, but when you refuse to stand again.