A political candidate was recently elected who is a bigger celebrity than Donald Trump, talks more about his personal relationship with God than Ted Cruz, and understands poverty more intimately than Bernie Sanders. As the winner of world titles in eight different weight classes, the candidate is also considered by many fans and fighting experts alike to be the most dynamic boxer to lace up the gloves since Muhammad Ali.

Manny Pacquiao, who has been a congressman in the Congress of the Philippines since 2010, won a seat in the Filipino Senate on May 9. He retired from boxing this spring shortly after defeating welterweight Timothy Bradley in a 12-round decision in Las Vegas. From street kid to world boxing champion to national hero and global icon, Pacquiao, 37, will continue his unlikely career trajectory by pursuing a new vocation: that of evangelical politician.

From 'Nothing' to $400 Million

A week before his fight with Bradley, I sat and talked to Pacquiao in the basement of Hollywood’s famous Wild Card Boxing Gym as he prepared for a training session with his longtime coach, Freddie Roach.

‘The Lord raised me
from nothing into
something for a purpose.’ –Manny Pacquiao

We talked a bit about his upcoming match, but mostly about his 2012 conversion to Christianity and the way his relatively new faith might shape his career post-boxing. “Now I understand everything,” Pacquiao said about his boxing career and unlikely rise to stardom. “The Lord raised me from nothing into something for a purpose, not for my purpose but for his purpose.”

Pacquiao said he came from “nothing,” but describing his life story as “rags to riches” captures neither the hopelessness of his youth nor the wealth and fame he found through boxing. Pacquiao was born in a village in the southern Philippines and remembers drinking water in the evening to try to fool his stomach on days his family couldn’t afford rice. But it was more than hunger pangs that pushed him out of his family’s house and onto the streets of General Santos City as a teenager. A difficult relationship with his father came to a painful head when the elder Pacquiao arrived home drunk and angry and proceeded to kill, cook, and eat the family dog. Pacquiao’s father soon abandoned the family. That act left an emotional wound in his son that would not heal for 20 years.

By the time he turned 16, Pacquiao had made the 500-mile boat trip from General Santos City to Manila and was fighting for money. If Pacquiao’s life started with less than rags, through boxing he achieved more than riches. As a teenager, he spent his days punishing heavy bags and his nights sleeping on the gym floor. According to Forbes, since his first fight in 1995 (in which he earned less than $5), Pacquiao has fought 66 times, earning more than $400 million. He raked in more than $160 million in 2015 alone. But financial figures only represent part of the “riches” in Pacquiao’s story.

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'Fist of the Nation'

Somewhere during his career he became the living, breathing, fighting symbol of the Filipino people. Pacquiao embodied an entire country’s struggles and triumphs, and served as the public face of the Philippines, a country where nearly 20 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. Boxing clichés like “The People’s Champ” were not enough to describe him, so he was dubbed Pambansang Kamao, the “Fist of the Nation.”

Pacquiao’s symbolism extends beyond the shores of the island nation to the 10 million Filipinos living overseas. Cheering for the fighter as he beat the world’s best boxers—including Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, and even in his loss to Floyd Mayweather—gave the Filipino diaspora, particularly the 4 million Filipinos living in the United States, a way to be Filipino while living in another country that was previously unavailable.

Boxing clichés like “The People’s Champ” were not enough to describe him, so he was dubbed Pambansang Kamao, the “Fist of the Nation.”

My interest in Pacquiao’s career began over a decade ago through a combination of reverence for the sweet science and my friendship with Filipino American Emmanuel Pimentel. I asked Pimentel, a Christian and higher education counselor living in Virginia, to describe Pacquiao’s significance to the Filipino community in the United States. “It doesn’t matter if a Filipino has left the Philippines a month ago or over 40 years ago like myself,” Pimentel told me. “We miss the specific smells, sounds, personalities, and character traits that make up the Filipino culture. Watching Manny Pacquiao the past 12 years has helped me to connect with a country and people that I left behind.”

The fighter embodies his homeland’s essence in a way that resonates with Filipino Americans like Pimentel. “It is the way Manny speaks, his accent, the way he smiles and waves to the crowds as he enters the ring that reminds me of the warmth of our island’s people and simple joys.”

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Dream Conversion

The Philippines is the third largest Catholic country in the world behind Brazil and Mexico, with over 85 percent belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. Because Pacquiao means so much to so many, it was big news when he converted from Catholicism to evangelical Christianity. Pacquiao’s conversion came at the height of his career but at a low point in his personal life. His drinking, gambling, and womanizing were poorly kept secrets that his fans were eager to overlook, but his transgressions were tearing apart his marriage and family. Though he always identified as religious, a vivid dream in the midst of the turmoil brought him to his knees and prostrated him by the side of his bed. He confessed his sins and committed his life to Jesus. Four years after his conversion, Pacquiao told me, “The best thing that has happened in my life was that I encountered God.”

Pacquiao’s trainer, Roach, is a self-proclaimed agnostic leaning towards atheism, and has had a front-row seat to the transformation of the man he has coached for 15 years. “Since he became a born-again Christian,” Roach said, “he has become a much better person, a better husband and father. He doesn’t gamble and he doesn’t drink. He completely changed. His wife became the happiest woman I ever met.” Roach then grinned and raised his eyes and said, “But it did hurt his boxing career.”

Pacquiao hasn’t knocked anyone out since he gave his life to God. His trainer, television commentators, and boxing fans bemoan what appears to have been the softening of a killer instinct that previously laid so many opponents on the canvas. But after 15 years together, Roach loves Pacquiao like a son and told me, “I can say that [his conversion] was more good than bad, but for me, the bad is what I do.” Laughing at the description of his chosen trade, he added, “I am trying to get him to be a bit more vicious for this fight [against Bradley], a little meaner.”

Pacquiao didn’t knock out Bradley in their April fight, but he put on a thrilling performance and convinced many observers that he may have a fight or two left in him. On Pacquiao’s request, Roach stepped into the ring wearing the Team Pacquiao uniform, a shirt designed with the iconic image of the Filipino flag and the words “Jesus Is the Name of the Lord” written loudly in block letters across the shoulders.

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When he was training in Los Angeles, Pacquiao attended the Westside campus of the nondenominational, multisite Shepherd of the Hills Church. Pacquiao’s aunt was a member of the church and invited her nephew to join her shortly after his conversion. Lead pastor Dudley Rutherford has not only observed a change in Pacquiao’s disposition since they first met in 2012, he has noticed a change in the members of the fighter and politician’s entourage. “I have seen the people in his inner circle change,” Rutherford told me. “People who were once cold and indifferent to Christianity are starting to read their Bibles and change their attitudes. . . . It really is miraculous.”

After the fight was over and won, Pacquiao returned to his home in Los Angeles, and, with Rutherford, baptized more than a dozen people in his swimming pool before boarding a plane back to the Philippines.

I traveled to Las Vegas two days before Pacquiao’s final match to witness two parallel events, the media machine that promotes a pay-per-view fight in boxing’s most important city, and the three-day evangelism campaign hosted by Pacquiao in his hotel’s conference room. Rutherford flew in from LA to preach at three Bible studies hosted by Pacquiao. Crowds ranged between 600 and 1,000 people, and Pacquiao himself handed out hundreds of the 82,000 Bibles he recently purchased. Open to the public, the Bible studies drew Pacquiao’s friends and family, as well as Vegas-based Filipino Christians and fans who wanted to see their hero up close. Pacquiao welcomed the crowds, introduced Rutherford, and on Saturday morning, implored the people not to “worry about the fight tonight, the Lord will take care of that.” After the fight was over and won, Pacquiao returned to his home in Los Angeles, and, with Rutherford, baptized more than a dozen people in his swimming pool before boarding a plane back to the Philippines.

‘Fist for the Poor’

Boxers’ retirement announcements should always be treated with suspicion, and the 37-year-old might fight again, but his stated focus now is to fulfill his campaign promise to be the “fist for the poor” as a member of the Filipino Senate and to try to be an effective politician while maintaining his integrity.

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I asked Pacquiao why his political goals center on alleviating poverty and increasing economic and educational opportunities for the millions of impoverished Filipinos. He responded to the question like he did to nearly all of my questions, by referencing a biblical passage. “Because it is in the Bible,” he said. “Jesus said, ‘I was naked, but you didn’t clothe me. I was hungry, but you didn’t feed me.’ A lot of people are wealthy and have something they could do for the poor people, but they don’t do it because of the rigidness in their hearts.”

Bishop Efraim Tendero, the secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, was born in the Philippines and is enthusiastic about Pacquiao’s political ambitions. He thinks Pacquiao’s “fist for the poor” message resonates with Filipinos because “he is really on the side of the poor.” Tendero told me over the phone from Manila, “He identifies with them because he came from poverty. He remembers where he came from and that when he arrived in Manila he was a nobody. He hardly had food to eat. Now he wants to speak out and stand on the side of the poor.”

Though Tendero believes a successful six-year term in the senate could propel Pacquiao to a future presidential candidacy, he recognizes that boxing and politics require different skill sets. The bishop is concerned that Pacquiao doesn’t have “a strong mentor who could guide him and help him.”

Pacquiao was elected to the Filipino congress in 2010 and is currently midway into his second term as a representative. His career as a congressman has been nothing close to as stellar as his career as a boxer. Training and promotional obligations led to an abysmal attendance record for congressional sessions, and he has switched political parties frequently and struggled to pass legislation of his own.

But arguably Congressman Pacquiao’s biggest political misstep did not take place on the floor of the congress. It happened on the set of a television talk show broadcast by Filipino network TV5 this February.

“It’s common sense,” Pacquiao responded when asked about his views on same-sex marriage, which is illegal in the Philippines. “Do you see animals mating with the same sex? Animals are better because they can distinguish male from female. If men mate with men and women mate with women they are worse than animals.”

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When the translated footage hit the global press, Pacquiao was shredded by the media and LGBT rights groups, was banned from a Los Angeles shopping complex, and lost his corporate sponsorship with Nike. But it wasn’t simply the media or activists who reacted strongly to the comments. He hurt fans, admirers, and fellow Christians.

As Pimentel told me, “As a Christian and as a fan of Pacquiao, I was disturbed when I read about his comments.” The excerpts struck him as “lacking the love and grace that Jesus pours on us.” Watching the interview in its entirety softened his initial criticisms. After watching the quotes in context, Pimentel “did not feel that Manny was actually trying to compare homosexuals to animals,” but he still believed Pacquiao had made a mistake in his response to the question. Pacquiao has since apologized, and in an attempt to restate his intended message, he posted Old and New Testament verses to social media.

Even though the number of evangelical Filipinos has doubled in the past 30 years, they still represent only 10 percent of the country.

When the topic came up in our conversation, Pacquiao’s press advisers tried to stop him from speaking on it, but he waved them off and reiterated that the quotes extracted from his 10-minute interview were taken out of context. He told me that what he really wanted to say was, “Who am I to judge? Who am I to condemn another person? I am also a sinner. I am also a person who sins. What I am condemning is the act.”

But there are no “do-overs” in a world where every syllable spoken on a public stage is recorded and can be instantly posted online. Pacquiao is the most visible person in the Philippines and, as Tendero suggested, he may need guidance on how to engage with social issues as both a politician who serves an entire nation and a committed Christian.One advantage that Pacquiao will have as an evangelical politician in the Philippines is that Protestant Christianity is a minority faith. The Philippines has been a predominantly Catholic country since the archipelago was colonized by the Spanish in the 16th century. Even though the number of evangelical Filipinos has doubled in the past 30 years, they still represent only 10 percent of the country.

Unlike in the United States, where Protestant Christianity is dominant, Filipino Protestants cannot expect to build voting blocs based on religious identity. They must work with others. “Filipino evangelicals have developed many interfaith dialogues in the country, because we are a minority group,” said Tendero. “We have tried to interface with other groups on common issues that face the nation, like the issues of climate change, human trafficking, the peace process, poverty alleviation, and disaster response.” Tendero said that Filipino evangelicals have been successful in cooperating with politicians of different faith backgrounds and have paved the road for Pacquiao to do the same as he pursues his career as an evangelical politician.

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After speaking with Pacquiao, following him during his fight week activities, and talking to the people who interact with him in private moments, it is clear that he is dedicated to using his unique position for the cause of Christ. What is unclear is if national symbols make effective politicians and if regular people make religious commitments as a result of a celebrity’s faith. Pacquiao is beginning a new chapter in his life. Now that his fights in the squared circle have come to an end, the challenge he faces as a Christian senator in the Philippines is to be both the “Fist of the Nation” and the “Fist of Christ.”

Andrew Johnson is a research associate at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

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