Filipinos turn out in thousands for Pacquiao

MANILA: Tens of thousands lined the streets Monday for the welcome home parade of Manny Pacquiao, the most popular sportsman in the Philippines, after he won his sixth world boxing title in the United States.

Pacquiao defied a government request to stay in the US over fears of swine flu but still got a welcome from Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, who declared a national holiday and hosted a state luncheon at the palace for him.

Thought of as perhaps the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world even before his May 2 demolition of Britain's Ricky Hatton, Pacquiao is adored here as a rags-to-riches folk hero whom many see as a potential future president.

"He's the people's champ," said Danilo David, a 39-year-old government employee who filled his tank with two dollars' worth of petrol -- half his daily pay -- just to be a motorcycle escort for Pacquiao's convoy.

"We're happy and privileged to escort him around Manila," David said.

His adoring fans braved the morning tropical heat to throng the streets of Manila, cheering and honking horns as Pacquiao waved to them from a flatbed truck decorated with Filipino flags that wound through the capital.

Office workers left their desks and showered Pacquiao with confetti, chanting "Manny! Manny!" while traffic blocked off side streets to allow the passage of the convoy of more than 30 vehicles, tying up traffic.

He tossed red and white T-shirts that bore his picture and the slogan "King Of The Ring" into the crowd.

"The reception was tremendous," Pacquiao said.

The crowds were especially thick and enthusiastic at the impoverished district of Tondo in Manila's rundown dockyards, where a week earlier thousands had crammed a public gym to watch a free broadcast of the fight.

At the presidential palace, Arroyo played the part of a journalist, interviewing her guest about the Hatton fight for the benefit of the assembled Filipino officials, palace staff and members of Team Pacquiao.

"He was so busy watching my left that he did not see my right hand coming," said Pacquiao, who dropped the Mancunian twice in the first round before sending him to the canvas unconscious at the end of the second round.

"He was not able to adjust his strategy. He fights in a certain style and did not change." Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez announced that he was appointing Pacquiao as a "special assistant" on "intelligence matters." Gonzalez did not spell out Pacquiao's possible duties or say whether the fighter would be paid.

His International Boxing Organisation junior welterweight title means Pacquiao, who started boxing as light-flyweight in his teens to escape poverty, has equalled the record of six world crowns in different divisions.

Pacquiao is a rare unifying figure for the Philippines, a fractious nation of 92 million people that faces perennial problems of corruption, political upheaval and natural disasters like last week's typhoon that killed dozens.

Emmanuel Pilar, a 62-year-old doctor, said he has been monitoring Pacquiao's fight career since the boxer was a teenager.

"I have a picture of myself with the champ," he said.