More than 48 hours before “The Fight of the Century,” Gabriel Ortigoza had already bought goat, pork, pancit noodles and other Filipino delicacies for the 50 guests he has invited to his Elk Grove home Saturday. They and thousands of other area Filipinos will be cheering for their hero, Manny “Pac Man” Pacquiao, when he fights Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr. for the world welterweight boxing championship.
“It’s like life-and-death to the Filipino people; the most important part of our lives,” said Ortigoza, a nurse at Kaiser Permanente.
Ortigoza, 44, remembers when Pacquiao was living on the streets of General Santos City in Mindanao in the southern Philippines.
“I know him personally,” Ortigoza said. When Pacquiao was a boy, he said, “He worked in my friend’s meat market. He was homeless, he had nothing to eat; he would go to the street and ask for food or sell cigarettes to people.”
In Ortigoza’s mind, Pacquiao, 36, embodies the heart, soul and comeback spirit of the Filipino people.
Pacquiao was forced to leave home and fend for himself on the streets of Manila at 14 because his single mother couldn’t support all six children. He climbed into the ring at 16, when he was 4-foot-11 and 98 pounds. The underdog’s underdog went on to win 10 world titles and has been elected twice to the Filipino House of Representatives. He’s also a singer, an actor, a basketball player and a lieutenant colonel in the Philippine army reserves.
The Sacramento region is home to one of the largest Filipino American populations in the nation – 53,269, plus another 17,000 who are Filipino and another race, according to the 2013 U.S. census.
And they’re fired up about Saturday’s fight. “If we have 60,000 Filipinos in Sacramento, 59,000 are watching the fight,” said Dale Esperante, 62, a community editor for Philippine Fiesta, a local newspaper serving Filipino readers. “He’s our champion; he’s not going to lose.”
On Thursday, Esperante and Dave San Pedro, publisher of Philippine Fiesta, stopped by the Seafood City Supermarket on Mack Road to talk about the big fight. San Pedro was carrying a bag of T-shirts that he has been selling at his shop on Waterman Drive for $10 each. The shirts show the fighters’ faces under the bold headline: Knockout!
“Pacquiao needs a knockout – no judges, so nobody can tell you didn’t win,” said their friend, Frank Ayran, a retired U.S. Navy electrician who also is hosting a big fight potluck with lumpia, adobo and barbecue. Even though Pacquiao is a 2-1 underdog in the sports betting books against the undefeated Mayweather, Ayran said he has bet $400 even money on the Filipino.
“He’ll throw more punches,” Ayran said confidently.
Esperante seconded that emotion. “Pacquiao’s fighting for more than money,” he said. “He’s fighting for the pride of the Philippines. If he can use his heart to fight for the poor people of the Philippines, he will prevail. He’s our main asset.”
At Seafood City, mobile phone salesman Lawrence Lladoc was offering new customers T-shirts with Pacquiao throwing an uppercut and the Tagalog slogan, “Laban Para Sa Pinoy” – “Fighting For The Filipinos.” Two young Filipinas, Maria Singh, 20, and Charlene Soliva, 21, said they, too, would be watching Pacquiao, even though they’re not boxing fans.
“He’s really, really religious,” Singh said approvingly. “He wears his rosary before his fights, and then does the sign of the cross when he’s in the ring.”
UC Davis student Rod De Guzman, 27, called Pacquiao a symbol of hope for the country. Guzman said he’s on the UC Davis boxing team and met Pacquiao at a pre-fight news conference last year at AT&T Park. The fighter told him he likes to train to an “Eye of the Tiger” remix.
“There are not a lot of Filipinos who make an impact internationally,” De Guzman said. “It’s going to be an uphill battle for him, but he has something he’s fighting for: pride. And he’s a good role model for the way he carries himself as one of the world’s most successful athletes.”
Esperante said Pacquiao’s significance to the local Filipino community goes way beyond his role as a boxer. “Win or lose, he’s still a winner in my eyes,” Esperante said. “He never quits. He represents the Filipino spirit and the story of Filipinos all over the world.
“We're a Third World country, and many have gone overseas because there’s no opportunity there. If you’re not a born millionaire in the Philippines, you have to find your money elsewhere. That’s the way Manny Pacquiao made his money.”
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Pete Basofin and Phillip Reese contributed to this report.