Manny Pacquiao is hope for battered Filipino community

Tony Enriquez, left, Ramon Villongco and Tonih Apostol

Tony Enriquez, left, Ramon Villongco and Tonih Apostol plan a party to watch Manny Pacquiao fight this Saturday against Miguel Cotto. Photo Credit: Robert Cassidy

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It's been a tough month for Ramon Villongco of Ronkonkoma, who like thousands of other Filipinos on Long Island has watched footage of his homeland yielding to the punch of wind and water as three typhoons struck with force, killing 1,000 people.

It's also been a month when Filipinos await the advent of a man-made miracle, a countryman who in boxing is among the most awesome forces alive.

>> PHOTOS: View photos of Manny Pacquiao in and out of the ring

Saturday night, restaurants and bars, basements and living rooms where many of Long Island's 20,000 or so Filipinos congregate will erupt when welterweight Manny Pacquiao, the southpaw who is the Philippines' foremost symbol of pride, enters the ring.

For them, the match between the "Pac Man" and Miguel Cotto, of Puerto Rico, is a welcome diversion. Many watched HBO's "24/7 Pacquiao-Cotto," a reality series that aired footage of the devastation, and showed Pacquiao trapped by floodwaters at his training camp in Baguio.

The same Filipinos who raised $32,000 worth of aid in food and clothing drives will root for their homeland through cheers for the native son whose ascent through boxing's ranks has amazed observers of the sport.

>>VIDEO: Click here to see the group of Long Island Filipinos who will gather on Saturday to watch the fight

"We need this right now," said Ramon Villongco, a board member of Tanglaw, the Filipino-American Society of Long Island, who will watch the pay-per-view match at a friend's Centereach home. "To us, he is the equivalent of the Yankees. . . . He gives us hope."

Hope is in short supply in the Philippines, experts say.

The United Nations reports that the storms have destroyed 40,000 homes and displaced 1.7 million people, said Nicholas Reader, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Elena Maningat, vice consul for the Philippines in New York, said the fight will divert some Filipinos, if only for the rounds of the bout.

"There is a lot of excitement over Manny," she said, adding that the capital, Manila, will offer free sites for people to view the matchup, in addition to showings at movie theaters.

Pacquiao captured Filipinos' imagination and became one with national identity, said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

"This fight epitomizes a celebration of diversity, but also a place within that framework where they can find their own identity and pride," he said.

Pacquiao's U.S. image soared after he stopped Oscar De La Hoya last year. If he beats Cotto, he will have won a world title in a record seven weight classes. Pacquiao started as a junior flyweight - 108 pounds - and is now in the welterweight class, up to 147 pounds.

>>VIDEO: Click here to see a preview of the fight

"I am from Mindanao, the same island as Pacquiao," said Edgar Lerias, a pediatrician with offices in Deer Park and Farmingdale. "His success is not new to us." Lerias' patients have left clothing, bedding and canned foods at his offices to be sent to the Philippines.

Pacquiao shares his winnings, sending donations to help Filipinos with relief efforts. He recently bought 700 bicycles for storm victims to get to work.

Jon Melegrito, spokesman for the National Federation of Filipino American Associations, said during Pacquiao's last bout, the country's rebel and government forces laid down their arms - to watch.

"That's how powerful an influence he is," Melegrito said. "He's a rare symbol of pride, especially since he's a little guy who can give a knockout punch. That's the fighting spirit of Filipino people. There is a saying that as long as he keeps fighting, we will stop fighting among ourselves."

>> Follow the Manny Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto fight live in our boxing blog, The Neutral Corner

>> PHOTOS: View photos of Manny Pacquiao in and out of the ring

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