Imperial Movements, Round-by-Round

From a purely sports fan’s point-of-view, the highly touted match between the Philippines’ Manny Pacquiao and Puerto Rico’s Miguel Cotto delivered, prompting none other than the Grey Lady to proclaim in a headline that “Boxing is Ready for a Rebirth, Again” (Nov. 15, 2009). Pacquiao, having moved up from 112 lbs., and won in six successive weight classes to challenge reigning WBO welterweight (145 lb.) champ Cotto, accomplished a feat unmatched by any other boxer in the history of the sport in defeating — quite convincingly — his Puerto Rican comrade. Undoubtedly, amongst historians of the sport — from the dean of the genre, A.J. Liebling (d. 1963), to the populist, cigar-chewing Bert Randolph Sugar (still showcasing his expert analysis on ESPN) — not one could have imagined the impact of this 5’6” Filipino dynamo on the resurgence of the sweet science.

As an historian of American culture, however, I couldn’t help but strain and wince at the symbolism of these two young men battering each other’s bodies and heads during the 12-round victory for the Filipino. From the beginning, when three national anthems (Filipino, Puerto Rican, and American) were performed, my mind kept returning to the carnage and bloodiness of the life-and-death matches between the United States imperial forces and the Philippines in the darkness of the Philippine-American War (1898-1902) and the U.S. and Puerto Rico during that same era of bald-faced American imperial conquest. ‘Why,’ I asked myself, ‘are these two brown men knocking the stuffing out of one another for entertainment in the epicenter of American excess and self-indulgence (i.e., Las Vegas’ MGM Grand)?’ As a Filipino American, yes, I concede my pride at Pacquiao’s historic victory, after centuries of feminized representations of Filipino men. But in the afterglow of his crowning, and in the solemn dignity of Cotto’s puffy-eyed, bloody, but genuinely respectful post-match interview, I felt an intense historical disconnect with the present moment of euphoria.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that these men are well-compensated for their pugilistic brilliance. (How much of that money they’ll get to keep over the years, well, that’s another story.) I also understand the historical tradition of dirt-poor “zeroes” becoming “heroes” in boxing: Dempsey, Robinson, Louis, Armstrong, De La Hoya, Hagler, Hearns, Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Leonard, Duran, and the list goes on. Pacquiao was selling cigarettes on the impoverished streets of Manila before he began his professional boxing career at 16. Many of these men, like Pacquiao and Cotto, were either men of color, mixed-race, or men of questionable white ethnicity. Over time, they would entertain the elite, the glitterati, the actors, the politicians, and the venal promoters who have all enjoyed the raw, unadorned, and simple dance of two gifted athletes around a 20’ x 20’ ring. For most of the audience, the ropes circumscribing the boxers’ activity keep the hulking, superhuman, and often dark bodies contained and at a distance, no different than watching a performance by Public Enemy within the safe boundaries and enclosed box of our television sets. Removed. Separated. Far enough from our secure, voyeuristic gaze.

Remember, however, that it was only over a century ago that Filipinos and Puerto Ricans were the gloveless, unprotected, and militarily inferior populations fighting for their lives, for their sovereignty, for their man- and womanhood. Note well: they were only inferior in terms of military might, not by any other misleading, racist, and eugenicist indices. “Little brown brothers” didn’t need to inhabit the fictionally constructed “white man’s burden.” Even with superior military might, Americans continued to wage war against Filipino insurgents nearly 11 years after the U.S. had falsely claimed, “Mission Accomplished” in the Philippines. Little brothers can only be held down for so long. Even with inferior military might, Puerto Ricans resisted and mobilized against the live testing of U.S. Navy bombs on the island of Vieques, finally inducing the Navy’s withdrawal in 2003. But not before cancer and infant mortality rates in Vieques skyrocketed (relative to the rest of the Commonwealth): 60 years of carelessly poisonous testing on an island of brown people marks the indelible and deadly legacy of America in Puerto Rico.

These histories filled my mind as I saw the endless stream of blood pouring from above Cotto’s eye, the palpable tightening of the countless, darkening bruises on Cotto’s tattooed body doled out by Pacquiao. Even as Pacquiao humbly and softly spoke in celebratory English in his immediate post-match interview, a part of me wished he spoke in his native Tagalog. These gentle giants — ineluctably marked by the personal struggles and battles each has waged on the canvass — have been additionally scarred as the parts of their national, historical whole. The one major punch both men — and their nations — cannot ever feint is the colossal and unrelenting fist of the American imperial “movement.”

As for the next marquee matchup? Decorated African American welterweight Floyd Mayweather, Jr. versus the ascendant Pacquiao. (Though its inception has been dogged by disagreements over drug testing, it remains the fight all our calling for.) Anyone heard of the “Smoked Yankees”? African American soldiers in the Philippine War who questioned the strategy of mowing down people who looked like them? Look it up. It’ll blow your mind.

Matthew M. Briones is an assistant professor of American History at the University of Chicago. He writes on interracial and interethnic relationships in mid-20th-century America. Having received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, Briones has previously taught African American and Asian American History at Princeton, Columbia, and the University of Michigan