MACAU/TACLOBAN, Philippines (Reuters) - Filipino boxing great Manny Pacquiao will carry the weight of a nation in mourning when he enters the ring on Sunday in the first major international fight to be held in the gambling capital of Macau.
Just a fortnight after one of the world’s worst typhoons smashed into the Philippines, killing more than 5,200 people and leaving millions homeless, Pacquiao has dedicated the fight to his millions of fans back home.
Away from Macau’s glitzy resorts in the battered city of Tacloban, Susan Vergara, caretaker of the Tacloban Astrodome which was caught in the center of super storm, says the fight will be beamed live into the arena.
Some 3,000 people left homeless by Typhoon Haiyan have made the stadium their home. The bout will also be broadcast to security forces and aid workers at Tacloban’s city hall and airport, where many residents are also expected to gather.
“The Pacquiao fight gives us inspiration even though we have been suffering from the typhoon. I hope he wins,” said on resident, Vergara, 50.
Eight-weight Pacquiao, who is also a congressman from Sarangani Province, told Reuters this week the tragedy was inspiring him to succeed. “My countrymen, I want to make them happy. To bring honor to my country.”
Pacquiao will also be fighting for his career when he takes on American Brandon “Bam Bam” Rios and seeks to re-establish himself as the number one pound-for-pound fighter in the sport.
Two straight defeats, the second a brutal sixth round knockout by old foe Juan Manuel Marquez last December, prompted pundits and fans to suggest retirement for Filipino great.
Sunday’s non-title welterweight fight is Pacquiao’s first in Asia in seven years.
The fight is being held at Sands’ Venetian arena in the southern Chinese gambling territory. The company is one of six licensed casino operators together with Steve Wynn’s Wynn Macau, Galaxy Entertainment, SJM Holdings, MGM China and Melco Crown.
Unlike Las Vegas, renowned for shows, nightlife and trendy restaurants and where Pacquiao usually boxes his major fights, Macau’s focus has been its 35 casinos.
Now things are changing in the former Portuguese colony, a special administrative region like neighboring Hong Kong. China’s central government is calling for Macau to diversify its turbo-charged casino industry to draw in more tourists than the hardcore punters.
While revenues soar - Macau gaming revenues are expected to be seven times those of Las Vegas this year - casinos are pushing to expand their offerings.
Among those expected to watch the Pacquiao bout will be former England soccer star David Beckham, who is in Macau after signing a promotional deal with Sands owner U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
“This fight will mean so much to him because for a slight moment this fight is going to put a smile on the people’s faces in the Philippines,” said Beckham, who this week announced he will launch his own professional soccer team in Miami.
Macau is the only place where Chinese nationals are allowed to gamble in casinos in the country.
Reporting by Farah Master in Hong Kong, Stefanie McIntyre in Macau and Roli Ng and Nathan Layne in Tacloban; Editing by Jeremy Laurence