by Allison Jackson
GENERAL SANTOS, Phillipines - A two-year break from boxing has left Philippine legend Manny Pacquiao "hungry" to get back in the ring for what could be the last fight of his storied career -- and a warm-up for a presidential rumble.
The eight-division world champion and beloved national hero will have tens of millions of fans from the boxing-mad archipelago in his corner when he faces American Errol Spence in Las Vegas on August 21.
Pacquiao's comeback fight is a chance to prove his mettle at 42 -- an age when most boxers have already hung up their gloves -- and score a lucrative payday before a widely expected tilt at the presidency next year.
"I'm a politician, all politicians are dreaming for the higher position," the elected senator told AFP in his southern hometown of General Santos, where he is training.
"I'm going to announce (my decision) in the proper time, maybe after the fight."
Pacquiao's star power in a country famed for its celebrity-obsessed politics would put him in a strong position in the presidential race.
But it would not guarantee victory.
A public skirmish between Pacquiao and President Rodrigo Duterte over the latter's handling of the South China Sea dispute with Beijing and official graft could erode support for the boxer.
Duterte - who is allowed to serve only one term as president -- rivals Pacquiao for the affections of many Filipinos and has even flagged a possible run for the vice presidency in 2022.
Until recently, Pacquiao was a high-profile backer of Duterte and his controversial drug war, which International Criminal Court prosecutors want to investigate for the alleged unlawful killing of possibly tens of thousands of people.
Pacquiao told AFP he would continue the crackdown, but in a "proper way" that does not abuse "the rights of individuals".
Asked if he would protect the current president from criminal charges if he became leader, he said: "All of us are bound to the law."
Pacquiao would face a formidable opponent if Duterte's daughter, Sara, were to run for the top job.
A recent poll showed the Davao city mayor - the same position her father held before he took power in 2016 - with the most voter support, well ahead of Pacquiao and other potential contenders.
But a lot can change between now and the October deadline for candidates to register.
"Right now my expectation is that (Pacquiao) runs, but not as Duterte's chosen successor," said Eurasia Group analyst Peter Mumford.
"But it's the Philippines so it's very unpredictable."
Decisions on whether to retire after the Spence fight or run for the highest office are in God's hands, according to Pacquiao, a father of five.
Religion looms large in the life of the boxer, who became a devout evangelical Christian about a decade ago after giving up his playboy lifestyle.
He even relies on his faith - and vitamin C - to ward off Covid-19 while he considers getting vaccinated against the deadly disease.
"I always keep in trusting God because he's the one who give me the ability to accomplish all those things," he said.
Pacquiao is deeply admired in the Philippines for his generosity and hauling himself out of poverty to become one of the world's greatest and wealthiest boxers.
Dozens of locals wait outside his gym in downtown General Santos in the hope of catching a glimpse of the rags-to-riches hero -- and receiving some money -- before he climbs into an olive green Hummer to drive back to his manicured compound.
"Pacquiao is the idol of everyone in this city," said Meme Dipundato, a 40-year-old tricycle driver.
"What I really like about Pacquiao is not his boxing but his act of helping the poor."
But the fighter has stirred controversy since entering politics in 2010 -- first as a congressman and then a more high-profile position in the Senate -- supporting the death penalty and describing gay couples as "worse than animals".
He promises to pull no punches if he were to become president -- starting with sending "hundreds or thousands" of crooked politicians to a purpose-built "mega prison".
"There are so many problems in this country caused by corruption... there's no economic growth and development, there's no improvement," he said.
- 'I feel so hungry again' -
For now, Pacquiao said his mind was focused on the looming showdown with fellow southpaw Spence, the 31-year-old unbeaten unified welterweight world champion.
Pacquiao, who boasts a 62-7-2 win-loss-draw record, will be fighting for the first time since he beat Keith Thurman in July 2019 for the WBA welterweight title -- which he lost during the coronavirus pandemic due to inactivity.
He will fly to Los Angeles this month where he will be reunited with veteran trainer Freddie Roach.
In the meantime, he shadow boxes and spars with long-time associate Buboy Fernandez at his Pacman Wild Card Gym.
"I believe 110 percent that Manny is going to win. His stamina is still there," Fernandez told AFP.
Hanging above the ring, along with photos of his bloody fights, are biblical proverbs on the importance of "self-discipline" and faith.
Despite his age and long absence from the ring, Pacquiao said he was undaunted.
"It's good for me to have (a) rest for almost two years," he said.
"I feel so hungry again and excited (for) the fight... I feel that same feeling that I had when I was at 22, 23 years old."