Boxing: Pacquiao fighting for his nation

After tonight's world title fight with Cotto, revered Filipino will run for Congress

Each time Manny Pacquiao fights, his beloved Philippines falls silent in anticipation and respect for the tiny man that is being groomed to one day become the President.

Pacquiao fights Puerto Rico's Miguel Angel Cotto for the World Boxing Organisation welterweight title in the early hours of tomorrow morning at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and the Philippine idol could become a champion at a sixth weight, but victory would also prove that he is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

At ringside there will be dozens of Filipino politicians, all desperate for the fighter's blessing and aware that he has announced that he will run for a Congressional seat in the Philippines next year. In May, when he beat Ricky Hatton in Las Vegas, the high-ranking men in tailored suits and golden ties surrounded him for hours, thrusting mobiles in his face for him to talk to various people back in Manila.

It is, according to Bob Arum, the veteran promoter, hard to imagine just how popular Pacquiao is in his home country. "I was with Muhammad Ali and he never had this type of devotion – this kid is the biggest thing in the Philippines and everybody wants a piece of him," Arum said.

There are claims that during his fights a ceasefire exists when the military and the communist guerrillas sit down to watch him. Some people believe that Pacquiao is a modern saint, descended from the Maharlikan people, who were conquered by the Spanish 500 years ago. He carried their flag at the Beijing Olympics, and it is written in Philippine law that the army must protect him, his wife and their four children in any emergency.

"The Philippines has the best social welfare system in the world and it is called Manny Pacquiao," added Arum. After a fight Pacquiao has hundreds of people waiting outside his mansion for him to share the money in a traditional Filipino method of aid, which is called balato. The money (about £3) often comes in a bag with some rice and sardines, and Pacquiao hands it over personally. "It happens every single day and all day," Arum said.

A few months ago, at a pub in Manchester, Pacquiao and Hatton played darts. It was not much of a match, but Pacquiao sat down at the end and told a story about leaving home when he was 12, living on the streets and first taking up boxing. Somebody asked why he had left home so young. "My dad cook my dog," he replied. His father needed to feed the family and the stray that the young Manny had found and fed was skinned, flavoured and served.

It will be difficult for Pacquiao tonight because Cotto can be an excellent counter-puncher and will not fold like Oscar De La Hoya, who suddenly became an old man in the ring last year or rush out wild like Hatton did. However, Pacquiao has the speed and the support of about 90 million devoted Filipino fans, and that gives him a unique edge in any fight.