MANILA, Philippines (AP) - Nothing seems capable of stopping Manny Pacquiao these days, not even the threat of a typhoon or swine flu, as he rides a wave of popularity that swells with each dominating victory.
Bigger fighters? No problem - a few more pounds (kilos) of muscle have added even more power to the quickest hands in boxing. Just ask Britain's Ricky Hatton, who was knocked down twice before being knocked out just before the end of the second round of their junior welterweight title fight last weekend.
Nearly a week later, Pacquiao still dominates the headlines and airwaves in the Philippines, where he's an instantly recognizable icon, one of those stars who transcends sport.
In a country that has grappled with deep financial problems and political divisions for years, Pacquiao has created a fanatical following that bridges the divide between rich and poor.
The sprawling archipelago of more than 7,100 islands grinds to a halt when he fights. Crime drops, and traffic slows to a trickle. Even communist and Muslim insurgencies take a break.
Spokesman Eid Kabalu said many members of the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim guerrilla group in the volatile south, trooped back to their communities to watch the Hatton bout. While ecstatic over the result, the rebels had one complaint: Pacquiao ended the fun too quickly.
Theaters showing the fight live were packed, and the delayed broadcast on national TV drew two-thirds of the viewership in Manila, a sprawling city of 12 million.
Pacquiao's popularity is spreading overseas, too. Early estimates suggest the Hatton bout exceeded expectations and drew the fourth-largest pay-per-view audience ever.
The story of his rise from a poverty-wracked childhood as a street vendor to the man widely regarded as the world's best pound-for-pound boxer is serving as inspiration to every down-on-their-luck Filipino, not to mention fostering dreams among a whole new generation.
Now the question is where his next fight will take place - another huge payday in the boxing ring, where a possible matchup with recently unretired Floyd Mayweather Jr. is being touted; or in the political arena, where Pacquiao is eyeing another candidacy for Congress with suggestions he could run for president.
He already ranks as perhaps the most popular Philippines athlete ever, swarmed everywhere he goes. Local radio has been playing a patriotic Pacquiao song entitled "Filipino Race," in which he professes his deep love and pride for his country and people. An MTV version has been posted on YouTube, showing the boxing star strumming a guitar and singing with his countrymen in front of a huge Philippines flag along with a montage of him demolishing opponents.
His singing isn't likely to result in a music career, but the song could easily be turned into a political battlecry.
Pacquiao returned from the U.S. early Friday, brushing off the approach of a typhoon and suggestions from the Philippines health minister that his entourage should self-quarantine for a few days to make sure none of them was carrying swine flu from Los Angeles.
Authorities at Manila's international airport tried to set up a cordon to keep Pacquiao and his entourage at a distance, but well-wishers and reporters broke through to get close to him.
After breakfast, Pacquiao and friends repeated their tradition of going to Manila's Quiapo church, where hundreds of fans jostled each other to try to get a glimpse of him. He shook hands with the crowd inside the church.
His victory parade was postponed to next week, although the typhoon arrived early and largely missed the capital. But Pacquiao also got a taste of his own medicine - and what lies ahead in politics.
Pacquiao has been borrowing a line from the Spiderman movies that "With great power comes great responsibility," and some radio commentators took swipes at him for ignoring the swine flu advice. One said he missed the rare chance to show responsibility and likened him to other powerful people who only want to get their way.
"The situation would be worse if I stayed longer in the U.S., because there are a lot of fans visiting my place, taking pictures and asking for autographs," Pacquiao said. "My team and I would be more vulnerable to catching the flu."
Pacquiao has petitioned for accreditation of his People's Champ Movement as a political party in what's expected to be another run for Congress in 2010; he fell short the first time, but that was before high-profile victories over Oscar De La Hoya and Hatton.
Some suggest a political career could harm the boxer's legacy. Photos of him dancing with two young women have been circulating and could be used to undercut his relatively wholesome image. Then there are the accusations that only come with being in office.
"Today he is admired," commentator Neal H. Cruz wrote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. "But when he becomes a congressman, people will curse him and call him 'thief,' 'liar' and 'corrupt.'"
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.