TACLOBAN, Philippines (AP) — Thousands of survivors of Typhoon Haiyan erupted into wild cheers Sunday to celebrate the victory of Filipino boxing icon Manny Pacquiao, bringing back laughter and revelry briefly to a central Philippine region that was turned into a corpse-strewn wasteland by the powerful storm.
Pacquiao's triumph over American Brandon Rios in Macau served as a rallying point for many still-traumatized survivors, many of whom lost loved ones and their homes to the Nov. 8 typhoon, which killed more than 5,200 people and left 1,600 others missing. Haiyan also damaged or destroyed 1 million homes, displacing more than 3 million people.
Many jumped repeatedly in joy as they cheered on Pacquiao, who won by unanimous decision to take the WBO international welterweight title.
"I was so happy and I wanted to cry, but there were too many people," said street sweeper Ardel Nebasa, who lost his home in tsunami-like storm surges that ravaged the city of Tacloban.
"It would have felt like another storm has hit if he lost," said Nebasa, who watched the match with his son and thousands of other people on a TV screen set up in a public plaza in Tacloban.
Another survivor waved a cardboard placard that read: "We're for Pacquiao, God bless, Tacloban will rise again."
A damaged house in the city of more than 200,000 people displayed a painted image of the boxing superstar with a battle cry: "Fight Tacloban!"
Residents also cheered at Tacloban's seaside stadium, where they watched the fight on a giant screen, their view partly obscured by the light filtering through holes in the ceiling. One man carried a Philippine flag.
Many residents were so excited to watch Pacquiao they asked officials to temporarily halt the distribution of relief goods, Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez said.
Pacquiao dedicated his comeback fight to Haiyan victims and promised to visit Tacloban and outlying regions devastated by the typhoon.
Interviewed by Manila's DZBB radio network after his victory, Pacquiao thanked the Filipino people, particularly the typhoon survivors who prayed for him. "The honor is for you," he said.
President Benigno Aquino III's spokesman, Herminio Coloma, said Pacquiao "once again united the hearts and mind of our countrymen who are facing intense challenges brought by a series of tragedies that have befallen our country."
When the bell rang to signal the end of the 12-round match, many spectators in Tacloban threw their baseball caps, shirts and pieces of cardboard into the air, even before the result was officially announced.
Nebasa said Tacloban residents would eagerly await the visit of Pacquiao, who rose from poverty to become one of the world's highest-paid athletes.
"We'll be thankful if he can help us," Nebasa said. "He came from the ranks of the poor and we identify with him and are happy for his triumphs."
Hundreds of typhoon survivors and aid workers, as well as several U.S. Navy personnel, watched the bout in a grandstand at Manila's Villamor air base.
In Macau, the 13,200-seat arena at the Venetian, where the fight was held, was packed. Many in the audience were Filipinos, some of whom waved Philippine flags and chanted, "Manny, Manny."
Businessman Bong Ferrer said Pacquiao's victory was a boost amid so much misery.
"This is a high morale day to the Filipino people," he said.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Oliver Teves in Manila and Kelvin Chan in Macau contributed to this report.