Manny Pacquiao swarmed by fans at Calgary airport during 1st Canadian visit

He's a bona fide boxing legend with 12 major world titles under his belt. But Manny Pacquiao arrived in Calgary on Dec. 26 to promote a sport of a different sort: basketball.

Swarms of fans flocked to meet Pacquiao at the Calgary International Airport on Thursday for what marked his first visit to Canada.

Pacquiao, who built a prestigious career as a boxing pro and also serves as a senator in the Philippines, is visiting Calgary for an all-star basketball event at Tsuut'ina Nation.

As the CEO and founder of the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League, he is participating in an exhibition game at the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex on Friday evening.

Pacquiao happy to meet 'fellow countrymen' in Alberta

Alberta's large Filipino community was a huge draw for him to visit the province, Pacquiao said at a media scrum on Friday morning.

"We have a lot of Filipino [people] here … and people who love basketball," he said. "I'm happy to be here and I'm happy to meet my fellow countrymen."

Though he's best-known as a boxing icon, Pacquiao told reporters that his interest in basketball predates his boxing career.

"Before I became a boxer, I was a player of basketball," he said.

Dan McGarvey/CBC News
Dan McGarvey/CBC News

Some Calgarians in the Filipino community who visited the airport to greet Pacquiao described him as a larger-than-life figure in his home country.

"Everybody's happy to see him. He's considered a hero in the Philippines," said Ron Barnachea. "It's a very big moment … to see Manny Pacquiao live."

Pacquiao — who turned 41 on Dec. 17 — was also met with a cake and rendition of Happy Birthday by fans who waited to welcome him at his Calgary hotel.

Boxing legend not without controversy

In spite of his sterling boxing record and warm reception in Alberta, Pacquiao has also known controversy.

Nike terminated its endorsement contract with Pacquiao in 2016 after he made derogatory comments about same-sex marriage and called gay people "worse than animals."

"We find Manny Pacquiao's comments abhorrent," Nike said in a statement at the time. "Nike strongly opposes discrimination of any kind and has a long history of supporting and standing up for the rights of the LGBT community."

Pacquiao has also faced accusations of tax evasion in the Philippines.

On Saturday, he will be in Edmonton for a basketball game at the EXPO Centre.