MARAWI, Philippines: Displaced residents and soldiers watch the World Boxing Organization welterweight boxing match between Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines and challenger Jeff Horn of Australia at the Lanao Del Sur Capitol in this city on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao yesterday. - AFP

MARAWI, Philippines: Millions of boxing fans in the Philippines, including those displaced by fighting with Islamist militants, walked away in stunned dinsbelief as national hero Manny Pacquiao lost his world title to Australian Jeff Horn in a major upset yesterday. Pacquiao, 38, is an elected senator and a unifying figure in the Southeast Asian nation beset by conflict, grinding poverty, and frequent natural calamities. Residents of a war-torn southern city had hoped for a respite by watching the 12-round fight in displacement camps but their idol's defeat silenced cheers and prompted many to stand up even before the announcement was over.

"It pains our hearts so much. Pacquiao lost and we are thinking about our burned houses. We hoped we could somehow get joy and help," displaced resident Moktar Sunggod, 42, told AFP after watching the fight in an evacuation center near war-ravaged Marawi city. Islamist militants who went on a rampage in Marawi on May 23 have triggered weeks of intense fighting with the country's military that has killed more than 400 people and forced nearly 400,000 people to flee their homes.

The outcome of the fight added to the misery of Marawi residents but authorities drew parallels between Pacquiao's loss and people's struggle to recover from the conflict. "Our morale is at its lowest but Pacquiao remains a symbol of resilience. In the same way that he is already a boxing icon, this crisis does not define who we are," provincial government spokesman Zia Alonto Adiong told AFP.

In Manila, soldiers wounded from the clashes in Marawi watched a bloodied Pacquiao from screens set up in a military hospital. Pacquiao had bled profusely from cuts to the head high above both eyes, prompting boos from crowds gathered in gymnasiums in the capital. "Pacquiao lost, but a battle is really like that. He is a true soldier because even if he is wounded he keeps attacking the opponent," armed forces chief General Eduardo Ano told reporters.

Some Filipinos found it difficult to accept the unanimous decision after they felt Pacquiao had dominated the fight. "It's a hometown decision," Jamael Panggaga, a Marawi resident displaced by six weeks of fighting, told Reuters. "It's very clear, Horn's face was battered, Manny only was bloodied because of head butts, how can he lose?" said Sergeant Badrodin Andak, who was among troops guarding the provincial capital. "It's a sad day for the Philippines," Divinagracia Matutina said in a Facebook post. "I was devastated, never expected Manny to lose." The unanimous decision was considered controversial in the Philippines because many believed Horn was a dirty fighter, who often used his head to injure Pacquiao.

Pacquiao, a staunch ally of President Rodrigo Duterte, received praise from the presidential palace. "Nothing will change: Senator Manny Pacquiao will remain our people's champ, national fist, and treasure," said Duterte's spokesman Ernesto Abella. Pacquiao's rags-to-riches story, from high school dropout to millionaire world boxing champion in an unprecedented eight weight divisions, is a huge source of pride in the Philippines. In keeping with tradition, many Filipinos watched Pacquiao's fight, which took place around midday yesterday in the Philippines time zone, in public places, including in restaurants and watering holes.

However crowds have gradually become thinner as Pacquiao hits the twilight of a glittering career. Pacquiao, who briefly retired last year before making a successful comeback against Jessie Vargas in November, had been expected to knock out Horn in a "short and sweet" fight, according to his trainer. "I don't think he lost. He was cheated! He still came out a strong fighter," construction worker Rudy Merano, 30, told AFP in a public square of Manila's Marikina suburb. "But I think Pacquiao should retire and just focus on being senator." Boxing analysts said Pacquiao should think hard about a possible rematch with Horn. "It's the wear and tear. He might be in self-denial but Manny Pacquiao was too old in this fight," said boxing analyst Ed Tolentino. - Agencies