Manny Pacquiao: The Fight of His Life
Everybody wants a piece of boxer Manny Pacquiao. They want tickets to his fights. They want his autograph, his money, his time. They want him to clobber the second best fighter in the world, Floyd Mayweather Jr., whose recent accusation that Pacquiao must be using steroids caused their could-have-been-historic matchup to disintegrate. They want Pacquiao to fight somebody, anybody, so the ride won't have to stop.
These days, Pacquiao's future is uncertain. He has put in a bid for congress in his home country, the Philippines. Will he win? Will they let him be the political leader he wants to be? Will they let him stop fighting?
In Hollywood's Wild Card Gym, weeks deep into training camp, Pacquiao jabs the air, shadowboxing against an invisible opponent, emitting machine gun–like humming noises: "Mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm!" People call him a machine, a phenomenon, a god. Fans and enemies alike want to understand how he keeps conquering, keeps getting stronger and faster. How he has climbed seven separate weight classes and brought home seven world titles, a feat unheard of in the history of the sport.
"Boksing kasi hindi pang matagal iyon," Pacquiao says in his native tongue. Boxing is not for forever. Then he winds the white tape around his hands as he has a thousand times before.
He was dirt. The floor of his house was made of dirt. The walls were thatched. His entire family of seven squatted in the house, small as a prison cell, sleeping on cardboard boxes. There is no deprivation like Third World deprivation. "They were invisible," says Winchell Campos, who is writing the boxer's biography. "They would die and nobody would care."
Pacquiao dropped out of elementary school to sell doughnuts, ice water and fish he caught from the sea. One day in 1990, watching television, he saw the invincible Mike Tyson fall to James "Buster" Douglas, and fell in love with boxing. The underdog can win, he learned. He punched a rubber flip-flop tied around the trunk of a palm tree. He imagined himself a champion. He was 11 years old.
At 14, he ran away from home, from sleepy General Santos City in the lawless southern tip of the Philippines, a rusty, run-down town lost in time. He stowed away on a ship bound for the megacity Manila. Before boxing training in the afternoon, he welded steel at a factory, then used his weekly pay to buy flowers, which he would sell on the streets for twice the price. At 16, he turned pro, a gangly 106 pounds. He fought like a mad dog, wild and out of control.
How does it start, this decade's most captivating sports winning streak? When the student is ready, they say, the master will appear. It is 2001. Pacquiao is 22 years old, on his first trip to America, working his way West from the East Coast, going from gym to gym in search of a trainer. Everyone turns him down. He is too small, they say. There is no money in the lower weight divisions. Boxing is obsessed with giants, with Tyson and Evander Holyfield, heavyweights who lumber around the ring like ogres. Pacquiao climbs the stairs to the scruffy Wild Card, his second-to-last stop before heading home in defeat.
He works one round of mitts with coach Freddie Roach, who has always believed the little guys make better fighters. Roach once fought as a little guy, too, long before the Parkinson's set in, before the Botox injections to the neck, before the daily pills and discussions of brain surgery. "Usually it takes time to get to know somebody because timing is a little bit different, a little awkward," the coach recalls. "But me and him, it was like we'd been doing it our whole lives." In that instant, Roach found his ideal student. Pacquiao, his "master of boxing."
Manny Pacquiao's early days in Los Angeles: Walking. He and his entourage of one, Buboy Fernandez, childhood best friend and neighbor from General Santos City, pound the pavement for half an hour every day, from their rented apartment on Sunset Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue, under the 101 freeway, to the gym at Santa Monica and Vine. They can't afford a car. Eventually, Pacquiao befriends a Filipino taxicab driver, who shuttles them around town for free.
Those who knew Pacquiao in his days before fame and fortune hoard their memories of him and dispense them like treasure. In an early fight, the "Duel in Davao," Roach sends his brother, retired boxer Pepper Roach, to the Philippines with Pacquiao. At the Pacquiao family's house in General Santos City, they use a cup and a bucket of water in place of a shower. At a local hotel, Pepper finds an alligator snuggling in his bed. "That is not an alligator," says the chambermaid. "That is an iguana." She shoos it out with a broom.
"Not that one," Buboy says later on, grabbing Pepper's arm as he is about to step on a bus. "It has bombs on it." It is 2002, and the world has gone mad, still reeling from 9/11. Buboy gazes at Pepper with a serious expression, then bursts into laughter. Filipino humor is dark, fatalistic. Traveling through the dense Philippine jungle in a ramshackle bus, they passed bare-chested men with machine guns, Pepper the sole white man in a sea of brown skin. A guy on the bus suggests, "You might want to duck. There's Taliban here."
"And I'm going like this for 60 miles," Pepper remembers years later, showing how he would bend over during those bus rides. Pacquiao was paid $30,000 for that fight, against Fahprakorb "3K Battery" Rakkiatjim at Rizal Memorial College gymnasium. Pepper received $3,000, the trainer's standard 10 percent, barely enough to cover his travel expenses.
"Ah, but it was fun," Pepper says, relishing the memory. "Nobody paid to watch that fight. There was a hole in the fence and people slipped through. Nobody made any money."
The money would come. Because under Freddie "La Cucaracha" Roach's guidance, Pacquiao began to win. Big. "His inner drive is unbelievable. His willingness to learn," Roach says of his protégé. "I've never seen anything like it." The raw materials were there. Pacquiao just didn't know how to use them.
Speed and power are his genetic gifts. Poverty's gifts are hunger, endurance, a killer work ethic, the capacity to suffer.
Roach molded Pacquiao into a devastating fighter. He took the boxer's wild, reckless, mad-dog swinging and gave it strategy. They worked on footwork, on getting both hands equal. A month after he walked into Roach's gym, in his first fight in the United States, Pacquiao stepped in on two weeks' notice as a last-minute replacement against South African boxer Lehlohonolo Ledwaba. By round three, Ledwaba's gloves were slippery with his own blood, his white shorts stained pink. Elated, Pacquiao brought home the IBF super-bantamweight title.
One by one, the greats dropped to their knees before him: Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez, Oscar Larios, Jorge Solis. Pacquiao left Eric Morales sitting dumbfounded against the ropes like he'd had a very bad day at the office. He used David Diaz's head as target practice. Oscar De La Hoya, he dismantled. Left him perched on a stool, humiliated, stunned, a deer caught in headlights.
Ricky Hatton, pride of England? Lights out, nobody home. Out cold in round two before his head even hit the canvas. Most recently, Pacquiao broke Miguel Cotto, whose handsome face swelled like a pumpkin.
Pacquiao hits them at weird angles. His punches are surgical. There are moments in the ring when you catch a glimpse of it in his otherwise soulful face, that great and terrible lust for violence.
He became known as "The Mexicutioner," "The Destroyer" and "The National Fist," a stark contrast to his other nickname, the sweet, childlike "PacMan." Each time he wins, it is his country's retribution for years of grinding poverty and oppression. It is an awful lot for a man to carry. Roach, who grew up in Boston's projects and knows something about hardship, believes if Pacquiao hadn't grown up poor, he wouldn't be the fighter he is today; wouldn't have sought the brutal way out that boxing offers.
"Rich people don't have drive," says Roach. "They're comfortable."
2. BIG NUMBERS
In some ways, the only way to understand 31-year-old Pacquiao is by the numbers.
The number of crunches he does in one day: 1,400.
The number of calories he eats in one day: 7,000.
The number of calories he burns: upward of 5,000.
The number of hours he sleeps at night: He tries to hit eight (with a midday nap) but sometimes misses. "Sometimes he can't sleep. He's got a lot on his mind," says conditioning coach Alex Ariza.
The number of days he gets off a week: one.
Sunday, the Lord's day, is the only day Pacquiao rests.
Even as he has gone up in weight to his current 147 pounds, the PacMan has lost none of his speed. "Manny is high-intensity," says Ariza. "We have to slow him down as it is."
Pacquiao wakes up at the crack of dawn, then runs four miles in Griffith Park, all of them uphill.
"Yes, I can run it, but I don't know anyone who can run it as fast as Manny," says Ariza. The only creature who can keep up with Pacquiao, who can match his boundless energy, is "Pacman," the pet Jack Russell terrier with whom he shares a name.
Afterward, he puts in four more punishing hours at the gym — stretching, jumping rope, doing one-handed push-ups on an inflatable ball, sparring or hitting the mitts, lifting weights and pummeling a speed bag. Every day, a member of his entourage strikes him repeatedly in the stomach with a wooden stick. It is a Thai technique to deaden the nerves.
Asked if the stick was his idea, Roach snorts. "Fuck, no. You hit me with a stick, I'll get my gun out," he says, then mumbles unintelligibly about "kung fu bullshit." Better to make your opponent miss. Better to not get punched at all.
The boxer leads a life of strange extremes. "Manny's a different person in the Philippines," says Campos, the biographer. "They treat him as a demigod. He can still walk around shopping malls in Los Angeles. In Manila, it's chaos. He doesn't have a normal life anymore. That's why he likes coming here."
In Southern California, he can play basketball, eat out. But there is an increasing element of surreality to his life here, too. When he plays poker at Commerce Casino, he sometimes goes with actor Tobey Maguire. When he spars, Mark Wahlberg comes to the gym to watch, and after one fight, the entire Boston Celtics team hung out with him in the locker room.
Pacquiao, who splits his time between continents, owns a sprawling $2.5 million mansion in Hancock Park. But when in Los Angeles, he sleeps in a small fraternity house–like apartment on La Brea Boulevard with 10 members of his entourage. They sing karaoke and cook white rice and tinolang manok, a soupy Filipino dish of chicken and green papaya. Meanwhile, in the mansion, dust gathers on the chandeliers.
Asked why they don't stay there, one of his many assistants, a lanky guy named Prem, shrugs. "Ma sisira kasi ang bahay." Because the house will get destroyed.
Despite the record-setting gate sales and HBO Pay Per View buys, Pacquiao has kept his humble tastes, still feels the gravitational tug of the poor Philippine shantytown from which he has otherwise escaped. "Other boxers come on fast, strong and mouthy," says Campos. "Manny is the antithesis of those people. He doesn't sell his fights by saying, 'I'm gonna eat your family.' Mike Tyson did that."
Pacquiao is a religious man, but to him, God and the violence are not contradictory. Those closest to him say he believes he was touched by the Almighty to help the people of the Philippines. On a secular level, he has been known to quote from the movie Spider-Man: With great power comes great responsibility. When he prays, he asks the lord to protect him, to protect his opponent. After each fight, as each competitor lies gasping on the mat, the first words out of Pacquiao's mouth are, "Thank you, God." He beats them hard, but his opponents feel honored. "You are still my idol," Pacquiao says, minutes after he destroys De La Hoya.
"No," says De La Hoya. "You are mine."
The day after the Boxing Writers' Association named him Fighter of the Year and Fighter of the Decade, Pacquiao playfully punches the conditioning coach like a tiger batting at a mouse. "No. No. No!" cries Ariza. "You did that to me last time."
"I'm not strong," Pacquiao teases. You could teach an anatomy lesson off his legs. His calves are huge, the muscles striated.
As his popularity grew, so did the crowds at the Wild Card. Pacquiao would get distracted and start entertaining the audience. Roach now kicks people out. "My gym has become a tourist attraction," Roach says. "I don't want him performing for them. I want him to perform for me."
Men line up, ready to provide whatever the boxer needs: One guy to carry the white towel Pacquiao wipes his nose on. One guy to squirt warm water into his mouth. One guy to tell him funny stories. One guy to slather him with cologne. Two guys to lace up his green practice gloves — a man for the left hand, another for the right. Pacquiao's entourage swells with each fight. There is an inner circle of some 15 guys, but the total hovers around 50.
"Never hit the bone because you'll hurt your hand," says Roach, as Pacquiao hits Roach's mitts with painful-sounding smacks, an ineffable sense of play in his movement. "Take that body apart."
Pacquiao smiles. "Coach, I know your thinking."
Everyone wanted a Mayweather match: Roach, Pacquiao, the fans, the promoters and managers and press men and boxing historians. Everyone except perhaps Mayweather himself. Instead, they're getting Joshua Clottey, a welterweight from Ghana. Pacquiao works on creeping in beneath Clottey's longer reach.
"Nice shot," gasps Roach, when Pacquiao lands a brutal body shot to the side of the coach's ribs. "That's the liver. Nothing he can do about that one."
"Boxing is 70 percent mental," says one of the men watching, Mike Levy, who manages boxer Steve Forbes, who now hopes to be coached by Roach.
Does Roach agree with that percentage?
"No," Roach says. "It is 95 percent mental. Sure, everybody gets in shape. We're all the same. We get in condition. It's who can pull it off. Who's the smart one."
Forbes began his career training with the Mayweathers, Floyd Sr. and Jr., and fought De La Hoya seven months before Pacquiao did. Forbes lost that fight, but broke De La Hoya's cheekbone in the process. Pacquiao came in and smashed it to smithereens. Forbes, Levy says, was devastated after Pacquiao beat De La Hoya. "You have to understand, he loves Manny, but he was crushed. That was a bad night for Steve," says Levy. "He didn't understand how this little guy managed to beat Oscar. Steve has skills, too. He thought, 'Why couldn't I do it? What's wrong with me?' "
Pacquiao gives. He quietly tucks $100 bills into the palms of homeless men when nobody is watching. His security detail is at pains to curtail his fan interactions. "Picture, picture, picture," says security head Rob Peters. "I told Manny, one picture will turn into 10, and we'll never get anything done. But Manny's a nice guy. He gave in. He can't help it. And sure enough, one picture turned into 10, which turned into group photos."
The guys in the parking lot linger. One of them, a young Vietnamese man who declines to give his name, drives an hour from west Covina to Hollywood several times a week just to train at Pacquiao's gym. "He made Asians visible in this country," he says. "If he wasn't a boxer, he'd be working in a restaurant just like us."
Later that night, at Nat's Thai restaurant, Pacquiao eats silently, surrounded by his entourage but lost in his own thoughts. The owners emerge unbidden with plates of shrimp fried rice, shrimp soup, shrimp stir-fry and beef deep-fried to a jerky consistency that Pacquiao eats with white rice and broth, scooping it up in the traditional Filipino way with spoon and fork. They usually play videos of his fights while eating, but tonight they watch scenes from the movie King Kong. A velociraptor jumps on top of a T. rex. "The little one is winning," Pacquiao says, rapt.
He leans to the side slyly and unleashes a fart. Ariza, sitting beside him in the seat of honor, groans. The rest of the table laughs.
"Boys will be boys," says Helena Buscema, Pacquiao's singing coach. In the Philippines, Pacquiao is not just a boxer. He sings and dabbles in acting.
"He is a creature of habit," Buscema says languidly. "Manny likes doing things the same. He has his rituals."
No one really knows why he eats there every night, sits in the same seat, murmurs the same prayer, eats the same food. Boxing is a repetitive sport, Roach says. Pacquiao is the embodiment of that, times a hundred. Perhaps he craves the structure, having grown up with so little of it.
When Pacquiao rubs his stomach and stands up, the entire room follows suit two seconds later, a baroque but well-oiled machine. Younger brother Bobby thumbs through a fat stack of hundreds to settle the bill.
People eat and starve by Pacquiao. "He changed my life," says Nat's Thai owner Tasanee Sridakun. Pacquiao has been eating there since the beginning. His success has been their success. His entourage grew so big, people now have to eat standing up or in the kitchen or scrunched beside the cash register.
"If I don't have Manny Pacquiao," Sridakun continues, "I don't know what happen to me. Maybe I live on the street."
She makes enough in his two months of training camp to pay a year's rent, and dreads the day he no longer boxes, no longer spends $700 a day in her tiny dining room to feed his troops.
"He like a Jesus," she whispers.
The boy who came from dirt is now the sixth richest athlete in the world. Now he endorses beer, ice cream, ibuprofen, and is sponsored by Nike. In his homeland, he owns gasoline stations, coffee shops, a boxing-promotion company, a gym, a basketball team, a grocery store and a rooster farm. The dirt-floor squatter's hole in General Santos has been replaced by a sprawling compound with a swimming pool shaped like a boxing glove, stone walls and 24-hour armed guards. Poor people line up in droves at the gates and are handed plastic bags with rice and sardines and 200 pesos, or $4.
Last year, Pacquiao earned $40 million. He gives much of it away to hospitals; to schools; to his entourage as an incentive to get healthy. Three thousand dollars to whoever loses 15 percent of his body weight; 70 people are participating.
Still, there is tension surrounding his generosity. "You see Manny, he's always surrounded by people with their hands out. Manny's got a lot of heart," says Ariza. "There are mountains of people asking him for tickets, or asking him to fly them here or there. They ask him to invest in businesses, T-shirt companies or who knows what. They're like vultures."
The boxer gives away so much that coach Roach and promoter Bob Arum worry he will be left with nothing. As Arum puts it, "The Philippines has the best social-welfare system. And it is called Manny Pacquiao."
Others call it a functional dysfunction: Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, feed him for a lifetime.
Filipinos have a proprietary feel about Pacquiao. A native television crew flies with him to Los Angeles to document his activities. One afternoon, they ask him to comment on rumors that he is having an affair with a sexy co-star from one of his movies. He sighs, crosses one arm over the other. It is the one time he truly seems weary. "To my countrymen, whatever gossip there is, it's enough. Let's focus on ourselves, on our families," he says beseechingly.
When fellow boxer Z. Gorres goes down in the ring and is paralyzed, Pacquiao is prevailed upon for help. He will sing! At his Valentine's Day benefit concert at the Embassy Suites in Glendale, a thousand fans mob him. They wait for him for two interminable hours, as one performer after another is dragged onstage to sing a tribute to his greatness. They could tear him to pieces with their love.
Pacquiao's eyes widen with surprise as his handlers spontaneously auction the sweatshirt off his back for $450. "You want my shirt?" he asks.
There is joy in his face, even in the midst of the chaos, even as people giggle at his rendition of "La Bamba," where he pronounces una poca de gracia as "una pooka de gracia." Today the eyes that slope down at the corners, the wide, flat nose, the bushy brows that furrow in battle, the darkening face of a volcano god is bursting with innocent mischief as he furtively tosses T-shirts into the crowd. He is relaxed. He stands on a folding table and pumps his fist in time with the music. Someone grips the table so he doesn't fall.
What is it with this boxer, with his steel hands and soft heart? People imagine he sings rap, but Pacquiao loves ballads. He belts out an earnest, karaoke-bad rendition of "Sometimes When We Touch" on The Jimmy Kimmel Show, making the American band members smile. Pacquiao is endearing. A big, goofy kid ... who could crush your skull with his bare hands. You want to hug him. Which Kimmel actually does, stepping out from behind the desk.
Pacquiao's movie Wapakman has just come out in Manila. In it, he plays an ordinary man who becomes a superhero. He battles a giant crab and a woman with ultrasonic breasts.
"What are Wapakman's powers?" Kimmel asks.
"Everything," answers Pacquiao, grinning.
Early morning. Roach shivers in the cold air. Talking about Pacquiao at this moment in time, at his peak, suffuses the coach with pride. "He thinks now. He sees openings and makes the right moves. When he was younger he was wild and reckless, just trying to get lucky. Now, there's no luck involved."
Pacquiao in his prime sets up punches, walks his opponents into shots, counterpunches to take advantage of his incredible speed. He is no longer just a kid going out there and swinging. He has mastered the sweet science of seeing what's happening, and slowing it down.
"It's a very difficult thing to do," Roach murmurs as people scoot by him on the gym stairs, say hello, bump fists — the boxer's handshake. "I never achieved that in my career because I never was that settled. I just would fight hard. I can see it now. Back then I was too anxious about beating the other guy up. You have to be calm in the heat of combat. From round one to round 12, you learn the whole way. And hopefully, somewhere in there, you've figured him out ... and that's where you knock him out."
Pacquiao, Roach thinks, can do more for his country as a boxer than as a politician. "But that's me looking at it from the outside. Manny wants to make his country better. The politicians that are there now don't seem to want that. They just take care of themselves from what I can see. Because every politician I've ever met in the Philippines is doing well. Everyone else is poor."
Roach suspects that half of the people in the Philippines will hate Pacquiao if he enters government, and half will like him. And Pacquiao's not used to that. He's used to being loved.
"He likes the idea of it. Hopefully he doesn't become corrupt."
People give him their hearts, but will they give him their votes? Pacquiao lost his first bid for congress in the town where he grew up, General Santos City, in 2007. Team Pacquiao railed at his opponent, incumbent Darlene Antonino-Custodio. She trounced the boxer by a large margin. Votes were bought, they said. The purchase price, though, could not have been cheaper: The popular joke in the country was, "Ask 10 Filipinos if Manny Pacquiao should be in politics, and 11 will tell you no."
They say he will die not in the ring but by the gun. That a man of few words is ill-suited for political life. Why lower himself into that dirty world, with its subterfuge and smooth talking? Where disagreements are settled in secret with bullets but hardly ever out in the open with fists? His people are cynics. But they are also dreamers. They want their hero to stay pure. To keep beating down the world and raising them up.
Politics will be hard for Pacquiao, Campos believes. "It's not like boxing, where you know how the opponent moves," he explains. "In that side of the world, there are powerful political dynasties that control everything."
In November the bodies dropped. In South Mindanao, one province over from Pacquiao's hometown, shortly before the filing deadline for the upcoming general elections, a convoy of one political family was massacred on their way to deliver their candidate's paperwork. The candidate sent his women relatives, trusting they wouldn't be harmed. He was wrong.
Civilians, lawyers, journalists, the candidate's sister and wife fell to the ground, tortured, shot and beheaded, 57 in all. Killers tossed bodies into shallow graves. They left others bleeding on the ground next to their cars. Incumbent Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. was suspected. "How dare they challenge the ruling clan?" was the sentiment.
It was the worst instance of political violence in the country's history, turning the Philippines into a more dangerous place for journalists than Iraq.
"I don't know if something like that could happen with Manny," says security man Peters, frowning. "It's hard to say." Even if it is written into Philippine law that the army will go to Pacquiao's aid if his family is in danger, with the possibility of kidnappings ever-present, Peters carries an AR-15 machine gun while there with the boxer. In the South Mindanao provinces, where Pacquiao lives, even the bodyguard needs bodyguards.
On May 10, Pacquiao will run for congress in Sarangani Province, where his wife, Jinkee, grew up. The family of his opponent, shipping magnate Roy Chiongbian, has been entrenched in the region for decades.
"Yes," the boxer says, voice soft, brown eyes downcast, when asked if he worries about the corruption. "There is money in the government. The problem is that it does not reach the people. That is why they are suffering. We need a leader who is sincere and clean to help the country. As long as that leader is truly sincere and truly wants to help, there is hope. I always pray to God that I will be able to help the people."
Could it be so simple? It is never simple.
He felt fine about losing the first election. Not betrayed. Not angry. Just "okay." He says, "It's part of the game. There's a winner, there's a loser. Maybe that was not the right time. Because if I had won, I would not have had big fights like the De La Hoya fight, Hatton fight or Cotto fight." Sitting in the Wild Card's minuscule, bare-bones dressing room, Pacquiao wraps his hands with the white tape. Asked if he wants to be president someday, he smiles. "For now, congressman."
For all his generosity, the fighter needs to win. When he fights, it is said that violence and crime plummet in the Philippines. Killers stop killing. Thieves take a break from stealing. A nation stops to watch. It pulls together, despite itself.
"If that's true, I'd fight every day," says the boxer, already sounding like a leader.
Ask him who is a smarter fighter, Muhammad Ali or Pacquiao, and Roach, who has no wife or children of his own, and who calls Pacquiao his finest work — his "son" — will think for a minute before admitting it is Ali. Ali was more creative. He did everything wrong, but he still won. Pacquiao, however, is a far better student. He does everything right. Pacquiao won't fight after this year, Roach speculates. He has nothing left to prove.
Roach wants something from Pacquiao, too. He wants Pacquiao to get out of boxing while he is still rich, happy and healthy. Most stay at the dance too long.
"Three more rounds," says Pacquiao, bouncing, pounding Roach's mitts.
"What, are you crazy?" says Roach. "I'm tired."
Does Pacquiao ever tire of people asking him for things? "No," the boxer says later. "You have to understand that because you're famous, you're popular, some people are asking for help. It's part of your career."
When he was poor, no one was ever as generous to him as he is with people now. "Because I never asked," he says. "I worked."
Manny Pacquiao defends his WBO welterweight title against Joshua Clottey at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas on March 13.
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