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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Manny Pacquiao: The Fight of His Life

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By Gendy Alimurung Thursday, Mar 11 2010

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."


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