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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Pacquiao media day not the zoo it once was

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Pacquiao vs Clottey
I woke up with a sense of dread on Wednesday morning.

The media day for Manny Pacquiao’s March 13 fight with Joshua Clottey took place at the Wild Card Boxing Club that afternoon and it was the last place I wanted to be.

It was nothing personal against Pacquiao or the famous Hollywood, Calif., gym.

I know that media days -- workouts that are open to the sports press to help publicize up-coming fights -- are integral parts of any promotion, especially big events such as Pacquiao’s pay-per-view showdown with Clottey at the new Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

However, some of Pacquiao’s past media days have been so unorganized and overcrowded they seemed like sick experiments to determine how many human beings can be crammed into a small room before spontaneous combustion occurs.

You think I’d be used to it by now. I’ve covered every one these press events since they started doing them (either before the first Juan Manuel Marquez bout or the first Erik Morales fight). I’m a veteran of Pacquiao media days, but I’m one who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I dreaded the search for a parking place (which I found two blocks away from the gym at the corner of Cahuenga Boulevard and Fountain Avenue). I dreaded waiting around for hours in the Wild Card’s parking lot before Pacquiao and his promoter Bob Arum arrived. I dreaded being packed inside the hot, stuffy little gym with members of the media and more than a few nutty fans disguised as working press. I dreaded tripping over video crew equipment, stepping over photographers, and listening to amateur internet bloggers ask the most inane questions.

But I grudgingly made my way to the gym anyway because I’m a full-time fight scribe with a Thursday column to write, and hey, Pacquiao is the man right now.

I arrived to the already packed parking lot at 11:00 a.m., two hours before Roach and Arum were scheduled to meet the media. Three hours before Pacquiao was to arrive. There I ran into Rob Peters, the head of Pacquiao’s security and somebody who dreads media days more than I do.

Peters, who has worked for Pacquiao since the Marquez rematch, has the unenviable task of clearing the gym out so the pound-for-pound king can train in private.

It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it, and Peters is physically imposing but friendly enough to pull it off without too many altercations. However, even he has his limit, and he’s found it during past media days when he has had to deal with belligerent boxing writers and huge pushy crowds inside and outside the gym.

“I got up this morning with a tight feeling in my chest, like a pain in my heart, and I thought to myself ‘This isn’t good,’” Peters said. “I fear this day the whole training camp.”

Media days are the only time the normally collected Peters has lost his cool.

“It used to really get to me,” he said. “There were a few times I got so mad I didn’t know what I was going to do. A couple years ago I was trying to navigate traffic in the parking lot and the lady from the Thai TV station next to the gym ignored me and ran over part of my foot. I went totally crazy. I was spittin’ mad. It took me half an hour to calm down.”

Ola Afolabi, a long time Wild Card patron, exited the gym about half an hour before the doors opened to the media. The cruiserweight contender took a look at the ever-growing throng of desperate-looking people holding cameras and notebooks in the parking lot and he shook his head.

“If I had known today was Pacquiao’s media day, I wouldn’t have bothered showing up,” Afolabi said. “There’s no point in trying to get a workout in on these days. It’s just too crazy. It might as well be (Barack) Obama’s inauguration. Even before the media is allowed in it’s too packed to do anything because all the fighters are there at the same time, trying to get their workouts in before the gym closes down for Manny.”

Not all of the Wild Card’s regulars dread Pacquiao media days. Pepper Roach, Freddie’s older brother who has worked at the gym as an assistant trainer for more than 10 years, views them as a necessary evil.

“The gym is Freddie’s business and Manny and his media days have been great for business,” Roach said. “Yeah it’s a pain in the ass for everybody for one day but it puts the Wild Card’s name out there on TV and in the papers. People see the gym, they hear about it and read about it and if they want to start working out they come here. If they’re at another gym, they quit that place at come to the Wild Card.”

Roach says the gym’s reputation and respect for his older brother have grown along with Pacquiao’s fame.

“When Manny first came here it was a regular boxing gym and there were two guys who helped Freddie, me and Macka Foley,” Roach said. “Now we got a dozen people working behind the desk, as assistant trainers, and photographers, and we got 200 people trying to workout here every day.”

If the media days are an indication of Pacquiao’s popularity, his trainer and his gym will continue to crossover into mainstream consciousness.

Peters says the media event has grown in terms of numbers and diversity during the past 18 months.

“It’s bringing in much broader types of media coverage now,” he said. “I remember that it was mostly internet writers and Filipino TV for the Marquez rematch, but it’s not such a niche event anymore. Now there are American sports writers from newspapers and magazines. There’s a lot of local TV crews, and it’s not just the sports reporters coming out it’s the news crews.”

“It’s the De La Hoya effect. As soon as Manny beat Oscar everyone took notice. No one thought he could beat De La Hoya, but the folks at the Wild Card knew he would win, and we knew his popularity would skyrocket after the fight. But we weren’t prepared for how much attention Freddie and the gym would get from that point on.”

With only a few months between mega bouts with De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto and now Clottey, it seemed that things would inevitably spiral out of control.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to what I thought would be Clusterfest 2010; the media was treated to a civil and orderly press event that run quite smoothly.

I was pleasantly surprised. Marie Spivey, the gym manager and Roach’s personal assistant, was not.

She says she used to dread Pacquiao’s media days more than anyone but was confident that the employees of Top Rank and Wild Card had enough experience with the event to make this one tolerable.

“I admit, in the past, I woke up with anxiety on media day,” Spivey said. “I would get up and say out loud ‘I don’t want to go to the gym!’ But I woke up feeling fine today because I knew I’d have help with Rob, Miguel (Salazar) and Fred Sternburg,” she said. “Fred has been a tremendous help during the entire camp. He’s scheduled most of the TV and radio interviews and all of the gym visits from writers.”

Sternburg, a veteran publicist who was hired by Top Rank to handle the media during the Clottey camp, has worked every Pacquiao media day since the first Morales fight. He says just a few alterations made the difference on Wednesday.

“It has been a zoo in the past but we’re a little more organized these days,” Sternburg said. “We convinced Manny to do interviews before his workout so writers who just wanted that didn‘t have to stick around and take up space and we had Roach and Arum go an hour before Manny arrived so everything wasn’t so scattered once it began.

“We’ve also been spacing out exclusive time with Manny and two or three writers from different publications since camp began and I think that’s helped. Some writers got what they needed weeks ago and didn’t need to show up today. We don’t have the same pent-up demand for Manny on media day that we used to have.

“It’s all been done out of necessity because the demand for Manny has become so big.”

How big? Sternburg, who has been in PR business since the mid-1980s, says he hasn’t seen anything like it since Sugar Ray Leonard‘s heyday.

Sternburg worked for Leonard beginning with the hall of famer’s 1987 comeback fight against Marvelous Marvin Hagler until the end of the decade.

He says Pacquiao’s recent run against De La Hoya, Hatton, Cotto and now Clottey remind him of Leonard’s late-career events with Hagler, Donny Lalonde, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran. As it was with Leonard, the demand for the Filipino icon is so constant that the Colorado-based publicist has spent most of his time on site since Pacquiao’s camp began.

“This is the closest I’ve been to being an in-camp publicist since I spent several weeks in Leonard’s camp for the Hearns rematch,” Sternburg said. “This camp reminds me of those days because of the celebrities that come by to see Ray, who trained at a PGA resort in Palm Beach, Fla. I remember guys like Burt Reynolds dropping by to watch him.

“We have that sort of thing with Manny now. In the past four or five weeks we’ve had Robert Duval, Ron Perlman, Jeremy Piven, Steven Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme come by the gym to watch him train.

“They come by to see Roach, too. They all want to talk to Freddie. They think he’s great. And he is!”

As great a guy (and as good a quote) Roach is, even he took a backseat to Pacquiao when the man of the hour (or two) entered the gym with his entourage around 2:35 p.m.

His smile instantly lit up the gym and quickly elevated the mood of what had been rather routine proceedings up until that point.

Within one hour every writer, photographer and video crew in the gym got their time with the humble international star. Pacquiao made it all seem easy, just like he does in his fights.

I wondered if the guy who actually gets in the ring and dukes it out ever feels the kind of anxiety and dread that I felt and discussed with the gym’s employees? If he does he sure doesn’t show it. co-editor Michael Rosenthal asked Pacquiao if the expectations and pressure ever get to him.

“The pressure is always there,” Pacquiao answered, “but I pray to God, train hard and know that He will guide me.”

Pacquiao’s not the most articulate fighter around but there’s a nobility to his simplicity, and every now and then he says something that can open the eyes of even the most jaded sports writer.

Boxing -- heck, life -- is not as complicated as we tend to make it. I left the gym feeling a lot lighter than I did when I arrived.


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