August 29, 2016
August 29, 2016
Manny Pacquiao vs Jessie Vargas

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“HE seems to be a guy who thinks he can do anything.”

Manny Pacquiao’s publicist, Fred Sternburg

AT his very best, Manny Pacquiao fought like a comic book superhero come to life. There was a swirl of action almost faster than the eye could see, as he swooped in, unleashed a series of leather-encased lightning-bolts and spun away before your brain could catch up with your senses.

It was intoxicating stuff, a fighter who laughed and waved as he jogged to the ring and then turned into a stone-cold assassin until his job was done. Then he reverted to the humble, fun-loving Pinoy as seamlessly as Superman became Clark Kent.

The first Pacquiao fight I attended was the Jorge Eliecer Julio bout in Memphis the night Lennox Lewis ended any chance Mike Tyson had of ever regaining the heavyweight title. I’d seen Manny destroy Lehlo Ledwaba and the foul-infested technical draw with Agapito Sanchez on TV, but the power of his blows was even more startling in person.

Poor Julio went down twice in the second round, and from the way he reacted, it looked like he’d been hit by invisible projectile from a rocket launcher.

For the most part the 15,327 patrons at The Pyramid were not hard-core boxing fans. They’d come to see Lewis and Tyson. To them the preliminaries were just a way to pass the time until the main event. However, when Manny’s first knockdown punch landed, there was an audible gasp from the crowd. Then he did it again and suddenly everybody was paying attention.

How was it possible this skinny 120-pound man could generate such overwhelming punching power? Julio, who had never been stopped in 47 previous pro bouts, was probably thinking the same when referee Bill Clancy rescued him at the 1-09 mark. Up close you could almost taste the primal power and smell the burning ambition.

Except for a brief sighting at the airport the morning after he dismantled Julio, the next time I saw Pacquiao in the flesh was in Manila. I was there to present him with The Ring magazine featherweight championship belt he had won by stopping Marco Antonio Barrera in November 2003.

Ted Lerner, the magazine’s Philippines correspondent, had arranged for the ceremony to take at Malacanang Palace, the traditional home of the president of Philippines. An event that would have been lucky to receive a few lines in a boxing notes column back home was headlines news in the Philippines.

I have given fighters their belts at press conferences, photo shoots, in gyms and hotel rooms and, of course, in the ring, but this was an over-the-top extravaganza, one of those surreal experiences when you have a hard time believing is actually happening.

That the “belting” (as the Filipinos termed it) took place in such a prestigious setting with then-president Gloria Arroyo and Manila Mayor Lito Atienza in attendance clearly demonstrated how important Pacquiao was to his country and its leaders.

There was a general election coming up, and after I strapped the belt around Manny’s waist and raised his left arm, he reached over, took President Arroyo’s arm and raised it. We stood there, each holding one of the champ’s arms aloft as a small army of TV and print media recorded the moment for posterity.

Arroyo, who was running for a second term, couldn’t have asked for a better endorsement. Pacquiao was a savvy politician years before he ran for office.

Oddly enough, what I remember most about my first meeting with Manny earlier that day, before going to Malacanang, was that he was late, looked like he’d just rolled out of bed and forgotten to brush his teeth.

During my stay in the Philippines I gained a greater understanding of how Pacquiao’s early career helped shape a raw 14-year-old runaway into the dynamic fighter he would become. A visit to the L & M Gym, where Manny first learned to box, was a real–eye-opener. Located on a narrow side street in the gritty Sampaloc area, it made even the dingiest gym in the U.S. look like lavish by comparison.

“The workout area is a cramped box barely big enough for two worn-out heavybags, a tattered ring and dilapidated weightlifting equipment,” wrote Lerner in an article about the venerable sweatshop. “There are no fans or windows, and the dirty low ceiling traps the sultry tropical air inside, making it brutally hot and humid. Besides the stifling heat, the air is thick with the smell of old sweat and urine from plugged-up toilets.”

When I stepped out of the mercifully air-conditioned office and into the gym itself, the heat almost made my knees buckle. It was difficult to breathe and I soon began to feel dizzy and nauseous. A quick exit restored me, but how boxers survive training in such inhuman conditions is beyond me.

“The grittiness and the stench makes them tough,” said co-owner Moi Lainez, giggling at what he must have known was an absurdity.

“In their minds, the fighters think that if you train here, you’ll get lucky,” added Lito Mondejar, Lainez’s partner.

Whether it’s the appallingly crude conditions or the L & M’s magic mojo, the gym has produced an inordinate number of champions and titleholder, including Erbito Salavarria, Luisito Espinoza, Rolando Navarrete, Dodi Boy Penalosa, Pedro Adique, Tacy Macalos and, of course, Pacquiao.

When Pacquiao began his pro career, Rod Nazario, his manager, and Mondejar promoted a series of weekly shows called “Blow by Blow” that featured up-and-coming Filipino fighters and were shown throughout the country.

Filipinos have an affinity for Kamikaze-style sluggers, and thanks to his reckless attack and knockout punch, Manny soon became the star of the show.

Although he eventually refined his style considerably working with Freddie Roach, it was at the L & M Gym and on “Blow by Blow” that Manny’s uncompromising go-for-broke style was originated and fostered.

The belting trip took place in March 2004, but Pacquiao was already the most popular person in the Philippines, and it grew from there into something resembling a cult of personality. Soon the world woke up to the fact that it had an extraordinary fighter on its hands –an offensive whirlwind with a boyish smile and personality that was hard to resist. His trajectory soared and by the time Pacquiao ended Oscar De La Hoya’s career in 2008 he was an international superstar.

Still, despite his success in the United States, Pacquiao’s remarkable story begins and ends in the Philippines, where a poverty-stricken boy risked his all for a better life and a chance to be great.

Lerner, an American journalist who has lived in the Philippines for more than 20 years, remembers the early years and recalls hanging with Manny at a small party following his fourth-round knockout of Arnel Barotillo in Manila in 2000.

“Manny loved to party in those days and I recall sitting next to him as we both downed copious amounts of beer and ate fresh tuna sashimi brought up from General Santos,” said Lerner. “We were deep in conversation and I kept telling Manny how he had to go to the U.S. because U.S. boxing fans would absolutely love his all-action style. I remember how excited he was listening to me. ‘Really Ted, do you think they will like me there?’

“He asked me several times and I kept reassuring him they would love him. Then I asked him, ‘Manny, do you think you can handle all the great fighters in the U.S. if you ever get a chance to fight there?’ I will never forget the wide grin on his face as he leaned really close to my face and said, ‘Ted, I will not stop punching. I will never back down.’ ”

The next year, perhaps buoyed by Lerner’s advice, Pacquiao travelled to the United States where he walked into Roach’s Wild Card Gym. It was a match made in boxing heaven. The fighter and the trainer hit if off immediately and began a partnership that carried them to the top of the sport.

Good as his word, Manny never stopped punching and never backed down.

Fred Sternburg, Pacquiao’s publicist for more than a decade, says that Manny was just as fearless at trying new things outside the ring as he was cultivating his fighting skills under Roach’s tutelage.

“Manny didn’t have much command of the English language but he was determined to learn,” said Sternburg. “But as bad as he was he wasn’t embarrassed. The first year or so HBO had translators, just in case he didn’t understand something, but after a while he would kind of push the translator away a bit and try to answer in English.”

Pacquiao was just as confident the first time he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, ABC-TV’s late-night talk show.

“When he first went on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, they thought it was joke when they asked him to sing,” said Sternburg. “Manny took it seriously but had fun with it and won everybody over. From the singing and cheesy movies to the endorsements and politics, there’s nothing he ever thought was impossible for him.”

Pacquiao evolved over time as both a boxer and a person. Toward the end of the 2010, he seemed to lose some of his ferocity, easing up on opponents when he had the fight well in hand. In his bouts with Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito, Manny looked imploringly at the referee on a number of occasions, hoping he would halt the carnage before he was forced to inflict any more damage. Then, after stopping Cotto in one of his finest performances, the knockouts disappeared.

Some observers think the emergence of a more merciful Manny coincided with a change in his private life. He left the Catholic Church and became an Evangelical Protestant, abandoned his womanising and drinking, gambling. The fighter who stayed up all night shooting billiards, attending the cockfights and painting the town had become a homebody, the builder of churches and leader of Bible studies.

It’s virtually impossible to separate the fighter from the man. Most boxers’ personalities are reflected in their fighting style. Still, the theory that Pacquiao became less exciting in the ring when he abandoned his hedonistic lifestyle is just that, a theory.

“There is no correlation at all between the vices you mentioned and his intensity in the ring,” said Top Rank’s Hall of Fame matchmaker, Bruce Trampler, “but his growing compassion for opponents did. Manny’s religious beliefs and faith made him more humane. Freddie Roach had to constantly remind him that boxing is a hurting game.”

Whatever the reality, Manny’s metamorphosis almost certainly had something to do with age – a mellowing accompanied by the inevitable erosion of a body subjected to two decades in the prize ring. Even so, those of us who saw him at the height of his youthful exuberance will never forget it.

“For me Manny was at his best in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” said Lerner. “This was the raw, un-packaged, totally carefree Manny that you couldn’t take your eyes off of. He survived a brutal war with Australia’s Nedal Hussein in 2000 and went on to clean out every top fighter in Asia. His annihilation of Ledwaba in 2001 in his first fight in the U.S. was pure, breathtaking viciousness. The icing on the cake, when I think of the very best Manny was his total destruction of Marco Antonio Barerra in 2003.”

Although he might very well change his mind and fight again, we will never see that Pacquiao again. Besides, he has already declined an opportunity to represent the Philippines at the Rio Olympics in order to concentrate on his new political duties.

“Manny’s political success as a Senator is very much an open question at this point,” said Lerner. “He did very little as a congressman. Now as a Senator he will be under the spotlight to perform. Like every other politician here, Manny has already jumped ship from his party to the new president’s party so he will certainly fit in.

“The new president, Rodrigo Duerte, is quite controversial so it will be interesting to see if Manny can stake some positions that are contrary to the new leader or if he will just go along with the prevailing wind. If he wants to aspire to higher political office, Manny will have to speak out against injustice, and there is plenty of that to go around in the Philippines.”

Regardless of what happens in the political arena, Pacquiao has already earned his place as one of history’s most remarkable boxers, a first-ballot Hall of Famer and much more. Very few fighters have carried their punch as they moved up in weight as successfully as Pacquiao. Don’t forget he weighed 106 pounds for his pro debut and was still knocking out world-class fighters at super-lightweight.

Eight major titles from flyweight to super-welterweight are impressive enough, but the list of men he beat is even more impressive. Besides those already mentioned, there was Chatchai Sasakul, Juan Manuel Marquez, Ricky Hatton and Timothy Bradley. Even the second-tier adversaries were well above average, worthy fighters such as Oscar Larios, Jorge Solis, David Diaz, Joshua Clottey and Brandon Rios.

Yes, Pacquiao had his losses – six all told, most famously to Floyd Mayweather Jr., but that’s going to happen when taking risks is second nature. Manny started taking risks when he stowed away on the ferry from his home in General Santos City to Manila, and was still taking risks when he entered the ring against Mayweather with a bum arm.

Trying to compare fighters from different eras is an empty exercise. Sure, lots of people enjoy those debates but they’re subjective at best and unfair at worse. Suffice to say Pacquiao has been the most fascinating fighter I’ve covered in more than 40 years on the boxing beat and, for much of his career, the one I most looked forward to covering. That’s got to count for something.

This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine.