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Embedded with Manny Pacquiao at the very peak of his powers

Manny Pacquiao
Thomas Hauser went behind the scenes with Team Pacquiao when Ricky Hatton had the unenviable task of facing a fighter for the ages who was at his best

THERE was a three-fight stretch when Manny Pacquiao drew comparisons with the greatest fighters who ever lived. On December 6, 2008, he bludgeoned Oscar De La Hoya into submission over eight brutal rounds. Eleven months later, he destroyed Miguel Cotto en route to a twelfth-round stoppage. But it was in between these outings – on May 2, 2009, in Las Vegas – that Pacquiao solidified his claim to greatness with an electrifying annihilation of Ricky Hatton.

Outside the ring, Pacquiao has a gentle quality. He speaks so softly that one often has to lean close to hear what he’s saying. Despite his accomplishments and celebrity status, there’s a humility about him. He signs autographs, poses endlessly for photographs, and gives away money. A lot of money. Perhaps more than he should.

The Philippines, with 106 million people, is the thirteenth most-populous nation on the planet. Another 10 million Filipino expatriates live in countries around the world. Pacquiao was – and still is – the most idolised Filipino ever. His story is one that his countrymen and countrywomen identify with.

Pacquiao has lived in a world surrounded by need. He ran away from home as a child, reportedly because his father ate a stray dog that Manny wanted to keep. Thereafter, he slept on the streets, often in a cardboard box. He began boxing for money at age fourteen and, prior to fighting Hatton, had earned the right to call himself the best flyweight, super-bantamweight, super-featherweight, and super-lightweight in the world.

“Pacman” had crafted a 5-1-1 record against Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, and Juan Manuel Marquez. Beating De La Hoya elevated him from hero to icon. Hundreds of thousands of fans lined the streets of General Santos City for his victory parade.

“The people where I live are not bad people,” Pacquiao said. “They are only poor. If I can help, it is my duty. I know what they’re feeling. I remember, as a little boy, I ate one meal a day and sometimes slept in the street. I’m not shy to tell of my life because I want to give inspiration and show how Manny Pacquiao went from nothing to something. It is an honor to me that the people feel about me the way they do. I know that millions of people are praying for me, and that gives me strength. It inspires me to fight hard, stay strong, and remember all of the people of my country trying to achieve better for themselves. I do my best to bring happiness and a feeling of honour to all the people in the Philippines. My fight is not only for me but for my country.”

Ricky Hatton wasn’t as iconic a figure as Pacquiao. But like Manny, he’d stayed close to his roots. His “one of us” persona had made him a hero in his home city of Manchester and beyond. “In boxing, the glory is your own,” he said. “But I’m also doing it for Manchester, and I’m doing it for England.”

Hatton, at his best in the ring, pressured opponents until they broke. Prior to facing Pacquiao, he’d won 45 of 46 bouts. His most notable victory was an eleventh-round stoppage of Kostya Tszyu in 2005. His sole defeat came at the hands of Floyd Mayweather in a fight in which referee Joe Cortez appeared to tilt the playing field in Mayweather’s favour.

“It wasn’t a humbling experience because I’m humble to begin with,” Hatton said of the loss. “But it was devastating.”

After losing to Mayweather, Ricky had rebounded to decision Juan Lazcano and stop Paulie Malignaggi. That set the stage for Pacquiao-Hatton.

The boxing world converged on the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for fight week. There was a nice buzz. The bout had been sold out since mid-April. Tickets were selling at a premium. A lot of people in the media were there, not just because their jobs required it but because they wanted to be there.

By eleven o’clock on Friday morning (the day before the fight), several thousand Brits were waiting outside the MGM Grand Garden Arena in anticipation of the three o’clock weigh-in. The arena was configured to accommodate six thousand people for the afternoon. By 2:00 PM, every non-media seat was filled and another thousand fans were unable to gain admittance.

The Ricky Hatton Band was in full swing, with Walking in a Hatton Wonderland and God Save the Queen sung again and again.

Pacquiao weighed in at 138 pounds; Hatton at 140 (the contracted weight). By the time they stepped into the ring twenty-nine hours later, Manny had gained ten pounds; Ricky, twelve.

Pacquiao was a 5/2 betting favorite. Most “boxing people” were picking Manny to win. However, there was often a “but.”

“But I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that Ricky is too big and strong for Manny.”

After all, Hatton, had never weighed in for a fight at less than 138 pounds. Pacquiao began his career at 106 pounds and had fought above 130 pounds on only two occasions. Manny, it was thought, had never faced an opponent who brought as much size, strength, and pressure to bear as Ricky would bring. Hatton – Ricky’s partisans believed – could employ basic boxing skills and overpower Pacquiao the way he’d overpowered Kostya Tszyu four years earlier.

Hatton, of course, voiced similar sentiments, declaring:

  • “I’m bigger; I’m stronger. Pacquiao may have fought at 147 pounds [against De La Hoya]. But trust me; this is a new weight division for him. I have always stated that no one in the world can beat me at 140 pounds, and I stand by that statement. At 140 pounds, I’m too strong and too big for anyone.”
  • “Pacquiao is a slick, fast, effective boxer. But if you look at the defeat by Erik Morales in 2005 and the close fights he had with Juan Manuel Marquez, he doesn’t like sustained pressure. I am a fighter that is constantly in your face, constantly throwing punches.”
  • “It’s a very very tough fight. But to say I’m confident would be an understatement. I’ve never felt more certain of victory than I do right now. I know his strengths and his weaknesses, but I also know what I am capable of doing. There’s no doubt in my mind who is going to win the fight. I’ve never been more confident. If people want to re-mortgage and put a few quid on me, they should.”

“I don’t predict before my fights,” Pacquiao said when asked how he thought the bout would end. “Ricky Hatton is a good fighter. I know that he is a little bigger than me and a strong fighter, but I am faster. I just want to do my best and give a good fight.”

Freddie Roach was less reticent. Roach had trained Pacquiao for eight years, during which the Filipino (who’d once relied almost exclusively on speed and a powerful left hand) had evolved into a complete practitioner of the art of boxing.

“I’ve watched tapes of Hatton’s last twenty fights,” Roach declared. “We know his strengths and his weaknesses. Ricky is a world-class fighter, but he doesn’t have the ability to adjust. He fights the same way over and over again. And his balance is poor. When he has you on the ropes and sets his feet, he can throw a good hook to the body. But in the centre of the ring, he’s not a puncher. Manny has to stay off the ropes. If he does that, his speed and power will be too much for Ricky. He’ll walk him into some shots and knock him out. Manny is a much better fighter than Ricky.”

When fight night came, Roach was the first member of Team Pacquiao to enter dressing room #3 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. He arrived at 5:45pm, and began organising the tools of his trade (tape, towels, and various pieces of boxing equipment) on a long table opposite the door. Fifteen minutes later, Pacquiao arrived with twenty people in tow; among them his wife (Jinkee), his mother-in-law and sister-in-law, and assistant trainer Buboy Fernandez.

Pacquiao sat on a rubdown table. After several minutes of conversation, he took off his sneakers and socks and began putting protective pads on his toes, covering blisters that hadn’t healed.

More friends and girlfriends of friends filtered into the room. Thirty-eight people were there. “It is easier if you have friends around, laughing,” Manny has said. “Always, there should be laughing.”

Now there was just quiet conversation.

The first pay-per-view fight of the evening came on a flat-screen television in a corner of the room. The voice of HBO commentator Jim Lampley filled the air. Without the television, the room would have been as quiet as a library. It was hard to believe that thirty-eight people made so little noise.

At 6:25pm, Roach moved to the center of the room and told the gathering, “In five minutes, anyone who doesn’t belong here has to leave.”

Five minutes later, a half-dozen women (including Jinkee) and a few others left. Twenty-eight people remained.

Pacquiao put on his socks and laced up his shoes. Larry Merchant came in for the ritual pre-fight HBO interview. Once Merchant left, Roach again moved to the centre of the room.

“Please; if you don’t belong here, leave.”

No one moved.

Two members of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department were summoned and cleared the room of unauthorised personnel.
Lee Beard (Hatton’s assistant trainer) came in to watch Pacquiao’s hands being wrapped. For the most part, remarkably, Manny performed the chore himself, singing softly as he worked. When need be, cutman Miguel Diaz assisted the fighter as Roach looked on.
The television, which was turned off when Merchant came in to conduct his interview, hadn’t been turned on again. The hum of the air-ventilation system was the loudest noise in the room. Manny finished taping his left hand, held it up, smiled at his handiwork, and began applying gauze to his right hand.

GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

The television was turned back on. Middleweight prospect Danny Jacobs was midway through an eight-round whitewash of an overmatched Michael Walker. “Can we change to the basketball game?” Manny inquired. “Chicago Bulls and Boston.” The answer, after tinkering with the television set, was “no.” Pacquiao shrugged and continued wrapping his hands. When he was done, he stood up, slapped his fists together, and cried out, “Let’s get ready to rumble.” Then he shadow-boxed briefly in the centre of the room.

At 7:30, a twelve-person prayer group led by a Filipino priest entered. There was a brief prayer.

Referee Kenny Bayless gave Manny his pre-fight instructions.

Pacquiao resumed shadow-boxing and loosening up.

At eight o’clock, Manny put on a pair of white boxing trunks with black trim; then a red-white-and-blue robe. Roach gloved Pacquiao up. The room was cleared again. Now only Manny, his cornermen, a commission inspector (and this writer) were present.

At 8:10, serious padwork with Roach began. Unlike most fighters in the dressing room before a fight, Pacquiao works with his robe on. Periodically, it slipped open and Buboy Fernandez retied it. The padwork grew more intense. Pacquiao’s fists were a combination of blinding speed and power, culminating in a flurry of punches that seemed to explode on the pads. “Oooo! See ya,” Roach said approvingly.

“And if he goes like this,” Manny added (imitating Hatton coming in), “I go BOOM!” At which point, he launched a slow-motion counter right hook aimed at Roach’s jaw. Then Manny smiled the smile of an athlete who was primed and ready to play a game. He was completely relaxed, as though he believed he was protected by a higher power. Or maybe he was simply confident in knowing that he was the best fighter in the world.

The fight began as expected, with Hatton moving forward and Pacquiao, in his southpaw stance, circling out of harm’s way. Thirty seconds after the opening bell, a sharp counter right hook shook Ricky. That was followed by more hooks and straight left hands punctuated by a sharp counter hook at the two-minute mark that sent Hatton tumbling face-first to the canvas. He rose at the count of eight, was pummeled around the ring, and decked again for another eight-count with nine seconds left in the round.

That left Hatton’s fans with the fragile hope that Pacquiao-Hatton would somehow be like Pacquiao-Marquez I (where Marquez was decked three times in the opening stanza but rallied to salvage a draw). However, Pacquiao is a much better fighter now than he was then. And Marquez makes adjustments well on the fly, whereas Ricky doesn’t.

In round two, Hatton came back for more and Pacquiao with his fists said: “I’ll give it to you.” Speed alone might not kill, but speed plus power does. Ricky fought as well as he could, which kept him on his feet until the 2:52 mark when a straight left hand landed flush on the jaw and deposited him unconscious on the canvas. It was a knockout that will appear on highlight reels forever and a career-defining demolition. Hatton has a pretty good chin, and Pacquiao reduced it to English china.

Al Bello/Getty Images

After the fight, Pacquiao returned to his dressing room and embraced a throng of admirers (Denzel Washington among them). There was a group prayer. Manny signed his ring stool, various fight-night credentials, and other memorabilia.

Then a member of Team Pacquiao handed Manny a smart phone and announced, “It’s David Diaz [a previous Pacquiao knockout victim].”

“Hello, my friend,” Pacquiao said, beginning the conversation.

“I’m so happy,” Diaz told him. “On all the advertisements for the fight, they’ve been showing me on television, lying face down on the canvas. Now they’ve got a better knockout to show.”

Pacquiao laughed. “Thank you, brother.”

The conversation ended. Manny laughed again and gleefully threw a straight left hand in slow motion into the air. “BOOM! Good-bye.”
In his mind, the punch that sent Ricky Hatton into unconsciousness was the equivalent of a 500-foot home run into the bleachers; not an act of violence.

Meanwhile, Freddie Roach sat in a chair opposite the rubdown table, surveying the scene. “Manny makes me look good,” Roach said. “He’s such a pleasure to work with. He was good when I got him and I knew there was room for improvement. But I wondered, ‘How good can he really be? Will he listen?’ Because a lot of guys get to the level Manny was at eight years ago and think they know everything. But Manny works hard. He listens. He keeps getting better and better. I know I have something to do with it. But really, the credit belongs to Manny.”

Freddie smiled. “You know; you work on something in the gym again and again, and you hope you see some of it on fight night. And tonight…” Roach shook his head in wonder. “Whenever Manny fights now, you see the things you worked on the gym being executed perfectly, right in front of you.”

In the far corner of the room, several members of Team Pacquiao had rewritten the lyrics to London Bridge is Falling Down and were singing:

Ricky Hatton’s falling down
Falling down
Falling down
Ricky Hatton’s falling down
We love Manny

Pacquiao thrust his left hand into the air again and once again proclaimed, “BOOM! Good-bye.” Then he began singing to the tune of Winter Wonderland (known in boxing circles as Walking in a Hatton Wonderland):

There’s no more Ricky Hatton
No more
Ricky Hatton

A reporter from a Filipino radio station reached toward him with a tape recorder in hand. “No tape; please,” Manny told him. “Ricky Hatton is a good fighter and my friend. I only want to show respect to him.”

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