Can Manny Pacquiao save boxing? Can he save his home country? Here’s how he’s trying to do both

The sun bangs down like lightning on General Santos City. Here on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, where the noonday heat hits 103 degrees, young men on motor scooters zip between rusted-out Fords and VWs, honking at graffiti-covered, fume-farting buses called jeepneys. A street vendor sells squid balls. A chicken eats a KFC wrapper. In GenSan City, men lucky enough to have jobs earn $3 a day while bare-chested boys beg tourists for pennies. “Penny penny!” A dollar sends them dancing away like shirtless millionaires.

Twenty years ago Manny Pacquiao was one of those boys. That was before he ever heard of Las Vegas, before he went to America to make $30 million in an hour, before Pacquiao (say “Pac-yow”) became one of the top athletes on earth, right up there with LeBron, Tiger and A-Rod.

Today, Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao gets mobbed when he walks the sun-scorched streets of his homeland. Politely mobbed, which is to say surrounded by hundreds, sometimes thousands of his fellow Filipinos, who wouldn’t dream of bumping or jostling their hero. Instead they make a path for him, reaching out to shake his hand or touch his sleeve. It’s like Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974, when crowds chanted “Ali bomaye”—“Ali, kill him”—except that the six-three Ali towered over the mob, while the five-seven, 145-pound Pacquiao, smallish even for a Filipino, blends in. All you see is a space in the middle of the crowd, like the eye of a typhoon, where they give him room. Watch: the sun pulling heat-mirage shimmers off the boiling blacktop, the little boxer moving Jesus-like through the multitude. Nobody chants or yells at him. The soundtrack is bouncy Philippine pop from car radios and open-air markets. Finally the champion reaches his destination: Starbucks. The place is far too small to hold the crowd, which politely disperses. A boy in a threadbare T-shirt runs to a friend, holding up one hand. He touched Pacquiao! The second boy reaches to touch his hand, to feel the magic.

Inside, Pacquiao removes his wraparound shades. The crowds don’t bother him. “I like them,” he tells me. “I am a man of the people.” And he likes this town, reeking of bus fumes and spit-roasted chicken, better than Vegas or New York. “This is where I learned to be brave and fight hard,” he says.

Brave and hard enough to win a record 10 world titles in eight weight classes. So dominant that he is arguably the most talented and most important boxer since Ali. His next fight is a November 12 welterweight title bout with Mexico’s Juan Manuel Marquez—a possible tune-up for a Pacquiao–Floyd ­Mayweather showdown in 2012.

Pacquiao’s long-awaited fight with his only worthy rival, the unbeaten Mayweather, could make boxing the world’s top sports story for the first time since Mike Tyson was busting heads and chewing ears. It would be the biggest fight since the Ali-Frazier “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975—if it ever happens. Which it may not, due to money, venue, drug testing and a dozen other reasons, all of which really boil down to one reason: ­Mayweather is afraid he might lose.

Mayweather worries that Pacquiao will ruin his perfect 41–0 record, if not his ribs and jaw. Why else would Floyd “Money” Mayweather turn down the biggest payday in sports history?

“I’m the best ever, and I fight only the best,” Mayweather told me. He was getting a facial at the time, talking big while a Vegas beautician thumbed his zits. He scooted sideways to make room for his fanny pack, which held $34,000 in ­$100 bills. (He also has a $50,000 diamond-encrusted platinum iPod.) The cash was Money Mayweather’s idea of pocket change—in case he saw a watch or gold chain he liked or felt like betting $10,000 on two or three NFL games. “Pacquiao’s a southpaw, unorthodox,” he went on. “He can punch, but I’m more precise. I’ll fight Pacquiao and I’ll beat him.”

That was two years ago, and Mayweather has been ducking his Manny-fist destiny ever since. Maybe he’s afraid he’ll lay an egg.

Life was always uphill for Manny Pacquiao. In 1990 he was a grade-school dropout begging in GenSan City and sleeping in a cardboard box. One night he brought home a stray dog. A couple of days later, no dog. His father had eaten it. Manny lived on table scraps and had his share of street scraps with bigger boys—the scrawny left-hander was never afraid to defend ­himself—but unlike many American fighters, he was never a thug. Manny Pacquiao never robbed or mugged anybody. A devout Catholic, he holed up in churches, praying for guidance. He wanted a mission in life.

“I wanted to do good things.”

The boy worked construction and fought “amateur” bouts for the occasional pocketful of pesos. In 1995 he turned pro. On the day of his debut the 16-year-old Pacquiao stood four-11 and weighed 98 pounds. To get up to the 105-pound minimum in boxing’s lowest weight class, the light-flyweight division, he hid seven pounds of steel ball bearings in his pants at the weigh-in. Of course he won the fight. The teen Pacquiao fought in wild flurries. A two-fisted dervish demolishing his foes, he saw himself as a new incarnation of his movie idol Bruce Lee. Except he was really one-fisted: Despite a 33–2 record in his first six years as a pro, his idea of a combination was left, left, left, left, right, left, left. Lucky for him, he found his way through a flea-bitten L.A. neighborhood to the Wild Card Boxing Club in 2001.

“He was raw. Great talent, great heart, but unfinished,” says trainer Freddie Roach, who runs Wild Card, a steamy Hollywood gym where the roof leaks, the toilet’s backed up and a banner reads the beatings will continue until morale improves. Roach, 51, is one of the sport’s top characters. Recalling a street fight in which he bit clean through a man’s eyeball, he calls it “kinda nasty.” Once, when the five-five Roach questioned Mayweather’s hand wrapping before a bout, Mayweather’s pal 50 Cent threatened to squash him. Roach shot back, “What the fuck do you know about boxing?” After training Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, current heavyweight king Wladimir Klitschko and 22 other world champions, he has no tolerance for attitude or hype, so it isn’t hype when he says he saw boxing’s future the day Pacquiao showed up. When they donned the mitts and traded a volley of practice blows, Roach thought, This guy can fucking punch. And what speed! Pacquiao, who’d never met a man who could wield the mitts fast enough to catch his punches, told his crew in Tagalog, “This guy’s my new trainer.”

After a draw with Mexico’s Juan Manuel Marquez, Pacquiao lost the super-featherweight title to another Mexican, Erik Morales, in 2005. By then, however, Roach’s coaching was turning the left, left, left dervish into a balanced boxer whose footwork in the pocket—the sweet spot within an arm’s length of your foe, where you can hurt him with either hand—created new angles for ­Pacquiao’s punches that whistled audibly through the air. (Friends call his crazy-quick footwork “the Riverdance.”) He avenged the 2005 loss by knocking Morales out twice during a stretch of victories over Mexican fighters that earned Pacman a new nickname: the Mexicutioner. Since the first Morales fight he is 14–0 with seven knockouts, including a left hook that dropped the U.K.’s Ricky “Hitman” Hatton like a sack of sand in 2009. Hatton went to the hospital in an ambulance; Pacquiao went out to karaoke.

He has won championship belts in weight classes ranging from flyweight (108 to 112 pounds) to super welterweight (147 to154). Nobody else in boxing history has approached his versatility, but then few men in any sort of history can match the sheer ambition of Manny Pacquiao, who launched a second career in 2007. That was the year the grade-school dropout, still seeking a higher purpose, ran for a seat in the Philippine Congress.

Roach wanted him to fight in the ring, not throw his hat in it. “Now he calls Congress his real job,” says his trainer, who jokes that politics is the champ’s new girlfriend.

Pacquiao’s 2007 campaign drew crowds of thousands, who reached to touch him and chanted another of his nicknames, Pambansang Kamao—National Fist. Still, he lost to the incumbent, an entrenched politician who is said to have bought the election for the going rate: a bag of rice or 100 Philippine pesos (about $2) per vote.

Last year the champ ran again. At one rally he treated his followers to dinner: 20,000 hamburgers. At another he fed the multitude chicken, rice and his ­personal-label Pacman Water. “I am smarter now,” he said. “Ready to win.” Smart enough to count on Luis “Chavit” Singson as a political advisor. Singson, 70, is no ­buttoned-down American-style politico. The globe-trotting one-time governor of Ilocos Sur province and a national security advisor to former president ­Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo sports ostrich-skin boots, a leather jacket and aviator shades as he boards his $8.5 million private jet, his jet-black Elvis pompadour barely budging in the wind. Like many Philippine power brokers, Singson has been linked to bribery, beatings and vice rackets, with whispers of worse. His Manila mansion is guarded not by a watchdog but by a tiger that he feeds by hand. Singson’s watch-tiger scarfs more steak in a day than many Filipinos eat in a year. Still, the governor casts himself as ­Pacquiao’s kindly mentor, a right-hand man for the people’s champ. “I pressed him not to go into politics,” Singson says during takeoff from Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport. “ ‘Wait till you retire from boxing,’ I said. But Manny could not wait. He is the people’s hero.”

“What does he need to learn about politics?” I ask.

“The ropes! I mean, he spends his own money on constituents. I say, ‘Manny, there are agencies for that.’ But no, he follows his heart. One guy he gives money, another a car. Another poor guy, Manny took pity and bought him a house!”

With help from Singson and a war chest of nearly $7 million, Pacquiao won last year’s election in a landslide. Voting was relatively peaceful, nothing like the previous election day, when a partisan gunfight left 57 voters dead. On the day welterweight champion Pacquiao became Congressman Pacquiao, the first active pro athlete ever to win a national election, shootings and bombings killed no more than half a dozen Filipinos.

The two-fisted congressman went straight to work. He supported a bill to keep young girls from being bought and sold as sex slaves. He secured $4.55 million for a hospital in his home province. And in a bit of horse-trading any politician might admire, he stumped for Nevada senator Harry Reid, a former Golden Gloves boxer, during Reid’s 2010 reelection battle with a Tea Party Republican. Reid may owe his post as Senate majority leader to Pacquiao, whose support gave Reid a crucial edge with minority voters. In return, Reid is helping push the U.S. Congress to pass a trade bill that could create more than 100,000 jobs for fabric workers in the Philippines.

Why take time out of training to wage political battles? To Pacquiao, the answer is obvious. “I care about my people,” he says.

It’s such a cliché, delivered in the halting English-as-a-second-language that makes him the master of bland quotes. Pacquiao still thinks in Tagalog, a Philippine language perhaps better suited to the typhoons of emotion and, yes, spirituality of his homeland. He sees me roll my eyes as I write the line down, I care bla bla, and he looks pissed. He leans so close that I can see craters on the flaming-meteor tattoo on his left forearm, the arm that leads to his clenched fist. Then he touches the fist to his heart.

He says it again. “I care.”

In February he rode Amtrak from New York to Washington, D.C. His handlers hyped the trip as a political pilgrimage: Mr. Pacquiao goes to Washington. The idea was to promote his May 7 bout against Shane Mosley, but the champ was more interested in scoring political points in the power capital of the world. With his 24-7 camera crew in tow, three guys with boom mikes shadowing his every move, the champion led his entourage through the lobby of the U.S. Capitol, up marble stairs to the second floor and past busts of all-American crooks Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Soon he was posing for pictures with Reid, the 71-year-old majority leader. They squared off like fighters, fists clenched, both knowing Pacquiao could knock Reid’s block off the planet with a flick of his fist. They traded gifts: folded flags of the Philippines and the U.S. Then Reid shook hands with Pacquiao’s wife, Jinkee, a petite, curvy shopping champion wearing four-inch heels, a tight skirt and a diamond ring the size of a tooth. Next came the main event: Mr. Pacquiao meets Mr. President.

As Pacquiao led his crew to the White House, motorists leaned out of their windows to see the little guy and his camera crew. Bang—a four-car fender bender. Pacquiao, being Pacquiao, made sure the drivers were okay before he went on to meet Barack Obama.

He was nervous. Reaching up to clasp hands with the six-one Obama, Pacquiao thought, He’s so tall! He began burbling about NBA hoops. “Mr. President, I heard you like basketball. My team is Boston ­Celtics,” said Pacquiao, who’d climbed onto a stool for publicity photos with Kevin ­Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

“I like the Celtics too,” Obama said, handing over three shopping bags full of presidential M&Ms and a wristwatch emblazoned with the Presidential Seal.

“I hope you come see me fight Mosley in Las Vegas,” Pacquiao said.

“Can’t do it,” Obama said, “but I’ll watch it on TV.”

So would more than 1.3 million others. Despite going up against a Lady Gaga HBO special, Pacquiao vs. Mosley would be one of the top pay-per-view fights of all time. (One holdout was Mayweather, who tweeted his 1.2 million followers, “Everyone watch Lady Gaga tonight.”) Pacquiao’s latest tilt at the MGM Grand had Vegas buzzing with boxing fans, gamblers and celebs, including the newest member of the champ’s entourage, Paris Hilton. “Pacquiao kicked his A$$,” she tweeted after his $22 million victory over Miguel Cotto. The stakes were higher tonight, with the champion getting at least $30 million. “The fighting congressman,” ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. said, introducing “the pride of the Philippines, Mannn-ny ‘Pacman’ Pac…qui….owwww!” After LL Cool J lip-synched “Mama Said Knock You Out” and Jamie Foxx sang a very Vegas “America the Beautiful,” air-­punching “amber waves” and “fruited plain” like Tom Jones, the boxers tapped gloves in a customary show of prefight sportsmanship. The champion’s gloves had been sprinkled with holy water. That morning, per Pacquiao tradition, he had rented a Vegas ballroom and hosted a Mass for himself, family and hundreds of fans. A priest blessed his gloves, his trunks, even the protective cup he wore under his trunks.

Mosley’s gloves, unblessed, were black. Pacquiao wore canary-yellow gloves to symbolize, he said, “my hope to end poverty.”

Ringside fans thought the other guy looked yellow. “Mosley, throw a punch!” one yelled. Instead the challenger reached out to tap gloves with Pacquiao at the bell and again at the start of the next round and whenever the referee broke up a clinch. Mosley backpedaled. In the third, Pacquiao decked the challenger with a canary-quick left. His power shocked Mosley. So did his speed. Nothing Mosley had seen on tape prepared him for this alien coming at him so fucking fast from six angles at once. He spent the next few rounds backing up, covering up, trying not to get knocked out. A leg cramp slowed ­Pacquiao in the fourth, but ­Mosley made no move to punch him. Instead he tapped gloves again. Now the crowd was booing.

“Quitter!” somebody shouted. “You puss!” Which Paris might tweet “pu$$,” since Mosley would collect $5 million for his so-called effort. The JumboTron over the ring showed a giant Jinkee pressing her million-carat diamond to a plump upper lip, but boxing’s first lady had nothing to worry about. Her man, powered by eight weeks of nonstop training, was in command. Mosley reportedly wanted to quit during the 10th round. He said he had a blister on the bottom of his foot, presumably near the puddle that remained of his courage.

After the most one-sided decision in recent boxing history, the champ shrugged. “What am I going to do if my opponent doesn’t want to fight? It’s not my fault.” Then he, Jinkee and their Filipino crew went out to celebrate. Paris Hilton tweeted, “Pac-Man is an incredible fighter! Wow…Manny & his wife Jinkee. Love them :)” The neon city pounded with music, dance steps, laser light and Jäger shots while the bout’s few highlights ran over and over on a thousand monitors, ESPN pundits wondering why men like Shane Mosley and Floyd Mayweather kept avoiding Pacquiao inside the ring and out. After all, Mosley and Mayweather weren’t defenseless kittens. They’d collected a dozen world titles in eight weight classes. Both had held the unofficial title Pacquiao now owns: best pound-for-pound fighter alive. The unbeaten Mayweather might still be the best technical boxer of his time: best defense, best footwork, best counterpunch. Even after losing to Pacquiao and admitting he was awed by Pacquiao’s power, Mosley said Mayweather might be “technically better.”

So why would Money Mayweather spend two years ducking Pacquiao? Why not money up for the fight of the century?

Maybe because boxers have spies. They have flunkies, gofers, managers, agents and subagents, trainers and ex-trainers, masseurs and masseuses and old sparring partners, all sending gossip from the other guy’s camp. And what Mayweather has heard from Camp Pacquiao can only worry him, because the more you find out about the short stick of dynamite from GenSan City, the more superhuman he seems.

Running uphill with his Bruce Lee bangs bobbing up and down on his forehead, he doesn’t look so tough. At five-seven the champ is half an inch shorter than Lee was. That’s not so much taller than another deadly shrimp he resembles, Charles Manson, but despite his helter-skelter style in the ring, Pacquiao’s no killer. During the Margarito bout last year at Cowboys Stadium, he rained 474 blows on the taller, heavier Tijuana Tornado, punched a hole in Margarito’s cheek, smushed his nose into chili burger and broke the orbital bone over his eye. He might have done worse but held back because he had the fight won.

“Finish him off!” Roach yelled between rounds.

Pacquiao shook his head. “No,” he said. “Boxing isn’t killing each other. I beat him up enough.”

Today he’s in Baguio City, a cramped, bustling town of 300,000 in the misted green Cordillera mountains northwest of Manila. Baguio is a thousand twisting alleys under buzzing power lines and laundry lines hung with colorful shirts and skirts. To get here from the capital, you bump along in a jeepney on cratered hillside roads for six and a half hours—or join Pacquiao for a 28-minute zip in the governor’s private jet.

Pacquiao attends morning Mass, then jogs toward heaven to begin another 7,000-calorie training day. Every step of his 10-mile run is uphill, into the mountains. Still he’s sprinting at the end. Roach hired an Olympic marathoner to pace him, but the boxer often outruns the runner. After roadwork he relaxes—his resting heart rate is a tortoise-like 42 beats per minute—then works out and spars.

Team Pacquiao’s base in Baguio is the Cooyeesan Hotel Plaza, a multicolored hulk strewn with phone and TV wires. There’s a dark, drippy Blade Runner aspect to the place, a crumbling, once-palatial hotel that now serves largely as a dorm for Koreans who come here, of all places, to study English. You follow the dueling beats of Korean and Philippine music down long, dim halls rank with cooking smells to a gym, where the music gives way to the popcorn sounds of boxing gloves hitting punching bags. The champ’s workouts are local events, with stooped old men, schoolboys and schoolgirls clustered around the ring. Pacquiao’s punches are a blur; the sound of a left smacking one of Roach’s practice mitts makes a little girl jump. Roach wears a chest protector as thick as a gym mat. Still he winces at a couple of his fighter’s body shots. One punch knocks a mitt off his hand. Roach watches the mitt fly out of the ring, then blinks and turns his focus back to Pacquiao—and his visual field fills up with the champ’s fist. Pacquiao pulls the punch just short of the trainer’s nose. Then he grins. “Ha!”

His maniac workouts impress other champions. After Tyson watched one of Pacquiao’s sparring sessions, he told Roach, “Freddie, you should slow that guy down.”

“Mike, that was slow for him,” said Roach. The trainer has spiced up past sessions by offering sparring partners $100 for each time they hit Pacquiao hard, but Pacman is too quick, too strong, seemingly immune to fatigue. After sparring partner Shawn ­Porter caught him with a $100 punch, Pacquiao instantly knocked Porter off his feet.

Other boxers take 60-second breaks between sparring rounds, replicating the three-minutes-on, one-minute-off pace of a bout. Pacquiao often skips the breaks. He spars to the bell, takes a breath and resumes, often a dozen rounds or more at a stretch. In eight weeks of training he’ll spar more than 1,400 rounds. His workouts continue with sessions on the heavy bag and the speed bag and 10 to 15 minutes of high-speed rope skipping followed by weight lifting, countless crunches and, in one legendary instance, a demanding abs-building routine: letting a friend smack him in the stomach with a bamboo stick.

After one of six daily meals—chicken, rice, eggs, beans, beef broth and a protein shake—he’ll play full-court basketball for a couple of hours. Pacquiao calls himself a point guard but plays more like Ray Allen than Rajon Rondo—if Allen owned the team and shot like there was always 00:01 on the clock. His proudest moment was winning a game with a buzzer-beating three-pointer. Nobody had the heart to tell him that the other team let him shoot. An unwritten rule of Philippine hoops prohibits guarding the National Fist.

Or disturbing his sleep. The night-owl champ likes to nap between workouts, sometimes for two or three hours. He slips into bed in an apartment upstairs from the gym, a bodyguard shuts the door and everyone tiptoes around until Pacman wakes. Roach waits as patiently as the rest of them, sitting in a folding chair at the corner of the ring. The trainer avoids most of the pomp and voodoo surrounding his fighter. He’s been around enough champions to know how polluted the air around them can get as the money, the fawning flunkies and the tangy, willing women lead them down the garden path to hell. Roach watched Tyson’s posse grow into a small army of groupies and goons. “It got to where I wouldn’t even go in Mike’s house. The guys around him…” he says, shaking his head. “No thanks.” Tyson has mellowed since then—he hugs and kisses the homing pigeons he raises. (“They don’t have a mating season,” Tyson told Roach. “They’re like humans; they fuck all the time.”) Some say the new, nicer Iron Mike is chemically enhanced. “They finally got Mike’s meds right,” an insider says. But Roach thinks Tyson’s shrinking entourage was a factor, too. It’s hard to be human when everyone around you treats you like a god.

Roach checks his watch. Shakes his head. Watching a bodyguard approach the champ’s door, he whispers, “Shhh!” He knows he’s a supporting actor in a farce, one of a hundred-plus people waiting for a grown man to wake up from his nap.

So why not go wake him up?

Roach laughs. “You go wake him up,” he says. Roach is a four-time trainer of the year with 25 world champions to his credit, but Pacquiao is his meal ticket. They began as mentor and student, “but it’s more like equals now. Pacquiao’s smart, dedicated. He’s made himself so much ­better—a more complete fighter.” He knows it sounds corny, but watching his fighter grow into a world champion and potential world leader has been “kinda inspiring.” Sure, Pacquiao enjoyed his wealth, fame and comfort, but at least he brought another purpose to the ring.

“Aside from the bullshit around him, he’s centered,” Roach says. “The idea that he represents his people, that he’s on a ­mission…it’s not bullshit. That’s really him.”

At last Pacquiao pads out of his nap room. He shakes my hand and sits perfectly still for another of our talks, listening closely, answering questions in his usual sincere, boring fashion. Then he thanks me for my time. I’m thinking, champ makes modern sports history—thanks sportswriter.

About 3,500 calories later, his day ends. Manny and Jinkee head to bed a little after two a.m. To sleep. No sex—he and Roach have agreed there will be no sex for the next couple of weeks. Believing the old adage that sex saps strength, Pacquiao follows a strict no-Jinkee policy during training. “We’ve talked to doctors about it,” Roach says. “Sex lowers your testosterone, so you’re not as mean.” Most boxers abstain for a week or more before a bout. “I ask my guys for 10 days,” Roach says. Of course Pacquiao beats the others even when it comes to abstinence. He stays chaste for 21 days before a bout, husbanding his energies for postfight festivities. And with that policy, Roach says, “when a fighter wins, the couple is usually very happy that night.”

Unbeaten since 2005, Pacquiao plans to fight five or six more times. That would leave seven or eight years between his retirement from the ring and the campaign of his life. “Manny is going to be president of the Philippines,” says his legendary promoter, Bob Arum. Arum, 79, promoted the Ali-Frazier “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975, three years before Pacquiao was born. He compares Pacquiao’s charisma to Ali’s. “He wants to help his people like Mandela, like Gandhi, and his popularity gives him a platform. We may be seeing the first stage of a world leader’s life.”

Under Philippine law, presidents must be at least 40 years old. They serve six-year terms. Pacquiao will be 37 when the next presidential election comes in 2016, so he can’t run until 2022. By then his ­children—Emmanuel Jr., Michael, Princess and Queen Elizabeth—will be teenagers or older. Jinkee’s hands may be pinned to her sides by ever-heavier diamonds. Pacquiao’s goatee will be going gray, his tats fading, his legacy…what?

“I am a man of the people,” he tells me again. “I have to win all my fights, all the fights I have left, so I don’t disappoint them. Boxing, then politics.”

He already has his face on a Philippine postage stamp. When he’s not voting on bills in Manila, starring in martial-arts movies, schmoozing with Playmates from the Philippine edition of ­playboy (“We’re all jealous of Jinkee,” one says), introducing products like his MP8 cologne and healthy “Pacquiao Produce” veggies or training for his next bout, he hosts innumerable civic events, often jamming onstage with his MP Band. When he and Will Ferrell sang “Imagine” on Jimmy Kimmel Live (“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…no need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man”), it was a joke to Ferrell, but Pacquiao meant it.

In Baguio he hosted the first annual Congressman Manny Pacquiao Cup, a nationally televised basketball tournament in which Team Pacquiao and the MP Warriors were favored, mostly because he was playing for both teams. Opposing players whipped cell phones out of their uniform shorts to snap photos of Pacquiao. Lucky for him, Team Pacquiao and the MP Warriors were in opposite brackets. The tourney ended before he had to guard himself.

He lives in a GenSan City mansion with a pool, target-shooting range, grand piano, peach-painted walls and floor-to-ceiling photos of the fighting congressman. No watch-tiger but plenty of help to dust the chandeliers. He sharpens his mind with chess, his reflexes with darts and hoops. On jaunts through coconut groves and tumbledown one-TV villages in his home district, he rides in a bulletproof Hummer or one of several gleaming black Escalades, also bulletproof. His vehicles have no license plates. For longer trips he crisscrosses the 7,107 Philippine islands in Singson’s $8.5 million Dornier jet or a turboprop the governor uses as a backup. Tonight it’s the jet, knifing through fat cotton clouds to a runway hanging off a mountaintop.

“Manny is special, quick and strong like a tiger,” says Singson, who knows tigers. Hoping to breed a liger, Singson tried to mate his female watch-tiger with a lion. Unfortunately for the lion, the tigress resisted, and she outweighed him by about 100 pounds. “He tried and tried,” the governor says, “and then we found him dead.” An autopsy showed the lion had died of a heart attack. He was punching above his weight class.

Cocks are tougher. They die of battle wounds. Cockfighting is legal and popular in the Philippines, where the sport is televised six nights a week. Gamecocks with razor blades strapped to their claws fight to the death in dirt-floored cockpits while breeders and fans call out bets on the outcome.

A recent “Cock Derby” drew a crowd of 22,000. The cocks’ owners carried them into the loud, dusty arena in cardboard cages. They held them by the tails over a line in the dirt, shaking the birds to rev them up. Then, at a referee’s signal, they let go, and the birds exploded into fierce battle. Some of the hacked, bloodied losers that survived were killed by their owners. They would be soup that night. Of course some cocks, Mosley-like, won’t fight. Rather than flutter off with $5 million, those chickens get their necks snapped. Even champion gamecocks tend to be crippled, blind, spent at the age of two or three. For a fighting cock, a 4–0 record is a great career.

Pacquiao raises fighting cocks at a farm in his home province. A giant championship belt hangs over the gate at Pacman Farm, where muscled roosters with black and orange feathers spar—without the razors—under palms and mango trees. Manny likes to pad between the thatched huts in jeans, a polo shirt and his ever-present wraparound shades, inspecting the thousand-plus birds that bear his brand. Now and then he picks one up, gentle as a man lifting a newborn, and hugs it. He wants to feel the bird’s trip-hammer heart against his chest.

The best human fighter alive is starting to feel his own mortality. He has been boxing professionally for 15 years. If not for his sense of duty as the hero of 94 million Filipinos, he might be ready to slow down. Duty and some unfinished business with Floyd Mayweather.

They both know the heavyweight division is dead. Today’s MMA stars are more famous than the Klitschko brothers. Only one fight can make boxing matter again, but time is running out. Pacquiao is 32, Mayweather 34. Pacquiao has already fought more pro rounds than Sugar Ray Leonard totaled in his career, and ­Mayweather isn’t far behind. Still Mayweather ducks and weaves. He swore he’d fight Pacquiao if he would pee in a bottle and give blood in unprecedented Olympic-style drug testing. When ­Pacquiao balked at that, Mayweather accused him of being a steroids cheat. When Pacquiao agreed to the testing and a group of backers from Singapore offered a record $65 million purse for the fight of the century, more than doubling the best payday of his career, Mayweather said he’d meet to discuss the bout—but only if he got $10 million for the meeting.

In the end, the factors that make ­Pacquiao vs. Mayweather an irresistible match—their contrasting styles and personalities, their dominant records and the lack of worthy foes—mean less than nothing to Mayweather. A modern American solipsist, he thinks the universe revolves around him. While Manny Pacquiao builds hospitals, lobbies Congress and literally prays for his people, Money Mayweather complains that the judges conspired against him on Dancing With the Stars.

“What can I do?” Pacquiao asks. “If it happens, it will be a great fight. Maybe the greatest. If it never happens….”

Pacquiao sits on a couch outside his nap room in the Cooyeesan Hotel Plaza. His eyes are steady, dark and deep. When I ask if he’d like to pass a law to make ­Mayweather fight him, he looks puzzled. Irony’s not his thing. When I ask if Mayweather is chicken, Pacquiao draws a blank. Chicken meaning scared doesn’t translate. But it gets him musing about cockfighting.

“I like the sport,” he says. “I like the roosters. It’s like boxing—the rooster has to be in shape. He has to train for the fight, and he has to have so much fight in his heart.”

Pacquiao has fight in his heart. Does ­Mayweather have fight or feathers? The future of boxing, if it has one, hangs on the answer.