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.