Manny Pacquiao and the Fight of His Life
Every day, the people come streaming into Manny Pacquiao’s camp, angling their cars into the narrow parking spaces behind a pink-stucco strip mall near the corner of Vine Street and Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, pounding with heavy fists on the metal door labeled with a sign that implores them not to knock.
There is the inner circle, there is the outer circle and there are the ever-widening concentric circles of hangers-on who drift about the periphery like a distant star hovering around the sun. There are the members of the Filipino media who show up every day, and there are the members of the American media who show up in fits and starts (today Rolling Stone, tomorrow The New York Times), and there are the HBO executives, and there is the promoter and there is the camera crew the promoter hired to document everything. There is the security detail and there are the pressmen and the managers and the canines and the trainers and the celebrities, because it would not be a Pacquiao camp without the celebrities.
One day, it was Chappelle; on another day, it was Robert Duvall; sometimes, it’s Mark Wahlberg, and a day or two from now, it will be a fellow Christian soldier named Tebow. On this particular afternoon, a sedan lurches forward into one of the spots and discharges a gadfly of a fight promoter named Bob Arum, who casually introduces his driver as Bill Friedkin, the man who directed the most iconic celluloid car chase of the 20th century.
This is how it goes in Manny’s little corner of Hollywood. This is pretty much how it has always been since he graduated from an unknown Filipino commodity who would strum Beatles songs on his guitar at a now-demolished roach motel next door called the Vagabond Inn, and became a celebrity himself by sheer virtue of his punching power. All this chaos is actually calming to the man at the center of it, even on the verge of the May 2 fight against Floyd Mayweather (live on pay-per-view beginning at 9 p.m. ET) that will define the tenor of his career, that will determine whether he is viewed as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of his era or something slightly less than that.
In the meantime, the attention soothes him. Sometimes, surrounded by the considerable entourage that’s huddled around him for years, he plays darts until late in the evening. “I love people around me,” he says. “That’s what I want.”
And so inside the gym, there is that film crew from Arum’s company, Top Rank, who are here every single day, and there is Manny’s yelping Jack Russell terrier, Pac-Man, and there is Manny’s brother and his equally famous trainer, the gregarious Freddie Roach, who opened the gym 20 years ago (upon the urging of Mickey Rourke) and rode Manny’s success to his own HBO series. Outside the gym, there are people hanging around in the front parking lot, standing in the afternoon sun like they do every day, clinging to baby carriages and boxing gloves for him to sign, seeking a glimpse of the fighter while being shooed back by the security guards who man the gates. At 6 or 7 in the morning, when Manny does his roadwork up near Griffith Observatory, some 200 people often follow him, trailing him on his route, clamoring for his attention. And even on the verge of the one match that will define his entire career, this is the way Manny Pacquiao prefers it.
Back home in the Philippines, Pacquiao is also a politician, as well as a hilariously amateurish pop singer and equally amateurish basketball player; back home, he is awe-inspiringly famous, the most famous and arguably most powerful man in his country since a dictator named Marcos ceded power (recently an American player was kicked out of a Filipino basketball league for criticizing Pacquiao’s skills). And so he has become accustomed to being surrounded by countrymen he barely knows, or that he’s never met. A few years ago, someone at his camp tells me, Pacquiao attended a “family reunion” with several thousand people; when this person asked Pacquiao how many of those people were actually related to him, he said, “Maybe 12 or so.”
Pacquiao has been here for a few weeks by the time I show up; he will stay here for a few more weeks afterward, preparing for this bout with Mayweather, his bombastic longtime foil. It’s a fight years in the making, a fight that people who follow boxing have been awaiting for so long that both boxers are admittedly past their prime (a fact even Roach admits when I press him on it). Even so, it’s a fight that will set records for pay-per-view revenue, a fight freighted with enough importance that Roach has chosen to draw the curtain at least a little bit, shuffling the media out during sparring sessions so they can work on new and supposedly unprecedented techniques.
In a way, Roach says, this is the most dedicated he’s ever seen Pacquiao to winning a fight. Normally, Pacquiao doesn’t like to watch film of his previous fights, but he’s done so here; normally, Pacquiao – who became a born-again Christian a couple of years ago after issues with prodigious gambling and womanizing nearly euthanized his marriage – won’t admit to openly disliking anyone, but it’s clear he has a personal distaste for Mayweather.
“I feel we have to win this fight,” Roach says. “This is a must-win situation. We don’t want to be second best. Second best no one remembers.”
There is a sense of chaos that attends the very idea of Pacquiao-Mayweather, because it took so long to get here in the first place. If ever there is an exemplar of boxing’s inherent organizational disarray, its lack of a central governing body, its insistence on sabotaging its own attempts to work its way back into mainstream American culture, it’s all there in the saga of Pacquiao and Mayweather. For years, Arum says, he tried to make this fight happen, and for years he says that it proved one of the more frustrating undertakings of an epic career in the sport that dates back to the heyday of Muhammad Ali. Without this fight, Arum admits, even his own legacy would have been tarnished. Without this fight, he says, his obituary would have read, at least in part, He didn’t make Mayweather-Pacquiao happen.
Early in his career, Arum – who turned 83 in December – promoted Mayweather, too; Arum says he broke loose because Mayweather wanted him to make inroads among the young African-American community, a younger crowd that Arum was just too old to comprehend. (“I didn’t understand this hip-hop shit,” he says. “I couldn’t get it, didn’t know how to do it.”) And so they parted ways, and Floyd became Floyd, a reckless public figure who exudes an almost comical arrogance and reportedly wagers eight-digit sums on football games.
“He’s a pretty nice kid deep down, but he’s created this whole persona about him,” Arum says of Mayweather. “He’s playing a character, but he’s at ease with the character. There’s something about his character that’s him, but that’s not him completely.”
Even now, Mayweather’s people – “There’s one guy who specializes in being obnoxious,” Arum says – are proving perplexing to Pacquiao’s camp; on the day I’m in town, a Pacquiao source shows me a series of emails from Mayweather’s lawyers about a $5 million fine if either boxer fails a drug test (this, after Mayweather’s people backed out of a first potential matchup when Pacquiao couldn’t agree on a drug-testing clause). But in a way, the delays may have actually been good for Pacquiao; the past five years have seen him take a path toward sobriety and Christianity, and have drawn enough of a contrast with Mayweather to the point that Roach has begun to use this as motivation.
Roach admits that his concern when Pacquiao got clean was that he might lose the edge a fighter needs, that wild emotion required to finish off an opponent (Roach, who’s dealing with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, hasn’t reformed himself quite as much: He’s agreed to put five dollars in a swear jar every time he curses in Manny’s presence. On the day I arrived, his total jumped up to $85). But with Mayweather, Roach can work Manny’s natural antipathy: He’s a bad guy, he’ll whisper into Pacquiao’s ear sometimes. He’s bad for boxing. You’ll be doing a courtesy to the world if you knock him out.
“He knows he’s a bad person,” Roach says.
(“Usually I don’t comment on his personal life,” Pacquiao says, when I ask him if he likes Mayweather.)
These are how the days unfold, then, for Pacquiao, on the verge of the fight that will shape his legacy. He does his roadwork, he takes a long nap (Roach usually lets him sleep in), he trains in the gym and then he walks across the parking lot, past the Alcoholics Anonymous storefront, to a Thai restaurant called Nat’s. Every afternoon, Pacquiao and his entourage take over the restaurant while people gawk through the windows and take photos. Pacquiao springs for lunch for the entire crowd at Nat’s, and on this day, he cooks the chicken fried rice himself, the cameras following him through the kitchen. When it’s done, he insists that I eat a full plate of it in his presence. (For years, Pacquiao’s training regiment has essentially kept Nat’s afloat.) This is about as animated as he gets at Nat’s, as fatigue sets in: He spends much of the time at the table staring at a television screen set up across the restaurant that cycles through photos of him and his family and his entourage.
“It’s going to be a historic fight,” he tells me. “Fight of the Century. People will remember this fight. I will not forget this fight.”
There is a peculiar blend of savvy and naivete to the way Pacquiao interacts with the world. For someone so radically famous among his people, he still possesses a wide-eyed sincerity that affords even his low-grade karaoke singing an aura of crude authenticity. It would be impossible for him not to recognize the scope of his own fame in his home country, but it’s also clear that he craves the attention, relishes it. When he retires, I imagine, he will maintain this fame through politics, or through music, or through acting or one of his other interests; when I ask Roach if the perfect scenario would be for Pacquiao to knock out Mayweather and then call it quits, he says, “I would like that.”
It probably won’t happen, because that’s not the way boxing works. Now that there’s a match, there will likely be a rematch, and perhaps a rematch of the rematch. It’s possible that Pacquiao won’t want to quit, that he’ll want to keep coming back here, to this gym in Hollywood where the people know him, even if he doesn’t always know them. After lunch, after the Thai restaurant clears out, Pacquiao stands against the ropes that cordon off his black Mercedes, and he hands some money to a homeless person in a trench coat, and he poses for photos and signs autographs and then he drives away, to his house in the hills, where there will be more people to keep him company late into the evening, until he finally drifts off to sleep.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb