In a corner of the Wild Card boxing gym, a small, compact man with a tiny waist, powerful arms and muscular calves genuflects in prayer at the edge of the sparring ring, his head resting on the buttress.
A white bandanna is wrapped loosely around his head, his chin is tucked into his chest, and his hands are pressed together tightly in worship. This is Manny Pacquiao, devout Catholic, Filipino idol, street urchin turned benefactor and, at 5ft 6in in his socks, the best pound-for-pound boxer on the planet. Finally, he looks up, bright-eyed, and smiles. He utters a few words in his native Tagalog, and his entourage of 30 Filipinos collapses in laughter.
The Wild Card, located between Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards, a few blocks from the centre of Hollywood, is a dream factory for fighters. It is an institution of sweat, spit and sawdust, where some of the world's best boxers pound the bags alongside former lags, aspiring fighters and even Hollywood A-listers such as Mickey Rourke and Mark Wahlberg.
Each afternoon, the gym is cleared for Pacquiao so that he may train in peace. For the past six weeks, the Wild Card has resounded to the beat of a drum, and the rattle of a speedball at the end of Pacquiao's blurred fists.
On Saturday, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Pacquiao (48 wins in 53 professional fights) will learn whether his training has paid off when he steps into the ring with Manchester's Ricky Hatton (45 wins in 46 professional fights) for the latter's IBO and Ring Magazine Light Welterweight world titles.
The contest, pitting the two most popular fighters in the world against each other, is expected to gross an estimated £40 million. Pacquiao is guaranteed at least £10 million for his night's work, which could rise to £15 million with his share of pay-per-view TV takings, making it his largest payday. It could also be his last.
It is a month before the fight, a Saturday, and the trainer Freddie Roach gestures outside the Wild Card. 'Look,' he says. In the quadrangle below, more than 500 Filipinos have gathered in an orderly queue around the gym's perimeter fence and car-park to shake hands, ask for an autograph, or simply touch the arm of the man who has had the official titles 'National Treasure' and 'National Fist' bestowed upon him by the government of the Philippines.
Roach, who runs the Wild Card, is widely considered the world's leading boxing trainer, and has overseen the careers of 23 world champions, including Mike Tyson and Bernard Hopkins.
A former lightweight fighter himself, Roach, 49, has Parkinson's disease, which leaves him with the shakes and a slight limp, though he says the symptoms disappear when he goes to work on the pads with his charges. 'We have been together eight years now and Pacquiao is like no other fighter I've ever known,' he says. 'What sets him apart from all the others is his work ethic. He's just relentless.'
In 14 years as a professional, Pacquiao has won world titles in four weight divisions – from 7st 8lb to 9st 9lb, at flyweight, super bantamweight, super featherweight and lightweight. In his last contest, in December, in what many felt would be a step too far, he dismantled America's most popular boxer, Oscar De La Hoya, at the 10st 7lb limit, in eight one-sided rounds.
Pacquiao is currently rated by The Ring, the sport's most respected trade magazine, as the best boxer in the world. His career earnings stand at an estimated £30 million. (Major paydays have come late in his career, in the past three years.)
Boxing promoters are by nature artists of smokescreen and hype, but it is still surprising to hear Bob Arum, the veteran Las Vegas-based promoter who oversaw Muhammad Ali's career in the 1960s, comparing Pacquaio with such a singular fighter
as Ali. 'Muhammad was larger than life, and loved by people, but I have never had a fighter who has so captivated one people as Manny,' Arum says. 'Everywhere I go, I am approached by Filipinos.'
Such is Pacquiao's standing in his home country that it is written into Philippine law that the army will go to Pacquiao's aid if his family is in danger. He carried the flag for the Philippines at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, and is the first Filipino boxer to have his image appear on a stamp. In a Time magazine online poll to find the 100 most influential people of 2009, Pacquiao has so far garnered more than 20 million votes.
Emmanuel 'Manny' Dapidran Pacquiao was born in December 1978 in the small town of Kibawe in Mindanao, the second largest of the Philippines' 7,107 islands. His early life was one of true poverty. The family lived in a shanty town, sleeping on cardboard boxes. His father, Rosalio Pacquiao, was a farmhand; his mother, Dionisia Dapigaran, did an assortment of odd jobs, and raised her children to believe in God. She hoped that Manny might one day become a priest. Manny often missed school to work in a laundry and do menial jobs to help make ends meet.
In 1990, when he was 12, two events changed Pacquiao's life. First, on television, he witnessed James 'Buster' Douglas defeat the seemingly invincible Mike Tyson in Tokyo – Pacquiao's first encounter with boxing, which led him to dream of a career in the ring. He would do odd jobs at the local gym and made his own punchbag out of a cardboard box stuffed with old clothes.
Second, and more significantly, he ran away from his family. He had found a stray dog, and brought it home. His father, who had been drinking, was enraged and, to punish the boy, cooked and ate the animal. Horrified, Pacquiao packed his bags and left for good. He slept rough, eking out a living selling iced water and doughnuts, each for a penny profit, until he stowed away in a boat bound for Manila 500 miles away.
After a time living on the streets, then finding a job as a gardener and construction worker, Pacquiao met Ben Delgado, who ran the L & M Gym in Sampaloc. 'Manny approached me and asked me if I would train him,' Delgado tells me as we sit in Nat's Thai Food restaurant in the quadrangle below the Wild Card. 'It was a rough area of Manila, but it was a good gym.' While several promoters told Pacquiao he was too small to be a boxer, Delgado spotted a raw yet rare talent in the young man, and agreed to work with him.
Pacquiao had no money, so Delgado let him live in the gym for the next two years, sleeping beside the workout areas in a small room. 'Sometimes we used to put plywood boards on the canvas and slept in the ring,' Delgado says. 'In the mornings we went jogging, the rest of the day we just trained. He always had a big heart, in and out of the ring, and always, even then, wanted to be champion of the world.'
Under Delgado's guidance, Pacquiao turned professional at 17, and became a rising star on a televised weekly boxing show in the Philippines called Blow by Blow. At the time, he was earning about $2 per fight, which he sent home to his mother. His progress was rapid, his reputation grew, and before long the world flyweight title was on his radar. He won the World Boxing Council flyweight belt in Thailand, against Chatchai Sasakul, in December 1998, at the age of 19.
His major career break came in 2001 when, still under Delgado's tuition, Pacquiao fought at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas, his first fight in America. He had been called up as a late replacement against the International Boxing Federation super bantamweight champion Lehlohonolo 'Hands of Stone' Ledwaba. Pacquiao, still a raw brawler at this point, and an outsider for the title, stopped the South African Ledwaba in the sixth round.
He was quickly spotted by Freddie Roach, who has plotted his fighting strategy ever since. Roach remodelled Pacquiao's style to make use of his blistering hand speed, while developing a mental toughness through a rigorous sparring and fitness regimen. 'Pacquiao, physically, became a fighting machine,' Roach says. Fearless, he stands toe-to-toe with his opponents, is almost impossibly light on his feet, and seems to answer every punch taken with three of his own.
Since 2001 only four of Pacquiao's 18 fights have taken place in his native country, with half of them in Vegas, the world's fight capital. To his compatriots, he has become the Philippines' most famous and successful export, and a symbol of triumph over adversity. Fourteen years after Pacquiao turned professional, Delgado, now 72, still attends every fight, and is a permanent fixture within Pacquiao's Los Angeles entourage. The boxer calls him his 'lucky charm'.
Pacquiao joins us in the restaurant. He has just completed 16 rounds of sparring against four different fighters, 12 rounds on the pads with Roach, and an hour's run in the Hollywood Hills, with only his Jack Russell – with whom he shares the nickname 'Pacman' – able to keep the cardio-sapping pace. After training, he had spent two hours signing autographs for all the people gathered at the gym.
'I have to give people time to take a picture, and sign autographs. I have to be generous to people. It is in my heart. Without that, I would not be Manny Pacquiao,' he says, ordering boiled eggs and salad. 'I believe that being famous means one of your responsibilities is to give.'
For a man so revered, he is deeply humble. He has charisma, yet engages only in spurts, before withdrawing deep inside himself. 'I'm just a regular person who believes life is simple, and I like a simple life,' he says. 'I have a lot of friends around me. I'm happy with that. Of course, in the ring, you have to be a warrior, but outside the ring, people know I'm friendly. Ricky Hatton and I will be friends after the fight, whatever happens.'
When not training in California, Pacquiao lives in a presidential-style mansion in General Santos City, Mindanao, with his wife, Jinkee, and their four children. The compound is manned 24/7 by armed security guards (there have been threats made against his children in the past). He is building homes for his siblings, his mother and his father, with whom he was reconciled publicly in 2006.
'If people don't have money, or have problems, they come to him,' Delgado says. 'And he helps them. Everyone loves him in the Philippines, from low profile to the high people.'
'Whenever he is in the Philippines,' Lee Samuels, the publicist for Bob Arum's Top Rank Inc promotion company, explains, 'people line up at his house for charitable gifts every day. They are mostly children, but also people who fall behind on their mortgage payments, people who have fallen on hard times.'
Pacquiao finds it difficult to refuse them. He is currently funding 250 children through school in his neighbourhood, through a foundation set up several years ago. Some are orphans, others have parents who have requested his help. Since his last fight in December, he has organised the export from the United States of 350 American-built hospital beds destined for wards around the General Santos region, a fire engine and an ambulance, and is overseeing the rebuilding of the L & M Gym in Manila into an apartment complex, incorporating a boxing gym in the basement.
At his American apartment, in a gated compound in Los Angeles, I asked him how he felt about the widespread poverty in the Philippines. He fixed me with a steely look. 'Poverty does not make me angry,' he said. 'But it makes me feel bad inside, and I want to help. I want the people of the Philippines to be happy, even if they have nothing. Even if they can just have enough to eat food three times a day. I feel so bad because God gave us everything to live in this world, so why don't we share with other people?'
Some of Pacquiao's most ardent supporters claim him as a latter-day saint, a new-age leader of the Maharlikan people who were conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century.
'Pacquiao is not just an inspiration for people, but has been a saving grace for the Philippines government on more than one occasion,' says Granville Ampong, a highly respected Filipino journalist based in Los Angeles, who writes for several newspaper titles in the Philippines. 'The Philippines is in a state of political chaos, of economic meltdown. There are many controversies around the current administration, and he has saved them from attack from revolutionaries.'
On the island of Pacquiao's birth, Mindanao, rebels have been fighting for a separate Islamic state within the mainly Catholic country for decades; the conflict is said to have claimed more than 120,000 lives. In spite of a ceasefire in 2003 and regular peace talks, violence continues.
'The masses could have overthrown the government but each time Manny fights, he calms the situation,' Ampong says. 'When he enters the ring, a truce is declared between guerrillas and the national army, and the crime rate all over the Philippines drops to zero. It's an amazing phenomenon.'
It is widely accepted that, despite his lack of a formal education, Pacquiao's destiny lies in Philippine politics. There is strong speculation that he will retire from the ring later this year, in time to prepare for the general elections in 2010. Last September he was sworn in as a member of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's Free Filipino party. 'I'm convinced,' Arum says, 'that one day he will be president of the Philippines.'
When Pacquiao defeated De La Hoya in December, he dedicated his victory 'to President Arroyo, to the whole Philippines, and to the Filipino people all over the world.' In the press conference, Pacquiao was flanked by two leading politicians, governor Luis 'Chavit' Singson and the energy secretary Lito Atienza. At the post-fight party, more politicians were spotted among his fans. Mayors of seven Manila suburbs have enjoyed ringside seats at his recent fights, along with the husband of President Arroyo.
In late February a press tour was held in Manchester and London to promote Pacquiao's contest with Hatton. The Philippine ambassador attended the news conferences in both cities. 'They have to be there,' Arum explains. 'Not because of Manny's career, but because of theirs.'
Though it once boasted one of south-east Asia's best-performing economies, the Philippines is now saddled with a large national debt, and tens of millions of people live in poverty. A third of the population live on less than a dollar a day. The economy is heavily dependent on the billions of dollars sent home each year by the huge Filipino overseas workforce, but the world recession is driving the country towards economic collapse.
The Philippines also possesses the highest birth rate in Asia, with forecasters predicting the population of 90 million (it is the world's 12th most populous country) could double within three decades, pushing the fragile economy past breaking point.
It is also the world's biggest rice importer, and has seen prices soar in recent years. The Philippines needs, if not a miracle, then an individual who embodies unity and hope for the future.
'It is too premature to judge the future of Manny Pacquiao in political terms,' Ampong says. 'The realm of Philippine politics is a tricky one. There is a huge gap between rich and poor, and trying to bridge the gap is an idealistic wish. I'm not suspicious of his motives, but what about the numbskull politicians following him? What are their motives? I think Philippine politics is going
to be very difficult for him.'
Pacquiao, unaccustomed to defeat, has already discovered that winning at the ballot box is not as straightforward as winning in the ring. In February 2007 he announced he was running for congress under President Arroyo's party, to widespread dismay from both his fans and the general public. Arroyo had become president in 2004 in controversial circumstances, following vote-rigging allegations. These have contributed to the unrest in Mindanao where, in a 2008 survey, 58 per cent of citizens said they felt Arroyo had cheated in the election.
On May 17 2007 Pacquiao was defeated in the congressional elections by Darlene Antonino-Custodio, running for the Nationalist People's Coalition, who received 139,061 votes to Pacquiao's 75,908. Pacquiao had funded his campaign with his own money, though it has been claimed that much of the funds were siphoned off by his own supporters. Political naivety, and his support for a controversial president, appear to have cost him victory on this occasion. Pacquiao's boxing fans rejoiced after the election defeat, and he returned to the ring. But not, it seems, for much longer. It remains to be seen whether he can hold on to his phenomenal popularity once he hangs up his gloves.
'Manny needs to distance himself from Arroyo if he intends to maintain his popularity in the Philippines,' Ampong says. Indeed, it is possible that the backlash has already begun. Pacquiao has recently had run-ins with the Philippine media, a situation that was unthinkable a few years ago. The Manila Bulletin reported in the summer of 2007 that he had a gambling problem, though the reporter later apologised personally to Pacquiao, who withdrew a libel action against the newspaper.
Once he is ensconced in politics, more people may emerge who are determined to bring him down. And unlike Hatton and De La Hoya, they may fight dirty. 'I spent a month in the Philippines in 2007 trying to dissuade Manny from running for congress but to no avail,' Mike Koncz, a close friend of Pacquiao and one of his long-term advisers, says. 'It is just his burning desire and strong belief that he can make a difference in Philippine politics. Do I agree? No, because one man cannot change the system over there, but that's his belief. He thinks he can change the system for the better and help people out of poverty that way. And when Manny feels like that, you can't change his mind. He's a fighter, and he always will be.'
It is Monday morning, three weeks before the fight. Back in the gym, Pacquiao is on familiar ground. The speedball is a blur on the far wall, and the fighter, totally focused and with his fists flashing, is framed by a huge poster of Muhammad Ali, open-mouthed, behind him. Training over, he stops for a chat. I ask if he is ever worried about losing. He pauses for a moment and then smiles. 'I have no fear in my life,' he says. 'I don't fear losing. Why feel fear in your heart when you believe in God?'
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