LOS ANGELES — The Hollywood strip mall near Sunset and Vine contains a nail salon, a massage parlor, a Thai takeout joint, an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting place and, for several hours every afternoon, one of the best fighters on the planet.
Manny Pacquiao is training for what will surely be the biggest fight of his life, the most anticipated boxing match, in fact, the sport has seen in years. From an economic standpoint, it will surely break records for both viewers and dollars, and from a personal standpoint, it could go a long way to defining the legacies of both Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, the brash, undefeated American welterweight who will stand in the opposite corner Saturday, May 2, in Las Vegas.
Because of endless squabbling and inexplicable listlessness, the mega-fight is years in the making. At 36, Pacquiao is an international superstar who’s pocketed more than $330 million in his boxing career and is the most famous person ever to come from the Philippines, where he’s serving his second term in the country’s House of Representatives. He’s also among very few in the sport who thinks he’s actually better positioned to defeat Mayweather, 38, now than he was five years ago.
“Before, I’m always thinking [about] the fight, thinking over and over,” Pacquiao said during a recent training session. “Now I have peace of mind and relaxing because I know I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I can do all things through God.”
While boxing analysts would point out Pacquiao was a different fighter five years ago — younger and quicker with two fewer losses — those around the compact, mild-mannered pugilist note that he’s also a different man.
“Manny lived a funny lifestyle,” his longtime promoter Bob Arum says. “Even though he was very religious, he gambled, he drank, he ran around with women.” At some point not long after a career-defining win over Oscar De La Hoya in 2008, Pacquiao’s wife, Jinkee, began to tire of the fighter’s lifestyle — “threatened to leave,” according to Arum’s telling — “and suddenly, the next thing I knew, he was a born again. A very serious one.”
Today, “he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t gamble,” says his trainer, Freddie Roach. “I mean, he was real bad at all these things. He doesn’t chase girls. His family’s happy, his wife’s happy, he’s a good father.”
That’s when Roach pauses, because he knows that to gain all of that personal satisfaction, something was lost professionally. For a fighter, every win comes with sacrifice.
“The only thing we lost in boxing a little bit is the killer instinct,” Roach says. “He doesn’t have that like he once did, I feel.”
It’s true, Pacquiao had once scored a knockout 20 times in a 21-fight stretch, but his past eight wins have all gone 12 rounds. Pacquiao, who has a career record of 57-5-2 with 38 knockouts, hasn’t won a fight by knockout in more than five years, since a 12th-round technical knockout over Miguel Cotto in 2009.
“He feels no need to hurt people,” Roach says. “He says he doesn’t need to hurt them to beat them. That hurts a little bit to me.”
Pacquiao was wrapping his hands when his longtime trainer poked his head in.
“How do you feel?” Roach asked.
“I slept like eight or nine hours last night. I was so tired.”
Roach explained that an HBO crew wanted to meet him first thing in the morning to film the start of his day.
“They asked me if I eat breakfast. Yeah. They say what do you eat? I say toast and cereal and coffee. So they came to watch me make it. It’s f—— pouring milk on a bowl.”
Pacquiao’s eyes grew big, and he cocked his head slightly.
“Oh, five bucks,” noted Mike Koncz, Pacquiao’s top adviser.
“You remember?” Pacquiao asked the trainer, reminding him about their training camp agreement: $5 for every curse word. “How much?”
“Sixty. I’m down $60 now. Geez, three days.”
The two have a close relationship. Roach shies away from characterizing the exact dynamics at work, but this much is true: Roach helped mold Pacquiao into a champion in eight weight classes, one of the two best fighters of his generation — the other being Mayweather. In turn, the boxer helped make Roach a seven-time winner of the sport’s award for trainer of the year. Roach, a former fighter who had Parkinson’s disease diagnosed 25 years ago, likes to think of the two as close friends, but many around the camp say Roach is more of a father figure.
Two decades ago, Roach’s friends all warned him not to open a gym. It’d take too much time, they said, and bring in no money.
“I always said you never know when the next Mike Tyson is gonna walk through the doors,” he said. “And a couple months after I opened, Manny Pacquiao walks in.”
Roach didn’t know then who Pacquiao was; the 22-year-old Filipino held the WBC’s international super bantamweight belt but had yet to fight in the United States. Pacquiao had never heard of Roach, either, but their paths crossed at the right time. Pacquiao slipped on gloves and Roach put on his mitts and they started moving around the ring in perfect time. They danced together for one round, and after the buzzer, Roach walked to a cohort and said, “Wow, can this f—— kid punch?” Pacquiao was at the opposite corner, talking to his manager. “We have a new trainer,” he said.
Roach had never seen such a combination of speed and power. But there was something else Roach liked, too. When he asked to see some tape, the first fight Pacquiao shared was from several years earlier, a bout in which Pacquiao lost, falling to the mat from a body shot in the third round.
When Roach asked why Pacquiao would start with the low point of his career, the fighter, still learning English, explained, “It’s part of my life. It happened.”
“I thought, this guy knows losing is a part of life,” Roach said.
It wasn’t a big part of the next decade, though. Pacquiao and Roach took on the sport’s best, posting wins over Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Cotto and Shane Mosley, among others — basically everyone except Mayweather.
You never know who will be stopping by the gym. During his training camp for the Mayweather bout, Pacquiao’s visitors have included Sylvester Stallone, Mark Wahlberg, Dave Chappelle, Tim Tebow and Robert Duvall, among others.
“Tough to beat,” Duvall says of Mayweather. “It could be done, though, right? Maybe five years ago, it would’ve been easier.”
The irony here is that at least back home, Pacquiao’s celebrity is unmatched. He’s a full-time athlete and a full-time politician who has also dabbled in music, acting and professional basketball.
When Pacquiao fights, the bouts usually start midday back in the Philippines. Many of his fans there skip morning church services in anticipation.
“Generally, whenever he fights, the world stops in the Philippines,” said Nick Giongco, a reporter for the Manila Bulletin who has traveled the world keeping tabs on the popular fighter. “The crime rate goes down, there’s a cease-fire among rebels and government troops. It’s actually not formally announced, but it’s an understanding that whenever he fights, there’s going to be peace.”
As a politician, he’s still wildly popular with voters. He’s a member of the conservative United Nationalist Alliance and won his last election in 2013, running unopposed. There are some mounting criticisms, however. The legislature there is a year-round body, and few congressmen rack up as many absences as Pacquiao.
“But a lot of his allies are excusing him,” Giongco says. “They know what he’s doing for the country.”
Boxing has produced iconic figures before, but few like Pacquiao, few who step in the ring carrying the hopes of so many. The Philippines is a sprawling island nation in Southeast Asia with a population of more than 100 million and emigrants all over the world.
Says Arum, who’s also promoted Muhammad Ali, Julio Cesar Chavez and De La Hoya, among others: “Manny is unlike any other fighter that I’ve ever handled, any other fighter that we’ve ever seen in the sense that an entire country and an entire people are caught up into his fortunes. My housekeeper here is a Filipina. She’d work for me for nothing because Manny Pacquiao comes over to the house.”
Roach traveled to the Philippines a decade ago to help Pacquiao train for a fight in Manila. The gym was in Naval, not far from one of Pacquiao’s homes, and the fighter insisted Roach stay with Pacquiao, in a modest dwelling in which just one room was outfitted with a bed. The fighter told his American guest to take the bed each night. Pacquiao, a millionaire several times over, instead slept on the floor, alongside a half-dozen or so other members of his camp.
“I tried giving it back to him,” Roach said. “I argued with him: ‘The fighter needs it.’ He says, ‘No, I like the floor.’”
Pacquiao’s face can be spotted endorsing products all over the country, but he keeps a relatively low profile. Gone are the days he could go for a stroll or visit the public beaches. Even in the United States, he’s usually recognized. Seated in Roach’s Hollywood gym, he says, “I’m more comfortable here than there.”
As he racked up big wins in the ring, Pacquiao’s popularity began to span oceans and transcend sports.
In 2010, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was locked in a bitter reelection campaign. The state’s largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, endorsed Republican challenger Sharron Angle. Analysts said Reid’s seat was vulnerable, and many polls gave Angle a slight edge.
A week before the election, Reid called Arum and asked if Pacquiao would be available for a friendly favor. With Reid’s affinity for boxing and Pacquiao’s growing interest in politics, the two have for years picked each other’s brains. The fighter had no problem abandoning training camp less than two weeks before a fight to appear at political rallies for Reid in Las Vegas.
Reid says there are as many as 70,000 Filipinos in southern Nevada. He won the 2010 race by 40,000 votes, and exit polls suggested that three in four Asians voted for Reid.
“He was just so good because he was a personality and he loved politics. It was a great combination,” Reid said. “He was extremely helpful to me with the Filipino community, with the Hispanic community and with the African American community. They love boxing.”
Reid and Pacquiao remain in close contact, and the fighter has often called Reid for advice on how to handle situations back home. Pacquiao has also met twice with President Obama and with former president Bill Clinton.
To him, politics is an extension of his boxing career, another opportunity to enact change — “to be an inspiration,” he says.
“Even in my life, I even experienced [where] we don’t have food to eat one day; we just drink water to survive. We didn’t lose hope,” he says. “That’s what I’m trying to let them know. I want to inspire them for that. Just believe and have faith and keep going.”
Less than two weeks before his bout against Mayweather, Pacquiao took a break from training to meet with Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the chair of the Philippines’ peace panel who’s leading negotiations between the government and a rebel separatist group called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The fighter publicly endorsed a bill that aims to ease tensions back home before returning to the gym the next day.
Roach knows where Pacquiao’s career is headed, and it has nothing to do with championship belts or Hall of Fame inductions. Roach is among many who feel Pacquiao will someday be president of the Philippines.
“Only because he wants to help the people,” Roach says.
Pacquiao is near the end of his second term as a congressman. In 2016, he’s expected to run for a seat in the Philippine Senate, a more prestigious nationwide post. After completing a six-year term, in 2022 Pacquiao will have passed the nation’s age requirement — 40 — to run for president.
But Roach also wonders if Pacquiao is less enthused with politics than a few years ago, having spent too much time in meeting rooms and not enough in communities. “I think Manny may be a little bit bored, to be honest with you,” he says. “I don’t think it really sparks him, and he’s not excited about it like he used to be.”
Pacquiao talks about his future in vague terms, far removed from boxing rings or political arenas.
“After I stop my boxing career, the most important thing is I want to let them know that there is a God that can raise someone from nothing into something,” he says. “That’s my purpose now.”
Back in the gym, Roach explained to Pacquiao that the trainer’s mother has started asking about tickets. Entrance into the MGM Grand next Saturday will be among the most expensive, hard-to-find seats in sports.
“Well, when she wants eight, I gotta find them somewhere,” Roach says.
“How much are tickets?” Pacquiao asks. “Cheapest ones?”
“The cheapest one?!” Pacquiao asks, apparently not aware that on the secondary market, that seat in the nosebleeds is expected to fetch two or three times more. A single ringside seat could end up costing $100,000.
Nearly every one of boxing’s financial records is expected to fall next weekend. The two fighters could ultimately split $300 million. As many as 3 million homes are expected to fork over nearly $100 apiece to watch on television . There is a lot on the line.
While Roach says Pacquiao has entered the ring in recent years lacking a “killer instinct,” the veteran trainer noticed something in the weeks leading up to the Mayweather bout. “For some reason, I think this fight might be a little different,” he says.
Pacquiao is usually careful to not openly bad-mouth his outspoken opponent. But Roach notices the little things: his eagerness to train, his energy in sparring, his optimism and thirst to hear that opening bell.
“I don’t think he likes this guy,” Roach says. “This is the first guy in our career that I think he doesn’t like.”
After fighter and trainer danced around the ring, the celebrities left and the day’s training session finally wrapped, Pacquiao found himself doubled over in laughter. His 9-year-old yapping Jack Russell terrier, Pacman, darted around the gym, cornering friends and visitors, often at the fighter’s instruction.
“He only listens to me,” Pacquiao explains.
The others in the gym are mostly friends and family. Some were with Pacquiao before boxing, since childhood. Who’s closest? “The closest are those who follow Jesus,” he says.
It wasn’t always this way. Pacquiao says he’s in a better place than just a few years ago, the antithesis in many ways to the cocky foe he’ll face Saturday. Time may not be on his side, but he says everything that really matters is in his corner.
“The Lord my God gave me peace of mind,” he says, “and gave me confidence to handle my responsibility.”