This feature originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of The Ring.
MANNY PACQUIAO WAS ALREADY A BOXING PHENOM WHEN HE ENTERED THE MOST DOMINATING AND GLORIOUS PERIOD OF HIS CAREER, AND HE EMERGED FROM IT AS A LEGEND
There was a time in the career of Manny Pacquiao when he could do no wrong — so popular in the Philippines that when he stepped into the ring, the army and rebel guerrillas called a truce. There was a time when Pac Man had set out his stall, far from boxing, to become a poverty-fighting politician. Boxing led him there.
There was a time when Pacquiao was considered by many to be the world’s best pound-for-pound boxer, who was being avoided by Floyd Mayweather. This was that time in Pacquiao’s pomp when he was humble yet destructive in a run of fights that saw him at his peak demolishing Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto in the space of 11 months from December 2008 to November 2009. It transformed Pac Man into one of the greatest fighters we have ever seen.
Let us just pause for a moment and consider how Pacquiao had reached that point: He had already gone 2-1 up in a trilogy with Erik Morales, was 2-0 over Marco Antonio Barrera, one victory and a draw against Juan Manuel Marquez, and prior to the triumph over De La Hoya had dropped and stopped David Diaz, who was 34-1-1 at the time.
For that matter, in the triumvirate of contests in question, De La Hoya was 39-5, Hatton 45-1 and Cotto 34-1 when they faced the Filipino with the flashing fists who held a nation in his hands.
At the time, Pacquiao also had the world at his feet. He was beloved at home, the darling of the media in the U.S., and he was training at the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood under Freddie Roach. The axis of his life was beautifully balanced. To his compatriots, he had become the Philippines’ most famous and successful export, its most renowned star, and a symbol of triumph over adversity. When he traveled home after victories, the Filipino who had grown up in a shanty town having run away to Manila as a teenager, boxing for $2, which he sent home to his mother, was treated as a returning king.
Moreover, here was a man who looked and acted as if he was never under pressure, who was the embodiment of living the American dream. Pacquiao had made the U.S. his own land of opportunity. De La Hoya, Hatton and Cotto were three opportunities that would put him on a pedestal in three countries entranced with boxing and earn him a treasure trove of rewards inside and outside the ring. These three fights saw the rise of Pacquiao to superstar status, not just for the victories, but for the manner in which he earned them.
The buildup to the De La Hoya fight was mean, moody and magnificent. From the outside, De La Hoya was at least two weight divisions above Pacquiao. He had defeated 19 incumbent or former titleholders and had won 10 titles of his own in six different weight classes. On paper, De La Hoya had huge height, reach and weight advantages. It was labeled “a circus.” It was seen as a mismatch, a step too far for Pac Man.
Even government officials in his homeland urged Pacquiao not to fight De La Hoya. One Filipino congressman, Rufus Rodriguez, asked the government to temporarily revoke Pacquiao’s license to stop him from entering into a dangerous assignment. “Manny is a national treasure,” said Rodriguez. “If something bad happens to him in that fight, the government and the Games and Amusement Board (GAB) would be blamed. GAB should stop the fight.”
But Pacquiao, who had started his career weighing 106 pounds but would face De La Hoya at 147 pounds, laughed it off. Contractually, “The Golden Boy,” then 35 years old, was going to have to come down to welterweight – a weight he had not fought at for almost eight years. And yet the news spin, which sent tremors through the political sphere in the Philippines, was that their guy was fighting a monster, that it would be David vs. Goliath.
When they hit the scales, De La Hoya weighed 145 pounds, Pacquiao 142 pounds. But Pacquiao’s fast, crab-like movements and pugnacity bewildered De La Hoya from the moment the first bell tolled, and De La Hoya got a shellacking. Pacquiao beat De La Hoya to the punch time and again in the early rounds, his footwork spectacular and his fists on fire, De La Hoya only momentarily showing a semblance of his old ways in the fifth round. In the sixth and seventh Pacquiao mercilessly pounded his foe, and after round eight, submission came as De La Hoya’s corner stopped the fight. Pacquiao had dismantled America’s most popular boxer, and he was now rated by The Ring Magazine as the world’s No. 1 boxer. The fight generated 1.25 million pay-per-view buys and $70 million in pay-per-view revenue.
It was the fourth time in boxing pay-per-view history that a non-heavyweight event had attained the one million buy mark. De La Hoya announced his retirement after this bout and declared his attention would only be on promoting.
We learned – once again – never to say never in boxing. Having clinically dismantled De La Hoya in those eight one-sided rounds in Las Vegas, Pacquiao immediately called out Ricky Hatton, who was working ringside as a commentator for Sky Box Office, as his next rival. “I can fight anytime, anywhere, no problem,” Pacquiao said.
Hatton obliged. A superfight at junior welterweight (140 pounds) was booked for the MGM Grand in 2009.
Pacquiao was now approaching his full glory. A month before the Pacquiao-Hatton fight, I visited Hatton in Las Vegas before circling back to Los Angeles to see Pac Man in camp. Hatton was somber and halfway through a long camp in Nevada. He talked up the fight and his sparring, but there was a lack of buzz around him.
Arriving in L.A., there was no greater contrast. There he was, in a corner of the Wild Card, that compact man with a tiny waist, powerful arms and muscular calves. He was in prayer at the edge of the sparring ring. Pacquiao, the devout Christian, the Filipino idol, the street urchin turned benefactor and, at 5-foot-6 in his socks, the best pound-for-pound boxer on the planet. An entourage of 30 Filipinos collapsed in laughter at his every utterance.
The Wild Card, located between Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards a few blocks from the center of Hollywood, was a dream factory for fighters and had become Pacquiao’s home away from home. For weeks, the Wild Card reverberated to the beat of a speedbag at the end of Pacquiao’s blurred fists. It was a month before the fight, and more than 500 Filipinos had gathered in an orderly queue around the gym’s perimeter fence and parking lot 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. Pacquiao and Roach had been together for eight years at that point. In the ring, even in training, there was a relentlessness and intensity that was simply mesmerizing. In 14 years as a professional, Pacquiao had won titles in five weight divisions – flyweight, junior featherweight, featherweight, junior lightweight and lightweight. Bob Arum, the veteran Las Vegas-based promoter who oversaw Muhammad Ali’s career in the 1960s and ’70s, dropped by. He compared Pacquiao to Ali for me. “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 explained. “Everywhere I go, I am approached by Filipinos.” Such was Pacquiao’s standing in his home country that it is written into Philippine law that the army would go to Pacquiao’s aid if his family is in danger. The previous year, he had carried the flag for The Philippines at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, and he 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 had so far garnered more than 20 million votes.
But in the gym, under Roach, there had been a remodeling of Pacquiao’s style that had come to fruition, making 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 explained.
Fearless, he stood toe-to-toe with his opponents, almost impossibly light on his feet, and seemed to answer every punch taken with three of his own.
Pacquiao joined a group of us at Nat’s Thai Food restaurant in the quad outside the gym. He had 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 his Jack Russell terrier, with whom he shared the nickname “Pac Man.” He then signed autographs for all the people gathered. It took two hours.
“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 said, ordering boiled eggs and a salad. “I believe that being famous means one of your responsibilities is to give. I’m just a regular person who believes life is simple, and I like a simple life. 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.”
Later, I was granted a visit to his L.A. apartment where there were around 40 people cooking, singing, chatting. They are his entourage, his family. Outside, there were armed guards on patrol.
When not training in California, Pacquiao would return to a presidential-style mansion in General Santos City, Mindanao, with his wife, Jinkee, and their children. The compound was manned 24/7 by armed security guards (there had been threats made against his children in the past). He was building homes for his siblings, his mother and his father, whom he reconciled with publicly in 2006. Outside his house, long queues would form – people down on their luck. Pacquiao found it difficult to refuse them. He was then funding 250 children through school in his neighborhood through a foundation set up several years earlier. Some were orphans, others had parents who requested his help. Since his last fight against De La Hoya in December, he had organized the import of 350 American-built hospital beds destined for wards around the General Santos region, a fire engine and an ambulance, and was overseeing the rebuilding of the LM Gym in Manila into an apartment complex incorporating a boxing gym in the basement.
At his American apartment, 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?”
The fight with Hatton was another destructive blur from the Filipino. There was no sign of the Hatton who had defeated Kostya Tszyu four years earlier, or even the Briton who had challenged Floyd Mayweather late in 2007: the bullish, raw, rugged fighter who relentlessly came at his opponent. Instead, Hatton was floored by the brutal, technical superiority of Pacquiao in two devastating rounds at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The defeated, deflated Hatton had been felled by a crunching left hook that left him prone on the canvas. The denouement was brutal and emphatic.
To the victor went the spoils, as witnessed by a sell-out crowd of 16,262 and millions on television. Pacquiao, $20 million richer, the Ring Magazine junior welterweight title now in his possession, enjoyed an hour of karaoke on stage at the Mandalay Bay Resort after his perfect plan came together. Three knockdowns, six minutes of work, one cut on his face from a Hatton elbow. Job done. There were the noises that Hatton had been in Las Vegas for too long, that trainer Floyd Mayweather Sr. had not been a good match for the Mancunian. But these explanations merely papered over the cracks. The reality was that Pacquiao was too fast, too accurate and too good. Hatton looked vulnerable and confused. And ultimately a broken figure.
Then there was Miguel Cotto. Again, it was the mesmerizing ring skills of Pacquiao that shone through in Las Vegas once more when he delivered another breathtaking performance to dismantle the WBO welterweight champion and become the first fighter to win world titles across seven weight divisions.
The game plan was clinically executed: Pacquiao first lured Cotto into attacking him, soaked up the pressure and counterpunched, and then started to dominate his opponent from the middle rounds onward. As with De La Hoya, some had claimed this would be the toughest test of Pacquiao’s career, and yet Cotto’s punches bounced off the Filipino fighter, who nullified his opponent’s power and appeared not to be hurt once during the contest. Cotto had been reduced to a slow fighter who could only dance and try to survive for the last few rounds, but Pacquiao’s slashing attacks saw referee Kenny Bayless step in to stop the damaged Puerto Rican from taking any more punishment 55 seconds into the final session. The Puerto Rican, in spite of rallying in the 10th round, had simply absorbed enough punishment.
Roach believed a superfight with Mayweather would cement the Filipino’s legacy. “The whole world wants to see him fight Mayweather, and I want Mayweather,” Roach said. The Filipino looked capable at this stage of stretching ‘Money’ further than any other fighter had dared. We expected months of wrangling before an early summer fight in Las Vegas in 2010. The world now had a right to know which of the two was the rightful pound-for-pound king. Sadly, the boxing world would wait more than four years for the fight to materialize.
But at this point, Pacquiao had risen to crossover stardom. It was a year in which Pacquiao was bathed in a golden light and had become one of the legends of boxing, comparable to any era.