|Manny Pacquiao: “I think this is my toughest fight” - Boxing Interview
Interview by Gabriel Montoya (March 12, 2008) Photo © Laura De la Torre
If you’re driving down the famed Vine St. in Hollywood, CA looking for Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club and you blink, you just might miss it. It certainly helps to know where you’re going which on this particular Friday afternoon, I didn’t. Catching a glimpse of an address on my second pass, I park and head over to a parking lot full of shops next to a motel and begin making my way to the place where arguably the world’s best, certainly the most explosive, junior lightweight calls home. It is here I observed a world champion hone his craft while toning down his training, on his way to a showdown with Juan Manuel Marquez in a long awaited rematch set for this Saturday on HBO PPV live from the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, NV.
Tightly packaged in the body of an explosive knockout artist, Filipino junior lightweight phenom Manny Pacquiao isn’t just a fighter. He’s an industry. Actor, singer, political candidate, and Nike spokesman. And at the moment of my arrival, he is one more thing: late for the second to last day of training camp. It is an
unusual circumstance for a fighter so on point for this fight his team decided to have an impromptu public session this day. “We had a great training camp,” says a relaxed and confident Roach as we shoot the breeze and wait patiently for Manny’s arrival. “I’ve never seen him so focused. After you see his workout today, you’ll know why I am so happy.”
Pacquiao has been known to allow his superstar status out of the ring affect him in his preparation for being inside it. Finding balance for his fighter in the maelstrom of celebrity is a tightrope Roach has become accustomed to walking. His patience and belief that his fighter will do the right thing has seemingly paid off in what Roach feels is Pacquiao’s best and toughest camp yet. It helps that the young fighter is a tireless worker who loves every aspect of his job from prep to final bell. Getting Pacquiao out of the gym, not in it, is most often the problem.
“Four days ago, we did 20 rounds straight. No rest period. Three days ago, I got him down to 12. No rest. Straight thru. Then he’ll do…try to get him down to
8. We’ll negotiate on that one a little bit,” laughs Roach. “We go back and forth. We’ll probably go to 10. Starting to cut back the roadwork. Starting to cut back the rounds. We’ve been averaging around 35 to 37 rounds per day.” All told, Manny would spar 143 rounds in this camp.
Pacquiao also pushes himself with the cornerstone of all great fighters: running.
“Six days a week. Three days a week, on sparring days, we run flat for 35 minutes. Covering 4 1/2 to 5 miles. Non-sparring days are hills days. We go to Griffith Park. We run the mountain. It’s straight uphill for 48 to 52 minutes. His fastest time is 48. We start at the bottom of the hill to the Conservatory. From the Conservatory down a dirt road to the Hollywood sign. And then back.” In addition to the running, a couple thousand sit-ups bookend the day for good measure.
“The gamble is that I don’t want to leave the fight in the gym, you know? That’s why we are cutting back a little bit.”
I ask if Manny is the best athlete he has ever trained and he pauses.
“Athlete? Possibly. James Toney is a natural fighter. He’s not really good at other sports besides football. Manny can play just about anything. Manny is a pretty good athlete. I’d say him and Virgil Hill are the best athletes I have ever trained. Virgil used to run 25 miles a day sometimes. He ran 25 miles when he fought Bobby Czyz. You know what he asked me? “Can I run home?”
It’s a now a quarter past when Pac should be here and it’s become known that traffic has swallowed Manny up, so Roach and I dive into the Marquez rematch.
For those of you not keeping score, the first time Manny and Juan Manuel fought, Pacquiao knocked the crafty Nacho Beristain-trained fighter down 3 times in the first round mainly off devastating left hands and blinding speed. Marquez would get up and finish the fight, arguably winning it but earning a draw. He would survive that early onslaught by taking away Pac’s dangerous left hand for the majority of the fight. Marquez’ ability to do that prompted Roach to begin developing Pac into a more diverse fighter instead of a straight ahead, albeit very fast, slugger.
“I thought Manny came back a little at the end of the fight,” says Roach. “Marquez is a smart guy. You’re not going to beat him with one hand. That’s what motivated me to work on Manny’s right hand. Now Manny’s has two hands. He’s bigger, stronger. He’s a lot smarter. You gotta put pressure on [Marquez] but not like last time so much. Not reckless pressure. We got a little gameplan going. Of any fight out there style wise; it’s the toughest fight. But it’s the fight I wanted and talking with Manny it’s the fight he wanted. And that’s why he’s been here for eight weeks. He really wants this fight. He told me he’s not playing basketball, he’s not gambling. He’s dedicating himself to boxing this year. So far it’s been great. No distractions.”
Right on cue, Pacquiao arrives. Okay, it’s ten minutes later and we’ve broken down the Calzaghe/Hopkins fight by now but I got to get this moving.
“I’m late,” Pacquiao says simply.
“I know,” Roach replies in the same, easy going manner.
The room is wall to wall with pictures of Roach with various boxing luminaries, fight posters and photos. A Wild Card Boxing Club banner hangs above the ring with a slogan in quotations, “It Ain’t Easy.” A quote from legendary trainer Johnny Tocco reads, “You gotta have balls to conquer the world.” The biggest poster in the gym however is reserved for it’s biggest star, the very same who shadowboxes with effortless speed center ring surrounded by fighters of various levels. All eyes are trained on Manny who tunes it out with world-class focus. Music that dominated the room before he got here is turned off. The room watches in silence as the man prepares. Lightning fast combos are punctuated by the occasional joke to the bystanders as Pacquiao loosens up and works his right hand with jabs, hooks and uppercuts. 3 jabs. Right uppercut. 3 more jabs and Manny is breaking a sweat. He shadowboxes for what seems an eternity before taking a bit of water. Then he is right back to it. Fighters finished for the day sit in silence and take in the prep of a champion who started off where they areliving in the motel next door waiting for that big fight to materialize.
Now the gloves come on and the pad work begins. Today is a non-sparring day but electrifying nonetheless.
Watching Roach and Pacquiao interact is to observe two people who probably met for the first time and felt as though they had known each other forever. It’s a relaxed session as Manny works out different combos while Roach quietly instructs him, calling out the next series. It’s as if they are the only people on the planet. I can feel the power and are blinded by the speed even 10 feet from the ring.
Pacquiao no longer looks like a one handed fighter as he works a combo to the shoulder and takes over the line of attack from the side of Roach while pumping that right jab. The tempo rises and falls as the minutes tick away. “6 rounds,” calls out the second and Manny keeps working through combos. Occasionally Manny will stop and ask Freddie what he thinks of a certain move as an alternative to what Roach is asking for. 9 rounds have now gone by and still no break. Roach tries to call a halt but Pacquiao insists on “one more.” They compromise with a punching drill where Freddie holds the mitts up and Pacquiao throws nonstop punches for 3 minutes. Finally, a water break while Roach leans against the far ropes.
“Let’s go,” says Pacquiao almost immediately after taking water.
“He didn’t say ‘Go’ yet,” says Roach.
Manny simply leans in and starts throwing again. I don’t know about Manny but I’m exhausted. The crowd gathered breaks the silence with a round of applause. Pacquiao is unfazed and still hungry for more. A lulling metronome to a blurry machine gun is how he likes to work his speed bag over. The crowd is on fire as he comes down the stretch and finishes with a final boom and heads over to the mats. While Pacquiao’s day is winding down, Roach’s takes him off to another gym across town to train with Bernard Hopkins. He’s not even breathing heavy. After the mat work that consists of jumping rope and sit-ups, a team assistant takes a small wooden stick and beats a rapid beat out on Pacquiao’s stomach.
‘He swears by it,” says Pacquiao bodyguard Rob Peters. “He’s been doing it for years. It deadens the area around the stomach. Prepares him for the body shots.”
Pacquiao finishes off the day where he started: shadowboxing a few more rounds in a cool down mode. The day done after a few rounds more, Pacquiao kneels in the corner in prayer---a long time ritual in the gym that the crowd respect s with silence.
Graciously, Pacquiao returns from his shower and takes out time to autograph an item from the many fans gathered in the gym. The crowd thins and now I get my chance to briefly speak its time to take a man who carries a country on his shoulders every time he steps through the ropes. Pacquiao is man of few words. He speaks softly but to the point.
Will this be your last fight at 130 pounds? “I don’t know,” he answers with a smile. “We’re planning to fight at 135 lbs. I don’t know.”
Since that first fight with Marquez, Pacquiao has accomplished much. Not the least of which is effectively retiring Mexican legends Erik Morales (in a trilogy) and Marco Antonio Barrera. “I think behind the fight with Morales and Barrera,” compares Pacquiao, “I think this is my toughest fight.”
Much of what he learned could be measured by his performance last October when he out-boxed Barrera en route to a unanimous decision win. “There is a lot of changes,” Pacquiao says. “I learned more and experienced more in boxing.”
Does all this experience make him a more complete fighter? “I think so,” he says. “This time, we started a lot of technique with the right hand. [Developing] my ability with my right hand. And more footwork.”
As for how all this adds up in the final equation of the fight? “I don’t know. It depends on what he does in the ring. If you ask me, I want to go toe-to-toe and put up a good fight. And make people happy,” he adds. “But I don’t know what [Marquez] is going to bring in the ring.”
These days, the biggest question is not whether Pacquiao will beat Marquez (an assumption probably for worse than better) is which superstar he will face next: Oscar De La Hoya or Floyd Mayweather, Jr. While De La Hoya’s name has been thrown out there recently, it is a battle with retired pound for pound titleholder Mayweather that has fans salivating. It’s a fight within reason in terms of size and one that holds at least some semblance of meaning if only in a mythical pound for pound sense. Ultimately for Pacquiao, neither fight has much importance at the moment. All thoughts lead to Marquez. Laughing as I ask about the potential fights, “Right now, I don’t want to think about that,” he says. “We’ll talk about that after the fight.”
And with that, Pacquiao exits as even keel as he entered. A young superstar in the prime of fighting life as prepared as he could ever be.
Gabriel at: Coyotefeather@gmail.com
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