Whether you love it, hate it, or are indifferent to it, the Manny Pacquiao vs. Antonio Margarito pay-per-view extravaganza (live from Cowboys Stadium on HBO pay-per-view this Saturday) is happening. Yes, the vacant WBC 154-pound title belt fight (at a catchweight of 150 pounds) pitting the seven-time titleholder/champion Pacquiao, 51-3-2 (38), against the controversial Antonio Margarito, 38-6 (27), (who had his license revoked following his 2009 fight with Shane Mosley for having an illegal hand wrap) is full steam ahead. At press time, Pacquiao and his team are already in Texas, as is Margarito, as the two make their final preparations and press tour for Saturday’s showdown.
If you follow boxing at all or even just follow its top stars, then you have heard the storyline put forth by the media and HBO’s reality show “24/7”: Manny Pacquiao is not focused nor taking this fight as seriously as he should. You’ve heard his strength and conditioning coach, Alex Ariza, say, “He’s in shape but not what I call ‘Manny shape.’” as Pacquiao has eschewed the plyometrics and other techniques Ariza uses to condition his charge. You are aware that Pacquiao is now a congressman back in his homeland of the Philippines and that, along with acting career, singing career, pool-playing, intensely public persona and growing entourage, his focus is said to be not quite there. More than ever, this camp, which started in Baguio and ended at trainer Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, CA, has been more closely scrutinized yet oddly more closed to the press than ever. Boxing scribes Steve Kim and Doug Fischer (who have covered Pacquiao since his early days with Roach when he was living at the Travelodge motel next door) and I were not given our usual day to see Manny spar. If there is something to hide, it would be incredibly hard to find out what that is.
So do we believe Manny isn’t ready? Is “24/7” just a reality show aimed at making the casual fan buy the pay-per-view?
Depending on whom you talk to in his camp, the storyline may or may not be true.
“I don’t know if he is focused when he gets out of the ring,” said longtime sparring partner Ray Beltran at a recent media day for Pacquiao. “When he is in the ring, he doesn’t mind whooping my butt, so I gotta say he is focused.”
Beltran has sparred with Pacquiao for roughly five years and knows the man well in the ring. To Beltran, it’s the same Manny, despite a difference in strategy. In Margarito, Manny faces a guy five inches taller with a hard-charging, pressure style. This man, unlike Miguel Cotto, Ricky Hatton, David Diaz, or even Oscar De La Hoya, is not a guy you walk down or stand in front of. Pacquiao will need to move laterally and stay out of long exchanges that will allow the volume punching of the heavy-handed Margarito to have any effect at all.
“He looks the same as usual,” Beltran said. “Very strong, lot of speed. This time he has a little more leg movement. I don’t think he wants to stay in the pocket.”
In Beltran’s opinion, regardless of how Manny may appear outside the ring or how many special appearances he makes (such as “The Jimmy Kimmel Show” or his quick trip to Las Vegas to support a fellow politician), when he enters the ring at the Wild Card, it’s all business and perhaps a bit more than that.
“I think when he steps in the gym, in the ring, I think that’s his place of freedom for him,” opined Beltran.
Then there is the Hollywood crowd who absolutely loves Manny. One such person is actor Jeremy Piven, who offered no insight into the camp but whose mere presence on this day gave me a glimpse into how Hollywood this whole thing has really become.
“I saw Manny as going to ultimately knock him out in probably like the eighth,” predicted Piven. “I feel like Margarito is a really great fighter; he’s a much bigger guy, obviously. Manny gives up five inches. And Margarito probably walks around at 175 but I just don’t know how you ultimately beat Manny. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I think Margarito is going to put up a really good fight and then Manny may just probably drop him in the eight. I’d like to win something if that happens. I don’t know what.”
In his last fight camp, preparing for Joshua Clottey earlier this year, Pacquiao split time in Manila and the Wild Card. At the time, it was said to be done so Pacquiao would not exceed a certain number of weeks working in the US, thus avoiding a certain tax hike. But this may have set a dangerous precedent as the hysteria that is Manny Mania is even greater in his native land, especially now, considering he is not only a celebrity of the highest order but a member of congress. For trainer Freddie Roach, the dangers of being in the Philippines are many.
“We went back to a place where there are typhoons,” laughed Roach. “Thing is, it was dangerous the first time. I asked him, ‘This is typhoon season. How many do have each year?’ He said, ‘18.’ I said, ‘Whoa. Why are we here? Knowing that, we shouldn’t be here.’”
Still, typhoons weren’t the problem. It was constant interruptions as Congressman Manny was needed constantly. It is a par-for-the-course distraction Roach seemed to accept before but now sees as something a little more serious.
“Yes, in Manila, everybody wants a piece of him and stuff like that,” he said. “We’ve always had distractions with singing, acting, playing darts, karaoke, whatever it may be, it was always with fun stuff. Congress is a different animal. Congress is serious for him. He wants to be the best at that too. It’s new. It’s fresh. Boxing he’s been doing for a long, long time, you know? He still loves it. His work ethic is still great but he wants to be the best at [politics].”
Now if you have followed this story at all, you may have heard this quote before. But it’s the three words that follow that intrigued me as Roach illustrated both his concern with Manny’s focus but also allowed a certain “read between the lines” peek into his thoughts.
“[Manny] tells me, ‘I miss my job,” said Roach. “I said, “This is your job.’ ‘No, I miss congress.’ That says something.”
For Roach, the idea that he could lose Pacquiao to politics permanently is a very real one. For one, after Margarito, and considering Floyd Mayweather Jr. seems just as distracted by outside boxing forces as Pacquiao, what fights are available to take?
“Thing is, if Mayweather doesn’t come to the table, who the f**k can we fight?” asked Roach. “Marquez, right? He’s fighting at 135 now. Manny won’t go under 147. We can [make 140] but it’s something I wouldn’t do.”
I offered a Margarito win might be better for boxing and Manny as it opens up more possibilities. As they say, there is always more money in the rematch.
“I’m not going that far,” laughed Roach.
So would Pacquiao take on Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. or perhaps another burgeoning Mexican star in Saul Alvarez, two fighters near his weight class of 147?
“Not at this point,” Roach answered. “They’re not big enough.” We’ll assume he meant in terms of popularity.
So is Congress a passing phase for Pacquiao? Or will he go for re-election? Without a boxing career to add to his popularity, will his people accept him as just Congressman Manny?
“Down time is so bad for fighters but the thing is, he has always acted and he will go into congress and do his thing,” said Roach. “I think the deeper in politics he goes, the more he will either love it or hate it because everyone loves him right now because he is a boxer. Congress, like, you make decisions; half the people are happy and half are mad. So you can’t make everyone happy in politics. When he realizes that, we’ll get him back, I think, because really everyone loves him for boxing, not politics.”
When I was done talking to Roach, I turned to my left near the speed bags in the Wild Card and there along the wall, sitting, looking much more pensive than usual, was Buboy Fernandez, longtime member of Team Pacquiao and close friend to Manny. Normally on a day like media day, Buboy would be moving about, doing various things like telling stories and enjoying the spotlight that being Manny’s second affords him. But not today. And considering all I had heard about Manny’s bad camp in Baguio, I figured I’d ask what’s up.
“It’s no different than the previous training. It’s no different,” insisted the subdued Buboy. “We have some small, different things because Manny has different responsibilities because before, Manny was not a congressman. But now, he is involved in politics and boxing. For me, before, I didn’t know how Manny would handle the situation but Manny has proved he can handle it. The camp is very happy with him.”
On “24/7,” it seemed as if Camp Baguio was more Camp Chaos. Yet Buboy repeated something Manny declared before they left. What is odd and perhaps telling about “24/7” is that it’s a declaration only made after righting the ship at the Wild Card.
“Before we leave the Philippines, we were in 100% condition,” said Buboy. “Before we left the Philippines, Manny said, ‘Now we are prepared for the fight.’”
Imagine that, reality TV not exactly being real.
To Buboy, the calls of “Manny ain’t ready” are playing perfectly into Team Pacquiao’s hands.
“Sounds good to me that people say Manny is not in shape. It’s good for me that the people say that. We will see in the fight if Manny is in condition or not.”
To Antonio Margarito, this fight is about proving himself to the boxing world as a clean fighter with real knockout ability. According to Buboy, this fight is about something else entirely for Manny.
“Manny is not thinking he is a seven-time world champion,” Buboy said. “He is thinking he is a congressman now. He is thinking how to prove to his people in his province that he can take care of his career and do [his] responsibilities as a congressman.”
So what did the man himself have to say? Well, first, let me explain what a day in Manny Mediaville is like. You are flat-out surrounded in a tiny, hot, stinky gym by a lot of hot, sometimes stinky people, all clamoring to get a picture or glimpse or interview with a tiny, not-stinky-at-all man. On previous media days over the years, you might get one or two sides of the Wild Card ring covered as Manny works or does interviews. On this day, it was a wall of people that made me feel like a Little Rascal peeking through the hole in the fence at a baseball game. However, I was finally able to catch up to the man himself and ask him how he was doing as he was briefly brought near me for a quick series of questions.
“What’s tougher,” I asked. “Being a congressman or fighting Antonio Margarito?”
“The toughest thing is the fight in the ring, preparing, training hard for the fight,” Pacquiao said.
I asked how he managed to do both incredibly hard jobs and do them in quality fashion.
“Time management, you know?” He offered. “Time management and focused training.”
Now this fight is at a catchweight of 150, yet Manny has never fought above that weight. I wondered who he thought that benefited more, him or Margarito. The way I see it, Margarito, a career welterweight, who fought a few times- including his comeback fight this year- at 154, would benefit from not having to kill himself to make 150.
“Catchweight benefits, I think, me,” said Pacquiao. “Yes, because he is coming down from 154.”
And how he feels about Margarito, the fighter?
“He’s good,” Pacquiao said of the two-time beltholder. “This is a good fight because I like his style; he is always coming forward. He’s a very aggressive fighter, always throwing punches. He’s not hard to give a good show to the people. He’s not hard to entertain people to make them happy.”
And with that, he was whisked away for more questions.
However, I was able to pull a couple quotes from under someone’s legs as they asked Manny the all-important question of how he was doing in this camp.
Like the politician he has grown into, Manny answered, “This fight, I am 100% for. We struggled the first few weeks but we get our work done.”
Deftly answered and without seeing the actual unedited sparring shown on “24/7,” there really is no answer as to how Manny prepared or didn’t.
One thing that was telling to me was the sound of his punches as he worked mitts with Freddie Roach. For his fight with Ricky Hatton, I remember audio taping his mitt work because it sounded like a Tommy gun filled with explosive John Woo-style bullets. This time out, while using smaller mitts than I remember, Pacquiao’s timing seemed off and the punches missed their snap or crackle. Previously: three-four-five shots in a row with thunderous effect. This time: One. One. Two. One. Two. Three. Is that telling of anything? No, not really. But, to me, it’s a small piece of the puzzle that is Manny Pacquiao.
Is it hype to sell a fight? Maybe. Is it a strategy to lower Margarito’s guard? Could be. Or is it simply that Manny Pacquiao, the great multitasker, has finally picked the wrong opponent at the wrong weight and at the wrong time?