Outside the ring, Manny Pacquiao prepares for the fight of his life


HE IS A quiet man, content to observe, and his manner gives him the air of the mystic. As everything around Manny Pacquiao moves — quickly, and solely for his benefit — he remains fixed, a stone in the center of a stream. In the backyard of his luxurious and incredibly occupied home in Los Angeles, men and women work grills and carry plates and tend to the line of rice cookers. Inside, a man in a T-shirt and loose basketball shorts — the uniform of Team Pacquiao — stands next to the boss, cutting a grilled chicken breast and an extremely well-done porterhouse with a pair of kitchen scissors.

He was out of the ring for more than two years, but the machine has picked up right where it left off. The cooks and cleaners and helpers — affectionately known as “The Boys” — reconvened in Los Angeles to cook and clean and help. In the weeks ahead of Pacquiao’s fight against Yordenis Ugas, which he is again saying might be his last match, they do laundry and chauffeur and stand watch. Some arrive at the Griffith Park Observatory parking lot before dawn to rope off two areas, one for agility work and a tree-shaded one for ab work. Others run with Pacquiao, from the bottom of the hill to the parking lot, up the fire road to the top near the Hollywood sign, then back down to the parking lot, more than 6 miles total, one of them carrying a massive Philippine flag and another a portable speaker that always seems to be blasting “Eye of the Tiger.” (“You want to get rich?” a member of his team asks with exasperation. “Propose a reality show of Team Pacquiao. It would put the Kardashians out of business.”)

After his morning workout, as the steak and chicken and rice are placed in front of him, Pacquiao dips his head, closes his eyes and says a silent prayer. As always, there is a low hum of activity surrounding him: people in the kitchen cleaning up, people in the backyard standing over grills preparing to cook the next meal, people out front making sure the unauthorized don’t find their way onto the property.

Pacquiao lifts his head and opens his eyes. His manager, Sean Gibbons, asks, “Senator, what’s for breakfast? Chicken and rice?” Pacquiao smiles, bounces his eyebrows up and down like butterfly wings. Gibbons laughs. It’s their joke — every day Pacquiao eats the same food, every day Gibbons asks the same question. “You know what he eats on a cheat day?” Gibbons asks. “A freakin’ banana.”

As Pacquiao prepares for Saturday’s fight against Ugas, a fill-in for Errol Spence. Jr , the aura around him has taken on a ceremonial air. More people than ever crowded the Griffith parking lot to hold up their phones and record the workouts and stand in line for autographs. More people than ever stood outside the Wild Card gym in Hollywood to see him come and go. And, as Pacquiao prepares for his next phase, so do the people around him. The swirl of uncertainty and unease, the jockeying for position within the Pacquiao hierarchy — always vigorous — has ramped up.

The risks are high, even dangerous, and they go beyond what will take place in the ring. As Pacquiao, one of 24 Philippine senators and a soon-to-be presidential candidate, wades deeper into the world of his country’s politics, with its history of patronage and unsteady alliances, he finds himself in a situation nobody could have imagined a few years ago: at war with President Rodrigo Duterte. As Pacquiao’s focus has turned more and more from boxing to politics, Duterte’s threats — real and implied — have begun to intensify. An undercurrent of fear runs just under the surface; everyone around Pacquiao, no matter the role, is on the front lines along with him.

After Pacquiao finishes eating breakfast, a woman approaches the table and speaks to him quietly in Tagalog. Pacquiao nods, and the woman brings a young Filipino man to Pacquiao’s side and introduces him. The man is fidgety, clearly overwhelmed by the moment. Pacquiao nods at him — a sign that he has the floor — and the man begins speaking like a starving man eats, unleashing a torrent of words that sound memorized.

“You’re a great fighter, but you’re a greater person,” he says. “I think what’s best for the Philippines is you because you could do so much to help that somebody else couldn’t and for that God will always bless you and the next president should be you. Thank you. I appreciate you.”

Pacquiao nods again and says, “Thank you.” The man backs up, his hands folded at his waist, as if retreating from an apparition.

This guy’s life. Man. It’s a series of small miracles. He is a national icon and a senator who has all but officially declared his intention to run for the presidency in next May’s election. As he winds down a boxing career that may never be repeated, every fight opens a portal into everything that came before. Abject poverty led to unfathomable success which led to self-destruction which led to repentance and a remarkable second act. It all returns, every training camp, every fight. Opponents have always been just empty boxes on a form he needs to fill out. But now this: the end of his time in the ring, most likely, and at 42 years old the beginning of a new fight. This is one he never saw coming, against an opponent who — unlike the 72 who came before him — plays only by rules of his own devising.

FOR THE FIRST five years of his six-year term as a Philippine senator, Pacquiao was an ardent and uncritical supporter of President Rodrigo Duterte. He defended the strongman’s most authoritarian policies, including the drug war that has resulted in the extrajudicial killing of thousands of Filipinos, most of them among the country’s poorest. The support seemed politically advantageous: Duterte, who is revered and feared in equal measure in the Philippines, has supported the idea of Pacquiao running to replace him.

But starting in June, Pacquiao — a man who had never seemed to embrace an ideology beyond Duterte’s — began distancing himself from his friend and president. He called out corruption within Duterte’s government. He blasted the president for going easy on China on issues related to trade in the South China Sea, a major concern in the Philippines. Manny Pacquiao, stunningly, embarked on a one-man rebellion.

“This is nothing new,” Pacquiao says now. “I’ve been investigating corruption since I started in office. I thought the president also hates corruption, and I’m trying to help him.”

Last month, after Pacquiao first broke rank and accused the government of corruption, Duterte’s response was simple: Prove it.

Within days, Pacquiao stood in front of cameras in a tailored suit and held up papers he claimed proved that more than $200 million in COVID relief funding intended for the poor was missing from the government. “This is just one of the things I have discovered,” he said. “It has only been three days since I accepted your challenge to present proof.”

The accusations are nothing new for Duterte, who has faced charges of corruption from many angles. His term ends in June, but he has devised a Byzantine plan to remain the shadow head of the country: He has endorsed his eldest daughter, Sara, to be the next president and has expressed an intention to run for vice president (it is a separate election in the Philippines), in part to cloak himself in the immunity conferred on the vice president in the country’s constitution. (There is dispute among constitutional scholars in the Philippines on whether immunity extends to the vice president, but a president complicit with Duterte, like his daughter, could provide de facto immunity by deterring investigations.)

But few critics have been as brazen as Pacquiao has become this summer. His outspokenness has triggered a series of tirades and threats from the presidential palace. Duterte suggested Pacquiao is “punch-drunk” and doesn’t have the mental capacity to be president. He called him a “s—” during a news briefing. He suggested Pacquiao stay in the country and investigate rather than going to the U.S. to train for a fight that will make him millions. This last charge was seen as a gift to Pacquiao, whose fights occupy an exalted space in Philippine lore, one of the few times people of every social stratum can share national happiness and pride. At this moment, with much of the country under a strict COVID lockdown and vaccination rates low, Duterte’s attack on the wisdom of Pacquiao’s boxing career feels politically reckless at best, desperate at worst.

Even this fight against Ugas, a disappointing opponent after the withdrawal of the undefeated Spence because of a torn retina, is a matter of national importance in the Philippines. This is probably the end of Pacquiao’s boxing career unless a Spence fight could be arranged during the campaign cycle before May’s election. The Boys, at least the ones outside the inner circle, will go back to doing whatever it is they do when Pacquiao is not around.

I ask Pacquiao if he’d ever consider continuing his boxing career as president, and he says, “No, it is not allowed in the constitution.” He smiles, waiting for the inevitable follow-up: Why?

“The president cannot be hit,” he says. Everyone at the breakfast table reacts with surprise, and Pacquiao says, “It is true. In the constitution: Nobody will hit the president. It is also in the constitution that if someone hits the president, the presidential guard can kill them.” When I relay this information to Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s longtime trainer, he says, “Oh, really? I didn’t know that. I guess this might be it, then.”

THIS TIME, ALONG with the ceremony that accompanies every Pacquiao fight, there is unease. Unease about the possible end of his boxing career, unease about the personal safety of those who associate with someone who dares to publicly accuse Duterte’s government of corruption. When his people express their concern for Pacquiao’s well-being, or that of his family, or that of their own, Pacquiao tells them, “Be like a balloon. When people throw stones at you, let them bounce off you. Pretend everything is cool.” (It is a curious metaphor; balloons, after all, pop when encountering sharp edges.) This typically sanguine response, according to those who know him, is simply another example of his unyielding discipline. Just as he abstains from cold liquids and refined sugar, he refuses to allow Duterte’s attacks to outwardly affect him. He seems to live by the words attributed to Winston Churchill handwritten on a whiteboard in the Wild Card gym, where he trains before each fight: “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw rocks at every dog that barks.”

“How do I explain corruption in the Philippines?” he asks. “It’s really contaminated, and unexplainable. With the budget we approved for the pandemic, I think there’s more than enough there to manage and handle it. I’m not saying everyone is corrupt, but there are some agencies that mismanaged funds, and people are suffering. People are dying of hunger. When you are handling a problem like the pandemic, it’s easy to say, ‘Oh — lock down. Total lockdown.’ But you have to make sure the people can eat or else” — here, he claps his hands — “there are going to be bigger and bigger problems than the pandemic.”

Politics in the Philippines, especially under Duterte, are intensely personal, and Pacquiao is quick to draw a distinction between what he is doing — criticizing those who work for Duterte, such as Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, whom he told, “If I were the president, I would replace you” — and criticizing Duterte directly.

Carlos Conde, a Manila-based senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, says, “Pacquiao has been very, very careful of couching his language to not offend Duterte personally. He’s been very measured in his criticism.”

Semantically, it’s a fine line, and one Duterte doesn’t appear to be interested in parsing. Pacquiao was stripped of his leadership role in the PDP-Laban party, a move the fighter says he is fighting in court. Pacquiao’s aides see a flip side to Duterte’s attacks: evidence that the boxer is now a serious political rival. Pacquiao must declare his intention to run for president by early October, but he says he will make his decision — “It’s the worst-kept secret in the world,” a member of his team says — by September. “If the people want me to become their leader, their president, why not?” Pacquiao says with typical nonchalance. “I will serve honestly and do the right thing.”

Nearly 20% of the Philippine population lives below the poverty line, measured at $3.20 per person per day, and Pacquiao’s supporters believe his appeal — in addition to being the country’s most famous and beloved citizen — lies in his ability to relate to the struggles of the country’s permanently downtrodden.

“Compared to traditional politicians, he is not steeped in the bad sauce of Philippine politics,” Conde says. “He still takes stock of where he came from, and he knows poverty, obviously. It all depends on how he is going to come out and fight on those issues. His worldwide fame is definitely useful, but the question is: How will he use it?”

Human rights advocates, including Conde, have excoriated Pacquiao for his support of the drug war, particularly his refusal to acknowledge, much less condemn, extrajudicial killings of drug users. His views on gay rights — he called homosexuals “worse than animals” while campaigning for the Senate in 2016 — prompted a rare apology from Pacquiao, one he followed by saying he was unbothered by the critics because “Jesus lives in me, so I’m always happy.”

“Even though I don’t particularly like him from a human rights perspective, he’s stepping up to the challenge of being a legislator,” Conde says. “He deserves credit for that. He tried to make up for his lack of education by taking courses on public policy, and he’s made alliances with people who know Philippine politics. He understands everything here is personality-driven, which explains why he’s out at town fiestas doling out money. He’s playing the game. He seems to understand what he’s getting into.”

A Pulse Asia poll of 2,400 likely voters released in early July has Pacquiao fifth, with 8% listing him as their top choice among 15 candidates. He is behind Sara Duterte (the only candidate to poll above 25%), Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and a fellow senator, Grace Poe — all entrenched politicians, several of whom have run for president in previous campaigns. But Pacquiao is the one on whom Duterte has turned most of his ire. An aide to Pacquiao who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from political opponents says, “A lot of people around Duterte don’t like Manny. They definitely don’t want him to run. He’s the only one they’re attacking because they see him as a threat.”

“It’s not my intention to attack the president,” Pacquiao says. “I don’t understand this. I’m not attacking him — I’m just exposing the corruption in his government.”

His voice — soft, melodious — betrays neither emotion nor doubt. Questions about boxing elicit rote, unenlightening answers. Questions about politics are far more welcome. “The president challenged me,” Pacquiao says with a shrug. “I accept the challenge.”

I ask him if he’s worried about his safety, or the safety of his family and those around him.

He stares out across the breakfast table to a spot on the far wall. Seconds pass. The silence at the table grows uncomfortable. Finally, his eyes return to the conversation.

“No,” he says softly. “I’m a warrior too.”

FEAR IS ALWAYS close to the surface. The people around Pacquiao feel it. They fear not only physical violence but also the possibility that the levers of government will be employed against them. It’s in their minds and on their phones. I was shown numerous text messages that were vaguely menacing but stopped short of threatening violence, and multiple aides shared their concern for the safety of Pacquiao and his family. Some in the camp feel uneasy about returning home after the fight, wondering whether they and their families should stay in the U.S. until after the May election. At the very least, there are plans to ramp up a security detail that already feels like a private army.

The fears would seem alarmist if not for the history of political violence in the Philippines. In August of 1983, former Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was assassinated by supporters of President Ferdinand Marcos as he walked down the stairs of a China Airlines plane that returned him from exile in the U.S. In 2009, on the island of Mindanao, which includes Pacquiao’s hometown of General Santos City, the wife and sister of a political candidate — along with at least 30 journalists — were among 58 people who were kidnapped, shot and buried as they attempted to file a certification for the candidacy of Esmael Mangudadatu in a gubernatorial election.

And in 2013, 30 years after Aquino was assassinated, at the same airport — now named the Ninoy Aquino International Airport — the mayor of a southern Philippine town was shot and killed along with his wife, his niece and an 18-month-old baby who happened to be in the line of fire. “Given the history of violence in Philippine politics, I believe the fears have merit,” says Conde, the Human Rights Watch researcher. “If he really goes all out against the president and exposes Duterte even more, that’s a very worrisome scenario. Given his stature, I don’t think Pacquiao himself will be under the threat of violence, but this being the Philippines, it’s hard to say. He should be prepared for that. And it would be so easy to target one of his aides. That would send a really loud signal to Pacquiao and his people.”

Standing against the back wall of the Wild Card gym in Hollywood, Ruel Pacquiao, Manny’s brother and a Philippine congressman, is watching his brother work out in the clamped mugginess. The scene is the perfect embodiment of the current Pacquiao experience — the man himself in the ring, focused and assured, while the currents swirl around him. But it must be exhausting: training for a major fight; dealing with the anxiety that has overtaken his world; keeping up with Senate business on Zoom calls from Los Angeles at midnight before Manila’s most recent COVID lockdown ended the Senate session.

When I ask Ruel about his brother’s relationship with Duterte, his response is stark: “In politics, there are no permanent friends.”

One constant of Pacquiao’s 26-year professional career is his respect for his opponents, a unique quality in the sport. He will fight Saturday night in Las Vegas, perhaps for the final time, under the proscribed, 154-year-old rules of boxing. From there, the rules disappear, and those close to him fear the unpredictability of what’s to come.

As the sounds of Manny’s fists hitting the mitts echo off the walls of the gym, one of his aides is sitting in the locker room, the door closed.

“Usually you don’t hit the principal; you hit the people around them,” the aide says. “If you really want to affect someone, the Philippine way is to get to those people. Example: Manny has hit the [secretaries and cabinet members] around Duterte, and that’s what has rattled the cage. We’re doing this the right way, though, because it is nonviolent and against corruption.

“Once people get a taste of power, they’ll do anything they can to keep it. Especially if the alternative might be going to prison.”

He stops and looks up, takes a deep breath, gestures toward the closed door and the ring on the other side, where Pacquiao is well into the second hour of his afternoon session. “Manny is just on a different level,” he says. “He can take all that. But there are times I cry about it. It does get to you.”

He shakes his head and tries to compose himself. Tears begin streaming down his face.

“Oh, man,” he says. “This is the toughest fight of Manny’s life.”

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