Too old? Too small? The legend of Manny Pacquiao keeps growing


LOS ANGELES — It feels odd to watch a man who’s earned purses in excess of $200 million wrapping his own hands, but Manny Pacquiao works with a practiced diligence that belies both his fortune and his standing as a presidential hopeful back home in the Philippines. He binds his hands tightly: gauze, then tape, peeled and torn from the roll, gauze, then tape, peeled and torn, until the hand resembles a kind of weapon, a human club. He’s 42. He’s been doing this as long as he can remember.

Another thing you can’t help but notice: Pacquiao’s calves. They’re the size of other men’s quads, a fat knot of corded muscle. His tube socks are stretched as thin as sausage casings.

“I remember you,” he says with a certain mischief, rubbing his wispy goatee. “Your beard.”

My own goatee, he means. No, it wasn’t gray when we were introduced. That was October 2008, right here at the Wild Card gym in Hollywood, a couple of months before he fought Oscar De La Hoya. There were protests in the Philippines, fearing that Pacquiao was being led to his permanent maiming or, well, death against a much bigger man. De La Hoya, who had been fighting as a junior middleweight, agreed to a catchweight of 145 pounds. Pacquiao, who made his pro debut at 106 pounds, had never fought higher than 135, and that only once, knocking out David Diaz for the WBC lightweight title. Turned out the fearful protests were for naught, as De La Hoya suffered a brutal beating, his corner throwing in the towel after eight rounds.

“The best win that I had,” Pacquiao says. “Who expected that I was going to win, going from 135 to 147? C’mon.

That fight changed the game. De La Hoya not only retired at age 35 but in doing so also minted Pacquiao, 29, as that rarest of bona fide pay-per-view stars. With consecutive wins over Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Joshua Clottey, Antonio Margarito, Shane Mosley and Juan Manuel Marquez, Pacquiao was, for a time, the best and most exciting fighter in the world. Here’s hoping he may be that again come Saturday night against Yordenis Ugas, a sturdy and formidable Cuban from whom he would claim his record fifth world title at welterweight (not to mention the 154-pound world title he won in administering a frightful beating to Margarito).

What Pacquiao has done violates every boxing orthodoxy. He’s not just the little guy anymore; he’s the old guy, too.

Freddie Roach opened the Wild Card, at 1123 Vine St., in defiance of his mentor’s strongest admonition. “Never open a gym,” the great Eddie Futch had told him. “All they do is lose money.” Not to mention the aggravation.

Still, the Wild Card itself seems an apt metaphor for Pacquiao’s outsized career. When he first walked in — the spring of 2001, an obscure 122-pounder in need of a trainer and promoter — it was a single, sweaty room above a laundromat. Now the original gym area has doubled in size. There’s an additional ring downstairs for marquee pros, a separate space in the complex used as a weight and exercise room, and yet another unit to house all the merch — T-shirts, sweatshirts, baseball caps and such. It’s the most famous gym in the world, a designated stop for Hollywood tour buses, and its proprietor is the most famous trainer.

“Manny built this whole f—ing place,” says Roach, seven-time trainer of the year.

More than that, though, Pacquiao continually stretched the limits of possibility. Roach recalls the first time he saw him play pool. They were in Texas. “He sank eight balls with one shot,” says Roach, who wasted no time calling his bookie.

“Can I get a bet down on Manny Pacquiao?”

Marco Antonio Barrera was a 4-1 favorite the next night at the Alamodome. Barrera couldn’t make it out of the 11th.

Roach walked away with an extra eight grand and a lesson: Never bet against Pacquiao, the harbinger of his great good fortune.

And that brings me, in a roundabout way, back to October 2008, when I was not gray and met Manny Pacquiao.

“We’re going to knock him out in nine,” Roach told me.

And I’m thinking: C’mon. Tell that to those people in the Philippines protesting the “death match.”

Now that’s all coming to an end — not their good fortune, certainly not the gym, but the era that spawned it is all but done. Pacquiao, leaning toward running for president of the Philippines, has only a fight or two left.

Question is, at 42, does his past still inform his present?

He was supposed to fight Errol Spence Jr. on Saturday night. Spence, holder of two welterweight titles, debuted as a 154-pounder back in 2012. He looks like something out of a comic book, a middleweight shrink-wrapped down to welterweight: a 31-year-old southpaw, 27-0 with 21 knockouts. Still, the odds weren’t much different than they were going into De La Hoya.

Then, on Aug. 9, Spence was forced to pull out of the fight with a detached retina requiring immediate surgery.

“I’m a fighter,” Pacquiao told his adviser, Sean Gibbons. “I have to fight.”

Then he prayed.

By the next morning, he had a deal to fight Ugas, who had been preparing to defend his WBA title in the Spence-Pacquiao co-main. At 5-foot-9, the former Cuban Olympian doesn’t have Spence’s pure destructive power, but unlike Pacquiao, he’s a natural welterweight who has fought as high as super middleweight.

“Good fighter; I thought he beat Porter,” Roach told me earlier this week, referring to Ugas’ split-decision loss to Shawn Porter in 2019. “All those Cuban guys know what they’re doing. He’s got a big overhand right.”

Pacquiao was preparing for a lefty, though.

“Manny doesn’t care,” said Roach. “Against Spence, he had to stay away from the left and move right. With this guy, it’s the opposite — move left, stay away from the right. … He can knock this guy out.”

“Will he?” I ask.

“Manny will knock him out, yes,” said Roach. “Body shot. You should’ve seen how he took this guy out in sparring last week.”

It’s an interesting prop bet, as Pacquiao has scored only two knockouts since moving up in 2008. Then again, quite suddenly he finds himself a nearly 4-1 favorite since Spence dropped out. Still, the odds themselves lose sight of what he’s accomplished since that De La Hoya fight. He’s made the extraordinary look routine. He’s the old guy and the small guy. No one’s ever done that.

“That’s the least of it,” says his longtime publicist, Fred Sternburg.

Pray tell, dear Fred.

“I’m in his house the other day, him and all his guys, just eating KFC, buckets of it,” he says. “No welterweight in history has ever done that the week of a fight.”

It’s a long shot, I give you that, Fred.

Like sinking eight balls in Texas.

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