MANNY PACQUIAO’s been fighting his whole life — first for survival and then for sport. Now, as he shifts from the boxing ring to the political one, he’s taking up a fight of a different kind.
How do you tell the story of Manny Pacquiao? a poor kid living in a cardboard shack who rises from the mud to become the face for 97 million fellow citizens? The greatest, most exciting boxer since Muhammad Ali? The leader of one of the most storied and expansive entourages in sports history? (Now, that’s saying something.) The odds-on favorite for future president of the Philippines? He is all these things.
This month, the PacMan, as he is called, will fight against Antonio Margarito for the super welterweight title. If he wins, it would be an unprecedented eighth world championship in eight weight divisions — a swing of about 50 pounds. (Mind you, that’s in a sport in which going up one weight class and winning is seen as a major achievement.) “It will be another boxing record,” he tells American Way with a confident smile as he prepares for the fight, adding that he could “never have imagined” winning so many titles and accolades when he began his professional boxing career 15 years ago.
Pacquiao’s dominance of seven, possibly eight, weight divisions borders on incomprehensible. He was named the boxer of the decade this summer (just after being elected to the Filipino Congress), and he is widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter of his generation. But while Pacquiao, 31, is indeed an extraordinary boxer, it’s not just his championship belts that have helped him transcend his sport; it’s also his charisma, his love of good times, his poignant backstory and his insatiable need to help the less fortunate.
Venture into the coconut jungles of the southern Philippines — an impoverished and kidnap-happy region — and there you will find Pacquiao’s birthplace. The people there still remember him, as his family was considered poor even by their standards; back then, sharing a can of sardines was an exquisite luxury for the family of eight. As a child, Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao was a good student (teachers would ask him to help them grade papers), but he left school early to help earn money for his family, using his electric smile to sell doughnuts and cigarettes on street corners. He was generous — giving up his share of rice gruel if he saw a child hungrier than he was — but tough, protecting his sales territory with his fists, when necessary.
“I like to fight,” he has told me on several occasions.
Pacquiao became obsessed with boxing from a young age. He began fighting in Sunday matches in General Santos City, a hardscrabble Filipino fishing village where his family relocated. Pacquiao would train by running barefoot around a large oval track, strewn with jagged rocks, near the center of town. He would fight for a few dollars — just enough to feed his mother and siblings for several meals. His technique was weak, but he was fearless in the ring. (Despite his being only 5 feet 6.5 inches tall, Pacquiao is a natural athlete, adept at basketball and baseball as well as fighting. He once hurled a pitch to San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, a Filipino-American, who marveled at the curve and speed of Pacquiao’s pitch.)
After winning numerous “amateur” matches, Pacquiao went to Manila, the chaotic capital of the Philippines. His General Santos compatriots who had gone before him saved a little money and sent him a ferry ticket. He was 15 and left without telling his mother, to whom he was very close. He has said that it was one of the most difficult journeys of his life. After arriving in Manila, he worked construction jobs and boxed at a legendary, dingy gym called the L&M. At around the same time as his arrival, a nationally televised boxing program called Blow by Blow debuted. Determined to make it on the show, Pacquiao (who was 16 by then) lied about his age and turned pro. His totally offensive, crowd-pleasing style made him into an instant hit on the program.
Almost overnight, Pacquiao became a popular sports figure in the Philippines. He was a minor sensation in Southeast Asia, too, but the purses he earned were small. He came to the United States in 2001, and his manager brought him to the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, Calif. Freddie Roach, one of the world’s best trainers and the owner of Wild Card, had no idea who Pacquiao was, but he worked the mitts with him. “The guy could punch,” Roach remembers.