A few weeks later, when a boxer was injured before a championship fight, Pacquiao was a last-minute replacement. He vanquished Lehlohonolo Ledwaba to win the junior featherweight title.
He returned home to the Philippines a hero. Filipino journalist Chino Trinidad, who has covered Pacquiao since the beginning of the boxer’s professional career, says that Pacquiao’s story was readily identifiable to Filipinos, 10 percent of whom leave their country to work so they can send money back to their relatives. “What he has done,” Trinidad says, “is revive the belief of Filipinos in ourselves.”
When the world was first introduced to Manny Pacquiao, he was a skinny guy with a devastating left hand and incredible ring speed. He tended to simply come toward his opponent and overwhelm the person. “He has the fastest hands of any boxer I have seen,” says boxing historian Bert Sugar. Though he was fun to watch, there was no sense yet that he would someday sell out stadiums, be the subject of a 60 Minutes segment, sing songs on Jimmy Kimmel Live! or show up on Good Morning America.
But under the tutelage of Roach, Pacquiao became better with every fight. In 2005, though, Pacquiao lost to Erik Morales. Determined not to let it happen again, Pacquiao went back to the Wild Card, where he and Roach secretly worked on developing his right hand into a crippling weapon.
In the years that followed, Pacquiao would face many great fighters, including Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez and David Diaz. He also took on Morales again — twice. He never lost. With Pacquiao’s foot speed, equally powerful hands and crafty ring generalship, no one could beat him. Then in 2008, he took on the Golden Boy of the boxing world, Oscar De La Hoya. Despite their natural size difference, Pacquiao overwhelmed De La Hoya with his speed, power and complicated angles. The Golden Boy threw in the towel before the start of round nine.
Pacquiao went on to defeat English star Ricky Hatton (with a knockout punch that was compared to some of the greatest KO's in history), Miguel Cotto and Ghanaian Joshua Clottey. Along the way, Pacquiao had been able to go up in weight while maintaining his speed and power. (Old-timers compare his workouts to the epic sessions of Sugar Ray Robinson.) His last 11 victories were against reigning or former world champions, and just three of those fights — against Juan Manuel Marquez, Oscar Larios and Erik Morales — went all 12 rounds.
But the fight of Pacquiao’s career is one that hasn’t even happened yet — and one that may never happen. A showdown between Pacquiao, the boxing world’s greatest offensive fighter, and fellow superstar Floyd Mayweather Jr., who’s considered to be the greatest defensive fighter in the sport, would reportedly earn each boxer an estimated $40 million and be a superfight the likes of which haven’t been seen in 30 years.
Unfortunately for fans, the two men can’t seem to agree to do battle. They seemed close to an agreement at the end of last year, but late in the negotiations, Mayweather asked for Olympic-style blood testing not common in boxing. Pacquiao, who has never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, was insulted. The fight didn’t happen. “His style is talking a lot of trash,” Pacquiao says of Mayweather. “It is not a good example for everybody.” This summer, the camps seemed to be negotiating again — Pacquiao agreed to any blood test — but Mayweather backed away, saying he wanted to take a break from boxing.
Pacquiao, who says he will probably fight three or four more times before retiring, says that regardless of whether the will-they-won’t-they battle royale takes place, it wouldn’t define his already legendary career. “I don’t need Mayweather,” he says.
Unfortunately, the beleaguered sport of boxing, which has waned in the United States in recent years, may need them to help elevate interest. But Pacquiao has his sights set elsewhere, on a place where his help is needed even more.