Tuesday April 28th, 2015

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN LOS ANGELES AND LAS VEGAS ON INTERSTATE 15 – After six years of negotiations, a handful of lawsuits and 55 days of training, the caravan that carries the boxer Manny Pacquiao, his family and his entourage toward history is stuck in traffic. This marks a fitting start to the final leg of a journey among the longest ever taken by two boxers. What’s one more delay en route to a May 2 date with Floyd Mayweather Jr. at the MGM Grand?

It’s Monday, late afternoon. The entourage bus, the one with Pacquiao’s face on three sides, is quiet. Too quiet. Library quiet. Everyone is sleeping, mouths open, heads on their neighbor’s shoulders. The richest fight in boxing history is six days away, and this bus, described as a rowdy, chaotic alternate universe, is more like a church rolling down the freeway. The Church of Manny Pacquiao. Complete with a guest list. Bound for his biggest ever fight. Let by dozens of motorcyclists identified by the words on their black leather jackets, Filipino Riders.

“Don’t ride the f--cking bus,” Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s trainer, had told me a few weeks ago. He didn’t elaborate. He only warned.

Greg Bishop/SI

On Monday, I ask Rob Peters, Pacquiao’s head of security, what Roach meant. Peters used to drive the lead car in the caravan, but that ended about five years ago, when there were, by his estimate, 25 or 30 cars. The number now is impossible to quantify. The best anyone can venture is a guess. Maybe 30. Maybe 100. And that doesn’t count the motorcycles. “I had to get therapy after those drives,” Peters says. “Gave it up.”

The stage felt set for some sort of ruckus, entourage mayhem, a boxing version of a Hunter S. Thompson novel—all the hangers-on, and all their hangers-on—rolling through the desert. In reality it is, well, not that. It is pretty much the opposite of that. One rider plucks quietly at a guitar. For the first hour, most sleep.

Team Pacquiao has mellowed.

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The bus is filled with Pacquiao’s friends and relatives and friends of relatives and relatives of friends. There are nine pastors. There is the usual driver, Mitch Carter, piloting Team Pacquiao toward Vegas’s neon lights. And there are two organizers, James Taruc and Lady Bernal, in charge of the guest list, which is approved by Pacquiao and his security team. It is, let’s say, fluid. “They make changes all the time,” Taruc says when the bus made its usual stop in Barstow, Calif., for a bathroom break. “This fight, I didn’t know who was coming.” It could be worse, anyway. Taruc and Bernal organized Team Pacquiao’s two trips for bouts in Texas. There’s no TSA on this bus.

Everyone wears some type of Team Pacquiao T-shirt or sweatshirt or hat. Some show off Pacquiao tattoos. Paper bags hold snacks for those who snagged a seat: small water bottles, chili cheese Fritos and some sort of pound cake. It’s not clear what everyone does, or why anyone is here, but there are assigned seats.

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Two hundred and seventy miles stand between the cocoon of Pacquiao training and the chaos of fight week, and not just any fight week, but Mayweather-Pacquiao, Fight-of-the-Century, certain-to-break-all-records-and-the-Internet fight week. The bus stops and slows. Speeds. Stops. Slows. Speeds. Stops. Slows. No one breaks the silence. Two hours in and still 215 miles to go.

The caravan begins to break apart. Word arrives in Barstow. Pacquiao is an hour ahead. The bus piles out, and Team Pacquiao infiltrates a convenience store, then stands outside, where its members sneak cigarettes and guzzle Red Bulls and gobble ice cream.

Pacquiao has sent his entourage on a bus from L.A. to Vegas for as long as anyone can remember. No one can recall the first trip with any accuracy. The faces, the names, they change, as do allegiances and seat assignments. There are, for instance, a lot more pastors now than there were five years ago. Sometimes Pacquiao will take the bus back with everyone. This time, he travels in a separate luxury RV with his wife, their children, their nanny and a handful of close friends and advisers.

• ​WATCH: Lessons from Freddie Roach

The bus pulls away from the gym at 3:51 p.m. Someone stands at the end of the block simply to direct traffic at Santa Monica Boulevard. As the bus departs, a long line of cars follow.

The city gives way to mountains, which give way to desert. Long stretches of desert. I’m sitting near the back with Craig Shapiro of Cedar Street Films, and his crew, who have imbedded in Pacquiao’s camp for 54 days. Shapiro likes Pacquiao to topple Mayweather, likes his ability to pressure Mayweather, wonders how difficult Mayweather’s schedule has been the past few years.. That is a popular opinion on this bus. My opinion—Mayweather by decision—is not. I keep it to myself.

Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

Earlier in the day, the usual crowd has already gathered by noon outside the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood: the fans, dozens, outside the iron gate, with gloves and Sharpies and glossy photos in hand for autographs; the reporters, crowded near the gym door, coffee cups in hand; the weekday boxers, regular folks, working out upstairs; the four-man security team that patrols the parking lot. One fan held a sign. It reads: It’s Now or May-Never.

Pacquiao’s bus pulls up closer to 12:30 p.m. and parks on a small side street off Santa Monica Boulevard. The boxer’s face is splashed across both sides and on the back, his eyes enlarged to the size of manhole covers. There’s nothing about Mayweather on the bus, the way there usually would be, and nothing about HBO or Showtime. That’s per the contractual agreement for this fight. So many entities means Pacquiao’s face is only used for decoration.

• ​BISHOP: Roach explains his strategy, bond with Pacquiao after 14 years

Those assembled in the parking lot spill out onto the side street to take pictures of the bus, and when they do, they hear a small roar from the parking lot that announces Pacquiao’s arrival. There, again, with timing.

Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

​Pacquiao ducks into the locker room. Reporters surround Roach, who said he is flying to Las Vegas. In his nearly 15 years with Pacquiao, he has spent countless hours in the caravan bound for Sin City. “I think there will be like 1,000 cars today,” he said, and by the night’s end, he didn’t seem that hyperbolic.

Roach raves about how camp went, although, he usually feels the same way, says the same things, feels the same mixture of nerves and excitement. Still, Roach says Pacquiao took his skills to “another level” in this camp. He says Pacquiao is faster and hits harder than ever before. He says, “I think he broke my chest.”

“It has to carry over into the fight,” Roach says. “I’m confident it will. I’ve never seen him at this level before. I’ve been hit a lot in my life. He hit me the other day, and I was like, s--- that hurts.”

Roach confirmed the pain on Monday morning with one glance in the mirror. His chest, a good portion of it, was bruised.

There were other differences in this camp. Roach said Pacquiao watched tape with him for the first time in any camp, of Mayweather’s bout against Zab Judah in 2006. Pacquiao also instituted a no-swearing rule. Roach owed him $165 at last count.

In the lead up to recent fights, Pacquiao at times appeared disinterested, or distracted, or not fully engaged. On Monday, from 30 feet away, he notices that one of Roach’s gym assistants needs a haircut. Then he resumes the final hours of his training in Los Angeles, and the pop of when glove met mitt echoes down the street. His mother stops by briefly, with her boyfriend, who we’re told is 38.

• ​MANNIX: Mayweather a big challenge for Freddie Roach

Pacquiao finishes the workout and removes his shirt and flexes. He takes pictures with the Filipino media. A fan has climbed up to a back window in an attempt to catch a glimpse of what is going on inside.

Chavit Singson, a friend of Pacquiao’s and once a politician in the Philippines, moves among the crowd. He is slated to ride in Pacquiao’s RV. He wears a necklace made from a lion’s claw—from a lion he said he shot in Zimbabwe—with diamonds all around it. Diamonds the size of dice. He floats the possibility that Pacquiao may retire if he beats Mayweather. Then he hands over a business card: a thick metal one made to look like a brick of gold.

John Locher/AP Photo

​Pacquiao knocks off several rounds of interviews, then leaves the gym, while the bus emblazoned with his face everywhere idles on the side street. “If I don’t have the bus, then I need to charter a plane,” he said. “A very big plane.”

Thirty minutes later the bus pulls out, into roads choked with afternoon traffic, behind the motorcycles and the Pacquiao family RV and ahead of too many cars to count. It is the opposite of funeral procession. One final long slog to the Fight of the Century awaits.

“I think they’re just taking a ride,” Roach said. “I don’t think any of them have tickets.”

Five hours later, the bus pulls into the Mandalay Bay hotel on South Las Vegas Boulevard. Pacquiao is already upstairs, in his suite. Luggage unloaded and cigarettes smoked, Team Pacquiao disperses into the night. The crazy can wait until Tuesday. Armed with cell phone cameras, a crowd descends and the bus becomes it’s own attraction. Because it’s Vegas. Because it’s Pacquiao. Because it’s Fight of the Century week.


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