This story appears in the May 4, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
In the heart of Hollywood, buried in the back of a strip mall behind an unmarked door, past the patrolling guards and the security camera, is a hallowed boxing ground. Two years ago it was a laundromat, a rarely used, money-hemorrhaging business tucked underneath Freddie Roach's Wild Card Gym. Then Roach took over the lease, adding $2,500 per month to the $4,500 he was paying for Wild Card. He didn't want the room; he wanted the four parking spots that came with it.
After six months Roach wondered, Maybe I should do something with the place. He surveyed the room and deduced that there was just enough space for a ring, a heavy bag and a few pieces of training equipment. He paid $10,000 to have the room gutted, the electricity rewired ("What a pain in the ass," says Roach) and proper plumbing installed. Nike gave him a rubber floor; Roach bought a black ring apron with the logo of his prized pupil, Manny Pacquiao, emblazoned in two corners.
These days Roach spends most of his time here. While Wild Card resembles a mosh pit, the downstairs space calls to mind a private club. Roach's fighters—he has 14 in his stable—often ask to train there. His most common response: You don't deserve it. Take Wale Omotoso, a once-beaten welterweight contender. Last year he pleaded with Roach to let him work on the first floor. "I said, 'You should have won your last fight,'" says Roach. "He was lazy. Once in a while I'll get a young prospect and bring him down, just to tease him a little bit. But when it's time to work, I'll say, 'O.K., back upstairs.'"
Indeed, the first floor is for the elite. In April, mornings belonged to middleweight champion Miguel Cotto, who has a friendly rivalry with Pacquiao. Cotto has a personalized ring apron too, though when Pacquiao is in training, as he has been since early March, Cotto begrudgingly works out on Manny's mat. Recently, Cotto hung a Puerto Rican flag on one of the walls; when Pacquiao saw it, he ordered Roach to buy a bigger Filipino flag—and hang it right next to the Puerto Rican one.
Mid-mornings are reserved for Ruslan Provodnikov, a former Pacquiao sparring partner who has emerged as a television-friendly fighter in the light welterweight division. Pacquiao and Provodnikov don't interact much. "There is a little bit of tension there," says Roach. "Ruslan thinks Pacquiao should be fighting him next."
He isn't, of course. On Saturday, Pacquiao will face Floyd Mayweather Jr., 38, the undefeated, reigning pound-for-pound king, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. It's a fight that is expected to shatter records for pay-per-view buys (an estimated three million) and total revenue ($150 million) and to provide Pacquiao with at least $50 million—and likely a whole lot more.
But for the first time since a 2008 win over Oscar De La Hoya, Pacquiao is the underdog, an oddsmaker-formed opinion attributed in part to Mayweather's preternatural skills, in part to the 36-year-old Pacquiao's perceived decline. Roach swears that Pacquiao is still at his physical peak. "He hasn't lost a step at all," the trainer insists. Others are not so sure. Once a fearsome puncher, Pacquiao (57-5-2) has not scored a knockout in nearly six years. He's just three fights removed from a knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez. A deeper commitment to Christianity has helped him rebuild his personal life but has seemingly diminished his aggressive instincts. His responsibilities to the Philippine Congress—Pacquiao was first elected in 2010—cut into his training time, and the countless people reaching into his pocket fuel fear for his financial future. As Pacquiao prepares for the biggest fight of his career, many wonder: Does he have a performance worthy of the occasion left in him?
It’s just after 2 p.m. when Pacquiao breezes through the door, long-sleeve shirt, shorts, knee-high socks and flip-flops—his typical getup. Roach has been waiting for an hour, though he doesn't seem bothered, not as long as he has a captive audience.
At 2:15, Pacquiao disappears into a dressing room with a handful of associates—some with real responsibilities, some around just to entertain him. He emerges at 3, setting about 15 people into motion. Roach, 55, his body ravaged by Parkinson's disease, still does most of the mitt work. Recently, though, he has had to delegate. In February he tweaked his back while working another fighter's corner. Later, the pain migrated to his neck. When Roach sought epidurals to deal with the distress—he has had six in all—his doctor approved, with one condition: When Roach worked the mitts, he could no longer get hit in the face. Roach agreed. So on the longer days, he says, "I let Buboy do some of the work."
No one knows Pacquiao better than Buboy Fernandez, his cherubic assistant trainer. They met in the mid-1990s, two impoverished teenagers living in General Santos City. When Pacquiao's boxing career led him to Manila, he took Buboy; when he turned professional, he hired Buboy; when he moved to the U.S. in 2001—along came Buboy.
In 2011, Buboy saw Pacquiao at a crossroads. Years of infidelity had put his marriage in jeopardy; years of free spending and hard gambling had put his financial future at risk, too. Everyone in Pacquiao's camp has a gambling story. Manny's younger brother Bobby recalls regular weekend trips to Southern California casinos, where Pacquiao would routinely drop $100,000 at the poker tables. Bob Arum, Pacquiao's promoter, recounts the phone calls from casinos in Australia and Macao, asking him to cover Pacquiao's markers. Roach recalls being at cockfights with Pacquiao in the Philippines, where Pacquiao would flash 5--0 with his hands, indicating a $50,000 bet. At the subject of cockfighting—which is legal in the Philippines—Buboy shakes his head. Once, he says, Pacquiao bet 16 million pesos on a cockfight, or around $360,000. "It needed to stop; I'm glad it stopped," says Fernandez. "He's much happier without it."
Today, by all accounts, Pacquiao is in a better place. Arum says the calls from casinos have stopped. Philandering has been replaced with regular Bible study, and those close to him say he has repaired his relationship with his wife, Jinkee. In 2012, Pacquiao divested his interests in his casino and bar in the Philippines and has focused on more stable investments. According to Michael Koncz, a longtime adviser, Pacquiao owns three commercial buildings in General Santos City, along with a gym, two beach resorts and some farmland. There have been some questionable purchases—in March, Pacquiao put a down payment on a $12 million Beverly Hills home—but, says Arum, "I don't worry as much about his financial future anymore."
Pacquiao's remaining vice—if you want to call it that—is his generosity. "He doesn't know how to say no," says Koncz. In some cases, the result is harmless. For this camp, Roach brought in Steve Forbes, a long-faded former super featherweight champion, as a sparring partner. On the first day Pacquiao battered Forbes badly. Roach decided to let him go and gave him $2,000. Pacquiao, hearing Forbes was done, added another $5,000. Last month Pacquiao was leaving Nat's, a Thai joint attached to Wild Card, when a homeless African-American man bellowed at him. Looking up, Pacquiao spotted him in the crowd.
"Manny, I used that money you gave me yesterday for food!" he said.
Pacquiao turned, smiled, reached into his pocket and handed the man a wad of bills.
"My n-----!" the man shouted back.
Pacquiao's newfound faith has brought more wolves out of the woods. "People try to use religion to get to him," says Koncz. "It's, We want to build a parish for sheltered children. Mostly it's bull----." Some schemes Pacquiao sees through. Two years ago, he was approached by a man, who identified himself as a devout Catholic, about an endorsement deal. He said it could be worth $10 million. Pacquiao asked him for his favorite Bible verse. All he got was a vacant stare. "His kindness and generosity could be his downfall," says Koncz. "He's bent on helping people."
Asked about Pacquiao's benevolence, Roach shrugs. "He's a great guy," says Roach. "What I care about is when he comes to the gym, he's ready to work."
Pacquiao’s house sits on a sleepy street in Hancock Park, a tony neighborhood a mile or so from Hollywood. When in training, the boxer calls it home. Outside a dozen or so friends and family mingle, sipping drinks out of Solo cups and eating steak and rice off plastic plates. Just past the front door is Pacquiao's trophy shelf with his 2009 Sugar Ray Robinson Award flanked by a pair of ESPYs, reminders of better days.
In interviews Pacquiao doesn't offer much. Of finally landing a fight with Mayweather he says, "I always believed it would happen." On the perception of his diminished skills, "I still think I am at my best." Only a question about his underdog status evokes an inspired response. "I'm thankful that I'm the B-side, that I'm the underdog," says Pacquiao. "It's given me inspiration, focus and concentration in training. I love it."
Roach does too. Years earlier, he and Pacquiao made a deal: Pacquiao agreed to quit if Roach saw signs of slippage. Roach says he hasn't seen any. The knockout loss to Marquez was frightening, but, says Roach, "It's the legs. I remember when my legs gave out on me. I couldn't do roadwork anymore. I couldn't move in the ring. Manny's not like that. His foot speed is brilliant."
When watching fighters, the eye can be an enemy. Pacquiao is in pristine condition. His 5'6", 147-pound frame is sculpted, and his muscular, oversized calves—which cramped in some previous camps—have been fine. Strength coach Justin Fortune, who is working his fourth fight with Pacquiao, says the fighter has never looked better. Arum swears he has not seen Pacquiao this fast in training since he beat De La Hoya in 2008. Sparring partners can often be informative, but for this camp, Pacquiao's team has not only barred reporters from watching sparring, they have forced the boxers to sign nondisclosure agreements.
The challenge, Roach says, is to get Pacquiao to buy in to the game plan. It's not an unusual issue. During most camps, Roach has one strategy; Pacquiao has another. It takes weeks to blend them. This camp has been no different. An example: Roach believes the best strategy against Mayweather is to move right, staying out of range of Mayweather's piston-rod right hand. Pacquiao's inclination is to move left, to stay away from the hook. Roach sees Mayweather's long jab to the body creating openings for counter shots; the difficulty is persuading Pacquiao to take the shot in order to give back a bigger one. When onlookers bark instructions at Pacquiao in Tagalog, Roach snarls in their direction. "They better be telling him what I am," says Roach. "I'm not f------ around here."
Which again raises the question: Is the gentler Pacquiao capable of competing with Mayweather? Is the fighter who savaged Cotto and pancaked Ricky Hatton still there? Pacquiao has told Roach knockouts aren't necessary; that he can win without stretching someone out. "That's crazy," says Roach, "because one punch can change the fight." Pausing, Roach points in Pacquiao's direction. "The killer is still in him," says Roach. "And we need it to come out."
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