At Nat's Thai Food, a one-room joint wedged into a minimall in Hollywood, a microphone awaits the national treasure of the Philippines. As gentle piano chords drift from a karaoke machine atop the counter,
Had his dulcet rendition been any less genuine, the choice of a ballad --
Beatlemania pales in comparison to Pacmania. Pacquiao, 29, is an aspiring politician. He is both the star and subject of movies. He hosts a reality TV show. He even has his face on a postage stamp.
Pacquiao overshadows just about everything, national security included. Last March, before his victorious super featherweight rematch against
"We can't even train in the Philippines," says
So the boxer comes here, to Roach's Wild Card Gym on Vine Street, just 20 feet from Nat's. While clusters of fans have spent hours in the parking lot waiting for Pacquiao, the scene is merely a simulacrum of the madness back home. "I haven't seen anything like it, not since Ali," promoter
The fighters' disparity in size hasn't diminished interest -- or hurt the balance sheet. The Grand sold out almost instantly, and the $17 million gate is the second largest in history. Throw in the international audience, and promoters predict that it will be the most profitable fight ever, surpassing De La Hoya's bout against
For a nation of 96 million, it is even more. "Manny is our people's idol and this generation's shining light," Philippine president
In the dusty barrios of the southern Philippines, excitement is not the first thing one feels. Instead it's the oppressive humidity, along with fear: More than 100 civilians have been killed in the region since August, casualties of a conflict between Islamist separatists and the government. But in these parts, the best Asian prizefighter in history is not only an inspiration; he's also a neighbor. While De La Hoya long ago relocated far from his home in gang-ridden East L.A. -- and understandably so -- Pacquiao, with his wife,
His 12,000-square-foot estate, built two years ago, is not far from the streets where Manny, the second of four children, peddled rolls of bread at age 12. Beyond the passel of bodyguards toting assault rifles is the port where Pacquiao boarded a ferry as a 14-year-old, stealing away to turn pro in Manila without his mother's permission. (He had his first title bout two years later.) Why return? "I want to bring glory to my country," Pacquiao says. "And I love GenSan because it's where I came from."
Both Catholics and Muslims are Pac-Man fans. When he fights, the streets empty, the crime rate plummets and the government grinds to a halt. "I'm probably the most powerful person in the Philippines," Arum jokes, "because I decide which politicians get to take a photo with him in the ring."
In January 2006, memorably, after Pacquiao TKO'd super featherweight champ
There was an occasion, however, when the people did say no to their icon. In May 2007, Pacquiao lost a congressional election to incumbent
In an athletically impoverished society, the rhetoric resonated. Even though Pacquiao pledged to the citizenry that he would reduce poverty and stop political infighting, the voters didn't want to distract him from boxing. In their view, meaningful reform would come from a leader wearing gloves.
Pacquiao the boxer is essentially the same as he ever was. The blond dye that once streaked his bangs is gone, but for all of Roach's refinements, Pac-Man's style still features feverish punches and constant motion. The southpaw lets out a yell with every punch
With his kinetic energy Pacquiao has generated "heavyweight-level" pay-per-view ratings and is a huge attraction in Mexico. "The fans there respect him as a great fighter," says
Pacquiao loves standing toe-to-toe and hacking like a farmer with a machete, a perpetually blurry figure whose signature stratagem -- straight right, straight right, straight left -- is so overwhelming that it doesn't matter that his opponent knows what's coming. But the key isn't his wicked hand speed; he has the most powerful legs in boxing. "God's gift to me," Pacquiao calls them. When he first fought Márquez in 2004, Pacquiao darted in and out so often that the sheer friction bloodied the soles of his feet. Naturally he signed an endorsement deal with a socks manufacturer the next day.
It's an early October afternoon in San Francisco, and in Pacquiao's suite on the seventh floor of the Ritz-Carlton, fire ordinances are on the verge of being violated. In town as part of a press tour, Pacquiao steps over one of his Filipino drivers, who has been sleeping on the floor next to the TV; meanwhile, another man is passed out near the doorway, one arm slung over his face.
Who are these folks? "It's a lot of people without titles," Roach says. "I once went around the room and kept asking, 'What does he do?' Nobody could tell me." In GenSan about 30 guys hang out at Pacquiao's mansion every day, playing darts and eating. One friend calls it "social welfare."
Out of a democratic instinct, Pacquiao has been known to take a turn sleeping on the floor.
In fact, the more time you spend with Pacquiao, the more he emerges as a sort of bizarro Mayweather: a polite, quietly unassuming man who not only doesn't talk trash but also picks it up. One night, amid revelry in his suite at the Ritz, he started to gather empty beer cans. Later, flying on a Falcon 900 jet, he used the bathroom faucet to fill an empty water bottle.
When things get out of hand, the job of clearing out gyms and hotel rooms usually falls to
But the warning is as much for Pacquiao -- whose missteps and rumored dalliances (since denied) are tabloid gold in the Philippines -- as it is for those snoozing behind armoires. "Manny would stay out all night, and he had all these bad habits," says Arum. "It wasn't until Jinkee sat him down this year and threatened to leave him that he pledged to change." The promise was ultimately signed in ink: Pacquiao had the names of their children tattooed on his all-important left arm. (A girl is due in January.)
Roach claims to have the inside dope: why De La Hoya's jab, the key to defending an up-close assault, mysteriously disappeared in the late rounds of that loss in May to Mayweather. The Hall of Fame cornerman would be in position to know too: He trained De La Hoya for that fight.
"Pacquiao's going to be busy inside and knock out Oscar in nine rounds," Roach predicts, pooh-poohing any size disadvantage. "Oscar's good, but Manny's the hardest worker I've ever seen. He's a machine."
For any ambitious pugilist, though, De La Hoya, 35, remains a certain archetype. Pacquiao admires Golden Boy Promotions, which tried to sign him in 2006 before Arum's Top Rank won out. (Long story short: Oscar allegedly gave Manny a suitcase of cash in the back of a limo and agreements were broken; people sued; boxing biz as usual.) He especially wants to keep growing the sweet science in his homeland, where the number of gyms and talented fighters is on the rise because of his success.
But unlike De La Hoya, Pacquiao has already traced a clear road map to retirement. No more than three bouts after this one -- two of which may well be megafights against Britain's
The hero of the Philippines grins.
"In 2010," he says, cracking his knuckles, "I'm going to run for congress again."