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Behind the scenes with Pacquiao

LOS ANGELES -- Manny Pacquiao won't be here for at least another two hours, but there are already two dozen fans on the sun-splashed asphalt outside Hollywood's Wild Card Boxing Club trying desperately to look like they're not loitering.

Only four more days before the circus leaves town.

Here at the back of a horseshoe-shaped strip mall, past the Stop & Shop and Nirvana Massage parlor and up a perpendicular metal staircase, Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, is conducting business in what's become the world's most renowned gym. And business is booming.

It's nine days before Pacquiao, the hard-hitting Filipino southpaw considered by many the world's best pound-for-pound fighter, defends his WBO welterweight title against "Sugar" Shane Mosley at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Pacquiao is a 9-to-1 favorite, eye-popping odds given Mosley's world-class chin, thunderous right hand and Hall of Fame pedigree.

But Mosley is 39, fresh off a one-sided loss to Floyd Mayweather and a lackluster draw with Sergio Mora. And even more worryingly for the challenger, Roach is confident.

"He's in as great shape as I've ever seen him," says the four-time BWAA Trainer of the Year, before uttering the nine words no Pacquiao opponent ever wants to hear:

"We've got a great game plan for this guy."

Pacquiao is just one of 10 fighters Roach is training at the Wild Card, a roll that includes WBA super lightweight champion Amir Khan, junior middleweight prospect Vanes Martirosyan and Bernabe Concepcion, the featherweight contender who's fighting Juan Carlos Martinez on ESPN's Friday Night Fights in Vegas one night before Pacquiao-Mosley. ("Probably a few too many," admits Roach, who works six days a week, taking only Sundays off, "but business is good.")

But Pac-Man is certainly the most important in Roach's stable. The 32-year-old is so much more than just the first fighter to collect eight world championships in eight weight classes. He is a global phenomenon who sings, acts and was elected to Congress in the Philippines last May. He is the most socially important boxer since Muhammad Ali and perhaps the greatest boxer of the modern era. It's been more than six years since he lost a fight.

Pacquiao typically splits training between the Philippine city of Baguio -- where the high altitude promotes rich stamina -- and here at the Wild Card. He spent just three weeks in Hollywood before his decisive but painful victory against Antonio Margarito in November, as political responsibilities compromised his attention. But the straight-shooting Roach is quick to insist that Pacquiao is wrapping up his best camp in years.

"He hit the ground running and looked great out of the gate," Roach says. "He was doing eight rounds [on the mitts] immediately and he's up to 16 rounds now. I'm starting to hold him back a little bit. The hardest part is slowing him down."

Roach excuses himself and disappears momentarily. Within minutes he's in the ring working the pads with Conception as Kanye West's "All of the Lights" blasts from a speaker in the corner. By the time Roach finishes, Manny is a half-hour late. Told he had an interview that ran long, I ask for details from Roach, who looks at me like I have a large piece of food in my teeth.

"Is that his excuse?" he says with a laugh. "He's f---ing sleeping."

* * * * *

Lateness is a theme here. And in a vacuum, or if it were anyone else, it might be a cause for concern. But the famous intensity of Pacquiao's workouts instantly puts doubts to rest. Those who have spent significant time at previous camps, Roach included, say they've never seen Pacquiao train more consistently. And many profess the idea that Mosley is in serious trouble come May 7.

Sure, maybe Pacquiao hasn't been getting up at 7 a.m. all the time for his daily runs -- where he alternates uphill climbs near the Hollywood Sign and flat courses at Pan Pacific Park across the street from his Palazzo digs -- but he doesn't slack once he clocks in. Pacquiao, who carries himself at a 5-minute-mile pace, did his most strenuous run on Monday: uphill for 70 minutes in sand. Yesterday he asked Roach if he could run the 10-mile course again today, a request the trainer simply could not green-light so close to the fight. He is paced by a marathon runner who works for Nike, but as Roach says, "He's so competitive he'll never let the guy win."

Pacquiao is still M.I.A. when the bustling gym begins to clear out about 2 p.m. for the champ's scheduled training. Within minutes, the cacophony of a busy space is reduced to the pierce whistle of a lone jump rope and the setting reveals itself: Thousands of photos, fight bills and posters line the wall, lending a cluttered-desk aesthetic so unique to boxing gyms. The layout of the space consists of five heavy bags, two maize bags, five speed bags and two treadmills. The larger of the two rings is closest to the front door (which is really at the rear of the building) and lined with a MP logo and four Nike swooshes.

Ten more minutes pass. Roach eyes the clock once more and walks into his cramped office, above which hangs a sign held by three silver thumbtacks: EVERYONE HERE SEEMS NORMAL UNTIL YOU GET TO KNOW THEM.

* * * * *

Manny Pacquiao is not normal.

That's suggested by the small mob waiting at the bottom of the stairs outside the Wild Card, where Pacquiao politely signs autographs and poses for camera-phone snapshots. And it's made obvious during the freakish two-hour workout he's about to undergo.

Three familiar sparring partners are here: Shawn Porter, Rey Beltran and Rashad Halloway, each of whom has worked with Pacquiao in previous camps. Roach says Halloway won't be used today, noting Porter is the uncanniest Mosley clone out of the group, with Beltran not far behind. Roach gave each a copy of Mosley's 2007 unanimous-decision loss to Miguel Cotto -- "a good basic game plan on how to beat Shane Mosley," he says -- and told them "do their best" to impersonate the champ's upcoming foe.

"We're pretty much there already," Roach says of Pacquiao's preparations. "[The sparring] is just about keeping our timing. Just eight rounds today, Sunday it'll be six, Monday it'll be four and then we're done.

"Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, just walking through the strategy [in Las Vegas] with a little more of the mitts. Then it's about keeping him occupied."

How, pray tell?

"Keep him talking."

Before starting his workout, Pacquiao muses on the looming challenge in his cramped, sauna-like dressing room.

"I'm expecting the 100 percent best from Shane Mosley. He's strong and I don't underestimate him," says Pacquiao, who's embraced the underdog role in the past (ask Oscar De La Hoya). "When you're the underdog in the fight, it makes you motivated more in training. But when you're the favorite, you have to make a way that you can motivate yourself more to train hard.

"It's not difficult to me. I always think if I'm the favorite, like this fight, I don't want the fans to be disappointed in my performance or my style. I want them to be satisfied and happy because they expect a lot from me."

All taped up, Pacquiao climbs into the ring for 15 minutes of stretching with Alex Ariza, the strength and conditioning coach most responsible for Pacquiao's history-making ascent through the weight classes. The gym is now empty except for the trio of sparring partners, their coaches, a few Wild Card employees, Roach's agent, Roach's mother and the four-man camera crew for Showtime's Fight Camp 360° docu-series.

As Pacquiao finishes stretching, the A&R rep who cut Pacquiao's latest album -- released on Thursday and already sold out on Amazon.com -- stops into the gym and offers congratulations. While they mingle, an agent looking to enlist Pacquiao for some charity work mentions longtime Survivor frontman Jimi Jamison is flying into Vegas to sing "Eye of the Tiger" live as the champ walks to the ring.

Finally, just minutes before 4 p.m., Pacquiao's gold-tinted headgear is slipped on and sparring begins. Three beeps signal the start of Round 1 and Pacquiao circles the ring, keeping himself a moving target, escaping gracefully from compromising positions with speed and guile. A violent exchange with 20 seconds left in the round seems to drive him back, but Pacquiao lands a big left before the end of the frame.

The intensity is elevated for the second round as both fighters start to put combinations together. No one seems too surprised when Manny absorbs a vicious head-body-head combo along the ropes; Buboy Fernandez -- Team Pacquiao's own Bundini Brown -- calmly exhorts instructions in Filipino. Porter rocks Pacquiao with a hellacious four-punch combo near the end of the round. Onlookers wince in concert. Pacquiao giggles almost uncontrollably as he returns to his corner.

Then in the third round, Pacquiao starts putting punches together. He's been playing with Porter. After placing three perfect punches, Pacquiao shoots a communicative glance at Halloway at ringside, who can't help himself from laughing. "You a nasty man, man," Porter says after the round ends.

"We have a different strategy for this fight because Shane Mosley is not that slow a fighter compared to Margarito," Pacquiao had said earlier. "That's why we focus on speed and footwork and also combinations, counterpunching. Everything we study is a different style, different movement, so whatever his style is going to be in the ring, we can adjust right away."

This diversity is showcased the remaining two rounds against Porter, who unloads the arsenal -- oppressive waves of jabs, hooks, uppercuts -- and connects with nearly everything, but can't wipe the smile off the face of Pacquiao, forever happy in his work.

Five rounds down and Porter climbs out, passing the baton to the waiting Beltran:

"All yours, Ray."

Three more taxing rounds with Beltran confirm that Pacquiao is honing his ability to absorb punishment on the ropes and respond with extreme prejudice.

Since the workout started late, it's going to finish late. That means Pacquiao is still working the maize bag and jumping rope as the gym reopens for the afternoon regulars -- a motley bunch that runs the gamut of race, gender and experience. The small space gets crowded quickly. Look both ways before crossing the room, lest you get blindsided by a right hook.

The gym is in full bustle at 6:09 p.m., when Buboy bellows above the din for a moment of silence so Pacquiao can pray. Less than a minute later, the champ raises his head, climbs out of the ring and the action resumes.

The workout is over. Everybody seems satisfied.

"If the fight was [this] Saturday," Ariza says, "we'd be ready to go then."

* * * * *

Less than 20 minutes before he is due at the Hollywood Boulevard studios of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Pacquiao and entourage make a beeline for the two vehicles parked out front. Manny negotiates his way through the dozens of fans who've accumulated outside and hops into the driver's seat of a black Mercedes coupe. Leading the caravan is a white Suburban driven by ubiquitous advisor Michael Koncz, with indefatigable Top Rank publicist Fred Sternburg riding shotgun.

Upon arrival, there's a dizzying walk from the back parking lot through an alleyway into the bowels of the studio past the green room into Pacquiao's dressing room -- think the Copacabana tracking shot from Goodfellas. The door is promptly locked as Pacquiao plops onto the couch while someone quickly dials up the basketball game. A monster NBA fan, Pacquiao is engrossed in a playoff game between Atlanta and Orlando, with just 2:56 left in the fourth quarter and the Hawks clinging to a 78-74 lead.

Pacquiao's takeout dinner from The Grill on the Alley -- steak, scallops and asparagus -- is still bagged in plastic containers awaiting his arrival. Koncz perfunctorily cuts the steak with plastic silverware while a sapped Pacquiao loses himself in the game.

Alex Ariza, whose name was mysteriously missing from the list, arrives late with a container of white rice and tea, which he pours from a large plastic container into a paper cup. Pacquiao bows his head and says grace before he eats. He makes it disappear within minutes and works his teeth with a toothpick.

Eventually the Showtime camera crew finds its way into the dressing room. Sternburg is perusing the Kimmel show's legal release. Ariza and Pacquiao whisper to one another in the corner. When the Hawks win, an entourage member changes stations to the Lakers-Hornets game. A producer comes in to brief Pacquiao on the itinerary. "I'll make it quick so I can let you get back to the important stuff," he says, nodding to the basketball game on TV. Pacquiao will be talking about the fight, his latest album, his visit with President Obama. When the Kimmel producer leaves, Pacquiao tells a reporter from Top Rank that he's a Celtics fan and a Lakers fan. (Ever the politician).

The framed photos on the dressing-room wall feature Kimmel rapping with past guests like Harrison Ford, Carrie Underwood and Magic Johnson. Other amenities include a vanity mirror, DirecTV and mini fridge stocked with Coke, Sprite and not enough bottled water for the two dozen people who have somehow gained admission into the room. (The population will peak at a fire-marshal-unfriendly 31; "I don't know half these people," Sternburg confesses bemusedly.) A three-man camera crew for Pacman, a forthcoming documentary by Academy Award-winning Leon Gast (When We Were Kings), is sweating profusely in the corner but getting footage of everything.

Pacquiao's famously swollen entourage -- trainers, trainers assistants, advisers, coaches, dishwashers, shoe-tiers, cooks, gofers -- shares an affinity for practical jokes that borders on compulsion. You could be walking for an hour before you realize there's a paper towel taped to your back, or a spoon in your back pocket or a flower step in your belt loop. (When I found a lemon rind hanging from my pocket and turned around to discover three men bursting into laughter, I felt like I'd been initiated.)

Now Koncz is carrying around a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot game. Kimmel wants Pacquiao to play Ariza in the game on-camera backstage. A producer tells Manny to pick up the game and throw it to the ground in mock anger if he loses. But Ariza wins, which the ultra-competitive Pacquiao briefly protests before a producer urges him to the stage.

The appearance itself -- which has already gone viral -- was another hit. Pacquiao plugged his new album, a recording of '70s ballad "Sometimes When We Touch," which includes no fewer than seven versions of the song and a 26-minute DVD featuring interviews and footage of the recording sessions. It's Pacquiao's fourth appearance on the late-night talk show, which he confesses has become a sort of pre-fight good-luck charm.

As soon as Pacquiao is finished, Ariza can't wait to get back on the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em game in the dressing room, which he's quickly converted into a drinking game using the complimentary Bud Light Lime.

This time, Manny loses. And he rapidly throws the game to the floor, destroying it and exploding into impish laughter.

"You're a sore loser," Ariza says, unamused.

"That's what they told me to do!"

* * * * *

After comedian Norm McDonald braves the overflowing dressing room to shoot a bit for his Comedy Central show, Sternburg directs Pacquiao to one last obligation, with TMZ outside, but a savvy correspondent from KTLA 5 intercepts him first. There's no end to it.

When TMZ finally corners him just feet from the parking lot, the interviewer asks Pacquiao if the rumors of a forthcoming movie with Sylvester Stallone are true.

"I don't know yet because I'm too busy after this fight."

Only three more days before the circus leaves town.

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