LOS ANGELES -- It's Thursday afternoon at the Wild Card Boxing Club and David Rodela is moments away from climbing into the ring with Manny Pacquiao, a wait he likens to standing in line for a roller coaster.
"You hear the chk-chk-chk-chk-chk and you're excited, but once the car gets to the top you're like f---," says Rodela, one of three full-time sparring partners charged with helping Pacquiao prepare for Saturday's showdown with Juan Manuel Marquez. "You wonder how scary that drop's going to be. Then once you get hit, it all flies out the window."
It's nine days before the fight and Pacquiao is about to begin his second-to-last day of sparring before the camp relocates from Hollywood to Las Vegas. He will spar just seven rounds today -- down from as many as 16 several weeks prior -- and Rodela is first in line for a taste of the champion's gold-tinted 16-ounce gloves.
You might think Rodela, a 29-year-old lightweight from Oxnard, Calif., who's sparred in 13 previous Pacquiao camps, would have gotten used to it by now. You'd be wrong.
"It don't matter how many times you get on that roller coaster, it's still the same thing," he says, awaiting trainer Freddie Roach's signal to enter while Pacquiao goes through an elaborate series of stretches in the ring. "I've gone to the restroom like three f---ing times already."
Sparring partners for Pacquiao typically make $1,000 per week, a sum that's been known to climb the longer a fighter has been with the camp. They require the stamina to help the champ condition himself and the skill to keep him frosty and challenge his timing. Most important is the ability to impersonate the tactics and styles of Pacquiao's opponents, one reason Rodela has stuck with the camp since the Filipino was training for his first fight with Erik Morales in March 2005.
With the fight drawing near, Rodela says he's noticed a sharpened focus in Pacquiao while sparring over the past few weeks that doesn't bode well for the challenger.
"In other camps you'd catch him laughing, giggling, playing around, cracking jokes," Rodela says. "Not this camp. This camp, I talk to him, he will crack a smile but for the most part, [it's] all business. It's bad news for Marquez."
Ray Beltran, 30, has been a sparring partner in Pacquiao's camp even longer than Rodela. A lightweight with 25 victories in 30 pro fights, he says he's mulled retirement but considers himself fortunate to have shared a ring with a once-in-a-lifetime fighter like Pacquiao for nearly a decade. If Rodela is there to imitate Marquez's rugged persistence, Beltran is tasked with mimicking the educated counterpunching that flummoxed Pacquiao throughout the 24 rounds of his two previous fights with Marquez, in 2004 and '08.
"He's looking more focused than we've ever seen him," Beltran says. "He'd be ready to fight tomorrow."
Jamie Kavanagh, 21, is the least experienced of the threesome and charged with the unenviable duty of bulling inside to replicate Marquez's aggression. Undefeated in eight pro bouts, the hard-working Golden Boy prospect first sparred with Pacquiao ahead of his March 2010 fight with Josh Clottey, but this marks the 140-pounder's first proper camp.
"He's picking the pace up and he's looking great, that's the main thing," Kavanagh says. "I'm happy just to be getting the rounds in. It's Manny Pacquiao. Not everybody gets to do that."
Pacquiao says he's rarely operating at full tilt during sparring. Still, there's a tendency to "perform," as Rodela calls it, when there's a celebrity or notable name in the gallery -- like when the champ floored Kavanagh twice as promoter Bob Arum looked on a few weeks earlier.
That was nothing compared to Hastings Bwalya, an up-and-coming welterweight from Zambia with a promising record (7-0, 5 KOs) whose reputation as a tough sparring partner for Floyd Mayweather preceded him. After running his mouth and taunting Pacquiao a little too zealously in their first session, Bwalya was left with a broken nose and bloodied mouth courtesy of Pacquiao's blinding hand speed. He was sent home by Roach after just one day.
Today it's Kobe Bryant who's taken a seat at ringside, putting Rodela, Beltran and Kavanagh on alert.
Pacquiao rises and puts on his matching gold-colored gloves, head gear and groin guard over a blue shirt and sleeveless gray shorts with blue trim. Rodela finally enters the ring and the fighters touch gloves twice before circling and feeling one another out.
Early on, Rodela fires a straight right that snaps Pacquiao's head back and presses him backward toward the corner. But Pacquiao turns an artful escape, making Rodela miss badly with an uppercut before popping him with a three-punch combo. "Woo hoo! Let's go!" Rodela cries, eliciting a sidelong grin from the champ.
"When you get hit hard, you go, 'f---, how long are these three minutes going to be?'" Rodela says afterward, "because it feels like an eternity when you're in there."
After two rounds it's Kavanagh's turn, and Pacquiao connects even more frequently thanks to the come-ahead style the Irishman is tasked with emulating. Both men are really letting their hands go near the end of the fourth round when Pacquiao uses Kavanagh's aggression against him, turning him against the ropes and uncoiling a seven-punch combination. When it's over, Kavanagh exits the ring breathing like he just left a burning building. "That was some s--- right there," Kobe says to a friend at ringside. "I wasn't even sure how many punches he was throwing. I just heard them."
The last three rounds belong to Beltran, whose counterpunching is quickly overwhelmed by the hyperkinetic attacks that have become Pacquiao's calling card.
While Beltran gets peppered by uppercuts and body shots as Pacquiao gracefully darts in and out, Kavanagh watches from a distance and admits he'd much rather go first if given a choice. ("Because when I go in [second], he's warmed up and I'm not," he says.) Still winded from six minutes against a fighter widely regarded as the world's pound-for-pound best, Kavanagh winces and laughs as Pacquiao unloads a fusillade of punches that pins Beltran against the ropes. Three beeps mercifully sound to mark the end of the round and session.
The sign hanging above the ring where it's all taking place seems to state the obvious: IT AIN'T EASY.
"He always says he only gives out like 60 percent," Rodela says. "But 60 is enough to whoop my a--."