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Religious awakening buoys Pacquiao as Bradley test looms

HOLLYWOOD -- I came to ask a different kind of question, because virtually every other one about Manny Pacquiao has been answered.

Since Pacquiao rose to prominence -- most point to his 2008 win over Oscar De La Hoya as the fight that elevated the Filipino puncher to superstar status -- he has been covered backward and forward, by blogs and newspapers, magazines and television shows. We know about his days as a stringy 98-pounder who put rocks in his pockets just to make the 105-pound minimum. We know about his partnership with Freddie Roach, who molded a raw bundle of power into a polished champion. We know about his political ambitions, which include a stop in the Filipino Congress and possibly a run for Governor of his province next year.

We know it all. When you are making $25-plus million per fight and routinely registering over 1 million pay-per-view buys, you get more complete coverage than a presidential candidate does.

But there is a new twist to Pacquiao. He has undergone a religious awakening these last eight months, morphing from, as he described himself to me, "an immoral man" into a deeply religious one. He has gone from a man who indulged in heavy drinking, gambling and womanizing to a committed one who has eliminated every vice from his life.

Good for him, I thought to myself a couple of weeks ago. I won't delve too deep into Pacquiao's personal issues here -- pick up this week's Sports Illustrated for more on that -- but it was clear his life had spun out of control. Too many athletes have been sucked in by the trappings of celebrity only to find themselves broke and alone later in life, and by cleaning up his act, by trading the bottle for Bible study, Pacquiao may have avoided a similar fate.

But a question lingered: With a showdown with unbeaten Timothy Bradley on Saturday, (9 p.m. ET, HBO PPV) would a kinder, gentler Pacquiao be the same killer in the ring?

The short answer: Yes.

Sitting with Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, at the front desk of his Wild Card gym last week -- a desk Roach still sits at every day and collects $5 fees from anyone interested in using the facility -- I learned that Roach had the same question. I learned that when Roach initially heard of Pacquiao's transformation, when he started hearing Pacquiao whisper about not wanting to hurt people, when he started seeing his fighter order his entourage to memorize Bible verses, he thought Pacquiao should quit. Boxing is a violent sport, Roach reasoned, and if you don't have a taste for violence anymore, you should get out.

But what Roach has seen from Pacquiao this camp has surprised him. The religious transformation hasn't hurt Pacquiao's boxing; if anything, it has improved it. Roach says Pacquiao is a fresher fighter when he comes to the gym. Freed from the mental toll taken by a strained marriage, he is more focused.

"His focus is very good," Roach said. "We don't have days where he comes in tired, because he has no nightlife whatsoever, besides the Bible study. He is very focused on the fight. He and God are very close right now and he is just a better athlete, with no distractions."

Said his promoter, Bob Arum, "From somebody who has visited the training camp a few times, the difference in Manny's face is so apparent. He's not as tired as he was and he's not as worn as he was. There is a glow in his face. I think this religious awakening has been all good on his part. I am a little prejudiced because I am religious myself but I believe when young athletes find religion it will greatly enhance their careers."

But what about the violence of boxing? How can someone so committed to the Bible reconcile its teachings with a sport where you are trying to inflict as much damage as possible?

"I look at boxing as a sport," said Pacquiao's pastor, Jeric Soriano. "It's his platform. It has made him who he is. I tell him, 'Be the most excellent you can be.' Just as long as he is following the rules, go for it. As far as hurting people, that's the sport. You're allowed to punch each other out. We don't hurt people outside the ring. We help people. We don't cut people down or speak ugly of them. But in the ring, what he is doing is fine."

There is one thing that concerns Roach, and it has nothing to do with Pacquiao's religion. In recent fights, Pacquiao has experienced leg cramps that have hindered his mobility. After the last fight, with Juan Manuel Marquez, Roach suggested Pacquiao see doctors at UCLA to determine what was causing the problem. Pacquiao chose to go a different route.

"I went to his people and said, 'Let's take him to a real doctor,'" Roach said. "They told me they had it covered. I still don't know what they did. The problem is he never haves the cramps during training. It's only during a fight. Maybe it's mental, maybe it's something else. But I would have addressed the issue differently than how he did it."

Roach admits Pacquiao has slowed some. To keep him fresh he has cut his sparring rounds and replaced Pacquiao's longtime sparring partners with new ones because the relationships had become too friendly. "We've got two Russians now," Roach said. "And they don't speak English."

Roach calls Bradley a good fighter but doesn't think he is in Pacquiao's league. "I have been watching Bradley a lot and he doesn't rely very much on counterpunching," Roach said. "He is very offensive. He comes to fight, which will make it a good fight for everybody. We have the game plan set after watching many, many tapes of Bradley. Manny should have a very good fight on Saturday."

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