LAS VEGAS -- It wasn’t the first time Manny Pacquiao organized a pre-fight Mass for friends, family and well-wishers on the morning of a major fight.
Yet there was a particular newsworthiness to Saturday morning’s Catholic service at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, down the strip from the MGM Grand where tonight's welterweight title fight with Timothy Bradley will take place. The spiritual reawakening undergone by Pacquiao over the past six months has become the central storyline of the promotion, thanks in no small part to Bradley's anonymity beyond hardcore boxing fans. Thus, more than a half-dozen American and Filipino news outlets had camera crews on hand -- from HBO to GMA to the local network affiliates -- with countless more still photogs snapping away.
By 9:20 a.m., approximately 400 people had filed into the same room where Pacquiao earned signature victories over Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez and David Diaz. On the floor to the right of a makeshift altar, the all-male Servant of God Police Choir and all-female M/J Pacquiao Choir sang Tagalog songs like "Ang Panginoon ang aking Pastol,” “Huwag Kang Mangamba” and “Pananagutan” as ushers in pale blue coats guided congregants to their seats in Section 113.
In the second row sat Pacquiao's trainer Freddie Roach, in black collared shirt and jeans, politely posing for camera-phone pics with gawking fans every minute or so. At 9:23, Pacquiao’s longtime friend and assistant trainer Buboy Fernandez carefully placed the fighter’s gloves, trunks and six of his title belts on a table next to the gilded cup of the Eucharist, prompting a flurry of photography from amateur shutterbugs.
The congregation simultaneously craned their necks at 9:48, when Pacquiao himself emerged from the tunnel with his wife Jinkee (radiant in a black and white horizontal striped dress) trailed by their children Jimuel, Michael, Princess and Queen Elizabeth, to the traditional Tagalog Mass song "Purihin ang Panginoon." He looked happy and strong when they rose to sing “Lupang Hinirang,” the Philippine national anthem he'll hear once again tonight in the ring.
After Communion, celebrant Fr. Marlon Boef blessed the fighter's shorts, gloves and belts, as he’s done for most of the Filipino's championship fights over the past few years. But it was Pacquiao’s two girls who stole the show. First 6-year-old Princess made her way to the stage, said a prayer of thanks and dutifully recited three Bible verses (John 3:16, John 14:14 and John 14:15). Then 3-year-old Queenie sang a few bars of “Heaven In My Heart” by the Hillsong Kids.
The pressure Saturday is squarely on Pacquiao, not just to win over Bradley but do it in a way that’s authoritative. That, after all, is how he cracked the cultural mainstream like no Asian-born athlete in history: by dominating his opponents in such hyperkinetic and crowd-pleasing fashion. Yet it’s been more than two-and-a-half years since he knocked out anyone, he nearly lost his last fight against Juan Manuel Marquez and turned in a snoozer against Shane Mosley in the one before that. "Win this one, look good in the next one" is a precept nearly as old as the fight game itself, but a luxury Manny Pacquiao can ill afford to follow.
That burden can't be easy. Yet for 90 minutes on Saturday morning, he was able to take refuge in the fellowship of his family, his friends, his God. Maybe it's just what he needed just hours from what could very well be the defining test of his career's third act.
-- Bryan Armen Graham