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, Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao carefully mats down his black bangs, rises from his table and announces to his entourage, "Beatles! Beatles!" Then, grinning impishly, the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world leaves his chicken satay for a song.
Had his dulcet rendition been any less genuine, the choice of a ballad -- Let It Be -- might have come off as awfully ironic. Manny Pacquiao (pa-KEE-ow) is the least passive pugilist of this era, a 5-foot-6 1/2-inch Uzi of a puncher who climbs weight classes (from 106 to 147 pounds in 13 years) as smoothly as he does octaves: In 2006 he had a hit single in the Philippines. Back home, in fact,
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 Juan Manuel Márquez, the Philippine military declared a seven-hour ceasefire in its war against communist insurgents. But what of the rebels, sir? "I suggest," said the army's chief of staff, "that they also watch the fight."
"We can't even train in the Philippines," says Freddie Roach, Pacquiao's trainer of seven years. "Everyone wants a piece of him."
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 Bob Arum says. And it's only getting more surreal: On Dec. 6 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Pacquiao (47-3-2, 35 KOs), a world champion in four weight classes, will jump to welterweight to face Oscar De La Hoya (39--5, 30). Of all the titlists the Filipino has vanquished, none would be greater, literally or figuratively, than the Golden Boy, a 5-foot-10 1/2-inch former middleweight.
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 Floyd Mayweather Jr. last May. As Mark Taffet, vice president for HBO PPV, puts it, "It's a fantasy sports matchup."
For a nation of 96 million, it is even more. "Manny is our people's idol and this generation's shining light," Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo says. "He is our David against Goliath, our hero and the bearer of the Filipino dream ... You can feel the excitement throughout the country every time he is in the ring."
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, Jinkee, and their three children, proudly reigns over the sport from General Santos City.
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 Erik Morales, more than 300 people sat outside his estate for three days. They refused to leave until they got balato -- a share of monetary windfall, usually given to friends and relatives. "Manny had absolutely nothing growing up," Roach says, "but he still can't say no to anyone." He runs a charity, signs autographs and merrily hands out plastic baggies with money (about $4) and food (usually rice and sardines) to devotees. For him, balato is an almost daily responsibility.
There was an occasion, however, when the people did say no to their icon. In May 2007, Pacquiao lost a congressional election to incumbent Darlene Antonino-Custodio. Her campaign didn't denounce the celebrity for his education or political experience. (He had little of either.) Instead she insisted that given the chaos and corruption in the government, Pacquiao is more valuable to the republic in the ring. As she said in September, "Politics is naturally divisive. What he has achieved as a boxer -- uniting the country -- he can continue doing even when he retires."
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 (Boom!) and combination (Boomboomboom!). If he takes a hard shot, he'll bang his gloves together, stick his arms into the air and grin broadly.
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 Ignacio (Nacho) Beristain, who trained Márquez and now works with De La Hoya. To do otherwise would constitute denial. Pacquiao made a name for himself in 2003 with a TKO of Mexican featherweight Marco Antonio Barrera. Since then Pacquiao has gone 9-1-1 and battled five world champions of Mexican heritage over three weight classes, earning the nickname the Mexecutioner.
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. Joaquin Hagedorn Jr., the boyfriend of Pacquiao's sister-in-law, recalls walking into the champ's hotel room in Las Vegas this summer and finding him lying on a blanket. Pacquiao, Hagedorn says, "just didn't think to call for a roll-away."
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 Rob Peters, Pacquiao's security chief. "It's getting a little better now," Peters says. Hired by a concerned Roach in 2005 after Pacquiao lost to Morales in their first fight, Peters has taped laminated signs to every conceivable flat surface: 9:00 p.m. CURFEW STRICTLY ENFORCED.
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 Ricky Hatton and Mayweather -- he vows to hang up his gloves for good, likely at age 31. Why then?
The hero of the Philippines grins.
"In 2010," he says, cracking his knuckles, "I'm going to run for congress again."