Commentary

Not your average everyman

People who know Manny Pacquiao say he's changed little, despite his success

Updated: March 12, 2010, 1:17 PM ET
By Shelley Smith | ESPN

It is a late February afternoon in Freddie Roach's cramped, musky gym in the middle of a strip mall off Vine Street in Hollywood. Dozens of patrons who wanted an old-school workout and had the five bucks to get in the door are punching heavy bags, skipping rope and shadow boxing.

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Shelley Smith / ESPNManny Pacquiao finds time for fun amid intense workouts, and often sings to himself during stretching.

Over in a corner, working the speed bags, is an 8-year-old boy, a 40-something woman and, between them, a man who has won seven world boxing titles at seven weight classes and is largely considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. As Manny Pacquiao pummels a bag methodically, hopping rhythmically from one foot to the other, he bows his head, oblivious to the everyman chaos around him. Pacquiao likes to say he's a man of the people and on this day, well, he truly is.

On this day at Roach's gym, Pacquiao was late for the three-hour window Roach has reserved for him the last month, hence the public onslaught. But those around him will tell you he is the same person who, as a child, sold doughnuts and water on the dirt streets of a small island city in the Philippines. Even then, he operated on Manny time. They say he is the same person who ran away from home in search of a better life and found it. The only difference, he insists, is that now he has money. And that affords him an ability many in his current tax bracket take for granted.

"I can buy food whenever I want," he said.

Not that long ago, that wasn't true. As a boy, there was little money for food. And at times there was no food.

"That is the only change in me, I think," he said.

A few days after his workout among the masses, Pacquiao is finishing a grueling two-hour sparring session against, among others, Abdulai Amidu, a hard-hitting fighter from Ghana.

"I just try to stay with him, give him a good workout," said Amidu, whose shortened breath and sweat beads indicate he got as good of a workout as he gave.

"He is very fast. I just try to give him an idea of what he will face in Clottey."

On Saturday, Pacquiao will take on Joshua Clottey to defend his welterweight title. It will be a good fight, most agree; Clottey is big and strong and can take a hit. But it is not the fight just about everyone was hoping to see. A March matchup had been in the works with Floyd Mayweather, but then Mayweather insisted on blood testing 14 days before the fight, which was unacceptable to Pacquiao. He believes an unscheduled blood test close to his first fight with Erik Morales in 2005 is why Morales won in a 12-round decision.

"I lost because I feel so weak because of that blood testing," Pacquiao said. "I think if I'm bigger than him [Mayweather], taller than him I would agree for what his rules and regulations. But my rules is 24 days before the fight and right after the fight."

Those are the commission's rules as well, and Pacquiao believed they shouldn't be changed. That prompted Mayweather to cry foul -- performance enhancing drugs, actually -- to which Pacquiao filed a defamation suit.

I'm not angry to him. I'm just disappointed. I'm a very religious person, always pray to God, and I'm clean. Accusing me, it's not good for the fighter, if you're a true champion, if you're a true warrior in the ring, to do that.

-- Manny Pacquiao, on Floyd Mayweather's accusations

"I mean, I'm not angry to him," Pacquiao said. "I'm just disappointed. I'm a very religious person, always pray to God, and I'm clean. Accusing me, it's not good for the fighter, if you're a true champion, if you're a true warrior in the ring, to do that."

Pacquiao says the book is not shut on a potential Mayweather fight and most believe it will happen because there is too much money to be made.

But for now, Mayweather has Shane Mosley, and Pacquiao has Clottey.

His sparring session finished, Pacquiao climbs out of the ring and stands with his arms outstretched. A hefty man walks over and tugs Pacquiao's soaked T-shirt off his body and towels down his arms and legs, then slides a fresh shirt over the fighter's chiseled frame. The wipe-down man is Buboy Fernandez, one of Pacquiao's most trusted friends and trainers. Their friendship was born in the Philippines, when they were young boys living in shacks next to one another, the period in his life Pacquiao was referring to when he said food was scarce.

Pacquiao ran away from home when he was 14, but refutes a long-lingering story that he left because his father killed and ate his dog.

"My father has eaten dogs," he said with a grin. "Just not mine."

"When I started boxing, my father and mother separated, and I lived with my mom," he said. "My father went away, he had another family and we were, you know, mad or invisible to my father."

"Manny just wanted to find his way," Fernandez said. "He had a stronger path."

Pacquiao went to Manila and began training and boxing, sometimes in hastily arranged street fights, and sleeping in the gym at night. Fernandez says that one day, when he was about 16, Pacquiao came back to the old neighborhood and saw Fernandez, who was sitting on a rock, smoking cigarettes.

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Shelley Smith / ESPNPacquiao, winding down after an afternoon workout at Wild Card, will often take his crew crowd into a nearby Thai restaurant where he checks NBA news on his Blackberry.

"He came up to me and said, 'Are you Buboy? Is that you?'" he said. "I said yes. And he said, 'Don't do that [smoke cigarettes]. Don't kill yourself.'"

When Pacquiao left again, he took Fernandez with him, and found him a job as a janitor in the same gym where he was sleeping. Because he had won some fights, Pacquiao was afforded two cups of rice a day and gave one to his friend. A lifetime bond was formed. Fernandez has been in Pacquiao's corner for every fight, quietly calling out advice in their native Tagalog after Roach calls it out in English. They can't afford for anything to be lost in translation.

The other man closest to Pacquiao is Nonoy Neri, who could be Fernandez's twin. Fernandez met Neri at the gym in Manila and had heard of his reputation as a chef who made a fabulous chicken adobo. Realizing he'd need some help to take care of Pacquiao's growing needs, he brought Neri on as a chef and a trainer.

In all, Pacquiao employs about 30 people, including gun-wielding security guards who take care of Pacquiao's wife, Jinkee, and four children (three sons and a daughter they named Queen Elizabeth because Pacquiao likes the movie "Elizabeth"). His family has stayed in Manila while he trains in the U.S.

Some of the guards also serve as practice partners on a nearby basketball court in Manila, and his chief of security in the U.S., Rob Peters, also serves as Pacquiao's NBA guru, even passing on his love for the Boston Celtics. Pacquiao now calls Kevin Garnett his favorite player and Garnett and several teammates were ringside when Pacquiao knocked out David Diaz not long after the Celtics celebrated their own world title in 2008.

Playing basketball, Pacquiao says, is his refuge from boxing, what he turns to between fights to stay fresh, and following basketball is a passion. Indeed, after an afternoon workout at Wild Card, Pacquiao and his crew crowd into a nearby Thai restaurant, a common routine. As he slurps hot soup and noodles, he cranks up his Blackberry to see what's going on in the NBA. He even owns a professional team in the Philippines.

Roach tries to make him promise to stop playing hoops a month before any fight, but Pacquiao rarely agrees. He stopped this time only because he was beginning to suffer shin splints.

Roach tries to make him promise to stop playing hoops a month before any fight, but Pacquiao rarely agrees. He stopped this time only because he was beginning to suffer shin splints.

"But you know I'm always going to play basketball, right?" he asked his conditioning trainer, Alex Ariza, who was sitting next to him.

"Right," answered Ariza.

"Good," Pacquiao said, and he laughed.

That Roach is so directly involved with Pacquiao is a testament to his skill as a trainer. But it is also a testament to the way he is battling Parkinson's. On just about any day, Roach is in pads, in the ring, instructing, moving, taking shots, but moving, which doctors say has been key in staving off the effects of the debilitating disease. He bobs and weaves and, against Pacquiao, is especially active; he has to be because of Manny's quick hands and feet.

"It's ironic," longtime public relations manager Fred Sternberg said about Roach. "The sport that is killing Freddie is now keeping him going."

Pacquiao has immense respect for Roach, even as he chides him about his age (he turned 50 on March 5) and his thick glasses (which he removes for pad work). Pacquiao is quick to engage Roach in physical hijinks, shoving him up against the rope, where Roach throws up his hands as if to surrender.

Workouts are always intense, but Pacquiao always finds time for fun. He often sings to himself during stretching (on this day it is Kenny Rogers' "Coward of the County"). When sparring or pad sessions are over and he heads to double-ended bag and then the speed bag, Shakira blasts over the loudspeaker and he often joins in. He was a hit at media day, working Roach's ring like a Vegas stage.

"He is a showman," said one veteran Filipino boxing journalist. "He loves giving people a good show."

Or at the very least, just a show. That is evident when Pacquiao sings yet another love song on yet another late-night talk show. He is a southpaw and as devastating as he is throwing it in the ring, he is equally devastating using it to grasp a microphone. Pacquiao firmly believes he is a singer. And it becomes somehow endearing because he seems so sincere. His enthusiasm erases the bad notes, the poor enunciation and, truly, the lack of talent. But that also somehow makes him even more popular, excelling in perhaps the only arena in which he's clearly overmatched.

He knows he's bad.

"I like the music," he said, laughing, "but I don't think the music likes me too much."

Still, he tries. He loves the spotlight, he loves the Hollywood lifestyle. A few nights before his second singing stint, he attended Mario Lopez's show, "America's Best Dance Crew," and was cheered wildly by the audience, populated by, he said, "90 percent women. Teenagers."

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Shelley Smith / ESPNOn the day the public trained alongside the world champ, the world champ finally winds down his workout and begins to stretch.

As for the future, Clottey is on his mind now and, perhaps, Mayweather down the road. Pacquiao doesn't believe it is important for him to fight Mayweather because he says he believes he has nothing left to prove in the ring. But he does have something left to prove in his country, which is so beholden to him that warring factions stand down when he fights.

When asked if he is the most popular person in the Philippines, he sheepishly answers "yes," and it doesn't come off as brash or bold, it comes off as true.

He ran for Congress in 2007 and lost. He says he knows why, saying all the right things about how he was inexperienced, that it was like going into a fight without preparation, but he knows the real truth. He knows that his countrymen, as much as they loved him, couldn't find it in their hearts to vote for him. Because they feared if he won, he would quit boxing. And that wasn't acceptable. They didn't want to lose the only national hero they've known, the person who made the Philippines relevant for something other than Imelda's shoes. So they didn't vote and he lost.

This time, he promises, will be different. He hasn't said definitively that he will retire if he wins, and he has aligned himself with Manny Villar, a presidential candidate who came from a family of nine children because the country "needs a leader who had experienced poverty."

Pacquiao says he is most concerned about national health care and the welfare of children. He is constantly trying to help those he can. Filipino journalists say it's not uncommon to see a line of people outside his house in Manila, all with problems he understands, because he once had them, too.

On the day the public trained alongside the world champ, the world champ finally winds down his workout and begins to stretch. Ariza grasps his shoulders, his arms, giving each muscle detailed attention to a warm-down so critical to maintaining strength and elasticity. When they are finished, Peters, Pacquiao's security chief, yells across the gym.

"We need a moment of silence, please," he hollered. "Please, one minute."

People stop what they're doing and the previously bustling gym becomes motionless and silent, the only sign all day of deference to who they were training alongside.

Pacquiao leans on the ropes and bows his head in prayer. Fernandez says one of the reasons Pacquiao is so good in the ring and in life is "that he is scared of God."

"If you trust 100 percent in the Lord, you don't worry about anything," Fernandez said. "That's the way he is."

The moment over, Pacquiao lifts his head up, Shakira rings out over the loudspeaker and he starts bouncing around as the patrons in the gym simply turn back to their workouts.

"I am one of them," he said later. "They are me. Everybody is me."

Shelley Smith is an ESPN correspondent based in Los Angeles.

Shelley Smith

SportsCenter correspondent
Shelley Smith joined ESPN in January 1997 after working part-time as a reporter for the network since 1993. She has covered Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, the BCS championship game, the Stanley Cup playoffs, golf and tennis championships and more.

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