- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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LAS VEGAS -- Manny Pacquiao was just 16 years old, a frail 106-pounder, when he turned pro in obscurity in the Philippines and won a long-forgotten four-round decision against Edmundo Enting Ignacio in 1995.
Who would have believed that 14 years later Pacquiao would have grown into a rock-solid man some 40 pounds heavier and become a worldwide star, the national icon of his beloved country and on the verge of one of the most historic accomplishments in boxing history?
That would be winning a record seven world titles in seven divisions from 112 pounds to 147 pounds, which he can do by defeating welterweight titlist Miguel Cotto on Saturday night (9 ET, HBO PPV, $54.95) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in the year's biggest fight.
"This fight is about history," Pacquiao said. "It's exciting to think I can be the first person to win seven world titles in seven different weight divisions. What makes it even more special is that it would be a Filipino to do it.
"If I do it, 30 years from now they won't forget my name. Manny Pacquiao will still be there."
In May, the pound-for-pound king scored a titanic second-round knockout of England's Ricky Hatton to capture the lineal junior welterweight championship. The victory made Pacquiao a six-division titleholder, tying the record set by Oscar De La Hoya, who won belts from 130 pounds to 160 pounds, but was pounded into retirement by Pacquiao in a December 2008 nontitle welterweight fight.
Now, Pacquiao seeks to break the tie by moving back up to welterweight (albeit at a contract weight of 145 pounds, two less than the division limit) to challenge Puerto Rico's Cotto at the MGM Grand, also the site of his wins against Hatton and De La Hoya.
"I don't necessarily count his belts, but his whole body of work as he has fought bigger and bigger guys is something truly outstanding," said Top Rank promoter Bob Arum. "I really believe it's hard to assess things while they are happening. When something is happening in real time we tend to say it's good, but not necessarily legendary or great. But I can see 20 years from now people will look back at this and say what he is doing is legendary and great."
It would be a mind-boggling accomplishment for a man whose first title came in the 112-pound flyweight division to also win a welterweight title.
But that is what Pacquiao (49-3-2, 37 KOs) stands on the brink of doing.
"First it is a very big honor for me and for the people in my country and I am honored to be fighting for another world championship," Pacquiao said. "That is why I am very hungry for doing this fight because it is the first time in the history of boxing to win a title in seven different weight divisions."
Cotto, who has won titles at welterweight and junior welterweight, has no intention of becoming No. 7 on Pacquiao's list of title victims.
"If he thinks he is going to win seven titles in seven weight divisions now, he has picked the wrong moment, the wrong fighter and the wrong opponent," Cotto said sternly. "If he thinks he is going to win the seventh title against Miguel Cotto, he is very wrong."
Arum, trying to walk the fine line of neutrality because he promotes Pacquiao and Cotto, understands the historic implications of Saturday's fight.
"I think that Manny has already established himself as a great, Hall of Fame fighter, but if he beats Cotto he becomes a legendary fighter the same way we regard Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali," Arum said. "He becomes part of that super, super elite group."
Granted, there was a time when boxing had only eight weight classes with one champion per division, and now the sport is bloated to 17 divisions with four sanctioning organizations doling out the most recognized belts.
However, if it was so easy to win seven titles in that many divisions wouldn't everybody be doing it? Wouldn't somebody have already done it?
"Fighting Miguel Cotto for a seventh world title is going to be unbelievable because Manny is a throwback. He is like a Henry Armstrong type," said Freddie Roach, Pacquiao's trainer, referring to the Hall of Fame great who once simultaneously held titles in three weight divisions (when there were only eight total) more than 70 years ago. "You don't have fighters like that today that move up in weight like this to win championships in all of these different weight divisions.
"He is carrying his punch and his power with him along with his speed. He is just getting better and better in the ring. This is just one of the greatest achievements ever. He is passing people like Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns. He is in the level of the top five fighters of all time of any era."
Pacquiao's remarkable run began in 1998, when he traveled to Thailand and knocked out flyweight champion Chatchai Sasakul in the eighth round to win his first major title, whose lineage can be traced directly back to Hall of Famer Miguel Canto.
Pacquiao, who suffered two knockout losses as a flyweight -- he claims he was weight drained going into both -- made one defense before losing his title on one of the knockouts. After that, he moved directly to the 122-pound junior featherweight division.
Given what Pacquiao has accomplished, it's not a stretch to think that had he gotten an opportunity to fight for titles at junior bantamweight (115 pounds) or bantamweight (118), we'd be talking about Pacquiao going for a title in his ninth division against Cotto.
But seven is impressive enough, said Roach, who hooked up with Pacquiao shortly before his American debut in 2001, when, as a late replacement, he upset Lehlo Ledwaba with a dominant sixth-round knockout to win a junior featherweight title, also at the MGM Grand, on a De La Hoya undercard.
"I'm very happy to be part of it," Roach said. "I was wondering where he would be or where I would be without each other. Who knows? Manny Pacquiao has been a great part of my life. It's unbelievable. He's like a throwback. He could compete in any era. He only comes along once in a lifetime. People always ask me who's the next Manny Pacquiao? I'm only going to see one of him in my life."
After four defenses, the stage was set for Pacquiao's true coming-out party in November 2003, a memorable performance in an 11th-round knockout of Marco Antonio Barrera to claim the lineal featherweight championship. Two and a half years earlier, Barrera had stunned the world with his own dominant performance against Naseem Hamed, who would have had a stranglehold on all four sanctioning organization titles if not for the politics that prevented him from holding them simultaneously. Nonetheless, Barrera was the man, who beat the man, who beat the man -- meaning the lineal champion.
Four of Pacquiao's championships -- a record -- include the lineal title: flyweight, featherweight, junior lightweight and junior welterweight.
After beating Barrera, Pacquiao eventually moved up to the 130-pound junior lightweight division, where he and Erik Morales engaged in a memorable nontitle trilogy before Pacquiao had a year for the ages in 2008.
He and Juan Manuel Marquez had fought to a controversial draw in a featherweight championship fight in 2004, in which Pacquiao entered as the lineal champion but Marquez held two alphabet belts. They met in a March 2008 rematch with Marquez's junior lightweight title at stake.
Pacquiao claimed a controversial split decision to give him title No. 5. Four months later, Pacquiao made a pit stop at lightweight and cherry-picked a 135-pound belt with a ninth-round decimation of David Diaz.
That performance gave Arum the confidence that Pacquiao could compete at even heavier weights, and Pacquiao followed with the beatdown of De La Hoya in an upset and the knockout of Hatton.
"I equate this guy with a legendary fighter like Henry Armstrong," Arum said. "I never saw Armstrong except on a couple of films, but from everything I read Armstrong was a similar kind of guy, a fast guy who could go up in weight without losing his ability. Pacquiao is somebody that I've never seen in my entire boxing career. I've never seen a fighter go up in weight the way he has and at the same time increase his punching power and get faster. Everything that conventional wisdom says you are supposed to lose as you move up in weight, he gets better.
"This son of a gun, his punch is stronger now and he is much, much faster than when he fought Erik Morales at a lighter weight."
Even Pacquiao is a bit surprised by his success navigating the various weight classes.
"Even myself, I can't believe I can fight in the 147-pound division," Pacquiao said. "I started at 106 pounds. I was 16 years old. But right now my speed is still the same, if not better, and if you have speed, you can have power."
So is there any chance that if Pacquiao beats Cotto, he would consider trying for an eighth title in the 154-pound junior middleweight division?
"No, no, no. That's it," a smiling Pacquiao said. "That's enough."
Said Roach, "I don't think so. For him to fight at 147 we have to feed him five times a day to keep the weight on him. I think this will be our final stop but you never know. If something comes at 154, maybe we'll go there."
Arum, ever the promoter, is also leaving the door open.
"If you would have told me two years ago that Pacquiao would be going in the ring with Cotto and be the favorite in the fight, I would have said you should have your head examined. If you told me three years ago that we would someday do a fight between Manny and Oscar De La Hoya, I would tell you it is absolutely absurd. So who knows?
"Maybe the Klitschkos [the heavyweight champion brothers, Wladimir and Vitali] should watch out."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
Manny Pacquiao isn't shy about discussing his weight. In fact, he's on the verge of making history because of it.