Is Manny Pacquiao back?
GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines - At the Wild Card Gym in the hometown of world champion boxer Manny Pacquiao, photos of Pacquiao's greatest moments line the 4 walls.
His victories against Oscar de la Hoya and Ricky Hatton. Training with Freddie Roach. Pacquiao's arms raised in victory, praying in a corner, delivering a knockout punch.
But there is one fight noticeably missing, and understandably so: his last one against his Mexican arch rival Juan Manuel Marquez.
It was the fight that forced him into a one-year hiatus, the fight that ended with Pacquiao on the canvas after a devastating knockout blow, the fight that analysts believed marked the start of the end for Pacquiao. The fight that Pacquiao said, is no longer on his mind.
"I don't think of that fight anymore. That fight is over. I've moved on," Pacquiao told Rappler in an exclusive interview on Thursday, October 17.
His performance in camp is a comforting reassurance of his words, at least for those who are occupied in training him.
In this city — where Pacquiao is completing his full training camp until his showdown against American fighter Brandon Rios next month — trainer Freddie Roach was pleased about his prodigy.
He said Pacquiao looked "fresh," and more importantly, hungry.
"He's in very good shape and we're getting better and better as the weeks go on," said Roach, who arrived in the Philippines on Wednesday, October 9. He has been supervising Pacquiao's training since.
He, too, said the Marquez fight is far from memory, a thing of the past that neither he nor Pacquiao think about anymore.
"We don't talk too much about it but we refer back to it every once in a while of course. It's part of our lives, it's part of our careers also," he said.
On December 8, Pacquiao and Marquez met for their 4th fight after 3 close and controversial bouts that spanned 8 years. Touted as the fight that would be the decisive showdown, a knockout was expected as the only way to settle the rivalry.
The knockout happened earlier than anticipated. With one second left in the 5th round,* Marquez knocked Pacquiao out cold after the latter left himself wide open in an attempt to throw a final punch to put Marquez down. Pacquiao was leading in the judges' scorecards before the knockout.
November 24 marks Pacquiao's return to the ring since then.
Losing not an option
Pacquiao understands how important his upcoming fight is. Before Marquez, Pacquiao also lost by decision to undefeated American Timothy Bradley in a widely controversial fight, that most believed Pacquiao dominated.
The Filipino, who has since slipped in pound-per-pound lists of the world's best, said he wants to prove he still has what it takes. (READ: Pacquiao: I can still fight)
"This fight is very important because we didn't fight for a long time, almost one year this coming December, so the people missed Manny Pacquiao. Second, I need to prove that I can still fight," he said.
Roach is more frank.
"We're really in a must-win situation… to get back to where Manny must be, [atop] the pound-per-pound Top 10, I definitely think we have to be impressive and we need a knockout to win this in old fashion," he told Rappler.
Roach is right. Rios is Pacquiao's first stumbling block in his climb back to the top. Losing is not an option. A defeat for Pacquiao would mark his 3rd straight loss, and likely justify concerned calls for his retirement.
The good news is, from Pacquiao's training schedule, it's evident he knows fully well just how crucial the upcoming fight is.
Pacquiao is up at the crack of dawn every day for his morning run. It varies. Sometimes he runs on the track, a light jog with his entourage and his faithful Jack Russell, PacMan. Other days he runs 6 miles on the highway, an uphill trek that leaves his shirt soaking wet. On Friday, October 18, he ran the distance in less than 29 minutes. Two days earlier, he ran 8 miles in under 41 minutes.
But no matter the run, Pacquiao is at the gym past noon. He's doing mitts, attacking the punching bag and speedballs. He jumps rope, he does footwork drills, he shadow boxes. He has started to do rounds of sparring with partners from Ghana and England.
Sessions usually go on for two-and-a-half-hours, then he goes home to rest for a little bit before playing a round or two of basketball at his court at home.
Then he does it all over again.
It's a schedule that is tiring just to think about, but Pacquiao said he could not be any happier.
"I'm happy with my training, I'm excited," he said. "I'm happy because I'm hungry to train and to fight."
The man who will face Pacquiao on November for the vacant WBO International Welterweight title is 27-year-old Rios, a tough, young fighter who has 31 wins and just one loss under his belt.
Rios is known for his aggressive style — an attacker who won't hesitate to throw the first punch — and for his famously strong iron chin. He's a dirty talker who knows the fight with Pacquiao is a chance of a lifetime, the catapult he needs for his career — a sure thing if he manages a win.
Rios isn't a walk in the park, but Roach isn't worried.
"Standing in front of this guy is a little bit dangerous, he's big and strong and he has a pretty good chin but Manny uses speed and boxing like he knows how. We're working out, he'll absolutely destroy him, I feel," he said.
There's talk of a knockout — the quiet goal — but with the fight 5 weeks away, the focus is mainly on getting Pacquiao to 100%.
"We're just going to box this guy. I told Manny, the knockout will come if you let it," Roach said.
Assistant trainer Bubuy Fernandez too admitted Rios will be a challenge, but he said they have studied Rios and have a game plan to defeat him. Fernandez said they're working on Pacquiao's defense, and has little doubt Pacquiao will deliver.
As for Pacquiao, he shrugs when asked about his opponent, and responds with a smile.
"I feel no nerves. I only feel excitement," he said.
Nowadays, Pacquiao's camp is quieter. The atmosphere is noticeably different from past fights, although there's still the pranks, the jokes, the entourage willing to make life just a bit more comfortable for the national hero even if it's just to put rice on his plate during a meal, or hand him a towel after a work out.
They're loyal as ever, as loyal as the day they got the red asteroid tattoos marked on their left forearms — a matching, fraternal symbol reserved only for Pacquiao's inner circle.
There's a common sense of urgency in camp, bathed in a blanket of palpable support. It's more serious now. Everyone means business.
If before, workouts were open for anyone's viewing pleasure, security is much stricter now. A blue cloth is hung over the glass doors when Pacquiao is training, while guards roam the premises during sparring sessions, making sure the lucky few allowed to watch are not filming or taking photos on their mobile devices.
Protective of his best friend, Fernandez stepped into the middle of the ring before Pacquiao's Thursday work out, and roared: "We'll let you guys in this time, but next time, you'll just have to deal."
Later, he told Rappler, "I'm not anyone's friend while Manny is in training. We can be friends after the fight."
This is how far they're going to bar any form of distraction — even politics — which has taken a backseat in Pacquiao's life as he trains for the Macau fight. Pacquiao is currently on leave from Congress.
Spark is back
To Pacquiao, the victory he is working towards is not just for him, but mainly for the country. He said he is grateful for the support shown to him by Filipinos, even after his loss.
"The Filipino people showed me their support as to not weaken my spirit," he said. "The support they showed me when I won, was the same support they gave me when I lost."
He talked about the "need" and the "expectation" for him to make Filipinos happy, and to bring glory back to the country, mentioning not just his recent losses but those of other Filipino fighters in the past year.
"They need me to bring honor and glory to the country," he said. "I was very sorry to them [when I didn't do that]."
For now, Team Pacquiao is satisfied. The spark is back, they said. His on time appearances at the gym — another shift from past camps — gives his team faith they're on the right track, as does his desire to keep pushing himself further in training, to the point that his advisors themselves are telling him to slow down.
Perhaps the loss many feared would be the end of Pacquiao was actually the opposite. Rather than crush his psyche, it perhaps only strengthened his resolve to keep fighting. And to keep winning.
Perhaps the loss was just the beginning. - Rappler.com
Editor's note: We had previously written one minute left on the sixth round. We regret the error.