GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines – There’s nothing in sports like the scene that surrounds a Manny Pacquiao training session. Pacquiao is a born performer, and just as he feeds off the crowds on fight night, so too does he during his training sessions.
At Thursday’s practice session at the Pacman Wild Card Gym in General Santos City, some 100 spectators comprised of armed military police guards, members of the local media, merchants from the SM GenSan mall across the street and his dog Pacman were on hand to watch the eight-division champion spar with Lydell Rhodes as he prepares for his April 12 rematch with WBO welterweight titleholder Timothy Bradley.
Pacquiao (55-5-3, 38 knockouts) was all business once the gloves were on, but took the time to lead the gym in singing happy birthday to his trainer Freddie Roach, who turned 54 on March 5.
Once in the ring, Pacquiao’s laughter and smiles turned to glares, as he engaged in seven hard rounds of sparring with Rhodes, a 26-year-old from Spencer, Okla. After a slow start to round one, Pacquiao turned it up in round two, nailing Rhodes (19-0, 9 KOs) with a right hook that sent him into the ropes.
In recent years, the more merciful Pacquiao would’ve laid off a sparring partner who found himself vulnerable on the ropes, but this version of Pacquiao would have none of that. Pacquiao followed him up with two more straight left hands. (READ: Pacquiao spar mate Rhodes says sparring Manny has been ‘Hell’)
Rhodes was game though, and as the only sparring partner with Pacquiao in the Philippine leg of his training, was relied upon to give Manny the bulk of his early work. Rhodes found the target with overhand rights around Pacquiao’s guard from time to time.
The fifth was a particularly difficult stanza for Rhodes, whose nose began to bust up from Pacquiao’s increasingly accurate left hands, and the blood stains on Manny’s “The Champ Knows” yellow t-shirt to form orange blotches. At times, Pacquiao was able to dip off to Rhodes’ peripheral to land shots that his opponent couldn’t see or defend.
After seven rounds, Roach said he was happy with what he saw.
“It was pretty good,” said Roach, who has guided Pacquiao’s training ever since he came to America in 2001. “His timing is getting a little better. His sparring partner is a little awkward. I think it was his best day so far. Conditioning wise, I’m really happy with where he’s at, because conditioning wise he’s really like 80%.
“Since I only have one sparring partner right now and 4 more in America, it’s really hard to tell the adjustments, unless you’re in there with different type of people. Once we get the four sparring partners and he has to make adjustments to each one, I’ll have a better feel for where we’re at right now.”
Roach will leave with Pacquiao and Co. to Los Angeles Saturday on a private jet to finish up training at the Wild Card Gym, where they’ll joined by former champs Kendall Holt and Steve Forbes, plus junior welterweight prospect Julian Rodriguez, who will supplement Pacquiao’s sparring regimen.
Pacquiao was exceptionally aggressive in sparring on Thursday, drawing oohs and ahhs from the crowd whenever he pushed his advantages. Having not scored a knockout since 2009, Pacquiao promised a return to his aggressive style at the initial press conference to announce his rematch with Bradley a month ago, and at least in sparring is living up to his word.
“He was a little more aggressive,” said Roach, a six-time Boxing Writers Association of America Trainer of the Year awardee. “I told him this particular sparring partner does better coming forward than backwards, so when you get momentum keep it going. He listened pretty good with that. Overall, it was good. I gave him an extra round because I told him you played too much in the first round. I told him I didn’t count that.”
Rhodes said he was more confused by Pacquiao’s angles and speed than hurt at any time, but added that Manny possesses “awesome power.”
“When you have someone who punches as hard as him, it’s boxing, you know you’re gonna get hit your nose is gonna bleed, especially when you’re sparring Manny,” said Rhodes, who has spent significant time at Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s gym in Las Vegas.
Pacquiao finished up training with ten rounds on the pads with Roach, drawing grunts from Roach after one particularly hard straight left to Roach’s chest protector. “Sorry Freddie, it’s for your birthday,” said Pacquiao with a smile.
Roach says that Rhodes has been effective in duplicating Bradley’s style because of how he dips away defensively, which Bradley has been known to do. Still, he thinks the sparring partners who will join them in Los Angeles will be able to mimic Bradley’s other tendencies better.
“When you attack Bradley he gets down low sometimes,” said Roach. “I’m watching more his last fight (a decision victory over Juan Manuel Marquez in October) because a lot of times when fighters have success they want to duplicate that performance again. Watching that, I think a couple of the other sparring partners will be more suited to that style in case he wants to fight a little bit and exchange, that’s why we’re bringing in Kendall Holt.
“I think overall we have all of our bases covered, but (Rhodes’) awkwardness is giving us good work. I told him, ‘Don’t listen to these people telling you what to do. Go out there and do the best you can. Go out there like it’s a fight and you want to win the fight.’ That’s the only way he’ll help Manny improve.”
The Pacquiao-Bradley rematch will take place at MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nev. In their first meeting in April of 2012, Bradley (31-0, 12 KOs) won a controversial split-decision.
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found at ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.