MANILA, Philippines - It was Manny Pacquiao’s big break on American soil. And it almost didn’t happen.
The Filipino boxer, then 22 years old, had been looking to take his career stateside. He had held the WBC flyweight title for less than a year before losing it on the scales and being stopped in three rounds by Medgoen Singsurat.
He rose up three divisions to junior featherweight afterwards, but with few quality 122 pounders in Asia, Pacquiao set his sights abroad.
He was in the right place at the right time when his phone rang in June of 2001. IBF junior featherweight champion Lehlohonolo Ledwaba needed a new opponent for his title defense on the undercard of Javier Castillejo vs Oscar de la Hoya pay-per-view event after Enrique Sanchez injured his hand in training.
Accepting the fight, however short notice it was, would prove to be one of the best decisions of Pacquiao’s career. He stopped Ledwaba in six rounds, launching Pacquiao’s career in America.
The win earned Pacquiao a world title in his second of a record 8 divisions, and paved the long road that culminates in his May 2 showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr in what is expected to be the highest grossing boxing event in history.
But Ledwaba foresaw none of that as he headed into his bout with Pacquiao. He saw his own destiny.
“I knew nothing about Manny. I had never seen him fight before. We asked for tapes and the only time we were given tapes was just after the weigh-in,” Ledwaba told Rappler during a phone conversation from his home in South Africa.
The only tape that Ledwaba had seen was of the Singsurat fight, he says. “At that time we saw a very easy opponent.”
The fight was meant to showcase Ledwaba, then 29, who was defending his title for the sixth time since winning it two years prior. Ledwaba had impressed HBO in his previous defense against Carlos Contreras, when he served as the co-featured bout to Hasim Rahman’s shocking knockout of Lennox Lewis to win the heavyweight championship just two months earlier.
Ledwaba’s promoter Rodney Berman says he was on the verge of making a television deal for his fighter before the loss to Pacquiao. But Ledwaba feels he was set up to lose that fight because of a disagreement with his promoter.
“I believe on that day my title was sold. For a fee of how much, I don’t know. But I believe my title was sold,” Ledwaba says. Berman says that Pacquiao was selected because Ledwaba was due to make a mandatory defense, and Pacquiao, then rated no. 7 by the IBF, was the next available contender.
“I’m not surprised Pacman became such an outstanding fighter. Even then, he had a magical quality,” said Berman.
On fight night, Ledwaba suffered a broken nose in round one and was knocked down once in round two and twice in the sixth before the fight was waved off.
“Even the punch that knocked me down, it wasn’t that powerful of a punch, it just caught me at the right spot and in the right time,” remembers Ledwaba. “That’s why I decided now I’m quitting with the expectation of a rematch. But I was never given that chance.”
Money over Manny
Today, Ledwaba still spends much of his time in the gym, though not as a fighter but as a trainer and manager, working with young boxers out of a development that bears his name in search of the next South African champion.
Most of his fighters compete locally in South Africa, but Ledwaba hopes to connect with promoters who can take his boxers to the international stage, just as he was once got his shot in bigger markets.
Ledwaba says that he continued to follow Pacquiao’s career after they fought, and says he saw much improvement in his former foe.
“He’s a totally different fighter from the one I fought. Mind you, the more you fight and win, the more you gain confidence. So I believe he changed from the best in the world when he fought me to something greater,” remembers Ledwaba.
Whether that can earn Pacquiao (57-5-2, 38 knockouts) a win over Mayweather (47-0, 26 KOs), Ledwaba isn’t so sure. He thinks Mayweather's counterpunching style will give Pacquiao fits, just as it did in his fights with Juan Manuel Marquez.
“I happen to see the fight differently, not in favor of Manny but Mayweather,” said Ledwaba. “Why I’m saying that is, Floyd is a very good technical fighter. Yes, he might not be as fast as Manny Pacquiao but the one thing you need to know is that whenever Manny fights, he’s afraid to fight against the fighters who earn his respect, and he tends to lose his balance. Floyd Mayweather being a counterpuncher, this will be much easier for him.”
Ledwaba showed he still had fight in him after the Pacquiao loss, beating former champion Vuyani Bungu before a controversial decision loss to Cassius Baloyi served as his final showing in championship form.
As for Pacquiao? He fought Agapito Sanchez in his next fight on the undercard of someone named Floyd Mayweather.