Manny Pacquiao, pictured with trainer Freddie Roach, prays at least once during every workout. Photo / Ted Lerner
RING correspondent Ted Lerner is in Baguio City, a mountain town in the Philippines, as Manny Pacquiao opens training camp for his Nov. 13 fight against Antonio Margarito. This is Part III in a three-part series.
BAGUIO CITY, Philippines — Freddie Roach says that he likes to conduct Manny Pacquiao’s sparring sessions in private, not because he’s trying to hide anything in particular from the always-prying eyes of the press, but because Pacquiao tends to showboat when people are watching.
“I want him to concentrate on the task at hand,” Roach said just before Pacquiao’s second sparring session of camp on Saturday.
But just as about a dozen members of the press and a few other hangers on were about to get the proverbial boot from the Shape Up Gym, somebody on Team Pacquiao decided that everyone could stay and watch Pacquiao face sparring partner Michael Medina for their four-round session.
“Stand back here and no pictures or videos please,” said Pacquiao’s chief personal adviser and assistant, Michael Koncz, while pointing to a spot about 10 feet from ringside. Moments later, with the small crowd on hand hushed and glued to the ring, the gym bell rang, and Pacquiao and Medina, both clad in protective headgear and groin protectors, began to get it on.
Mimicking the style of Pacquiao’s upcoming opponent, Antonio Margarito, Medina plodded forward and immediately started attacking the much smaller Filipino, who came up to Medina’s chin. The two engaged in some spirited exchanges. At times Pacquiao stood and fought back, and other times he landed blinding combinations then spun and moved away. The action got extremely fierce in the second round as the two wrestled and exchanged punches toe to toe. When the round ended, the wide eyed audience spontaneously erupted into applause.
The final two rounds continued in similar fashion. Pacquiao was breathing heavily, but he continued darting in and out, feinting, then throwing various combinations, all the while having to contend with the rough tactics of Medina. Pacquiao landed some huge shots, a few from almost impossible angles, but he also stood and exchanged and took a few big punches as well. When the bell for the final round sounded, the two hugged and touched gloves, while the crowd once again applauded.
My initial reaction when it all ended was much different from my observations when Pacquiao worked the mitts with Roach the previous day. On the mitts, Pacquiao is dazzling and downright scary, displaying ferocious power and lightning speed. He also brings these traits to sparring, and indeed watching him up close can leave you breathless. But it all appeared different with Pacquiao in there against a big scrapping dude who was willing to mix it up. As the fighters got toweled off and removed their gloves, Nov. 13 suddenly became crystal clear. Assuming Margarito brings his “A” game into the ring, this fight is going to be a big time war.
“It’s going to be real aggressive and physical,” said Pacquiao’s strength and conditioning coach Alex Ariza afterward. “And I think that’s what Michael brought today. Hopefully Manny chooses not to stand in front of Margarito and let him do that. The thing is Manny’s got balls. He’s not a runner by nature, he’s a fighter by nature. At some point Manny’s going to say, ‘Let’s get it on.’ He does that with everyone. He’s not going to take a step back. Margarito’s not going to step back. That’s when the fireworks will start.”
Roach liked what he saw, but admitted his boy is not quite at the level he wants.
“The timing was a little better,” Roach said. “The direction I want him to move is a little better. The stuff we were doing yesterday came through today. He’s not 100 percent; we still have a long way to go. We’re just beginning to get the game plan down and get the timing and so forth. He did what I wanted him to do a couple of times. It’s a work in progress. If that Manny Pacquiao went into a fight, we’d probably lose. But that’s why we have an eight-week training camp, so we can improve. You can’t expect too much out of a guy who hasn’t been in the ring since last March.”
Although the main game plan for Margarito is to make sure Pacquiao doesn’t stand and make himself a target, Roach said it’s not always about being elusive.
“Sometimes we will take him to the ropes to set him up also. We’ll walk him into a power shot. It’s a fine line,” Roach said.
The 24-year-old Medina admitted that he was very nervous before getting in the ring for the first time with Pacquiao, but he was generally happy with his performance. His observations of the four-round scrap offer insights into Pacquiao’s style.
“I knew I needed to bring a little toughness in the sparring,” Medina said, “because he’s going to fight Margarito, and talking to Freddie he told me a little bit of things he wanted me to do inside the ring so I tried it out. His footwork was incredible, his punching speed was good. It was a good experience. I gave him hard work, and that’s what I came here for. He got me a couple of times. I didn’t feel stunned. I tried to move a little bit. He countered with some left hands to the body. I think I got him with a couple of right hands too. The thing is his footwork was incredible. He was moving one way to another, doing those angles that he is a master at. It’s an awkward style. He throws a punch then he moves, he has good waist movement, he moves his head. He doesn’t wait there to get hit. He hits you, he moves away, he throws another combination, then he’s out. To beat Manny Pacquiao I think you have to be fast, you have to be tough, you have to have a lot of things to be able to hit him back.
“I expect Margarito to come and try and rough him up and try to hit him. I can tell right now that Manny Pacquiao can take a punch. Because I was throwing a couple of bombs in there, and he took them like a man and came back throwing more punches. I know this is going to be a tough fight. But the way I see the skill and footwork, he should be able to outbox Margarito in the late rounds. He (Pacquiao) has the perfect leverage, the perfect technique for throwing a punch. Like Mike Tyson, he had that perfect technique. That’s why he was knocking everybody out. It’s the same with Manny Pacquiao.”
Medina (24-2-2) also can make a fascinating comparison with authority: He sparred with Floyd Mayweather Jr. in his preparations for Oscar de La Hoya 3½ years ago.
“He’s [Mayweather] a great fighter,” Medina said. “They’re both pound for pound, and they both proved that to me. Mayweather was the same kind of thing: I was in there trying to rough him up in the ring, trying to make it hard for him. But he’s pretty fast, quick with his hands. Mayweather has a different technique when he throws the punches. Mayweather snaps the punches, he’s too fast, he’s got perfect timing. Pacquiao has a little bit more strength and more body into those punches and he’s fast too.
“The thing is, Mayweather is more of a calm fighter. He will look for those counter punches and try to frustrate you. Manny will try to outbox you and do those lateral movements. Plus he’s southpaw, so it’s even a little harder.”
So who would win if and when the two greats decide to fight?
“Right now, after I just got down from the sparring with Manny Pacquiao, it just make me want to see that fight even more,” he said. “Now I know that’s going to be a great fight. They’re both excellent fighters. I think Manny Pacquiao has the fierceness, he’s attacks, he’s strong and he’s very smart. Mayweather has that perfect technique where he’s never exposed. He throws a punch and he’s always protected.
“It’s going to be a tough fight for both of them. It’s going to be Pacquiao trying to break down that defense and Mayweather trying to counterpunch. It’s super difficult to predict. “
Pacquiao can’t just leave the gym after his grueling workout. He first has to satisfy the media and his wide-eyed fans, which he does without complaint.
About 30 people poured into the gym after sparring and watched Pacquiao complete his workout on the speed bag, jumping rope, sit ups and then stretching. When he finally finished, he climbed out of the ring and faced a media scrum for 20 minutes. Then he sat on a bench by himself, sending text messages, making a few calls, while a wall of fans with cameras and cell phones stood 10 feet away. Occasionally, people would get past their fear and ask Pacquaio for a picture or an autograph. When he stood up and headed for the door, he was immediately surrounded by a circle of fans. He never turned down anyone.
It took Pacquiao nearly an hour from the end of his workout to finally leave the gym. Followed by an entourage of about 10 people, he walked out the back door of the gym and down the hall of the Cooneysean Plaza mall, past the elevator and up a back stair well, hopping up two steps at a time for two levels until he finally reached his hotel room on the third floor.
Pacquiao is booked into a large suite for the month. In the living area, several people lounged on the couch watching TV. On the table in the kitchen, a spread of Filipino dishes waited to be devoured. Inside his bedroom, Pacquiao leaned on his bed with his back up against the headboard and his legs spread wide in front of him. He looked exhausted but relaxed, happy to have his workout over.
Next to his laptop on his bedside table, an assistant delivered a huge tray of food; Bulalo (beef shank and bone marrow in an onion broth), pork adobo and plenty of white rice. Pacquiao didn’t eat right away, perhaps letting his stomach settle down after his workout. He was more focused on the TV, which was tuned to a national channel that broadcasts direct from the Philippines Congress. The Appropriations Committee was conducting its afternoon session.
“I’m on this committee,” Pacquiao said. “I know that lady. She’s the chairman. This committee has the money.”
He laughed when he said that and then related how he is now a member of 12 committees in the Congress. “But my main focus is on energy.” Pacquiao then told of a recent energy committee hearing during which he questioned a government secretary who was involved in approving a coal fired power plant for his province of Sarangani before Pacquiao became a congressman. Pacquiao admitted that his province, like the rest of Mindanao, is in desperate need of energy sources as they are experiencing up to 12 hours of power outages a day.
“But I am also an environmentalist,” said Pacquiao, still dressed in his workout clothes. “This kind of power plant is not good for our people. We need power, but we want clean power. Like hydro, bio gas, wind.
“I said, ‘Sir, we are very concerned that this coal fired plant will be very bad for our people,’” Pacquiao said with a smile. “The secretary said, ‘We have a new technology that will make it clean.’ I said, ‘Sir, can you tell us how this technology works?’ He said, ‘No, but I’m sure it will work.’ I said, ‘Sir, you are promising us that it will be clean but you can’t tell us how it works? You must do your homework first before you come here.’”
The handful of people in the room laughed out loud with Pacquiao.
“We have recalled all the papers and contracts for that project,” Pacquiao said, noting that he will do everything in his power to stop the construction of the plant from proceeding.
The idea that he now sits on 12 congressional committees, and mixes this in with all the other activities he loves to do, was mind boggling. Pacquiao said that he juggles his many commitments with good time management.
Just a few moments around Pacquiao makes it very clear that he’s a master at it. While sitting on his bed, Pacquiao not only followed the congressional hearings, he also did a live interview via cell phone on nationwide television, wishing his daughter happy birthday. Then Koncz, his advisor, walked in and showed Manny a contract. Some friends came in and then they started up an animated conversation about the popular computer game, Plants and Zombies. Apparently Pacquiao plays the game relentlessly on his laptop. Then one of Pacquiao’s friends handed over an Ipad and Pacquiao’s eyes lit up as he tried out his favorite game.
Then it was time to eat. Afterward, Ariza came in with Pacquiao’s protein shake. A few more tasks, some more greetings to well wishers, then it was downstairs to tape an interview. Later he would head six hours to Manila to make a speech before the Philippine Military Academy, then meet up with his daughter who was celebrating her third birthday. He would drive back the next day to Baguio to resume training on Monday.
From the seriousness of public policy making to the silliness of Plants and Zombies and everything possible in between, all the while preparing relentlessly for one of the biggest battles of his life. There’s not much Manny Pacquiao can’t do.