All eyes are on Manny Pacquiao when he trains, even when he jumps rope. Pacquiao (pictured here training in Manila) didn't have his best camp in the Philippines, according to his handlers, but he still has three weeks of work remaining in the U.S. before he faces Antonio Margarito on Nov. 13 at Cowboys Stadium. Photo / Ted Lerner
MANILA — Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean this past Saturday night, perhaps shortly after the Philippine Airlines 747 had leveled off at 38,000 feet, and the flight attendants had begun to roll out the opulent service of First Class, Freddie Roach must surely have leaned back in his spacious chair, closed his eyes, taken a deep breath and let out an audible sigh of what can only be described as pure and utter relief.
After nearly one month in the Philippines, the public circus that was Manny Pacquiao training in his home country had mercifully come to an end. Now, Roach was headed home. Now he could look forward to two weeks of intensive, closed-door workouts in the middle of his private domain where he has total control, the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, Calif. Now, he could finally get his fighter to bear down and focus and get him ready for what Roach describes as the most-difficult challenge Pacquiao has ever faced.
“This is the toughest fight of our lives and I’ve said that from day one,” Roach said after Pacquiao’s last workout in the Philippines this past Saturday at the Elorde Gym in Quezon City, Metro Manila. “This guy (Margarito) is coming to win. He’s hungry. If he wins, all that stuff (the hand wraps controversy) goes away that he’s blamed for. He has nothing to lose.”
The normally unflappable Roach wasn’t exactly sounding the alarm bells, but he was clearly not all that happy with the way things had gone over the past month. The rock star treatment offered by Filipinos to their once-in-a-century hero and Pacquiao’s desire to please his rabid, wide eyed countrymen, combined with a wild, say-anything press corps that would put Randolph Hearst to shame, creates a relentless onslaught moving in multiple directions at once. As usual, Pacquiao seems impervious to it all, and past history tells us that he actually thrives in the midst of chaos. But when you’re in charge of preparing your most-prized ward to fight a hungry giant, the never-ending distractions can get more than a little grating.
“This one is going a little bit overboard,” Roach said of his second training camp with Pacquiao in the Philippines. “With the trips from Baguio to Manila (six hours drive), it doesn’t seem like much on your day off, but it’s a really draining trip, and it’s a dangerous drive. He doesn’t see it that way. But these are distractions. You know Michael Koncz (Pacquiao’s chief adviser) getting married and Manny singing six songs. Is that a distraction? Of course it is before we fight. He met the President yesterday. I mean he can meet the President anytime he wants. Why does he have to meet him on my time?”
Roach’s demeanor was surely further fouled by the scene in the gym last Saturday. Roach wanted the 10 rounds of sparring to be private so Pacquiao could focus. Somehow, inexplicably, the session became open to the press and various other friends and acquaintances.
Then there was Pacquiao’s performance in sparring, which was borderline lackluster. Pacquiao first sparred three rounds with Michael Medina, then went four rounds with Amir Khan, then three more with Medina. Against the lumbering Medina, Pacquiao looked anything but sharp. On several occasions he allowed Medina to pound him against the ropes. Pacquiao showed flashes of his lightning quickness, but either he was just getting warmed up or he wasn’t taking this too seriously. On several occasions, Pacquiao hit Medina with that playful simultaneous double punch with which he smacked Joshua Clottey to wake him up.
The excitement started to build when Khan stepped into the ring to face Pacquiao. On numerous occasions, Khan beat Pacquiao to the punch with blistering combinations. At times, Pacquiao held his hands down and he kept trying to adjust his protective headgear. He clearly didn’t look 100 percent. Midway in their third round, the two went at each other for about 40 seconds of pure, scintillating action. But when the four rounds were up, it was clear that Khan got the better of the exchanges.
Medina stepped in for the final three rounds and again, Pacquiao did not look his best. He showed moments of brilliance. He worked very hard and got in a 10-round workout. But it was clear he was having an off day. It was obviously time to get out of Dodge.
“We didn’t have a great day of sparring today,” Roach said. “He looked good in spots, when he wanted to. He played a little too much for me today. He needs to get his game face on, get a little more serious, and I expect that to happen in L.A. His focus isn’t quite what I want it to be, but once I get him to L.A., it’ll be no problem to get him back on track. When he wants to do it, it’s there. By fight time, we’ll be there.”
Khan was too humble to say that he had gotten the better of Pacquiao, and he chalked up the Filipino’s mild sluggishness to a long week of training.
“He’s had a tough week,” Khan said. “It’s towards the end of the week, he’s getting prepared to go to L.A., he’s going to be missing his family, his kids. You can’t judge anyone from a sparring session. Because when we spar, we only spar at 60 percent because of the morning runs that we do, or the circuit training that we do. So people cannot be alarmed by that. You have to see Manny at 100 percent. That’s when you know how good he is. This is not Manny Pacquiao. Manny Pacquiao fights at 100 percent. Me and Manny were training yesterday so our legs are tired. We’ve been sparring all week, we’ve been doing circuit training, pad work. That builds up and it causes you to get tired toward the end of the week.”
Pacquiao’s strength and conditioning coach, Alex Ariza, agreed that Pacquiao was not at his best on Saturday. However, he said that’s not always bad three weeks out from the fight.
“Manny’s got to put things in perspective (in sparring),” Ariza said. “After Amir goes four rounds, he has to go again with another guy. But it’s good that Amir goes in there and he gets to dictate things because it makes Manny get out of his shell. There’s going to be points where he’s going to have to pick it up in the middle of the rounds with Margarito, to fight at a faster pace than is usual. I think having things that are inconsistent in rhythm are the best. When he’s getting different kinds of rhythm, slow rhythm, fast rhythm, everything that keeps him from having things be normal in there is always the best kind of sparring. If everything is going perfect, then something can go wrong. If he goes through adversity in sparring, then come fight night and he has to go through adversity, it’s not going to take such a mental toll on him.
“As of right now we are on schedule. The weight is good, we are 149 pounds today. The training yesterday at the track was great. When you come from high altitude like we did, he’s going to have that feeling, it’s like jet lag. He’s a little light headed, he didn’t get a lot of sleep. Amir has the same thing. He has a stiff back today, he isn’t feeling that good.”
Helping to quiet the alarm bells of Pacquiao’s fanatical fans further, Ariza also pointed out that while the fight is getting closer, the training is nowhere near finished and that Pacquiao is still, even now, getting used to fighting much bigger men.
“You’ve got to put things in perspective,” Ariza said. “Manny’s sparring with kids who are twice as big as he is. Look at Medina. That’s a 175-pound kid right now. The other kid is 6 feet. Amir is 5-foot-10, he’s the fastest 140 pounder in the division and he’s at 150 right now. Manny’s got his hands full with some really, really tough sparring. Getting the range, getting used to these guys trying to bully him, that’s what it takes. You’re not going to have easy, great, 100-percent sparring. You’re not going to get pay-per-view sparring out of Manny in the middle of camp.”
Said Roach: “We’re still having a little bit of difficultly measuring these big guys that we’ve been sparring with. It’s a concern. But it’s getting better.”
So while everyone on Team Pacquiao will admit their boy needs to step things up in L.A., nobody close to Pacquiao is acting too alarmist, nor do they think that defeat is an option. They are all sure that the next two weeks at the Wild Card will be the key that brings out that one of a kind Pacquiao fury.
Ariza, though, did point out one thing that provides fascinating insight into the fighter’s frame of mind three weeks out from the opening bell. I asked Ariza how seriously Pacquiao is training, and he responded with something that might force those who say Pacquiao will easily win this fight to take pause.
“It has to do with the opposition,” Ariza said. “When Manny was fighting Cotto, you’re looking at a guy who was very, very good, and potentially a not beatable opponent. A big puncher, a bigger guy, a stronger guy, (and Pacquiao) moving up to a new weight class. Cotto had everything going for him against Manny and we had everything going against us. So Manny took that a lot more serious, his approach to that fight was different. ‘I’ll seclude myself away. I’m going to focus on getting myself up early. I’m going to leave no rock unturned. I’m going to train every way to prepare for a guy like this.’”
“And have you seen that this time?” I asked Ariza.
“No I haven’t,” he said. “You know Manny is a thinker now. Before in the past he was just reckless, just go in there like a soldier. Now he’s a thinker, he’s watching tape, he’s studying Margarito and he’s thinking, ‘I can beat this guy. Maybe not only on my best day, but maybe even on my s___tiest day I can still beat this guy.”
“So this camp has not been as intense as the Cotto camp?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I’m happy with the shape he’s in, but I live in a black and white area. I believe in, ‘you train hard and fight easy.' I don’t believe in, you train medium and hopefully you can make the fight easier. I just think he’s making it harder than it has to be this fight. The next two weeks are the key. I’ve told him. Freddie’s told him. He’s one of those athletes that can change levels so quickly within four, five, six, seven days. We’re talking about 13 more days of training we have. That’s a lot of time. When he bears down, then you’ll see those huge climbs and gains. So I’m expecting that.”
As is the entire 90-million strong Philippine nation, which will be paying rapt attention for any tidbits leaking out over the next two weeks from Roach’s secluded lair in L.A., as Pacquiao bears down and makes his final preparations for what his trainer says will be the toughest fight of his career.