Ted Lerner

Special Report: THE RING tracks down Pacquiao as he begins training

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RING correspondent Ted Lerner lives in the Philippines and has closely followed the remarkable rise of Manny Pacquiao, who has begun preparation for his fight against Shane Mosley on May 7 in Las Vegas. This is the first of two parts. Click here to read Part I.

 

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines– Dawn in mid-March at Baguio City’s Burnham Park is about as pleasant a time as anywhere in the world.  The town is just beginning to stir. The early morning light illuminates the verdant greens of the pine trees, and the yellows, reds and purples of the flowers spread all around. At 5000 feet above sea level, the temperature is slightly cool. It is the perfect time and place to go for a run. But Manny Pacquiao, who was supposed to do road work here this Wednesday morning, is nowhere to be found.

“He did the hills today so tomorrow he’ll do the flat run at the park,” one of Pacquaio’s many managers had said on the phone the day before. “One day he does the one, the other he does the other.”

It was on that quirky promise that I dragged myself out of the hotel bed in the cool morning darkness and came to the park to watch Pacquiao run on his third day of training camp. The cashier at an open-air diner across the street from the main park says she saw Pacquiao two days ago, but she hasn’t seen him yet today.   With a coffee in hand I sit down at a front table and keep  an eye on the road that circles the park, looking for the obvious black SUV and the accompanying cars that give off the air of importance that Pacquiao always travels with.  But so far only taxis, jeepneys and some cars traverse the road.

As the clock inches toward 7 a.m. I decide to walk around the park. There’s always a commotion surrounding Pacquiao’s presence in public so his entourage should be easy to spot. But all I see are students with newly washed hair and light jackets on their way to school, a lady vendor carrying a native tray  on her head piled high of fresh strawberries , elderly folk performing tai chi, joggers, walkers,  and people doing aerobics to disco music. I make two trips around the park and tell myself that while I’m getting nothing in the way of a story, I’m at least getting in a brisk walk in the crisp morning air.  

I flag down a taxi and ask the driver to take me to the Cooyeesan Hotel Plaza  a few minutes away, where Pacquiao and his entourage are staying and training at a gym located inside the complex.  In the parking lot out front there’s no sign of any of Pacquiao’s vehicles and the building is quiet. I snap a photo of the large banner hanging on the front of the building welcoming “Congressman Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao, then start to walk back to my nearby hotel. I figure I’ll catch up with him at training in the afternoon. 

altIt’s then I see several Filipino guys leaning up against a railing at the back of the hotel.  They have the appearance of being on a stake out.  Instinctively I sense they are local reporters and I walk over and start talking to them. I see a van parked on the side with the logo of a local radio station. In front of that van is a pickup belonging to a national TV network.  

“Has Manny jogged today?” I ask them.

“He’s still in the hotel,” says the one, as he texts someone. “I’m trying to text one of his trainers. I can’t get an answer.”

“Who are you texting?” I ask. “Michael Koncz [Pacquiao’s adviso] told me he would jogging in Burnham Park. I went there but he wasn’t there.”

“I’m trying to reach Buboy [Buboy Fernandez, Manny’s long time friend and assistant trainer],” he says. “I don’t text Koncz anymore. He never returns our messages.”

Several of the reporters furiously send text messages, trying to get any sliver of information about the elusive Pacquiao. One goes over to a guy manning a food cart on the corner and asks him if he’s seen or heard anything.  He returns and says the vendor heard Pacquiao was awake.  Someone else suggests he’s still sleeping and won’t run today.

The small group settles in for a wait of unknown duration, trading rumors about the whereabouts and goings on of Pacquiao. The guy from the TV station says he heard Pacquiao is still sleeping because he was up until 2:30 in the morning hanging out with his basketball team.

“He played basketball until 2:30?” I ask.

“No, he invited his basketball team up here for a tournament.” It turns out that Pacquiao has organized a 10-day basketball tournament to be played during training camp at the Cooyeesan complex, which has an indoor basketball court over the gym. Pacquiao owns his own semi-pro team and the team members arrived the night before. Pacquiao’s buddy Buboy has his own team and they arrived the night before as well. Apparently several other teams would be coming up in the next few days. Pacquiao, the reporter tells me, has booked more than 25 rooms for his entourage and basketball teams. Pacquiao has offered up a prize fund of $3500 to the winning team.

This led to the inevitable discussions and questions about Pacquiao’s commitment to training and his focus for Shane Mosley. Would Pacquiao play in the tournament games? Is this another sign that this camp, like all the others, will be riddled with distractions? Is Pacquiao taking Mosley seriously? What if he twists a knee or breaks a finger while playing and throws millions of dollars down the drain in the process?

I’ve heard all this before, I tell the guys. Pacquiao always lives on a high wire, I say. He has zero fear. And he seems to invite chaos into his life.

“That’s what makes Manny so exciting,” I say. “If you locked him up in a room after training everyday, he’d probably lose. He needs chaos to function.” They laugh and nod their heads in agreement. Suddenly there’s a stir amongst my new found reporter friends. At the top of the driveway leading out of the back of the building, a man on a motorcycle appears.

“That’s it,” said the radio reporter. “Pacquiao’s coming out now. Come on, you ride with us.” Everyone waiting makes a mad dash to one of the parked vehicles as a large black SUV with blacked out windows emerges from the car park followed by a gold color van. I quickly climb in the back of the radio van just as Pacquiao’s convoy shoots out of the driveway and down the hill. The reporters’ vehicles start up, peel out, and quickly give chase. 

Within seconds the trail of vehicles is barreling down the winding two-lane road.   Pacquiao’s convoy is driving like mad through the curving road, like an important diplomat on the way to an emergency meeting with the president. In the back of the van we get rocked from side to side as we careen around every sharp curve trying to keep up, narrowly avoiding people, goats and oncoming cars. The radio reporter is sitting in the front passenger seat and shouts into his cell phone with the urgency of someone reporting on a major natural disaster. He’s patched into a live report on the station’s morning show.  

alt“We are following Manny ‘Pacman’ Pacquiao as he has just left his hotel at the Cooyeesan Plaza and is heading out for his morning run!”

The road continues winding up and down, and we travel quickly around the dangerous curves. We turn into a new subdivision with perfectly paved roads but no houses. We drive several minutes into the subdivision over a large hill and down into a valley, all the while surrounded by incredible vistas of the tall green Cordillera mountains. We come to a quick stop. Pacquio’s SUV has parked up ahead and he has already climbed out and begun stretching. Several of his assistants, including strength and conditioning coach Alex Ariza, stand by looking on. 

The handful of reporters grab their cameras, jump out of their vehicles and race toward Pacquiao. Even on a simple morning run on the third day of a seven-week camp, Pacquiao is news, with his every moment being filmed and photographed.  

Pacquiao, wearing sunglasses, cracks a few jokes with his assistants, then begins the steep uphill run with his brother Bobby and two young boxers. Pacquiao doesn’t want vehicles in front of him when he runs because of the exhaust fumes. That means that anyone wanting the coveted frontal shot of Pacquiao running up the hill has to run ahead of the pack.  In one frenzied sprint, one reporter actually falls down and cuts his hand on the pavement. Clearly it’s not easy keeping up with Manny Pacquiao.

Pacquiao runs up the tortuously steep hill, occasionally resting in the places where it levels off. At the top, after the 25-minute run, Pacquiao shadow boxes as his assistants lay out two mats right on the empty street, one for Manny, one for his brother.

Pacquaio notices something strange before he begins stretching. A photographer who climbed into bushes to get a wider shot emerges with a branch stuck to back of his pants.

“Hey what’s on your back? Is that a tail?” Pacquiao says. Everyone laughed as the photographer quickly removed the branch.

The Pacquiao brothers then settle onto the mats and do various stretches as an ‘80s soundtrack – Abba, Air Supply — blares out of the gold. With a chance to see Pacquiao up close, I notice that he appears to look lean and healthy, with no obvious fat.  I mention this to Ariza, who is watching nearby.

 “Genetically he doesn’t have that gene that makes him get fat,” Ariza says.  “He hasn’t trained or done much in four or five months. But he’s a great athlete, and he can get away with it.” Ariza goes on to say that at 5:30 in the evening the day of the Margarito fight, Manny weighed in at 144 pounds.

“So when he woke up that morning he probably weighed only 138 pounds,” Ariza said. He then marveled at how such a small man could do such damage to his much bigger opponent.  “Of course it’s easier with a guy like Margarito who pretty much has zero athletic ability. There was a point in the fight I said to Freddie (Roach), ‘He’s going to kill him.’ There was one punch I remember when Manny hit him so hard, that Margarito’s face was literally separated from his skull. He took 400 shots to the head. I mean why don’t you just run your head into a f—ing brick wall and be done with it?

“It’s ironic that Antonio Margarito made fun of Freddie before the fight. I guarantee you he’s going to have slurred speech in a few years.”

altThat Pacquiao ran the hills two days in a row at the beginning of camp obviously impressed Roach. At the Shape Up gym later that afternoon, Roach sat and chatted with THE RING and another reporter as we waited for Pacquiao to walk through the door for the 2 p.m. training session to start. Ariza showed up 2:30 and informed Roach that Pacquiao was sore. Pacquiao, according to Ariza, wanted to train, but Roach, who has been with Pacquiao for 11 years and knows his boy better than anyone, knew what to do. He decided then and there to give Pacquiao the day off. 

“He ran the park the first day,” Roach said, “then the hills yesterday. He was supposed to run the park again today but he ran the hills. He’s fatigued and a little bit sore. So rather than push him and try to get in another workout, because we did nine rounds of mitts yesterday, we are kind of way ahead of schedule, so I gave him the day off.”

For anyone paying attention over the years, it’s an often repeated refrain from the four-time trainer of the year. Pacquiao is such a special athlete that Roach actually has to reign him in, even at the beginning of camp.

“That’s why he ran the hills this morning even though he wasn’t supposed to because he’s raring to go,” Roach said. “He likes that challenge, and he’s pushing himself. We usually average about 12 rounds of mitts max in workouts. In our second day we did nine good rounds yesterday. I don’t have a lot of room to play with I think. Again we don’t want to burn him out.”

The change of schedule allowed Roach time to chat about Mosley before Amir Khan, who had flown into the Philippines a few days earlier, would come downstairs to train for his upcoming fight in mid-April.  Roach said that Mosley’s experience necessitates flexibility.

“He’s (Mosley) a very crafty, experienced guy,” Roach said. “He’s watching tapes of us trying to make adjustments, and we’re trying to figure out the best way to approach his style. He’s making changes, we’re making changes. We’re kind of all over the place right now. If he fights us this way, we’ll do that. If he fights us that way, we’ll do this. We’re just going over all the scenarios. Manny hasn’t started watching tape on him yet, but he will. We’ll come with a plan A, B, C. Styles dictate fights and you never know what kind of style he’s going to come out with.

“I don’t think he’ll be too aggressive in this fight, but that might be his only opportunity, so we have to be ready for a fast start by him. I expect him to be more of a counterpuncher, but I think he knows that we expect that.”

Mosley’s weaknesses?

“He doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses,” Roach said. “I think his biggest weakness right now is he’s 39 years old. We all get old. It’s part of life. Other than that I’m sure he’s training his ass off. He knows how to get in shape, he works hard. The thing is, it’s very easy to get up for Manny Pacquiao. Everyone that we fight, fights at their best. One win changes his life. Everything bad that ever happened in his life goes away.”

Roach also warned fans not to put too much credence into Mosley’s sluggish performance against Sergio Mora in his most-recent fight, last September in Los Angeles.   

“Mora’s a mover, a boxer, totally different style, and he’s a hard guy to get up for,” he said. “Most people thought that was going to be an easy fight for him and maybe he took him lightly. Maybe not. “

If it sounds like Roach has a lot of respect for Mosley, it’s because he does. That’s why this is one fight for which he won’t be trying to get into the opponent’s head.

“Shane’s going to be difficult because I like him. We’re friends,” he said. “I won’t disrespect him. When I talk s—t, Manny doesn’t like it anyway. He tells me, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ I don’t’ think there’ll be too much trash talking because I respect him. We’re just going to get ready for the best Shane out there. I expect him to bring his best, and that’s what we’ll be ready for.”

But while Roach is aware that Mosley offers Pacquiao the most-scientific opponent he’s seen since the Marquez and Morales fights, he remains supremely confident of victory come May 7. That’s because Pacquiao, Roach says, is still hungry after all these years.

“He’s working harder now than he did the first day I met him,” Roach said. “He has more at stake now. If he loses, he feels he’s letting his whole country down. And he’s got a whole country behind him. In the Margarito fight he got hit with those two body shots, and he was sinking down, and I thought he was going to go down for a second, but he just willed himself not to go. That’s for Filipinos. He’s got the weight on his shoulders, and he carries it well.”

That was evident later that night. After dinner around 7, Pacquiao was bored with being inside the hotel. So he decided to take his entourage of about 10 people to a nearby mall and to a Starbucks, where he held court for a quickly gathered throng over the next two hours.

Within moments of his arrival, word had spread like a Kansas prairie fire about Pacquiao’s presence. Hundreds of fans pressed up against the windows of the store, trying to get a glimpse of their hero, and taking photos and videos with their cell phones. Mall security had to be called in to keep order. As Pacquaio joked with his friends and listened to tunes on his headphones, plenty of people came inside and found the courage to ask for a photo or an autograph. He obliged every single one of them.

Pacquiao called it a night around 9. Surrounded by a phalanx of security, he headed down to the mall car park, all the while chased by shrieking fanatical fans seeking a photo or just  a glimpse of the Philippines’ biggest-ever superstar. In a few hours he would be well rested and happily back to a full day’s grind.

 

Photos / Ted Lerner

 

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