This is the first in a multi-part series on what it is like being a sparring partner of Manny Pacquiao through the eyes of Ray Beltran, who has worked with the No. 1 fighter in the world for seven years. This installment: From Mexico to sparring with Pacquiao.
Ray Beltran’s long journey from depressing poverty to becoming one of Manny Pacquiao’s most-reliable sparring partners is an unlikely tale.
Beltran has painful childhood memories of days without food in the poorest section of Los Mochis, Mexico, memories similar to those of Pacquiao himself. Sometimes, Beltran said ruefully, he found his sustenance at the bottom of trash cans.
And his illegal migration to the U.S. is unfathomable to anyone who hasn’t experienced such a thing. He was 15 when he, his mother and two siblings lay in the back of an old pickup for three hours through the mountains in freezing temperatures before they made it over the border into Arizona, where his father already lived.
“It was so cold, sooooo cold,” Beltran remembers.
The boy and his family made it, though. They were reunited with his father, who worked in restaurants and did some landscaping for a living, and were able to start a new life.
Of course, for young Beltran, that included boxing. He had learned the basic skills – training barefoot most of the time, he said – in Los Mochis and had shown some promise.
In Tempe, his new hometown, his father took him to a local gym and he grew into a solid fighter. He turned pro in 1999, about five years before he first stepped into the ring with Pacquiao.
Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s trainer, was looking for a sparring partner for Pacquiao before his first fight with Juan Manuel Marquez in 2004 and someone recommended Beltran, who had spent some time working out at the famous Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood.
Roach approached him and he jumped at the opportunity.
“To me it was a challenge training against a world champion," said Beltran, who speaks excellent English. "I knew it would be tough. I was kind of excited. I never imagined that Manny would be this big now but it was exciting for me even then.”
What was it like?
“The first time, the very first round, I was nervous,” he said. “The first round was very tough. He hurt me a couple of times with a straight left hand. He didn’t hurt me after that, after I learned my lesson. I got better and better.
“It was a great experience. And it still is now.”
Beltran still can’t believe that he is both sparring partner and close friend to the best fighter in the world in light of his humble beginnings.
The transition just doesn’t seem plausible.
“To be honest, I feel real lucky,” he said. “When I was a little kid, my idols were Salvador Sanchez, my main idol, and Sugar Ray Leonard and (Julio Cesar) Chavez. Those guys. I never imagined as a little kid in Mexico that I would ever even meet a world champion face to face.
“To me, it’s like a dream come true, to be able to help (Pacquiao) with his fights and to be close to him personally. I’m very, very fortunate. I have something to tell my grandchildren when I get old.”