This is the second 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: The evolution of Pacquiao the boxer.
Ray Beltran was asked how many times he has sparred with Manny Pacquiao and laughed.
The durable fighter has been one of Pacquiao’s principal sparring partners for seven years, since the Filipino superstar was preparing to face Juan Manuel Marquez for the first time in 2004. Pacquiao will have fought 16 times since then if you include his bout against Shane Mosley on May 7 in Las Vegas.
And Beltran has been on board for most of those fights.
“Maybe 100 times,” said Beltran, guessing how many sessions he’s had with Pacquiao. And he figures he has averaged four rounds each session, which translates to about 400 rounds with the greatest fighter alive.
Bottom line: Few fighters know Pacquiao the boxer as well as Beltran does. And sparring with him is no easy task.
“He’s a f—–g beast,” Beltran said with great emphasis, “like a monster, so intense.”
Pacquiao was a monster since the first time Beltran sparred with him, when the Mexican was excited and anxious at the same time to be working with a world titleholder. But the future icon wasn’t the fighter he is now.
Beltran said Pacquiao has evolved from a relatively mechanical fighter with once-in-a-generation tools to a boxing whiz who – with trainer Freddie Roach – has harnessed those gifts to create a whirring fighting machine.
In other words, Beltran once knew exactly what to expect from Pacquiao. Now he doesn’t. And that's frightening.
“He used to be aggressive, aggressive,” Beltran said. “… He was all about rhythm. Once you got his rhythm, you knew what to expect from him. You kind of knew what kind of punches were coming. He always came the same way … pop, pop, pop, aggressive, aggressive. I don’t think he thought about being tricky, about feinting or anything like that.”
Beltran caught himself …
“It was still very difficult, believe me,” he said, suddenly realizing he had to make that clarification. “It just wasn’t as difficult as it is now. He was more in front of you then. That’s all."
One thing that makes Pacquiao virtually unbeatable these days is that you can’t predict what he’ll do, Beltran said.
Punches Beltran once saw coming now come from all conceivable angles … at ridiculous speeds … with pinpoint accuracy … and they hurt. Ricky Hatton will tell you that. No one brings what the present-day Pacquiao brings.
And the Pacquiao who was there to be hit, as Beltran described, is long gone. The Pacquiao of today uses his natural gifts in a much more-cunning manner, moving his cat-quick feet to bring him in range to inflict damage and then take him back out before his opponents can react.
It’s no wonder he hasn’t lost since 2005, a span of 13 fights against some of the biggest names in the sport.
“I noticed over time, little by little, he learned from Freddie,” Beltran said. “Like I said, he used to be in front of you. Now he’s not. He seems to be there but he’s not. A little bit outside … pop, pop, real quick … he jumps to the side … then the other side. You never know where he'll be or what he'll do. He wasn't like that before.
“… He has speed, power, he attacks from all angels. He’s very good at it. He has leg movement, he’s very quick, in and out, side to side. It makes him really, really difficult.”
How difficult? Sharing the ring with Pacquiao is like being in a sizzling cauldron. At least a part of you just wants to get out.
“I would never quit,” Beltran said. “That’s against my beliefs. Never. Working with him is so intense, though, so intense. You can’t rest for even a second. I have to work so hard, which is good for me but very difficult. When I spar with him and then move to another sparring partner, I feel the difference right away.
“When I do four or five hard rounds with him and finish the last round,” he added with a laugh, “I right away jump out of the ring so they won’t ask me to do one more round.”
And, believe or not, Beltran describes the experience as fun.
“If it wasn’t fun,” he said, “man, it would be a nightmare.”