GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines – The mood at the Pacman Wild Card Gym has changed dramatically in the the month since Manny Pacquiao began training for his Nov. 24 bout against former WBA lightweight titleholder Brandon Rios.
The hangers-on – who have been as much a part of Pacquiao gym scenes as the punching bags in the past – have been weeded out, with only essential personnel and a few media outlets present.
The glass door leading to the boxing section – through which fans would sneak a peak at Pacquiao’s preparations – is now covered with a blue tarp, with the gym set to begin complete shutdown mode on Monday during the hours of Pacquiao’s training.
That hasn’t stopped crowds of 30 or so from standing across the street, hoping to catch a glimpse of Pacquiao through the third-story window.
The playful training that typified the early portion of Pacquiao’s camp has been replaced with deadly serious sparring and padwork. When head trainer Freddie Roach arrives in the Philippines on Thursday to finish up the final six week of Pacquiao’s training camp, he’ll be greeted by a fighter who has already laid the groundwork.
“I think Freddie will be pleasantly surprised at the conditioning and timing that Manny has this early,” said Pacquiao advisor Michael Koncz. “I think we’re well ahead of the game.”
Roach, who has led Pacquiao (54-5-2, 38 knockouts) to titles in seven of his record-setting eight divisions, will be bringing with him British junior middleweight Liam Vaughan (8-1, 2 KOs) to spar with Pacquiao.
Those who won’t be joining Roach on this trip are Chinese lightweight prospect Yang Lianhui and former Pacquiao strength and conditioning coach Justin Fortune. Koncz told RingTV.com that he felt Yang “had nothing to offer” Pacquiao as a sparring partner.
Fortune was expected to re-join Team Pacquiao for the first time since 2007, but Koncz said that schedule conflicts have put that deal in jeopardy for the time being. Pacquiao’s promoter, Bob Arum, told veteran Filipino sportswriter Ronnie Nathanielsz that a visa issue was to blame for the Australian citizen’s cancelation.
“We contacted Justin on such short notice, and obviously he has a business to run and other things,” said Koncz. “He’s making his best efforts to arrange his schedules and if he can he’ll come. If he can’t, he won’t.”
Pacquiao had already sent home one partner, Marlon Alta, after stopping the ill-prepared middleweight in the second round of a session over the weekend, while unbeaten Ghanaian Fredrick Lawson had been roughed up for three rounds afterwards.
“On Saturday, Manny was absolutely in the zone,” said Mike Altamura, Lawson’s manager. “To me, there are only two guys in the sport who are untouchable when they’re in the zone, and that’s Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather.”
Replacement sparring partner Dan Nazareno Jr. (17-10, 13 KOs) of San Fernando, Philippines, was none too frightened by those reports, and looked forward eagerly to their first session on Tuesday afternoon.
The junior welterweight Nazareno is slightly taller than Pacquiao at about 5-feet-8, with a strong right hand, an iron jaw and no-retreat approach. In other words, he’s a diet version of Brandon Rios.
True to form when dealing with a new sparring mate, Pacquiao began the first round in full retreat, gauging the power and speed of Nazareno while trying to catch the punches on his gloves. Nazareno took the opportunity to throw hard right hands at Pacquiao, some of which got through the guard, before Pacquiao began to turn it up in the second half of the round.
As Nazareno’s form began to fall apart with the onset of fatigue, Pacquiao began to counterpunch and move effectively, setting up his left cross with his awkward upper body movement. After three rounds, Nazareno’s face looked red but he donned a satisfied smile.
During any lull in the action, Pacquiao would shout, “Go, go, go!” to spur on his opponent to attack. “That’s so they put pressure on me, that’s my opponent’s style,” said Pacquiao later. By the third round, Pacquiao was in devastating form, landing his left cross at will and following up with shots to the body in the style he had employed against Miguel Cotto in 2009.
“I was not stunned,” said Nazareno, who remarked that his arms were hurt from catching punches. “I can take the punches. Manny’s power is OK but I can’t handle the speed.”
Next up was Lawson (21-0, 19 KOs), who had a score to settle with Pacquiao following the trouncing he had endured on Saturday. The 25-year-old came out more aggressively than he had reportedly been in previous sessions with Pacquiao, sticking his left jab in effectively to draw Pacquiao out of his guard, then throwing hard right hands through the gaps.
As Lawson worked to counter from close range, Pacquiao switched up his own tactics, stepping around Lawson in an attempt to create new angles to deliver his punches from. Suffice it to say that Lawson didn’t much resemble the Rios who has built up a 31-1-1 (23 KOs) record.
“Coming forward and putting consistent pressure on Manny isn’t something that comes naturally to Lawson,” said Altamura. “He’s had to work on it and it’s just about being smart.”
Pacquiao assistant Nonoy Neri, who has split most of the duties so far with Pacquiao’s right-hand man, Buboy Fernandez, estimated that Pacquiao was 75 percent in fighting shape, but seemed pleased with what he has seen so far in camp.
“When Manny throws punches, he has speed, he has good head movement,” said Neri, who has been a close Pacquiao associate since 1999.
“Nazareno has more speed than Rios but the same style. … Lawson is different style than Rios, he’s moving, throws jabs. It’s not the same with Rios. Rios is a flat-footed fighter.”
Koncz seems to like the variety that Lawson adds to the sparring mix. “I brought him in specifically because he’s a little different style than Brandon. He moves a little bit more, so I want to keep (Pacquiao) on his toes and not get stuck into a rut with one style.”
Just as quickly as Pacquiao can hit the kill switch, he can take the edge off with fun and games in the gym. After finishing five rounds of sparring and a couple more on the pads, Pacquiao matched up others in the gym for impromptu sparring sessions.
Manny’s younger brother, Bobby Pacquiao, who retired in 2008 with a pro record of 30-15-3 (15 KOs), was matched with former Pacquiao sparring partner Fernando Montilla, who retired in 2009 with a 33-21-4 (22 KOs) record. In their primes, the fight could’ve been a decent national title fight.
With Koncz, Neri and former two-time champion Gerry Penalosa serving as judges, the two slugged it out over three rounds. Bobby Pacquiao won a deserved three-round decision, earning himself 30,000 pesos (about $750) from his older brother, while Montilla earned 15,000 for his efforts.
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Wednesday’s padwork session with Fernandez hinted at the explosiveness that remains in the 34-year-old Pacquiao, even after sustaining back-to-back losses to Timothy Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez last year.
Appearing to be more rested than he was the previous day, Pacquiao lit up the pads for six rounds before finishing up by hitting various bags in the gym.
Training in “GenSan” has its advantages and disadvantages. While it’s difficult to find local sparring partners on short notice in the booming fishing city, the familiarity of the surroundings allows Pacquiao to control his environment more so than in recent training locations like Los Angeles and Baguio City, Philippines.
“The main reason is he’s not the so-called celebrity here like he is everywhere else because he lives here, people see him,” said Koncz. “They still clamor around him but he’s not in such demand here.
“After training, we can go to his home and we have the capability of locking it down because of security. So Manny can determine how late he wants to see people, who he wants to see, and people are very respectful here.”
It also affords him the opportunity to handle more of his duties as a congressman in the nearby Sarangani province. During his Sunday rest, Pacquiao accompanied police on a raid of a cyber sex den in GenSan that had been exploiting underage girls, then on Tuesday took the hour-plus ride out to Glan in Sarangani to attend the Lubi-Lubi Festival, an annual dance event that celebrates the city’s passion for coconuts.
Each afternoon, as Pacquiao walks back to his H2 Hummer after training, a group of beggars and vendors meets him at his vehicle, asking for help for various hardships. Each day, Pacquiao gives to women holding babies and buys whatever fruit is being sold to help out vendors.
It’s a daily reminder of just how “real” home can be.
Photos by Ryan Songalia
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine and GMA News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.