On a warm autumn day a few weeks ago, the boxer Antonio Margarito long-faced and world-weary worked the mitts with his trainer in the quiet of a gym, located in a run-down office park, on the outskirts of Oxnard, Calif. His wife, his trainer, a security guy, two fellow boxers and two old-timers were the only other people present. Margarito, who is known as the "Tijuana Tornado" to his fans (and as Tony to his friends), worked with a tired determination because he will be in the fight of his life on Saturday, Nov. 13, when he faces Manny Pacquiao, the most charismatic and popular fighter since Muhammad Ali. This past weekend, Pacquiao added to his growing global fan base when he was featured on CBS's 60 Minutes.
In the quiet of the gym, underdog Margarito talked about Pacquiao with great respect. El rapido, he often said in Spanish, referring to Pacquiao's speed. But Margarito said he would use his five-inch height advantage to outmuscle the Filipino. As Margarito's workout showed, the Mexican's punches were slow, but they were also very hard.
In contrast to Margarito's placid preparations, Pacquiao's rock-star status has made his training camp almost a circus of distractions so much so that some fans fear Pacquiao isn't quite ready for the upcoming fight and that age has started to catch up to him he is suffering from an ulcer and plantar fasciitis. He will be trying to win an unprecedented eighth world championship in eight weight divisions an upward swing of about 48 lb. (22 kg) from the weight at which he originally started boxing. There is another distraction. Pacquiao is now a member of the Philippine Congress (The Ring magazine called him "The Baddest Congressman on the Planet" on its most recent cover). If politics isn't distracting enough, some fans are already wagering on his one day becoming President of the Philippines.
Freddie Roach, Pacquiao's trainer, has been frustrated by all the extracurricular activities. At one point, in the midst of training, Pacquiao took off to meet Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, trying to secure funds for a hospital in his impoverished district in the southern Philippines. Meanwhile, the media can't seem to have enough of him, from his politics to his pugilism to his rags-to-riches story. At one point, five television crews were following his every move. In addition to the 60 Minutes feature (which followed an interview with Barack Obama), he has appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel Live talk show three times (most recently singing "Imagine" with Will Ferrell) and was featured in a Nike advertising campaign. He went to San Diego to coach a basketball game and traveled to Nevada to support Senate majority leader Harry Reid in his recent election campaign. (His p.r. machine boasted that Pacquiao's endorsement helped Reid seal his come-from-behind victory over Sharron Angle. It could be right: there is a large community of Filipinos who work in Nevada's gambling industry.)
Some boxing analysts wonder if Pacquiao is taking the fight seriously enough. It is a bit of a letdown. The big money had been on Pacquiao to face Floyd Mayweather Jr., his longtime rival and nemesis, whom he has never fought in the ring. Earlier this year, Mayweather rebuffed a proposed megafight that might well have become the biggest boxing spectacle of the past 30 years. And so Pacquiao settled for fighting the bigger Margarito for a super-welterweight title.
Settling may not be the right word. At fight time, Margarito could be as much as 15 lb. heavier than Pacquiao. "Size doesn't win fights skill does and we outweigh them in that department," says Roach. While Pacquiao has become a popular icon, Margarito is more of an antihero. And this will mark Margarito's first fight in the U.S. since he was banned from competing in most American states after being caught using illegal gloves in a 2009 fight against Shane Mosley in Los Angeles. Still, he isn't Mayweather.
Roach has ratcheted up the tension by saying that unlike every previous Pacquiao training camp, which he has graded with A's, the current one is a B. But Roach may also be working to promote the fight, raising doubts about the overwhelming favorite. Still, he seems quite sincere in his belief that Pacquiao's career is winding down. "Freddie is worried about me, and I understand that," says Pacquiao, who has been running in the Hollywood hills, even on scheduled rest days, in a frantic effort to get himself into "Manny shape," the designation his trainers use when the boxer goes beyond the barriers of what they think is humanly possible. While he is still fast and diligent "He is in incredible shape, just not Manny shape," his fitness trainer Alex Ariza said a couple of weeks ago he grimaces in pain when he runs. He too has started to talk about his boxing career's nearing its conclusion. Pacquiao has told me he will fight three or four more times.
Despite his statements of concern about training camp, Roach says he will have a much better fighter in his corner on Saturday night, when Pacquiao and Margarito get in the ring at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. "This will not be a difficult fight for us at all," he says.
Roach has reason to be confident. Despite the health and focus issues, Pacquiao still moves fluidly around the sparring ring, lunging at ghostly angles, his green gloves a blur of motion. During training, Margarito appeared flat-footed and obviously slower than the speedy Pacquiao. He worked on jabbing and then going for combinations to the body, punctuated by an occasional uppercut. It isn't difficult to predict that those punches will find more air then flesh on Saturday evening. Still, it takes only one punch to bring down a demigod.
Gary Andrew Poole is the author of PacMan: Behind the Scenes with Manny Pacquiao the Greatest Pound-for-Pound Fighter in the World (Da Capo Press), which is now available in bookstores worldwide and on Amazon.com.