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When he got to Manila, Pacquiao first worked as a laborer. His enthusiasm for boxing, however, had him returning to the ring, fighting in run-for-cover, barely legal matches pulled together in one of Manila's cramped suburbs. He lingers over the names of boxers he knew who died after such fights, then moves on. The death of a friend reportedly spurred Pacquiao to turn professional.
His 1995 pro debut on a boxing show which he won by decision made him a local star. After that, energy alone seemed to carry him through six inconsistent years, a period in which he still managed to win two world titles in fights in Southeast Asia. Finally, a Cinderella-like twist got him noticed in the U.S. market. In June 2001, Pacquiao stepped in as a last-minute replacement at a fight in Las Vegas to win the IBF super-bantamweight title by TKO. Soon after, he walked into the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood and met the owner, Freddie Roach, who would transform the way Pacquiao fought.
Roach makes a powerful impression when you meet him, because something is clearly wrong. His movements are a beat or two off-sync; the occasional phrase or sentence is interrupted by an abrupt pause, then a slurring. Roach, who is not yet 50, has Parkinson's disease, most likely the result of his own boxing career. But it has not stopped him from taking Pacquiao's energy and giving it strategy. Their partnership has created one of the most riveting fighters in boxing history. Roach seems prouder of Pacquiao than of almost any of his other famous trainees. He sometimes talks as if the fighter has already reached his peak. Manny, he says, "has nothing more to prove." He predicts a first-round knockout of Cotto but, even as people are already talking about the fight after that (Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the dream matchup), Roach says Pacquiao may have just two more fights in him and then ought to call it quits.
Pacquiao is certainly thinking of the day after boxing. In 2007 he ran for a congressional seat in General Santos City but was beaten by the incumbent, Darlene Antonino-Custodio, who hails from a wealthy family long rooted in the politics of the region. But he is almost sure to run again in the 2010 national elections, though not in the same district. (Pacquiao has his own political organization the People's Champ Movement but has been aligning himself with President Gloria Arroyo, who needs his popularity.) Most people say they'd rather he stay a boxer and win more accolades for the nation, that his need to help lift people up can be better served elsewhere. But politics as his second act may be a strategy born of a deeper survival instinct from knowing the limitations of a boxer's life, particularly after the fighting is done. "'Di ako bobo," he might say.
You see, Manny Pacquiao is not the first famous boxer produced by General Santos City. The previous Filipino world champion, Rolando Navarrete, came from the same streets. Navarrete now lives in embittered obscurity on the city's outskirts, often falling afoul of the law. "Most boxers start with nothing and end up with nothing," says Pedro Acharon, the mayor of General Santos City. "Manny wants to end that story. He knows there's more to explore in life."
Will His Kingdom Come?
Pacquiao crosses himself before digging into dinner amid the Corinthian columns of Capitale, an old bank turned party space, just about where Chinatown starts in Manhattan. It is early June, and he is there to receive his second Fighter of the Year award from The Ring magazine. Even as old palookas cuss up a storm, he prays before his meal. His mother says he was always "very disciplined and God-fearing" taking after her, of course. Her front garden features a coral-lined altar to the Virgin Mary, and an entire shelf in her living room is filled with icons and bric-a-brac in honor of Christ's mother. Dionisia wanted Manny to be a priest. Prayer reigns in his gym. "After each workout," says Giongco, "he requests a moment of silence where he prays, and then everything goes back to normal."