Manny Pacquiao’s Mission is Ready

You would never have known Manny Pacquiao was closely surrounded by several dozen writers and photographers as he methodically wrapped his hands before a workout this week, so accustomed and indifferent is the Filipino icon to the intense media presence that shadows his every move.

Here in a makeshift gym deep in the bowels of the Venetian Macao, a well-lit studio typically reserved for Cirque du Soleil rehearsals, a circus of its own kind has been relentless in the buildup to Pacquiao’s showdown with Brandon Rios on Sunday morning at the sold-out CotaiArena. He fielded and parried questions in both English and Tagalog, discussing the fight, typhoon Haiyan and his political ambitions. At one point, a middle-aged Filipino breast-stroked through the scrum and asked Pacquiao to join him for a two-minute prayer in their native tongue. The fighter complied and the man, apparently a producer for Pacquiao’s since-discontinued Filipino variety-game show Manny Many Prizes, sobbed uncontrollably through the finish.

Such is the enormous magnetism of Pacquiao, who remains one of the world’s most recognisable public figures after capturing world titles across a record eight weight divisions, cracking the mainstream like no other Asian-born athlete and winning election to the Congress of the Philippines on the promise of combating the very poverty that spat him out from General Santos City years ago. He is the most socially important boxer since Muhammad Ali. One day, they say, he will be president.

Yet the idea of Pacquiao, for two years now, has outperformed the athlete himself. He has gone more than three years since knocking out an opponent – once his calling card – and underwhelmed in four straight fights. He was last seen face down after a stomach-turning knockout against Juan Manuel Márquez that rendered him unconscious for several minutes, prompting public calls from his wife and mother for his retirement.

“That’s boxing,” says Pacquiao, who turns 35 next month. “Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. I am not going to complain or worry about what happened.”

That may satisfy Pacquiao, like so many of his countrymen a subscriber to the concept of fate, but his promoter is bound to a more pragmatic tack. Top Rank’s Bob Arum says he has brought Sunday’s event to this former Portuguese colony on the Pearl River Delta in the tradition of the great fights that took place overseas. There has been the requisite business-speak about emerging markets, brand expansion and globalisation, all of which is valid.

But the more immediate reality is Pacquiao is coming off back-to-back defeats – even if the first was a highly questionable split-decision loss to Timothy Bradley – and this could reasonably be the last chance to cash him out. While he consistently ranks among the world’s highest-earning athletes, rumblings of financial woes persist – no doubt a consequence of Pacquiao’s well-documented largesse and compulsive philanthropy.

The tax-friendly structure of Macau will allow him to retain the entirety of his guaranteed $18m purse, a figure that could balloon to $30m based on the pay-per-view receipts. Had the fight happened in the United States, anywhere from 36% to 40% would have gone to the government.

No amount of salesmanship, misdirection or promotional razzle-dazzle can conceal the fact that Sunday’s fight is about restoring Pacquiao’s status as an elite fighter. He needs to win and he needs to look good doing it. They could not have handpicked a better foil for the task.

Rios, a former lightweight titleholder from Oxnard, California, by way of Garden City, Kansas, says he resents being regarded as a tune-up opponent, yet it does not take an expert to realise that is why he is here. Forget for a moment that Pacquiao has the edge in every measurable category – speed, power, footwork, accuracy – and focus instead on the stylistic nightmare that awaits the American. The 27-year-old is a conventional pressure fighter who marches right in, content to take three punches to land one, confident he can win any battle of attrition. While a tribute to Rios’s fearlessness and threshold for pain, which he describes in near-masochistic terms, it is a style that Pacquiao has traditionally dined on.

“That’s what I want: his style of fighting,” says Pacquiao, whose most underwhelming efforts have come against counterpunchers [like Márquez] or unwilling dance partners content to survive rather than risk getting knocked out [like Shane Mosley]. “He likes to come inside and I like that style. I don’t like to chase and I’m pretty sure I won’t have to chase him.”

There is also the chasm in experience. Rios has never been in with an opponent of Pacquiao’s class, headlined a pay-per-view or fought at welterweight. Like Pacquiao, he’s coming off a confidence-shaking loss, the first of his professional career. Rios’s skills, while probably underrated by pundits who dismiss him as a crude brawler, are inadequate to contend with Pacquiao’s blinding hand speed, balletic footwork and dizzying combinations thrown from angles.

And it certainly does not help that Rios’s problems making weight appear to be resurfacing at the most important moment of his career – a familiar struggle for a fighter who moved up from lightweight after twice failing to make the division limit and losing his title on the scale. He is reportedly wearing a plastic suit while attempting to shed the last few pounds before the weigh-in, which takes place on Saturday.

Freddie Roach, whose 12-year partnership with Pacquiao ranks with Ali-Dundee, Louis-Blackburn and Frazier-Futch among the game’s legendary trainer-fighter tandems, has not been shy in his estimation of Rios’s chances.

 “Manny’s going to destroy this guy,” Roach told a scrum of reporters on Friday morning. “The level of competition is just not the same. Manny’s been there. He hasn’t.”

When asked to comment on Rios’s power – 11 of the American’s 13 victories have come by knockout – Roach rejected the premise. “He’s not a big puncher,” the five-times trainer of the year says. “And at 147lb, he’s even less than a puncher than at 140 and 135. I don’t fear this guy. He’s too slow. The more I see of Rios on tape, the better I feel.”

Roach spoke in glowing terms about the 10-week training camp in the Philippines, Pacquiao’s longest in years, saying that his fighter “always brought a little bit extra every day”. Veterans of the Pacquiao beat have grown wary of such proclamations – it seems Manny always looks better than ever – but there is little doubt the 11-month lay-off will benefit a veteran who has absorbed punishment for a total of 371 rounds since turning pro as a 106-pounder in 1995.

Though both fighters are coming off defeats this bout is for something called the WBO international welterweight title. (And before you ask: yes, they do make these up as they go along.) If he is even a fraction of the fighter that peaked with highlight-reel victories over Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto, Pacquiao should win running away – prompting the groundswell for a showdown with Floyd Mayweather to restart in earnest.

And given the dearth of credible opponents for Mayweather with four fights remaining on his contract with CBS and Showtime, it may be impossible for either side to turn their back on the long-fancied superfight any longer.

It has been said of Pacquiao that he is simultaneously mysterious and transparent. Only those in his inner circle know what lies beneath the puckish grin. His role as a statesman has seen him redouble his efforts at measuring his words with extreme care to avoid offending anybody.

Yet when pressed about Rios’s promise to send him into retirement, Pacquiao offered the closest thing to a guarantee he will issue all week.

“This is not the last fight,” he assures, adding an advance apology. “It’s nothing personal. This is my job.”

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