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11.12.10

Manny Pacquiao, Boxing's Biggest Star

Pacquiao is a worldwide phenom the U.S. is only now catching up to. On Saturday night he'll fight in front of 50,000 people at Cowboys Stadium. Allen Barra looks inside his popularity.

Pacquiao is a worldwide phenom the U.S. is only now catching up to. On Saturday night he fights in front of 50,000 people at Cowboys Stadium. Allen Barra looks inside his popularity.

The greatest fighter in the world will is packing them into the new Cowboys Stadium Saturday, and I’ll bet you don’t even know who he is. Better catch up quickly, because in a couple of years he might be the president of a country of 95 million people, and you never know when you might need a friend in Asia.

Emmanuel Dapidran “Manny” Pacquiao (pronounced pak’ jau) is a phenomenon.  Sportswriters have been hitting air trying to find comparisons between him and other great names in boxing history. They’ve failed because there really aren’t any to make. Pacquiao’s story is so incredible that, had it been a script, Sylvester Stallone would have rejected it. (Manny does, however, have a number of television shows under his belt, including Show Me Da Manny, a Filipino sitcom in which his mother appeared with him.) 

Let’s start at the beginning.  Pacquiao has come to mean so much to so many in so short a time that it’s easy to forget he would have been none of these had he not been a fighter first. He’s currently the WBO Welterweight Champion, which probably means nothing at all to you and so little to me that I’m not even going to look up what WBO stands for. (It’s one of those alphabet boxing groups that claims to have authority over the entire sport–there are at least five or six of them.) 

Voted “Fighter of The Decade” by the Boxing Writers Association of America and three-times named “Fighter of The Year” by the BWAA and Ring magazine, he has won titles in seven different weight categories. He goes for number eight Saturday night against a pretty good Mexican-American fighter, Antonio Margarito, for the vacant junior middleweight title of the WBC. (I’m not going to look up that one, either.) By fight time, Margarito could outweigh Pacquiao by as much as 15 pounds–Pacquiao will probably step into the ring at around 150.  Margarito will also have an advantage of several inches in height (Manny is just 5’ 7”) and reach, as have most of Manny’s opponents.

There is practically no one left in the lighter weight classifications for Pacquiao to test himself against, so of late he has been fighting bigger men. His record, 51-3-2 with 38 knockouts, sounds pretty impressive, but that’s only part of the story.  Since walking into Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles nine years ago, he has lost only one fight, a close 12-round decision to Erik Morales, himself a three-time champion, in 2005. Since then, Pacquiao has been virtually invincible.

Roach, who has worked with dozens of champions over the years and learned his training skills from the great Eddie Futch, told me Pacquiao is, “Maybe the greatest two-handed fighter I’ve ever seen. You see a lot of great fighters who have one great punch and a good second punch. Joe Louis had the greatest jab I’ve ever seen. Joe Frazier had a great left hook, Mike Tyson had a killer right. But Manny has the best punch of anyone in boxing with either his right or his left.” 

Biographer Gary Andrew Poole on Pacquiao: “His drawing potential is limitless.”

Bob Arum, who is promoting Saturday’s fight, goes even further. “He just might be the greatest fighter, pound for pound, ever to step into the ring,” he said. “I mean, I put him right up there with Sugar Ray Robinson. The big difference between Manny and Ray is that there was better opposition around when Robinson was fighting, but I think Manny is equally talented and a harder hitter.”

Gary Andrew Poole, whose lively biography of Pacquiao, PacMan, has just been published by Da Capo Press, thinks, “There may never have been such a combination of power and speed as Manny Pacquiao. We don’t know how good a defensive fighter he is because he’s so fast that no one he’s fought has been able to keep up with him. His speed is his defense.”

But Pacquiao’s story only begins with his ring record. “The rest of the world knows what a lot of American fight fans are only beginning to find out,” says the dean of American boxing writers, Bert Sugar, author of The Ultimate Book of Boxing Lists.  “He’s the biggest gate attraction in boxing. No one else is close. He could put 40,000 to 50,000 in the seats at Cowboy Stadium Saturday night. No other fighter is even close to being able to make that claim.”

Mixed martial arts? “Forget about it. Their 10 biggest attractions couldn’t outdraw Manny.”  Well, perhaps in the U.S., but certainly not in the Philippines, where he was born 31 years ago in poverty so abject he makes the backgrounds of most American fighters seem middle class. And not in most Asian countries, where he has built up an enormous fan base, the largest of any fighter since Muhammad Ali was at his peak. 

“Not only that,” says Poole, “but coming from a Spanish speaking country, he’s built up a Latin following that’s beginning to look like a tidal wave. His drawing potential is limitless.”

The PacMan is a good product to market. Born in Kibawe, Bukidnon, Philippines on December 18, 1978, he is charming and soft-spoken—sometimes in rudimentary but adequate English—but without the menace of former Latin champions like Panama’s Roberto Duran. “Fans love to see him do the walk from the dressing room to the ring,” says Poole. “He smiles the whole way. He looks like he is soaked in Zen wisdom.” He is only the eighth Filipino to make the cover of Time Asia and was also a cover boy for Reader’s Digest Asia.

All Pacquiao needs to become the biggest fight attraction ever is a really big fight.  But, good as Antonio Margarito is, he doesn’t seem to be the challenger that will bring out Manny’s best. (Nearly every boxing expert has picked Pacquiao to win by unanimous decision or a late round knockout.) The fight boxing fans want to see—the fight everyone wants to see—is Pacquiao vs. unbeaten (41-0), five-division world champion Floyd Mayweather, Jr., who just a couple of years ago was every boxing writer’s choice for the mythical fighter of “Best Pound-for-Pound Fighter in the World.” 

Twice Mayweather and Pacquiao have come close to an agreement; both times Mayweather has found reasons to back away, one time angering Pacquiao by implying that he should take an Olympic-style blood test to prove he was not on steroids. “I don’t think Floyd’s afraid of Manny,” says Sugar, “but I do think he’s afraid of losing, and if he fights Pacquiao he’ll be in the ring with a fighter who’s utterly unafraid of him.”

A Pacquiao-Mayweather match would probably dwarf all existing records for both gate and worldwide pay per view, surpassing even the numbers put up in the 1980s by Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran and Leonard vs. Tommy Hearns. If it doesn’t happen, Pacquiao will probably be content to pocket about a hundred million more in purses while building up a war chest to run for the presidency of the Philippines. He is already a congressman there, elected in May.

Could he possibly make it? “He’s won every challenge he’s attempted in his life,” Poole says. “You’re talking about a man who’s so popular in his country that when he fights, the crime rate almost drops to zero. What do you think?”

I don’t know, but if I were President Obama, I’d clear out the schedule for dinner at the White House next week. And maybe find someone who can cook Filipino.

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.