'He thrives on this': The adulation that drives Manny Pacquiao

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THE SCENE NEVER changes. Go back five years, 10 years, and you’ll see. Some of the people change, sure, and the trees have grown and the streets are more congested. The man in the center of this howling mess is older, his angular, lined face containing every second of his 40 years. But Manny Pacquiao remains tethered to the fame, to the attention, to the adulation of all the people who offer up parts of their lives in service to him.

Start with the story of Richard Pascual, who wakes up at 3:30 six days a week and drives his silver Dodge Charger from the small Central Valley town of Delano, California, to Griffith Park in Los Angeles. It’s 141 miles each way, through the predawn darkness of the flat valley floor, up through the Grapevine, down into the great Los Angeles Basin and then back up to the observatory parking lot at Griffith Park.

Short, round, bald and remarkably jovial given his morning routine, Pascual is in charge of early-morning security for Pacquiao’s monthlong Los Angeles training camp. He never knows when Manny and his group of runners — anywhere from 20 to 100, depending on the day — are going to crest the hill next to the parking lot and head up the dirt trail toward the famed Hollywood sign. They usually appear between 6 and 7 a.m., so Pascual shows up around 5:30, pulls on a Pacquiao Security Group sweatshirt to guard against the early chill and starts preparing for the man to arrive.

Pascual, as well as at least 50 other part-time employees of Team Pacquiao, will be paid a yet-to-be-determined amount after Pacquiao’s fight on Saturday with undefeated welterweight Keith Thurman in Las Vegas. For now, this is Pascual’s job, although he tells me he doesn’t need the money or the hassle or the miles on the Charger.

Why, then? Pascual shrugs. “It’s the rush, man,” he says. “As soon as I get here, I’m scanning faces. I’m always looking out for someone who might be a potential threat to Manny. Someone’s got to take care of this part.”

Pascual isn’t the only worker here, just the first. By 6:30, there’s a guy using a short-handled broom to sweep the pine needles off the sidewalk where someone else will place Manny’s yoga mat in preparation for the post-run ab workout. Several others move barricades into position to block off the two parking spots nearest the park entrance. Even the most menial element of the choreography is undertaken with the seriousness of brain surgery.

After Pacquiao finishes his run — 6.5 miles, mostly uphill, in 53 minutes — he shadowboxes for about 20 minutes with the crowd in the parking lot. When that’s over, he is ushered into the barricaded area, where he and about 20 members of the inner circle — boxers from the gym, friends, general fitness fanatics — begin the morning’s abdominal workout. One member of the security detail is summoned closer to Manny. He leans over to listen intently and stands up. “He wants Bob Marley,” the man tells a colleague in a tone you’d expect from someone informing the surrounding area that the reactor is melting down.

Immediately, “One Love” starts on a portable speaker — a portable speaker it is surely someone’s job to bring to the park every morning. There are close to 200 people watching as Pacquiao laughs and sings his way through 1,200 variations of the situp. (Twenty-four sets, 50 reps each, because he was once beaten by body shots and vowed it wouldn’t happen again.) They’re jammed in tight around the barricades to get just the right photo. They’re on the berm behind the sidewalk, phones held high overhead, to get the overhead view. One young man causes the hearts of the security detail to scramble like mice when he climbs 20 feet up a pine tree. Limbs bounce as he slides from one to another, and needles drop on the spectators below.

“Richard, get that guy off the tree,” someone tells Pascual. “He’s going to fall on Manny.”

Today’s best actor in a supporting role is a guy wearing a suit/shorts combo the color of an overripe peach. The suit is accessorized with a black cowboy hat, cowboy boots, aviators and a belt buckle the size of the lid on a 5-gallon bucket. He ran about 100 yards with Pacquiao — all uphill, and in those boots, so give him that — when he made the turn from the paved road to the trail that climbs Mount Hollywood. It takes a lot to stand out in this crowd, but he manages.

Word spreads that he is a Mexican singer who has his own television show, but nobody seems to know who he is or on what network his alleged show might be found. In between sets, Pacquiao asks him, “Where’s your horse?” and everybody laughs harder than necessary.

Justin Fortune, an Australian ex-heavyweight who is Pacquiao’s fitness and conditioning coach, stands in the parking lot, slightly removed from the madness, shaking his head.

“Most fighters want a few people around, and that’s it,” Fortune says. “Not Manny. He f—ing loves this s— so much. He thrives on this, and I don’t know how he does it.”

Pascual moves to get the guy out of the tree. Most of Pacquiao’s workout buddies are struggling to lift their shoulders off the ground, the burn showing itself in each face. Some have stopped altogether. Pacquiao continues, one set after another, smiling and laughing and singing, every twist and crunch recorded on a hundred different phones.

“There’s a part of it that’s kind of scary,” Fortune says. “All of these people will jump off a f—ing bridge if he tells them to.”


THE THURMAN FIGHT will be Pacquiao’s 71st as a professional and second since his 40th birthday. His two most recent fights, a TKO win over Lucas Matthysse and a systematic unanimous-decision pounding of Adrien Broner, have managed to evoke images of a young Pacquiao, a thought inconceivable as recently as a year ago. Everyone around his camp hesitates to call it a comeback — that word is treated as if it carries airborne toxins in these parts. Instead, they’ll say he never really went anywhere; he just temporarily stopped being the fearsome Manny Pacquiao everyone remembered.

The change started eight years ago, when he asked the world to forgive him for his wayward ways. He had sinned, and the sins were the Old Testament champions: womanizing, drunkenness and gambling. His wife, Jinkee, had nearly left him. He left the Catholic Church — a newsworthy event in his home of the Philippines, where 86% of the population is Catholic. He began practicing a fundamentalist Christianity he credits for repairing his personal life, and he was elected to be one of 24 Philippine senators after serving in the House of Representatives.

In the ring, though, he won just five of his next nine fights. He was cautious and passive, showing little interest in putting his opponents down. After a loss in Australia to Jeff Horn two years ago, in a bout against a vastly inferior boxer in a match Pacquiao never should have accepted, longtime trainer Freddie Roach confronted his fighter.

He was too nice, Roach said, and too nice is great for a father and a husband but not a fighter. If Pacquiao planned on regaining his status in the ring, he needed to summon the guy who owes everything — the fame, the money, the political career — to a fighting style that was both unsentimental and relentless.

“I don’t have to hurt my opponents,” Pacquiao said. “I just have to beat them.”

Roach abides by an overarching principle when dealing with Pacquiao: You can’t tell him what to do, but you can negotiate.

“Well, that sounds good,” Roach replied, “but everyone loved you when you were knocking people out. That’s what people pay to see you do, and there aren’t as many people paying these days.”

Roach was temporarily fired for the Matthysse fight, either for his honesty — he also told Pacquiao he didn’t believe he could be both a Philippine senator and a champion fighter — or his health. (Roach, 59, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 30 years ago.) Roach was rehired for the Broder fight, in which Pacquiao’s dominance put him in position to land a huge fight with the 30-year-old Thurman.

“Against Broder, he was going forward,” Roach says. His voice picks up momentum, like he’s back in the corner. “Forward, forward, forward — I haven’t seen Manny that hungry in a long time. I think he realized the killer instinct is what people want to see.”


THERE’S A WOMAN at the front door of Pacquiao’s Hancock Park home holding a party-sized jug of hand sanitizer, pumping it onto every hand that enters the house. There is a full kitchen in the backyard, with probably 20 people cooking and carrying food. It’s 9 a.m. and there is fried salmon and grilled chicken thighs (which one of Manny’s guys — one standing next to him throughout the meal, like a butler — cuts for him, tableside, with kitchen scissors) and a heaping plate of beef that is seasoned and cooked in a way that makes eating it — and only it — for the rest of your days a satisfying thought. There’s a huge bowl of rice on the table and a massive pot of it on a burner in the backyard and enough of it on Manny’s private plate to feed seven or eight Mannys. (Nine people at the table eat family style, while Manny sits in front of six plates with pre-cut food, including a plate of bananas sliced into half-inch coins.) To the outside observer, it exudes a certain existential dread: When did they start preparing and cooking or do they just never stop?

Pacquiao sits at the head of the table. This scene has not changed, either: the prefight publicity micro-tours, every door flung open with the promise of accessibility and openness — a public glimpse into a private life. Pacquiao leans to his left every few seconds to catch some of the basketball game that is on the television on the far wall. “That’s the MPBL — Manny Pacquiao Basketball League,” he says, pronouncing his name “Pa-KAY-ow.” “There are 31 teams, and it’s the best professional league in the Philippines.” (Whether or not it’s the best, it’s certainly now the biggest; just two years in, the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League jumped from 10 teams to 31. The 44-year-old Philippine Basketball Association has 12 teams.)

Pacquiao stops and waves his hand above his head. There is a fly swirling around Manny, so evasive that even Manny’s hands aren’t fast enough to discourage it. The butler swings his hand over the top of Manny’s head, hoping the fly will bother someone less important. Another man appears from the kitchen, swiping the air with a cloth, like a matador. It’s trickier than it looks; employing a dismissive method of fly dispersal could send the fly toward Manny, which would be unfortunate. Worse yet, a miscalculation could send the fly onto Manny or his food, which would be disastrous.

Eventually, the fly is killed, to great fanfare, and Pacquiao begins to talk about his job as one of 24 Philippine senators. There will be a private jet sitting on a runway in Las Vegas awaiting the end of the Thurman fight. As soon as the fight ends, Pacquiao will board the plane and return to Manila in time for Monday’s start of the senate session, where he has served for three years to mixed reviews.

It took two years for Pacquiao to pass his first pet bill, which called for the creation of the Philippine Boxing and Combat Sports Commission. During the process, which stalled for an entire year, Pacquiao was lectured on the basics of legislation by the senate minority leader. In a column this week in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, under the headline “He wins, we lose,” Filipino attorney Adel Abillar wrote, “With little accomplishment to show but lots of embarrassing moments as a senator, he is kept relevant only, and still, by boxing.” Pacquiao has a different view of his time in the Senate, saying he has proposed and passed 33 bills, including one that will raise the nationwide tobacco tax by 60%. On his official Facebook page — as of the end of February — Pacquiao lists himself as “principal author” of just three bills, including National Bible Day. “If you have three or four bills become law, that’s good,” he says. “I’ve got 33.”

Pacquiao’s brother, ex-boxer Bobby Pacquiao, is a member of Congress, and Buboy Fernandez, a longtime associate who works as a co-trainer with Roach, is the vice mayor of Polangui, a city in the province of Albay. Pacquiao has been mentioned as a candidate to replace Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, most vociferously by Duterte himself. “I’m not thinking about that,” Pacquiao says. “That’s what people are thinking about, but I have no comment on it. They say I’m the right guy for the next president, but I’m not saying anything. I just say if that’s God’s plan for me, I’ll do it.”

Since he took office in 2016, Duterte’s strong-man reign has been marked by shocking and factually incorrect pronouncements. He once told a reporter, “Just because you’re a journalist doesn’t mean you’re exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a b—-.” And just this month, after Iceland led a United Nations resolution to investigate his war on drugs, Duterte said, “What is the problem of Iceland? Ice only. You have too much ice, and there is no clear day and night there. So you can understand why there is no crime, no policemen either, and they just go about eating ice.”

Pacquiao sidesteps his relationship to the politician, but the two have been friends for more than 15 years. Pacquiao has said that Duterte helped organize one of his early fights, and after the presidential election — in which he supported Duterte’s opponent before switching allegiances — he said that Duterte was anointed by God to discipline the Filipino people. Pacquiao has supported some of the president’s most extreme policies, including a drug war that calls for the execution of drug dealers and addicts, even though he admits to profligate drug use before becoming a boxing champion.

Pacquiao’s political leanings are at odds with his image as a soft-spoken, humble man of the people. Shortly after he was elected to the Senate, he responded to a question about same-sex marriage by saying that gay people are “worse than animals.” His apology leaned on the Bible and was roundly criticized as insincere and incomplete. In his first address to the Senate, he advocated for the death penalty. When asked how he would implement it, he suggested hangings.

The Philippine government denies that it is conducting state-sponsored executions, but the state police admits to 6,600 killings — mostly in shootouts, they say — since Duterte was elected three years ago. Other human rights groups, including Amnesty International, estimate the total at 27,000. Asked about Duterte’s drug war, Pacquiao gives a meandering nonanswer.

“I agree with the fight against illegal drugs,” he says. “But these people are taking advantage. I don’t know what’s happening, but some of the law enforcement are involved with the drugs and they make up fabricated stories to protect their names. Other people are sacrificed. Being a politician, if I’m controlling the country, it’s law above people. That’s my main thing: Law above people. Whether you are popular or not, the law is even.”

A woman at the table suggests that she will move to the Philippines and vote twice if he runs for president.


THERE IS A haunting question that hangs over every conversation with every boxer, no matter how good or bad, no matter how storied the career, no matter how fast his hands can punch or his head can duck:

Will he be able to conduct this same conversation in 10 years?

Pacquiao has approached very few of his 70 fights with the humanitarian concerns Roach convinced him to abandon. His career is defined by violence: a quick and breathtaking knockout of Ricky Hatton; a vicious knockout at the hands of Juan Manuel Marquez in their fourth bout; three wars with Erik Morales.

Roughly seven years ago, after he lay motionless on the canvas for more than two minutes after the Marquez knockout, his wife, Jinkee, and mother, Dionisia, made public pleas for him to stop boxing. He was 33 at the time, wealthy beyond all measure, the most idolized man his country had ever produced, a man whose popularity already had spawned ridiculous displays of devotion.

And now he spars with 23-year-old Arnold Gonzales, who wasn’t born when Pacquiao turned pro.

“I can tell you he doesn’t hit like he’s 40,” Gonzales says. “I feel every one of them.”

Like everything, Pacquiao says he will leave the future to God. He calls his ability to keep fighting “a blessing, a blessing from God. I never imagined at 40 I would still be here, but good body, good health, good condition — all blessings from God. I love it. I love it and I enjoy what I’m doing. Working in the office is so boring and hard. But training — I’m on vacation and free. This is what I want.”

He has taken a lifetime of shots. He has torn up his body and left it on the altar of commerce and fame. He has earned all of it — the food, the workers, the adulation, everything that combines to produce this drug that courses through his veins.

“I’m the only one who tells him the things he might not want to hear,” Roach says. And so the trainer watches the legs, and the feet, because they are the body’s ventriloquists. He knows the fighter is usually the last one to sense it and always the last to admit it, so he told Pacquiao, “The first time I see your footwork falter or slip, I’m going to tell you it’s time to get out. He said, ‘OK, deal,’ and we shook on it.”

Pacquiao skirts a question about how long he intends to fight, invoking God one more time. When I ask whether he fears the long-term neurological effect of his profession, he takes his answer in a different direction. “My brain is always pushing, pushing, pushing, but sometimes my body will react like I need to recover,” he says. “If I push with the road work in the morning and do heavy training in the afternoon, sometimes I can’t recover overnight. My mind is pushing me, but my body is telling me I need time to recover.”

The room grows quiet to allow Pacquiao to consume some of his 8,000 calories for the day, and the butler is lining up the vitamins and supplements Pacquiao will take after his meal. (And after he takes a swig from a bottle of olive oil.) Pacquiao, sneaking looks at his basketball league in the other room, playfully suggests he has spent the morning being tricked into talking about politics — when in reality he has been far more animated and open discussing politics than boxing.

Then, without being asked, he says, “This fight won’t last long.”

Thurman, nicknamed “One Time” for his punching power, has provoked a rare level of emotion in Pacquiao. At a news conference, he vowed to “crucify” Pacquiao, and the verb choice landed hard: “I told him, ‘I’ve been in this sport more than 30 years, and you think you can intimidate me?'”

Pacquiao jokes that he needs to only finish the fight early to make sure he gets on the private jet and return to Manila in time for the Senate session, but there is a pause in the room. No one has ever heard Pacquiao be this bold, this certain. He does not engage in his sport’s brash traditions; his idea of trash talk is issuing varying levels of praise for his opponents.

“This isn’t a prediction,” he says, laughing, knowing it is exactly that. “I’m just commenting. Analyzing it.”

Nobody is buying it. As the plates are cleared, he attempts to distance himself by repeating one word — “analyzing, analyzing, analyzing” — and laughing more each time. “I never make predictions,” he says, and everybody at the table nods along politely, hands in their laps, waiting to join Manny as he raises a hand for silence and drops his head in prayer.

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