Fight of the century has come too late for its stars but not for the money men
MANNY says to me sometimes: ‘I don’t really have to hurt them, I just have to beat them.’”
This was Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao’s trainer, talking last week as the feverish build-up to Saturday’s fight of the century, Pacquiao against Floyd Mayweather, continued: a bout that was first talked about when the two men were in their prime rather than heading towards their late 30s and – almost certainly in Pacquiao’s case, arguably in Mayweather’s – on the slide.
This is only one of the absurdities. Theirs is a ridiculously hyped meeting, of course, and yet the hype is necessary in a sport that has lost so much of its lustre. It is also justified: a self-fulfilling prophecy that will have ringside fans paying ridiculous sums ($5,000-$141,000 a ticket), millions paying almost $100 to watch it on TV, and the boxers sharing $400m. Even Friday’s weigh-in is ticketed: $10, though at least this is for charity.
It is obscene, clearly, and yet it is also compelling, not least because Roach’s anecdote has the ring of truth. Pacquiao has always seemed an unlikely fighter and the antithesis of Mayweather, who is cast as the obvious baddie. You could say it is too obvious until you consider the case against Mayweather: jail time for domestic violence, tasteless boasts about his wealth, his claim that he is the best of all time, and the suspicion that he has been avoiding Pacquiao. “Mayweather has all the money in the world but a fraction of the respect he craves,” as Sports Illustrated put it in 2011.
In contrast there is Pacquiao, who emerged from Manny, last year’s feature-length documentary, as sympathetic, endearing, vulnerable – especially with his sweetly earnest but hopeless attempts to launch a singing career (which he hasn’t given up on – he will sing himself in against Mayweather).
‘Mayweather is the obvious baddie: jail time for domestic violence, tasteless boasts, and the suspicion that he has been avoiding Pacquiao’
Paquiao grew up in poverty in the Philippines, selling fish as a child in General Santos City until he discovered boxing and began making money with his fists. He turned professional when he was 16.
Seven years later he visited Freddie Roach at Roach’s new Wildcard Gym in Hollywood. Roach recalled their first meeting last week, telling the Grantland website that he built his gym because “you never know when the next Mike Tyson is going to walk through your door”. In walked Pacquiao. “He was very shy,” said Roach, “I think he spoke English a little bit.” Roach stepped into the ring and they began sparring. “After one round, I went over to my people and said: ‘The strength and the power together like he has, I’ve never seen it before.’
“I’ve known him 15 years, he’s the best guy in the world, the most loyal person,” Roach, his speech slurred because of Parkinson’s disease, continued. “Who stays together this long? He’s like my son. I love this guy.”
Much of Manny’s focus was on Pacquiao’s burgeoning political career – he was elected to the Philippine House of Representatives in 2010 – and it seemed clear this would prove detrimental to his boxing. But even if there were hints in the film that his excellence in the ring might not be replicated in the political arena – ironically, Pacquiao doesn’t seem ruthless enough for politics – many see him as his country’s future president, if only because, as his chief of staff, Jeng Gacal, put it: “Anyone who runs against him is the stupidest person in Sarangani.”
Drawing a discreet veil over his rumoured infidelities, the documentary depicted a loving family man, devoted to his wife, Jinkee, and four children, Jimuel, Michael, Princess and Queen Elizabeth.
Indeed, apart from a dispute in 2013 over unpaid tax, there is little dirt on the Pac-man, despite Mayweather’s alleged allegations linking him to performance-enhancing drugs. You read that right: the allegations are alleged because Mayweather denied making them, which somehow didn’t stop Pacquiao suing him for defamation and slander, a case settled out of court with Mayweather paying Pacquiao an undisclosed seven-figure sum.
It is the question of drugs and drug-testing that has been the main sub-plot, as well as the main hold-up, to this fight. When negotiations began in 2009 Mayweather insisted on random, Olympic-style blood and urine testing. Pacquiao wasn’t so keen. “Manny was afraid of needles,” explained Roach. “If someone takes blood from him he thinks he can’t train for three days. It wasn’t an excuse but that [hold-up] was our fault. He was afraid of needles at the time. But he got over that.”
With the testing protocol agreed and overseen by the US Anti-Doping Agency – though far from perfect, with Victor Conte, of Balco infamy, critical of the short six-week testing window – there remain other intriguing sub-plots. It is another irony that Pacquiao’s former strength coach, Alex Ariza, once something of a lightning rod for the alleged doping allegations about Pacquiao, is now in Mayweather’s camp. Ariza left Pacquiao when he fell out with Roach, in part because he wouldn’t tell Roach what was in a milkshake he gave the boxer, which seemed to cause him to cramp.
After the tortuous build-up it will be strange to see these two men actually step into the ring and box. Stranger still to think that one will prevail – in all likelihood to set up a re-match in September.
Amir Khan, formerly one of Roach’s charges, can only see a Mayweather win if he weathers Pacquiao’s early aggression. “After four or five rounds, I think that’s when Floyd will take the lead and probably just start winning the fight and creating that distance.”
Khan, who will be ringside watching, and hoping for a meeting with the winner, says that he has heard whispers from each boxer’s camp: the word is that Mayweather is “looking really sharp and really strong”, while Pacquiao has had some “problems in sparring sessions and brought different guys in because they were a little bit too strong”.
But Khan may have his own agenda here, given his irritation over recent (alleged) comments from Roach, that the British boxer lacks the “balls to fight the winner”.
“Now, look, I’m making an official yes,” Khan said. “I would fight the winner of this fight.”
If only it were that simple in boxing, where sport is at the mercy of so many competing interests, shady deals and opaque machinations. As Khan said of the Pacquiao-Mayweather showdown: “You know it’s a big fight when you’ve got the TV networks working together.”
n Sky Sports Box Office will show Mayweather v Pacquiao exclusively live on 2 May. Buy now at skysports.com/maypac or from 25 April via your Sky box.