UPDATE: - Parts two, three and four of the Manny Pacquiao story now availabe to read: A man unchanged by fame and fortune and Buboy, Nonoy and people who like people and finally; A bittersweet farewell to Mannyland
Any minute now, this bus will teeter and then topple off the mountainside. The driver has been steering it since 1am, when it lurched out of the Manila chaos down south, and now in the first quiet flecks of dawn five hours later in the northern Philippines, he curls it around cliff edges that could daunt a skydiver.
He does this casually, with no apparent pulse as the female bus attendant alongside him chats as if unaware she soon will join everybody else in careening off an overhang. Out of the window, Filipinos walk towards work and tote along their unmistakable inner toughness.
As the big box lumbers through gumdrop mountain towns, it rolls along roads with edges that have crumbled and spilt off into oblivion, the tyres seemingly a foot from doom with no hint of any guardrails.
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Could the best sports story in the world circa 2011 really churn up somewhere in Baguio City, an uncelebrated fringe of the world a few meandering hours from the South China Sea?
Really now. Just look at this hotel. When does somebody as wildly famous as Manny Pacquiao stay extendedly and repeatedly in a hotel this down-to-earth, this downright funky? Here, the Cooyeesan Hotel Plaza hugs a busy curve in a half-million-strong mountain city, all green and boxy and unceremonious, just beneath shanties perched in the hillsides.
Inside, it feels like some eccentric labyrinth that turns up in an REM dream. Here are food stands. There is the big room where the enthusiastic singer Pacquiao crooned with his band during preparation for a previous fight. Here is a big, silent lobby filled with idle furniture awaiting either usage or removal. All around lie the offices of a school of South Korean students taking English lessons and filling 85 rooms.
Stars' hotels surely must be forbidding and foreboding, but the Cooyeesan turns out to be friendly and welcoming. It has a basketball court on the fourth floor and, as training time draws nigh on a Friday afternoon, you might stroll right into the boxing gym on the third.
You might expect refusal at the door. Nobody complies. You might expect ejection once inside. Nobody complies. Instead, you walk right into the preparation lair of a world-renowned athlete and, within moments, begin to learn that Manny Pacquiao craves not so much attention but commotion - from his omnipresent friends and even from outright strangers.
Enough of Pacquiao's old friends and acquaintances stand by - helping with training, wiping off sweat, working security - that within 19 minutes, one has tried to sell you a jacket for 1,500 pesos (about Dh130).
This must be some sort of wonderland. Could you ever get this close to the training of, say, Roger Federer or Tiger Woods? Over there against the wall sits Freddie Roach, who just got 17 offers for his autobiography. He is a trainer who had a pretty good gym going in Los Angeles, his fame budding, when one day in June 2001 in walked a wiry kid from a deep, concentric circle of poverty who turned out to be Manny Pacquiao.
However an award-winning boxing trainer should look, Roach does not look like it, his dark-rimmed glasses suggesting some sort of boxing scientist. Should you approach him as he awaits Pacquiao's arrival from upstairs? In this harmonious realm, yes, you should. With a voice sometimes slowed by Parkinson's disease, a result perhaps of his own boxing career, he talks patiently to any and all who happen by, even one day a man trying to make a local musical involving Moses and boxing.
A moment later, in walks Manny Pacquiao and what happens next stretches belief. This should be a serious period: he's eyeballing May 7, when he will defend his WBO welterweight title against the American veteran Shane Mosley in Las Vegas, yet the workout at the Cooyeesan volleys from deepest seriousness to loosest frivolity and back and forth again.
He jumps rope. The hubbub surrounds in the form of camera crews, one for US television and one for a feature documentary. He continues jumping rope. Some of his chums - his handlers - clown around, and he casts a wary smile sideways while continuing to jump rope. A bell that could perforate eardrums goes off continually. He keeps jumping rope for superhuman time and precision.
He hops upwards into the ring, bounces around a bit and does a mock fade-away basketball jump shot. His fitness guru, Alex Ariza, helps him warm up, gives him water. He leans over the ropes and spits into a bucket, and everybody watches him spit into the bucket, and he proves wholly unperturbed with everybody watching him spit into a bucket.
While one of his assistants and friends, Nonoy Neri, holds Pacquiao's feet to the mat during abdominal crunches, the assistant trainer, Buboy Fernandez, a childhood friend Pacquiao just about lifted off the street down in General Santos in December 1997, a man who nowadays wins training awards and helps man the corner during fights, pokes in with some snapshots. While still supine, Pacquiao flips through them, pointing at some.
Then, a loud and ritualistic sound: Pacquiao has risen to give Neri a thunderous pop on the rear end, sending his rotund friend sprawling and grimacing while the entire room laughs, especially Pacquiao. While fun might happen during the training of many a rarefied athlete, here it seems woven in so intricately as to be enviable.
The soundtrack of a Pacquiao workout proves indelible. Track one: the guffaws. Track two: the remarkable sound of the world's most devastatingly fast punches smacking against the mitts Roach holds. Track three: silence. Everything hushes save for that lousy bell when Pacquiao stops in the corner of a ring, crosses himself and prays for a solid minute.
Track four: After he crosses himself again, racket resumes.
The whole Pacquiao crew moves upstairs a floor towards basketball, and the Roach trainee and British world champion, Amir Khan, whisks in and shakes hands with everybody. In the corner, another Roach trainee, the 23-year-old Filipino featherweight Bernabe Concepcion who also is preparing to fight in May in Las Vegas, casts Pacquiao as a sharer, especially with boxing advice.
"You know, he supports me a lot," says Concepcion, a younger brother of two professional boxers. "He gives anything. If I needed money I could ask him. If I need shoes, he just gives me … He has a big heart. He really loves boxing, and he has a big heart."
If soon lost in the hallways trying to find the basketball court, you might run into Dixon Trajano, the Cooyeesan's manager these past seven years. He says the hotel considers Pacquiao's presence "a great honour" and "a sense of pride". He says Neri uses the hotel kitchen to prepare Pacquiao's food, which includes "native chicken … organic" and "no pork", which prompts Trajano to say, "The Muslims will love him." He says people sometimes leave letters at the front desk asking Pacquiao to help them with this business or that venture or that medical bill.
"The first time I met him," Trajano says, "it was all so overwhelming. I felt like I'm in the presence of excellence. At the same time you notice that the person is different from the boxer. He's a totally different person. He's very quiet and very subdued. He doesn't have any air of cockiness."
When Fernandez first booked the Cooyeesan two years ago before Pacquiao's fight with Miguel Cotto, Trajano says, "We weren't sure if he was really coming. There were no definite plans, no definite schedule. We just reserved the rooms for him." Then, at 7.30 on a Sunday morning, boom, there he appeared, in basement level three for parking, needing guidance to the fourth floor.
That fourth floor boasts a block of 25 rooms for Team Pacquiao, and around some curls and stairwells lies that basketball court. And as the open bustle of Mannyland has begun to set in, soon you might sit courtside as Friday tilts towards evening, watching the world's most accomplished boxer play point guard.
He directs the offence like a thousand similarly diminutive point guards from a thousand big playgrounds who seem to lack any awareness of their height. He looks comprehensively confident. He jacks up shots. He drives for layups. (Nobody plays much defence, it seems.) He laughs at himself when one layup becomes an air ball. He thrills the audience with one layup after he passes to himself off the backboard.
Almost adorably, the ball comes up to his earlobe as he dribbles. His long shorts appear to hog half his height. He plays a full game then staggers to the sideline and says, in Tagalog: "I'm tired."
While the second game drones on, he cranes his neck from his chair, carefully studying plays. From three feet in front, he looks obsessed.
A group of women who appear to be in their 40s or 50s sidle in their pantsuits around the court and up towards Pacquiao. One gives another a sort of shove to combat her shyness. They flank Pacquiao, and Pacquiao's brother Bobby, a former professional boxer, snaps the photo. One woman leans over for a quick chat, which Pacquiao patiently engages.
Soon the game stops and the noise stops and the gym goes silent for a prayer at midcourt, but the clamour restarts. Soon you could become swept right in with the documentary crew and down Pacquaio's hallway and past his affable security and into his hotel suite, where his brother and friends mill around. They try to get you to eat some sort of slippery Filipino concoction involving an egg. They place it on the coffee table.
Boom. Saved by Manny, who has made one of his trademark impromptu decisions that he wants to go to Starbucks. He emerges from his room in a crowd, and the whole human apparatus follows, down three flights of stairs on a Friday evening. A leading Cadillac Escalade carries Manny, Bobby and others. A second monster vehicle carries another group. A third has the film crews. The third passes the second in the chase, and a security man in the second gently admonishes the driver of the third.
The whole thing reaches Starbucks, where Pacquaio will spend two hours because he refuses reclusiveness no matter the fame. News of his presence stirs up the pavement. Shoppers from the attached mall come barrelling around the corner to gawk. Inside, Pacquiao sits at a centre table with his customary white earphones and his customary green tea latte with soy milk.
A man in town with graduates receiving nursing degrees stops to look. Inside, people approach Pacquiao in waves, and he patiently poses with all. His countenance shows no strain. Two women emerge with a photo and begin clattering their shoes merrily on the pavement. Crowds form four-deep outside the windows, then dissipate, then form again through the hours.
On that pavement stands one of various security people who double as Pacquiao's friends, this being Danilo Potot. He first met Manny at 16 in Manila, after Manny had floated in as a stowaway on an 800km boat ride from the southern city of General Santos to expand his boxing scope. "Small," Potot recalls. "Baby face. His shoes were broken."
They shared a tiny room for nearly five years next to the gym, in those Manila days, Pacquiao on the bottom bunk, Potot on the top. When the room ultimately filled with Pacquiao's trophies, the young men might sleep in the hallway. Sometimes they would share a portion of kangkong a leafy vegetable stewed with onion, garlic and vinegar, and that would be their food for the day. The room had no running water, so they would go elsewhere for that.
Pacquaio exercised almost constantly. "He's wishing all the time," Potot says. "Talks about it every day. He wants to be this one", the one he has become. His first professional fight, in 1995, for which he fudged his age to become 18, Potot recalls as going like this: "First round, attack, attack, attack, attack, attack, attack."
Pacquiao worked in construction, then in a bakery. "Earning 500, 300, just to help his mom." He shared elusive food portions with wanting street kids.
"If people around him are happy, he's happy also," Potot says through an interpreter. "He's not like other people when they get" - and then he merged into English for this last word - "rich".
And then, Potot tells a story that just bends the mind. As the most famous man in the Philippines continues greeting awed fans inside Starbucks, outside on the pavement his old friend recalls that less than half a life ago, the young men had enough money to get to a cinema but not to buy tickets.
So they would go, and they would stand outside, and they would look at the movie posters, and they would try to imagine the figures in those posters in motion.
A surprisingly rowdy Friday night at a Starbucks with Manny Pacquiao, and already it has grown clear: this reigning story just will not quit raining surprises.
About this series
Sport columnist Chuck Culpepper and sport photo editor Mike Young spent six days at Manny Pacquiao’s training camp in the Philippines, meeting the world champion and the getting to know the people, places and culture that shaped him.
This is the first of their four-part report, which will continue until Tuesday.
Culpepper is an award-winning writer from the US who spent several years in London, researching and writing an acclaimed book about Portsmouth football club. He has been with The National since September.
Young has a passion for photography of sports events and the people involved. He joined The National in 2008 after working in newspapers and television in the US as a photographer, editor and producer.
Other stories in this series