x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

From Baguio to Las Vegas: following the Manny Pacquaio trail

How a humbling sojourn to the northern Philippines in March has me packing my bags for Las Vegas this weekend to watch the Pacquiao-Mosley fight.

Manny Pacquiao, the WBO World Welterweight champion, will face
Manny Pacquiao, the WBO World Welterweight champion, will face "Sugar" Shane Mosley in Las Vegas this weekend.

If the world can divide neatly into people who adore Las Vegas and people who cannot grasp how other people could adore Las Vegas, well, hello from the latter category.

I long have thought Las Vegas best consumed in a 48-hour dosage during which one can behold the startling possibilities of electricity, and after which one can flee screaming before the grotesque tune of the slot machines becomes permanently embedded in the skull.

So it must take some mighty, mighty force to forge the following sentence, written preceding a flight aiming west, a sentence with these eight inconceivable words: I cannot wait to get to Las Vegas.

It did (take a mighty, mighty force), and as it happens, craving Las Vegas can stem from venturing to the Philippines. This would join the thick files of the odd-but-true.

In March, when I went to the Philippines with this newspaper's photographer extraordinaire Michael Young, I happened upon a singular setting whose excellence had only slight relevance to Mr Young's capacity to sing a commendable "Unchained Melody" at karaoke. We frequented the Baguio-based training camp of Manny Pacquiao, and I began to daydream about Las Vegas.

Las Vegas would be the site of many major boxing matches, including the one coming on Sunday morning between the astounding Filipino Pacquiao and the seasoned American Shane Mosley.

That fight would be a chance to see Pacquiao again, and it would make Las Vegas the most palatable place in the world for at least three reasons, proffered here in ascending order.

First, the boxing mavens tell us this is an elite athlete in his prime, and I take their word for it even as I would not necessarily know a boxer's prime from his pre-prime.

From Michael Jordan to Roger Federer to Tiger Woods to Lionel Messi, witnessing an elite athlete in his prime always proves worthwhile, especially when those in the know speak of Pacquiao as ranking exaltedly in the boxing pantheon.

Still, it might not justify venturing a gradual 11 time zones, so there must be more.

In the rare case of Pacquiao, there also would be the wish to see everybody, with the "everybody" around Pacquiao qualifying among the world's better cures for tedium. From his documentary producer to the camera folk from networks to his old friends with supportive jobs to his affable brother to his trainer Freddie Roach to Bob Arum the promoter himself, this is a collegial case of one fine conversation after another.

This would be a group you want to see again, simple as that.

Yet even that might not quite suffice. We all know people who live and work on the other side of the planet and whom we like and yet whom we understandably seldom see. Clearly, there must be something extra about this case of Pacquiao.

There is, and it has to do with the narrative. The narrative of Manny Pacquiao, in my one little opinion, doubles as the best story in all of sport at the moment.

It can seem merely inspiring from afar, but it seems jaw-dropping after visiting the Philippines and witnessing the poverty but witnessing also the sturdiness and spirit of the people in the face of the poverty.

It happens that if you have seen and heard hints of the aching want that governed Pacquiao's childhood, if you get some sense of the steepness of his climb, then in your head you must see its fruition.

You have to see this kid who grew up staring at the sky through holes in the roof, operating in one of the world's bastions of excess.

It would not be only that the Manny Pacquiao story wound up somewhere so distant from its beginnings; it would be that it wound up in a place of such superabundance, plus replicas of Paris and the New York skyline.

The Pacquiao story has flourished so often in a place not merely ostentatious, but one regarding ostentation as somehow normal and leaving normal to others.

The whole thing just defies belief such that somehow you just must see him in Las Vegas to see the extent of the narrative.

So even if boxing was seldom thought of before seeing Pacquiao in Baguio, and even if in May you always looked more toward the NBA play-offs or NHL play-offs or baseball season or Kentucky Derby, you know that no sports story trumps this at this time.

So the jet aims for Las Vegas, and next comes an unimaginable wish.

May it hurry.

cculpepper@thenational.ae