x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Manny Pacquiao: a real creature of comfort

Manny Pacquiao wowed journalists and other folk in Las Vegas with his charm ahead of his fight with Shane Mosley.

Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao’s trainer, says their training camp in Baguio, in the northern Philippines, was the ‘best we’ve ever had’.
Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao’s trainer, says their training camp in Baguio, in the northern Philippines, was the ‘best we’ve ever had’.

Standing at a lectern in a gaudy theatre before reporters and camera folk and ring-card ladies and public-relations advisers and filmmakers and promoters and security guards and sound engineers and bloggers and food-service workers, and a certain Canadian singer-songwriter from the 1970s, Manny Pacquiao suddenly broke from his remarks and crooned.

"Sometimes when we touch …"

Even across just four words, the voice sounded capable. It even rose toward the elusive level of melodic. Yet as Pacquiao briefly sang the shockingly sappy Dan Hill ballad Pacquiao adores enough to make it his first US single some 33 years after it reached No 3 on the US charts, his voice featured another component.

It rang with comfort.

And as the eight-division world champion positively beamed from his little warble, and listeners grinned and swooned, another curious truth about Manny Pacquiao materialised: As compelling as it can be that a kid from a deep concentric circle of poverty somehow possessed the snappiest punch on the planet to become the foremost pound-for-pound boxer, it might compel just as much that the same wiry street kid, once startled to learn that some people had refrigerators in their houses, has grown to charm first-world audiences.

If the Philippines shows you the threadbare background and all its strength-amid-hardship, Las Vegas demonstrates where it all ended up somehow, the side of the story with the uncommon polish.

If the world has seen many a formerly poor athlete who visibly grappled with the strangeness of mass attention no matter how many years of practice, here it sees someone whose insides feature enough of the "it" factor to adapt.

Somehow.

The 32-year-old at the MGM Grand Garden on Wednesday, ahead of the World Boxing Organization Welterweight title bout tonight with "Sugar" Shane Mosley, wowed a good many people from a suddenly smitten sound engineer in the back to the documentarian Leon Gast, whose toil-of-the-moment is a film on Pacquiao and whose When We Were Kings about the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire of 1974, won the 1996 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

So impressed was an American reporter that he later asked Pacquiao if the boxing politician had spoken as a boxer or a politician.

Pacquiao grinned and winked and beamed and said, "Both."

"The biggest fight of my life is not in boxing," Pacquiao said at the lectern. "No. The biggest fight in my life is to help to end poverty in my country."

Mindful of that, he announced, he would wear yellow gloves for his bout against Mosley, yellow being "a symbol of hope and unity". He urged support for the organisation Gawad Kalinga, which helps build houses for the poor, and he said then, "I'd like to invite you all to join us and wear yellow on Saturday. I believe there is hope we can win this fight together."

Well.

Moments after that, Pacquiao sat at a table on the stage amid the familiar if maddening formation known as the media scrum, his round and unique face surrounded by reporters pressed against each other and leaning in with recording gadgets.

While many a star abides this setting with anything ranging from discomfort to businesslike tolerance, Pacquiao exuded a comfort, an unmoved pulse. Sometimes he mulled or misunderstood questions given his developing English, but that, too, wreaked no apparent insecurity.

Somebody asked about the yellow. "It's a symbol of unity", he reiterated quickly, and he meant especially Filipino unity around the globe.

Given that trainer Freddie Roach called it "the best training camp we've ever had", and branded Pacquiao "in the best shape ever", and linked it to Pacquiao's worry over Mosley's capabilities, somebody asked the last time Pacquiao fretted so over an opponent.

Somebody asked again, to clarify. Pacquiao paused. He gazed at the sky. He clearly filed back through his bouts through the nascent century.

"De La Hoya," he concluded.

Given that Mosley had thanked Floyd Mayweather Jr for not committing to fight Pacquiao, giving the 39-year-old Mosley a chance to do so, somebody asked - surprise - about the Pacquiao-Mayweather bout everybody craves but the world has not yielded.

"For me, I don't want to choose my opponents … I'm just a fighter. My job is to fight, to work hard, to train hard," Pacquiao said.

Somebody asked if Pacquiao felt it important to knock out Mosley, and Pacquiao looked a mite bewildered and eventually deemed himself "not really focused" on that aspect.

Given that last November Pacquiao crushed Antonio Margarito but did not - or maybe would not - knock out him, somebody asked if Pacquiao possesses "killer instinct", whereupon Pacquiao said, "Yes", whereupon somebody asked the last time Pacquiao actually "hated" an opponent, whereupon Pacquiao went into a solid half-minute of rumination with no confirming answer.

Somebody asked about fielding any potential Mayweather challenge, and Pacquiao replied, "I'm willing to fight anybody". Somebody asked about fighting Juan Manual Marquez again to make it a trilogy, and Pacquiao called it a "big possibility", around "80 per cent". §Somebody asked about fighting in the Philippines again, and Pacquiao said, "I'd love to, but it's hard to promote. It's a big cost for promotion."

As usual with Pacquiao, never did a hint of a bristle turn up, the whole wrestle routine by now, if amazing given the background.

Pacquiao even wrung that hard-won reward - a laugh - during his prepared remarks when he said, "Thank you to all the fans. You really love us. Especially Mosley."

Explaining the joke, he said, "I had fought some good fighters and it's not sold out. And now I'm fighting with Mosley, it's sold out." He saw Mosley as 100 per cent fit and said, "He's not old. He moves like 32, 31 years old."

A 16-year-old selling donuts in the harsh streets of Manila grew to become the dapper master of ceremonies in Las Vegas. The arc almost defies fathoming. Seeing is barely believing.

In fact, when the official emcee, the 79-year-old promoter Bob Arum, went to introduce Pacquiao, he spoke of the difficulty of introducing Pacquiao because, Arum said, "He is so multifaceted."

He could introduce Pacquiao as a singer, Arum said, singing being important to Pacquiao. He could introduce Pacquiao as global pitchman, he said, endorsements being very dear to Arum's heart. Reeling off a computer company and a shoe company, Arum said, "Everybody wants Manny Pacquiao to be involved with their product."

He could introduce Pacquiao as "an aspiring politician", he went on, because of Pacquiao's place in Congress in the Philippines, and then Arum told again of Pacquiao meeting the US senator Harry Reid last year, and then Arum said: "The Philippines have a social welfare system, and they call it Manny Pacquiao. He sponsors schools, beds in hospitals, food distribution …"

Or, Arum said, he could introduce Pacquiao as "a pretty good fighter", and yes, somehow the whole, burgeoning storyline really has wound up here, in this flush and loony setting, replete with appearances by the mayor and the apparent mayor-to-be who doubles as the current mayor's wife, plus some brief remarks from the sponsor whose product appears in giant replicas of bottles on the stage.

Seeing the Philippines and then all of this in the same springtime rather challenges a brain to try comprehending.

So, the expected sights, as Pacquiao returns to Las Vegas after two fights in Texas in 2010: That would be Pacquiao, hair neatly done, up there on that billboard alongside Mosley.

His likeness appears on banners through the MGM hotel lobby. There's the face again, on T-shirts at the T-shirt stand where a man with unnatural muscles prepares to buy just now.

The image of Pacquiao has grown familiar enough in a marginal US sport - while growing more familiar, still - that in the lone trash talk of the pre-bout show, the Mosley promoter James Prince closed his remarks by forecasting "the biggest upset in the history of boxing".

From his seat next to Prince at the lectern, Pacquiao clapped politely, comfortably, almost hilariously.

Come tonight, he will enter one of his long-comfortable places, the ring. Mosley: "It's going to be a blockbuster. This is a legendary fight. This is a history-making fight." Roach, on Pacquiao: "From day one he told me, 'This is not an easy fight, let's get ready.' He wants to work, work, work. We know we're in for a tough fight. We respect Shane's camp, his team." Pacquiao: "I'm pretty sure it's going to be a good fight and" - some charmingly broken English here - "people will make happy."

And then after the bout, apparently, win or biggest-upset-in-history, Pacquiao will attend a "beach party," well into the Las Vegas night, in a town that has no beaches but knows no impediment in creating its own.

There, he apparently will sing alongside Hill, whom Pacquiao acknowledged in the audience on Wednesday, and whose work in his basement studio one night in 2009 at his home in Toronto went interrupted by his wife's exuberance from upstairs as Pacquiao sang Sometimes When We Touch on a late-night American television talk show.

Hill knew not the identity of the singer, but wife Bev explained, as Hill wrote in Canada's Globe & Mail.

So at this party, eight months after Pacquiao and Hill recorded a version in a Hollywood studio, they apparently will sing it again, and it would not take an outlandish prediction to guess that the formerly hungry kid from the southern Philippines will appear out-and-out comfortable.

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae