x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

'Pac Man' is the prince of pugilists

Pacquiao's mother once planned for him to be a priest: he opted for pugilism. Sixteen years and 54 fights later, he is seeking his seventh world title.

Pacquiao will be hoping to beat Miguel Cotto as he did against Ricky Hatton at the same venue in Las Vegas in May.
Pacquiao will be hoping to beat Miguel Cotto as he did against Ricky Hatton at the same venue in Las Vegas in May.

"He did a really charming interview with Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. Then he was punching out pumpkin heads. And, to end it all, he sang a song with the band. I mean, where do you get someone like this?" Boxing promoter Bob Arum's tone is more incredulous than inquisitive: he is already well aware of the answer. General Santos City on the southeast Philippine island of Mindanao is where Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao's story begins. Born into a life of poverty, he ran away from home at 14 to ease the burden on his mother, who was raising six children alone. He arrived in the capital of Manila penniless, working a series of low-paid jobs to make ends meet: construction labourer, stevedore, street vendor.

Pacquiao's mother once planned for him to be a priest: he opted for pugilism. Sixteen years and 54 fights later, he is gracing the cover of Time magazine, training for a fight believed to be worth in excess of US$100 million (Dh367m) and giving Filipinos a good reason to skip church. "Manny has really caught the imagination of the world," says Arum from his Top Rank offices in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he is masterminding Saturday's fight between WBO welterweight champion Miguel Cotto and his prize asset Pacquiao.

"He has a compelling story, where he lived on the streets, yet made something of himself through boxing. He is humble and charitable and a nice person - something a major sports player generally isn't. "In the Philippines, they show his fights in every movie theatre in the country. It comes over at not a bad time; around noon on Sunday. The only ones that suffer are the Catholic church because the Filipinos are pretty good, church-going people, but that Sunday they miss church."

Pacquiao's impact in his home country has taken on legendary status. Before his 2008 fight with Juan Miguel Marquez the Philippines government ordered troops to suspend their military offensive against communist rebels in order to cheer on the "Pac-Man". Tonight at the MGM Grand Arena Pacquiao will once again command the attention of his compatriots back home; providing them a temporary distraction from the devastating effects of typhoon Ketsana. How long their escapism will last, however, remains to be seen - going on recent displays, it could be little more than a few minutes.

In Pacquiao's last fight in May, he met acclaimed British boxer Ricky Hatton, who arrived in Las Vegas having lost just once in 46 bouts - a 10th round TKO by Floyd Mayweather Jr. Pacquiao entered the ring as slight favourite, but after dropping Hatton twice in the first round and knocking him out cold in the second, he exited amid comparisons with Muhammad Ali. Arum, who turns 78 next month, promoted Ali for more than 20 years, the Harvard-educated tax lawyer's first foray into fighting coming on March 3, 1966 when then-heavyweight champion Ali fought George Chuvalo in Toronto. Boxing is full of critics ready to compare and condemn, but Arum is in a genuine position to play judge.

Arum's first impression of the Filipino was "that he was a charming kid [and] that he had some ability. But I never anticipated, in my wildest dreams that he would develop into the worldwide personality that he is now. And that he would develop into the best fighter that I've seen since Muhammad Ali. "There is only one difference," Arum continues. "When Ali came back [after having his boxing license revoked for his objection to the Vietnam War] he was idolised by many people, but there was a significant group of people who despised him, particularly because of the stand that he took.

"The difference with Manny is that I don't know anybody who doesn't like him. "He has these Filipinos who are nuts about him; they just can't get enough. But there is nobody - nobody - who has a bad word to say about him." Even the man with the mouth, Mayweather, has failed to find fault in Pacquiao, who is vying for his seventh world title in a seventh different weight division against Cotto, his closest rival for the mythical pound-for-pound title.

A clash between the two is as mouth-watering as it would be money-generating, but Arum, with his 43 years' experience, is well aware of the problems that any potential fight could pose. Top Rank promoted Mayweather, nicknamed "Money" for his love of the paper stuff, for 10 years between 1996 and 2006 before splitting unceremoniously, and a future fight would require hard bartering from both sides.

The Mayweather camp insist they will not accept a straight 50-50 split of revenue for the bout, while Arum maintains Top Rank and Pacquiao have other equally lucrative options waiting in the wings should a fight between the pair fail to materialise. It appears both want the fight to happen, but an agreement appears a long way off. "Mayweather is out there and he has a big following - particularly among people from urban areas, African Americans in the United States, and that brings a lot to the table," says Arum.

"So let's see what happens. Right now though, we have enough to do concentrating on this fight." @Email:gmeenaghan@thenational.ae Cotto v Pacquiao, Sunday 10am, E-Vision pay-per-view channel 210