Carl Penalosa (left) and another assistant trainer put gloves on Manny Pacquiao before a recent workout at his home gym in General Santos City, Philippines. It’s been a leisurely camp so far, but that will change when head trainer Freddie Roach joins the team on Oct. 6.
GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines – Riding down a dimly lit road through the heart of General Santos City, you’d never suspect that you were approaching the home of one of the most celebrated boxing stars of the past decade. The street isn’t discernibly marked, and there are few houses of distinction along the way. But as you approach it, there is no doubting that someone important lives here.
A half mile down the road, our vehicle, with former two-division titleholder Gerry Penalosa on board, stops in front of a walled compound. The driver honks his horn, and moments later the gate opens.
A man with a handgun holster on his right hip and three clips of spare ammunition on his other side greets us, and, after exchanging friendly pleasantries in the Visayan language, grants the SUV entrance.
It’s clear from first sight that Manny Pacquiao lives in this sprawling palace. The gymnasium near the entrance has a full basketball court, four dart boards and a pool table, all known Pacquiao side hobbies. And if that isn’t convincing enough, portraits of the Sarangani congressman and his wife Jinkee – who recently won the vice governorship of the same province – adorn the dining room and hallways.
Standing near the front door, we await our host. Just then, a car door swings open behind us, and Pacquiao emerges from an H2 Hummer that no one bothered to notice.
Pacquiao, a former champion in a record-setting eight divisions with a record of 54-5-2 (38 knockouts), is nine weeks away from his Nov. 23 clash with former WBA lightweight titleholder Brandon Rios (31-1-1, 23 KOs) at Venetian Resort in Macau, China. The bout will be Pacquiao’s first since a pair of losses in 2012 to Timothy Bradley (split decision) and Juan Manuel Marquez (knockout in six) left the 34-year-old burdened with the task of reproving his credentials of greatness.
None of this is on Pacquiao’s mind – at least for the moment – as he welcomes his guests inside. Pacquiao has a long history with Penalosa, who was the biggest star in Philippine boxing when Pacquiao’s career was just beginning, and the two have made arrangements to catch up over dinner.
A feast of Filipino dishes is brought out to the dinner table by several maids, including rice, pancit (rice noodles), sinigang (a fish soup), dried tuyo (salted herring) and Bistek Tagalog (marinated beef). Yet, as his four guests chow down, Pacquiao is content to pick from a small dish of grapes and sliced mango, flipping through the channels before settling on a replay of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Superstars.
“My favorite was Stone Cold Steve Austin,” Pacquiao responded, when asked who his favorite performers were. He then simulates Austin’s finisher The Stone Cold Stunner with a smile, adding that he was also partial to Hulk Hogan and Shawn Michaels.
During commercials, Pacquiao turns his attention to his iPhone, studying videos of his performance at the shooting range earlier in the day. Pacquiao seems pleased, and when his daughter Queenie enters the room, he shifts his attention to her. These intimate moments were few and far between during past Pacquiao training camps.
Training for what may be considered his “comeback” fight, Pacquiao has decided that there is no place like home. Pacquiao insists on setting up camp from start to finish in “GenSan” after splitting time in recent fights between the high-altitude mountain resort city of Baguio in the northern Philippines and the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, Calif., where he first worked to improve his craft with trainer Freddie Roach.
Unlike in those other locales, Pacquiao isn’t mobbed in GenSan. It’s the kind of place where everybody knows each other, and locals have doubtlessly seen Pacquiao on a weekly basis for a number of years. GenSan can also be too familiar to Pacquiao, with many distracting comforts available in this progressive, small town.
Even in a country where Pacquiao is a ubiquitous national icon, his presence in GenSan is intense. In GenSan, where tuna is gold and family ties dictate day-to-day affairs, you can’t set your eyes in a direction for long without seeing Pacquiao.
The “GenSan” sign outside of the East Asia Royale Hotel dedicates the letter “A” to his likeness, while the Robinson’s Mall has a Team Pacquiao store, where you can buy Pacquiao polo shirts, DVD of his fights, and even a figure model showing him landing a straight left hand on Marquez in their third fight. If you missed those, there are the numerous Pacquiao water supply branches selling “Pambansang Tubig,” or “National Water” in Tagalog.
To prepare his body for what will be his first fight in a close to a year, he has started training camp early with assistants Buboy Fernandez and Nonoy Neri, and will be joined in the coming weeks by sparring partners and training companions, before Roach heads to GenSan to join the camp on Oct. 6, a day after his new client Miguel Cotto fights Delvin Rodriguez in Florida.
“I feel very comfortable to train here in my place where I started in boxing,” said Pacquiao. “I’m happy for that because it’s been a long time that my training camps, every fight, I’m away from my family. It’s a good thing that I train here in GenSan because I have my family around me.”
The mood at the gym is light; Pacquiao smiles at the regulars with whom he shares gym time with at the Pacman Wild Card Gym. There are fewer hanger-ons than in past training camps – at least up to this point. Pacquiao’s work has centered around working mitts and general conditioning.
The day after one mitts session, Fernandez complained of pain in his upper midsection. Pacquiao had been working on a combination where the final punch is a straight left to the body, and Buboy wasn’t wearing a chest protector at the time. “I never wear one,” says Fernandez. “Because then he won’t control his punches.”
Pacquiao has been a professional boxer for 18 years now, a veteran of 371 rounds in 61 fights. Whether or not Pacquiao remains a major player in boxing rests on whether or not he is willing to assume the same risks he did before (and during) the fourth Marquez fight. That will become apparent when he steps inside those ropes again for sparring in the coming weeks.
“I’m looking forward to sparring again,” said Pacquiao.
Photos / Ryan Songalia
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine and GMA News. He can be reached at [email protected]. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.