MANILA, Philippines – MP Tower, located in the Sampaloc section of Manila, stands on boxing hallowed ground. On that location once stood LM Gym, the spot where Manny Pacquiao honed his craft as a skinny, hungry teenaged pro fighter.
In 2008, Pacquiao tore down the dilapidated structure and built his namesake building, a modernly-designed seven-story building that juts out from an otherwise unchanged slum. Within MP Tower is his preferred boxing gym while in Manila, plus dormitories for his fighters and sparring partners who come in from out of town. The main offices to MP Travel – one of his many privately-owned businesses – is located at the ground floor.
The only remaining reminders of the old facility that was once there is the collage of black-and-white photos that show a barely recognizable 17-year-old Pacquiao training in the old LM Gym.
On the ground where his journey first began, Pacquiao is trying to awaken the primordial rage that had propelled him to world titles in an unprecedented eight different weight classes. The only difference now is that Pacquiao owns the building, is a multimillionaire and is the congressional representative of the Sarangani province in his second term.
The 34-year-old Pacquiao (54-5-2, 38 knockouts) is currently in the early stages of training for his November 24 bout against former WBA lightweight titleholder Brandon Rios (31-1-1, 23 KOs) at the Venetian Resort in Macau, China.
It’ll be Pacquiao’s first bout in 2013 following a 2012 that saw him lose a controversial decision to Timothy Bradley and sustain a sixth-round knockout loss to arch rival Juan Manuel Marquez in their fourth meeting this past December.
Though training has primarily been in his hometown of General Santos City, Pacquiao has been frequently taking the two-hour flight between Manila and “GenSan” for various reasons. On this occasion, Pacquiao is in Manila to attend a wedding, as well as to celebrate the birthday of his eldest daughter Princess, who lives in Manila most of the year to attend a private school.
It was here that Pacquiao was scheduled to begin sparring with Fredrick Lawson, the 25-year-old unbeaten Ghanaian with a formidable record of 21-0 (19 KOs). Lawson arrived from Accra on Sunday, but was still shaking off jetlag on Tuesday afternoon.
Ultimately, the sparring was postponed to Thursday at the Pacman Wild Card Boxing Club in GenSan. Instead, the two worked punch mitts simultaneously with separate trainers, pausing every so often to gauge the power of the other.
“We were going to spar here today, but we decided not to do it,” said Pacquiao’s advisor Michael Koncz. “There’s too many people around.” Koncz added that “most of the training” will be in General Santos City “unless it’s a family emergency of some type.”
Fans in social media outlets have fretted over reports of Pacquiao’s training. With seven weeks to go before what can be accurately described as a comeback fight, Pacquiao has yet to have a serious sparring session after the arrival of South Korean junior welterweight Min-Wook Kim (11-1, 8 KOs) was delayed last week.
Pacquiao’s trainer Freddie Roach isn’t scheduled to arrive until early next week, shortly after old comrade Justin Fortune lands in the Philippines to resume work as Pacquiao’s strength and conditioning coach for the first time since 2007.
“I think right now we’re right on track,” said Koncz, allaying concerns. “I think his conditioning is there, his timing is there. Freddie will spend a full six weeks with him so I think we’re fine. We won’t have any excuses.”
Koncz added that Pacquiao hadn’t yet suffered any of the leg cramps that had plagued previous training camps, crediting the omission of protein shakes and a change in the plyometric exercises he was performing.
Former North Cotabato vice governor Manny Pinol has known Pacquiao since his early days, having promoted three of his domestic fights from 1999-’02, including the second defense of his IBF junior featherweight title against Fahprakorb Rakkiatgym in Davao, “when the audience wasn’t even seated yet and the fight was already over.”
After observing Pacquiao on the punch mitts with Jonathan Penalosa, Pinol opines that Pacquiao still has fight left in him. “He’s not in the top shape right now, but he shows the speed,” said Pinol. “I think in this fight against Rios, speed will matter a lot.”
Though the crowd of about 50 observers congregated mainly around Pacquiao’s training, much of the intrigue of this training camp circulates around Lawson. It is Lawson – a heavy-handed knockout puncher who grew up idolizing Sugar Ray Leonard – who will be tasked with finding out what happens the first time Manny Pacquiao is hit with a serious shot following the knockout loss.
Lawson, who Koncz said is being scouted as a potential signee to Pacquiao’s MP Promotions, wasn’t at all intimidated by the challenge of stepping in the ring with one of the most feared knockout punchers in recent boxing history.
“I feel myself that I’m a champion, so I like someone who is more than me to teach me so I can gain more experience,” said Lawson, a former member of the Ghanaian national amateur team. “I’m very good at attacking southpaws, moving in and out in the ring.”
When asked to describe his fighting style, Lawson replied: “The ring is my house, so I do whatever I want in the ring. That’s my style.”
Sparring will be the first indication of what kind of fighting will still remains in Pacquiao, following the longest inactivity of his career.
“You have to understand the psychology of the fighters,” said Pinol. “When they’re down, they literally crawl back up. But with Manny, he’s not a washed-up fighter trying to get back to his throne, he’s a fighter who still has it.
“I really feel what Manny needs right now is focus, and I’m happy that the distractions have been trimmed off. There’s no more of the late night gambling, the casinos, no more of the cockfights, the drinking. These are distractions that really took their toll on Manny when he was younger.”
Koncz concedes that Pacquiao may have something to prove to the general public following the losses, which had shed away the image of invulnerability he had cultivated during his stint as the sport’s pound-for-pound best fighter. He also feels that Pacquiao is up to the task ahead of him.
“I’m sure that the general public probably [looks at us differently], but the people who really know boxing, I think they don’t,” said Koncz. “I think they know in the Bradley fight, the problems that were there. And in Marquez, I think people that know boxing will agree that that was one of the best fights that Manny has had in four or five years and Manny just got careless.
“Mentally, he knows how important this fight is. He knows it’s one of the most important fights of his career. He’s got to be mentally prepared and he knows what we have to do to be back in the driver’s seat for everything and anything as far as boxing’s concerned.
“The ability to perhaps draw in the big crowds has diminished a little bit, to negotiate the bigger purses and site fees. Once we have a spectacular win, we’ll be back in the driver’s seat.”
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.