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Pacquiao: From unknown to king of boxing

Fighters Network

The image of Manny Pacquiao on the homepage was painted by Tyler Streeter, an emerging artist who greatly admires the sport of boxing. He began drawing and painting fighters at the age of 10 after watching Marvelous Marvin Hagler fight Sugar Ray Leonard. The chemistry between Tyler Streeter and the “Sweet Science” is evident in his paintings. Reflecting the beautifully sharpened minds and courageous hearts of these modern day warriors, Streeter brings to life the mental anguish and physical stamina unique to boxing. Streeter lives in Las Vegas. You can view his works at

LAS VEGAS — Manny Pacquiao was just another talented Filipino fighter when then-manager Rod Nazario decided to bring his client to the United States in 2001 in search of an established trainer and opportunities to make real money.

They could never have imagined what would unfold.

The story is well-documented. The pair started on the East Coast and worked their way west, trying to sell themselves to various promoters and trainers. No one was interested. The prevailing thought: A tiny Asian fighter, even a good one, wouldn’t sell in this part of the world.

And then, on what would be one of their final stops before giving up and returning to the Philippines, they walked into Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, Calif. “It was a fluke more than anything else,” said Michael Koncz, Pacquiao’s current advisor.

Roach, a respected young trainer, said, “OK, let’s have him hit the mitts.” The rest is ÔǪ well, let Roach tell it.

“I didn’t know he existed until he walked into the gym,” Roach said. “His manager said Manny was looking for a new trainer and asked whether I’d work the mitts with him. Manny didn’t speak English then. I worked the mitts with him for one round and said, ‘Wow! Can this guy fight!’

“I went to his manager and said, ‘You have yourself a new trainer.’ I started working with him 30 days later.”

Eight years later, there is no more-successful duo in boxing. Under Roach, Pacquiao, already a titleholder once, won three more major belts in three weight classes, became THE RING’s No. 1 fighter in the world and is the biggest sports hero in the history of his country.

“The thought that a 122-pounder would be known around the world never crossed anyone’s minds,” Roach said. “People said you couldn’t even make money with a little guy. I’m glad we proved a lot of people wrong.”

Pacquiao, 22 when he met Roach, was hardly a perfect fighting machine in 2001. He had the power of a much-heavier man – particularly in his left hand – and unusual speed but his skills were still relatively raw and he didn’t use his right.

Koncz, the advisor, said the best trainers in the Philippines are capable of teaching the fundamentals but generally don’t have the knowledge to guide fighters to the elite level.

Hence Pacquiao’s decision to seek an American trainer, a clear indication that he envisioned great things for himself even then.

“He was a good fighter when he got here,” Roach said. “He was one-handed, though, always looking for the knockout with his big left hand. He didn’t have much of a right. He relied on the left tremendously. If he didn’t hit you with his left, he’d probably lose the fight, but he had enough power to knock people out with one punch.”

Still, because of his innate talent and some incredible luck, Pacquiao took an enormous step shortly after he started working with Roach.

Then-IBF 122-pound champion Lehlo Ledwaba of South Africa, a rising star, was scheduled to fight Mexican southpaw Enrique Sanchez on June 23, 2001 but Sanchez pulled out because of an injury two weeks before the fight. Pacquiao, also left-handed, was in shape because he was training for another fight at the time and was asked whether he wanted to fill in.

Of course, he jumped at the opportunity. The oddsmakers, enamored with Ledwaba and unfamiliar with Pacquiao, thought the matchup was so one-sided that they refused to post odds.

Turned out they were right; it was a one-sided fight. Pacquiao dominated the more-experienced titleholder from the opening bell to the moment it was stopped in the sixth round, with Lewaba laying on the canvas a battered mess.

The raw, unknown kid from the Philippines had taken out one of the most-respected champions in the world. He was still far from becoming a public figure but those in the boxing business knew immediately that Roach had something special.

“The first time I ever heard of him was when he stepped in against Ledwaba,” said Bob Arum, who became Pacquiao’s promoter years later. “He came in as a last-minute replacement and just beat the s— out of Ledwaba. He sure got my attention.”

That was only the start, though.

Roach, the former fighter and prot├®g├® of legendary trainer Eddie Futch, had a lot to teach his young prospect and the prospect – who was just learning to speak English – was utterly devoted to his new mentor and the task at hand.

Roach has said repeatedly that he has never seen a harder-working fighter. That work ethic, which has remained a constant, has been crucial to his success.

“His dedication, his work ethic from day one was unbelievable,” Roach said. “ÔǪ I think a lot of world champions stop learning. Manny is getting better today; he’s still learning. He’ll be better in this fight (against Ricky Hatton on Saturday) than he was in the last two – and he was very, very good in those fights.”

Indeed, Roach helped an eager Pacquiao develop a right hand and so much more, turning a good fighter into a great one over the course of 19 fights in which he’s gone 16-1-2 against some of the best fighters in the world. Roach said his charge is 80 percent better than the day he walked into the gym.

The result manifested itself most-impressively against a trio of fearless superstars from Mexico, Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez, perfect foils for Roach’s new-and-improved fighting machine.

Pacquiao is a stunning 5-1-1 against the Mexicans over a 5¾-year period, losing only a close decision to Morales in 2005 and then subsequently beating him twice.

Once again, he was the beneficiary of tremendous luck: He happened to arrive at the same time as elite, well-known fighters who were near his weight and eager to fight him. More important, he took advantage of the opportunities by winning.

If he never fought again after outpointing Marquez in March of last year, he’d one day be inducted into the Hall of Fame primarily as a result of those seven unforgettable fights. But he wasn’t finished.

“After the second Marquez fight, something happened,” Roach said. “A light went off in his head. Against (David) Diaz and Oscar (De La Hoya), he fought perfect fights. He matured. Everything we worked on he executed in the ring.

“He made the moves we worked on, his defense was better, he moved his head, everything. He’s boxing smarter. He’s a more-finished fighter than he’s ever been.”

The victory over Diaz was impressive. The victory over De La Hoya was epic.

Pacquiao wasn’t given much of a chance against boxing’s Golden Boy, for whom the naturally smaller man would have to jump two weight classes (to 147 pounds). De La Hoya, most believed, was just too big for Pacquiao.

In the end, most were wrong. Pacquiao stunned De La Hoya and the world by dominating the fight, which ended with a demoralized De La Hoya on his stool after the eighth round. De La Hoya retired four months later, leaving his conqueror as the biggest star in boxing.

Pacquiao had reached the pinnacle of the sport. However, that’s only part of his success: Manny Pacquiao the person complements Manny Pacquiao the fighter perfectly.

He doesn’t have much to say but his smile is like sunshine. He clearly is a sensitive man. For example, he hated the idea that someone labeled him the “Mexican Assassin” because of his success against them. He respects his opponents. He says repeatedly before every fight that “it’s nothing personal. We’re just here to do our job.”

Profoundly successful. Exceedingly humble. What more can boxing fans ask?

“I just think his humanity shines through,” Arum said. “He’s not an ordinary person. He’s not an ordinary fighter. He’s somebody special.”

The unknown young man who walked into Freddie Roach’s gym is the king of boxing.

Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]