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Freddie Roach leans back against the ropes, arms folded, a faint grimace on his face. Despite a thick pad strapped to his torso and the catch mitts on his hands, despite 24 years of experience taking shots as a trainer—preceded by nine as a professional fighter—Roach still feels the sting in his fighters' punches. Last year an errant left from one boxer caught the 51-year-old trainer on the chin, leaving Roach with vertigo so bad that he had to hold on to a wall when he walked. Today, on a warm October afternoon at Roach's Wild Card gym in Hollywood, his most-celebrated charge, Manny Pacquiao, is punching with pinpoint accuracy, but that serves only to blunt the pain. "The first day he walked in here I told my guys 'This kid can f------ punch,' " says Roach. "Now he punches harder."
Watching Roach and Pacquiao work is like watching Toscanini conduct Jascha Heifetz. Every movement is perfectly tuned. Thwack! There is the punishing left that Pacquiao once swung wildly on his way to winning a flyweight title before the age of 20. Thwack! There is the thudding right that was little more than a prop on Pacquiao's shoulder until Roach taught him how to use it. Thwack! Thwack! There are a pair of the uppercuts Pacquiao was once reluctant to throw for fear of leaving his chin exposed.
Tweaks in strategy are made on the fly. At times the words between the two men seem indecipherable—Parkinson's disease has slurred Roach's speech while Pacquiao's English remains conversational at best—but the five-time Trainer of the Year and the world's No. 1 fighter have an uncanny understanding of each other. "From our first day, I knew Freddie was going to be good for me," says Pacquiao. "We get each other."
Pacquiao and Roach are boxing's Voltron, individually powerful, virtually unstoppable combined. Since teaming with Roach in 2001, Pacquiao is 21-1-2. He has won titles in seven weight classes with a hit-first, defend-later style that has made him one of the sport's biggest attractions, his bouts accruing 8.7 million pay-per-view buys that have generated $456 million in revenue. On Nov. 12, Pacquiao will complete a trilogy with longtime rival Juan Manuel Marquez, in a fight that has already sold out the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas and is expected to exceed one million buys on HBO pay-per-view. With a victory, Pacquiao will only further burnish his glittering résumé and yet again set the stage for the one bout all of boxing is waiting for: a showdown against welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Some, however, believe there may be more to Pacquiao's success than the mere evolution and education of an awesome natural talent. Pacquiao has a federal defamation suit pending against Mayweather, charging that Mayweather unfairly accused Pacquiao of using performance-enhancing drugs. Mayweather denies making any such allegations, though he failed to turn up for a court-ordered deposition in June. Certainly the question of drug testing will be an issue in any negotiations for a Pacquiao-Mayweather bout, even as Pacquiao's team insists that the fighter's success is purely a product of good coaching and a structured conditioning program that has unleashed the monster lurking within. And they point to a few key points along the way.
NOV. 15, 2003: PACQUIAO VS. MARCO ANTONIO BARRERA
When they booed him, he smiled. When they cursed at him, he smiled wider. And when a few of the 10,127 fans at the Alamodome in San Antonio spat at him as he walked to the ring, Pacquiao's grin stretched from ear to ear. "I didn't know what else to do," says Pacquiao. "Out of all the people there, maybe 15 were cheering for me." Texas was Barrera country. They weren't there to see the stringy, 24-year-old Filipino with the peach-fuzz mustache; they were there to cheer on Mexico's great champion. This was just Pacquiao's fifth fight in the U.S.; many had not even heard of him.
Pacquiao was not born to box. Early on he didn't even like it. Couldn't reconcile the violence with his Catholic upbringing. Pacquiao's faith is paramount. He prays before he trains. He prays before he spars. He prays before and after each fight. It's the same prayer every time: Thank you, God, for my training. Thank you, God, for your strength. On the morning of each fight, Pacquiao holds a Mass, during which a priest blesses everything from his trunks to his cup to his shoes. "He believes everything that happens to him is the will of God," says his promoter, Bob Arum.
Poverty pushed him into the ring. Growing up in General Santos City, in the Philippines, Pacquiao peddled candy, cigarettes and fish. But there was more money in boxing. As a teenager he earned 100 pesos (then around $2) per bout in underground matches, enough to provide his family with rice and bread for weeks. When he was 16 he moved on his own to Manila and turned pro, becoming enthralled with the possibilities of a career in boxing. "I dreamed of another level of boxing," says Pacquiao. "I wanted titles. I wanted money."
Both came quickly. Pacquiao won a flyweight (112-pound) title at 19 and a super bantamweight (122-pound) belt at 21. That night in San Antonio, against Barrera, the reigning featherweight (126-pound) king, Pacquiao was a 4-to-1 underdog. For 10 rounds he carved up Barrera with an endless barrage of punches. In the 11th, Barrera's teary-eyed cornerman charged into the ring to stop the bout. "Going into that fight, everyone was against me," says Pacquiao. "But afterwards, everyone knew me."