It’s a phenomenon that has grown with Pacquiao’s popularity. But as packed as the gym is on a day to day basis, for four hours or so every day, the hubbub dies down as the room is cleared for Pacquiao’s daily closed training session. Only those with appointments or business being there need apply for a door pass. Lucky for me, I had an appointment as I stood at the entrance of the gym waiting for “Pacman” to arrive for his daily training session in preparation for his March 13 fight with Joshua Clottey at Cowboys Stadium in a welterweight title fight dubbed “The Event.”
Inside, the gym had been cleared save for some media, a small film crew, Freddie’s brother Pepper and young trainer Shane Langford. In the back ring, junior middleweight prospect Shawn Porter, two weeks out from an ESPN fight, worked the mitts with his trainer. In the corner of the room, near the speed bags and Manny’s corner of the ring, the small army known as Team Pacquiao gathered. Head trainer Roach stood and chatted idly with strength and conditioning coach Alex Ariza, his assistant Marie who moved about the gym taking carry of seemingly everything, and today’s celebrity guests and fight fans, Mark Wahlberg and Jeremy Piven. Wahlberg, fresh off shooting his next feature, a Mickey Ward biopic entitled “The Fighter,” brought his son along who was absolutely transfixed by the proceedings. Also waiting as her fighter, Mike Dallas, Jr prepared, was manager Jackie Kallen who worked her phone cheerfully making idle fight chat with the few others who walked back and forth around the room.
Manny pulled up in a Mercedes sports coupe of some kind with his brother Bobby, got out and let his brother park. Wearing a simple t-shirt and shorts combo, Manny could have been any other guy as he talked with a couple fans in the parking lot and quietly made his way up the stairs.
“Champ,” said Pepper Roach as he handed Manny a pen so he could autograph several posters laid out for charity. He readily did so and made his way to greet Freddie then disappeared into the dressing room.
Waiting for him to come out were four fighters of varying degrees of hunger. Soon to turn pro junior welterweight Irishman Jamie Kavanagh, a stand out amateur kid who looks like he should fight like Ricky Hatton but bounces and turns with the best of them readied in the corner. He’d go first.
Behind me as I set up at the massage table that runs along the side of the ring in the main room, light welter prospect Mike Dallas, Jr finished wrapping his hands and warmed up. He would give Manny his best work of the day behind a long, multiple jab and a constant right hand to the body. For Dallas, the opportunity to fight the best in the world is a once in a lifetime experience and a chance to find out more about himself as fighter.
“He’s making me step my game up,” said Dallas, who fights not unlike a young Vernon Forrest in both his gait and style. “Every day I am getting better and better. My game is stepping up more and more. He gives me key pointers after each session so I am learning every day. He’s really tricky. Fast guy. Speed and power. He makes me use my mind. Use my brain instead of just throwing a lot punches. He’s way stronger than anyone I have ever fought.”
Above all, Pacquiao has acclimated the southpaw inexperienced Dallas to the ways of fighting lefties.
“That’s another thing he is giving me,” said Dallas with a smile. “I hadn’t had too much experience with southpaws. I’m learning a lot. Now it’s not even confusing to spar a southpaw. I’m used to it now.”
Also on the day’s bill was Ray Beltran, a Mexican rugged veteran who has worked Pacquiao camps dating back to Manny’s featherweight days.
“I think he’s the same Manny as he has been,” said Beltran. “Looking good, moving fast, powerful, you know? I think this camp he is stronger. His speed is there. The power is there and the energy is there. He’s a special guy. I really have not seen champions who have energy like that.”
If there is an expert on how Manny Pacquiao has changed as a fighter over the last few years as he has moved up in weight, it might be Beltran; after all, he’s gained his knowledge the hard way.
“When [Pacquiao] was a featherweight, before he used to go all crazy,” explained Beltran. “Now he’s more of a complete fighter; uses more technique. Smarter. More patient. Before, he used both hands but more crazy. Aggressive. This time, he is still aggressive but smart. He picks his spots. He knows how to set up the punch now.”
When asked if Manny hits like a welterweight Beltran doesn’t hesitate.
“Oh yeah, man. Like a natural welterweight,” he answered with a rueful smile. I’m coming up in weight, too. But I feel him strong. I used to be a featherweight, too. Now I walk around at 147, 150. But I mean, I am coming up in weight and I still feel him. His power. Some guys go up and they don’t bring their power. He’s coming up with power, too.”
Abdulai Amidu, a long and tall welterweight from Ghana who worked with Pacquiao in his last camp, rounded out the group. It’s clear from his session with Manny that he has learned how to settle down a bit and work behind a careful jab. In the past, Amidu would swarm and waste punches. Not on this day.
Each man will give Manny two rounds of solid work. It is now about 4 weeks from the fight and to hear Roach tell it, Pacquiao is a sharp as ever. Pacquiao’s most recent fight was in November of last year; a twelve round drubbing of Puerto Rican welterweight Miguel Cotto that ended in a technical knockout. Though he appeared to win with relative ease, Pacquiao absorbed heavy damage, breaking an eardrum in the process. While Roach wanted a longer rest, the quick turnaround has served at least to keep Pacquiao closer to game shape as he entered camp.
Said Roach. “He’s active, he’s healthy. He was 147 the first day he came in. We’re having just a little bit of trouble keeping the weight on him. We have to feed him four or five times a day and give him five protein shakes a day. He tends to lose the weight rapidly if we don’t feed him.”
The only risk now is not letting Pacquiao burn himself out.
“We’re way ahead of schedule,” Roach explained with confidence. “I want to cut back on sparring a little bit because we didn’t have as much of a layoff between fights. Usually we have about 150 rounds of sparring. For this fight we’re going to have about 100 because the down time was much shorter and I really don’t want to burn him out.”
None of the fighters assembled is a Joshua Clottey clone. But that isn’t what Roach is after. What he wants out of each fighter is there best. Sharp, aggressive fighters will hone Pacquiao and prepare him for whatever may come in the fight. It’s not always about mastering a style but ready for the moment however it may come.
Roach looks for patterns in an opponent both in how they throw punches and how they react in different situations throughout a fight. Once he breaks that down, he sets about showing Pacquiao what to look for.
“[Pacquiao’s] got the game plan down and he’s looking really, really good in sparring and the mitts,” said Roach. “I go through scenarios and watch tapes of Clottey and I emulate him and show Manny what he does in certain situations. Then Manny knows what to counter. He is just really, really sharp right now. Sharpest he’s been at this point in camp maybe ever.”
With each fight, Pacquiao’s star has risen. Once a fight fan’s best kept secret, Pacquiao is now an international superstar. And with each fight, the pressures that go along with carrying his country on his back have increased.
“True and that’s why I am cutting back on the rounds with him, trying to give him an extra day off here and there. It hasn’t worked yet,” said Roach with a laugh, “but I’ll get to him. He’s starting to understand that there is a burnout process. For the first time in my life the other day, he didn’t ask me for one more round on the double end bag. I said ‘One more.’ He said, ‘we did an extra round of sparring today. Let’s cut it at two.’ First time he has asked me that in his life. So I said ‘You’re finally getting to understand.’ He knows and he knows probably better than anyone.”
To see Pacquiao train is to get tired watching someone work out. The man is tireless. Once he leaves that dressing room and gets warmed up, his tempo builds and builds until he finishes out with a brutal stomach session that actually flattens the abs of everyone watching. It’s that tough. Roach understands his fighter’s need to push the limits of his abilities yet tempers it when he can. Watching them barter over how many rounds Pacquiao will be allowed to do is one of the more entertaining aspects of covering this camp.
“We negotiate,” Roach laughed. “It’s a little give and take. Sometimes I let him go. Sometimes I hold him back. I only hold him back when it’s necessary, when I feel he’s a little sluggish or burned out. It’s a fine line but I know him pretty well and I know exactly where he’s at. Yesterday he was just on fire. We did 15 rounds on the mitts with no rest period in between; an hour, two hours straight. I was tired.”
In Clottey, Pacquiao has before him as tough a fighter as he faced but not necessarily the most dangerous. AT his best, Clottey works behind a single jab and a shell defense looking to get in a right hand or land a brutal uppercut with either hand. Not that tall at 5’8” but as strong as any welterweight out there, Clottey will be a tough out for anyone. Especially considering that while he has lost he has never been stopped and rarely if ever dominated. But Roach is confident Pacquiao can be the man to change that.
“We have some very good sparring partners,” said Roach. “We’re working really well. I am very confident. The more I watch Clottey’s fights the more confident I get Manny can be the first person to stop him. We’re not going to look for the knockout. We’re prepared to go twelve hard rounds. I don’t necessarily think we’re going to knock him out. I think with the accumulation of punches we are going to land on him I think we are will stop him. Obviously he has never been down. He has a great chin. So we’re going to break him down. We’re going to work the body. With guys with good chins you look for your success in other places. We hit the body and I really think we are just going to overwhelm him because Manny’s speed is going to be superior in the fight.”
That’s a tall order considering that not only is Clottey the strongest fighter Pacquiao has faced, he also possesses arguably the best defense as well. But Roach, known as much for his game plans as anything, has an answer for that, too.
“The thing is, when he is in that shell, it’s a very breakable shell,” Roach explained “because he can’t protect his head and his body both. There’s going to be an opening somewhere. I’m working on teaching Manny how to crack that shell and how to open it up. He’s doing really well with that. It’s a great adjustment for him. Manny Pacquiao is getting better every time out.
“We’re going to come into the fight at 147,” he continued. “We’ll go into the ring about 149, 150 max. Clottey will be about 165 by fight time. So yeah, it will be the biggest and strongest fighter we have faced. Clottey is very conservative. He’s not really busy and then he goes into a shell. I think he goes into the shell to make you wear yourself out on him. And we’re not going to do that because Manny doesn’t wear out. I got the energizer guy there. That is not going to work against Manny, lying on the ropes and trying to draw us in, that same uppercut that he throws all the time. That’s the biggest punch he throws right there. That’s the punch I am worried about: the right and the left uppercut.”
It’s a special fighter who can gather attention the way Pacquiao does. Regardless of what you think of his technique or whether you’re fan of his in particular, Pacquiao brings a level of excitement and intensity to both his training and his fighting that comes along ever so rarely. Getting into see Manny spar is a rare occurrence for most and there was an almost giddy excitement in the room as the gathered all took their spots around the ring and prepare for a sneak peak at one half of “The Event.”
Manny emerged from the dressing room wearing his usual white with red flame trunks with matching shoes and a t-shirt. Pacquiao is a creature of habit. He stays in the same hotel suites for his fights. He eats at the same little restaurant after workouts. I swear I have seen the trunks he had on this day five camps in a row. So it’s strange when Pacquiao steps into gold gear as opposed to his usual green to spar. Gold cup. Gold Gloves. Gold headgear. I’m not sure where they’re going with this but it kind of looked like the Toys r Us Manny Pacquiao boxing set. Just saying.
Kavanagh got things started with Manny by meeting him center ring and working his right jab. This was first time seeing him and I have to say I was impressed. Not just by the head to body to head combinations he got off regularly but in the poise with which he executed. He didn’t seemed fazed by Pacquiao’s presence at all. Manny for his part waited and countered, sliding to the side and generally seeing what the kid had. Kavanagh was impressive as he danced side to side with Manny, bouncing on his toes and working his jab. But Manny let him know who was boss throughout, landing his left with aplomb. Late in the first, Kavanagh leapt in with a shot and Manny met him with a straight left that stopped him in his tracks. Down the stretch the traded blows and Manny seems to get the better of it but Kavanagh was not far behind.
Pacquiao zeroed in right from the top of the second round, landing hard lefts and hunting the kid down. But Kavanagh regained his composure, got Pacquiao along the ropes and delivered a brutal uppercut. Then the kid went downstairs to Manny’s ribs but that seemed to only excite Pacman.
“Body, body, body,” Pacquiao commanded as he held his guard up, exposing his midsection to be hit. Kavanagh, a bit winded now, obliged and Pacquiao returned fire with a flurry up and down. Kavanagh answered with a couple jab right hands. It was nice work by both.
The next two sessions, with Beltran and Amidu respectively, weren’t as telling or exciting as the fourth against Dallas, Jr. Beltran knows Manny well but that goes both ways. Beltran played the pressure game while Amidu boxed from long range and tried to keep Manny at bay. Both succeeded to varying degrees but none like Dallas.
Working behind a multiple jab that helped him drop in right hands behind it, Dallas took control early. Pacquiao was really warned now after six rounds of work and three different styles. I got the sense that in Dallas he has a bigger challenge than he expected and it looked like it brought out the best in Manny.
In most camps I have covered of Pacquiao’s, it’s hard to tell where he is at in camp from his sparring. He always has great energy but there are times when he can be bored or he works on a specific move only. It can be hard to tell what you are seeing unless you watch a steady string of sessions and piece it together.
Dallas seemed to bring out something in Manny I hadn’t seen in some time. The long jabs of Dallas bothered him. The prospect was throwing them so often and working his right to the head and body in intervals that kept Manny was kept off balance. Where he had been smiling and enjoying the combat before, Manny was now actively solving a puzzle.
By the second, as Dallas tired from his output and the sheer focus it takes to keep a top level fighter at bay, Pacquiao took seemed to find his answer. Left hands behind to get through as the jab died down and opened the kitchen door. Manny walked right in and helped himself to some nice body work and worked in an uppercut through a shell defense Dallas through up at one point. It was solid, exciting work by both men as they came down the stretch with Dallas’ jab returning and Pacquiao coming back with a right left combo.
When it was over, the room erupted in applause for all the fighters and Manny went over to finish his usual routines. Roach watched from close by, gauging his charge and talking over the day’s work with the rest of the team. Having confirmed with my own eyes what Roach had said before the session began, (yes, Manny is indeed sharp as hell right now), I headed out with a last look back at Pacquiao, lost in thought and the task at hand, working a double end back with an easy rhythm as a throng of cameras blasted away and a crowd gathered quietly outside. He could have been alone on an island the way he went about his work.
Just another day in Mannyville.