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LAS VEGAS — Listening to Manny Pacquiao speak to a small gaggle of reporters Wednesday — confident, insightful, thoughtful and oozing with humility — it was impossible not to be struck by the dramatic changes in him during the two decades he’s spent largely fighting in the United States.
He’s been a professional boxer for more than 26 years and he’s endured the ultimate swing in emotions. He’s won world titles in eight weight classes and held a championship in at least four decades. He’s also been knocked out cold, lost a world title on the scale and fought in the richest fight in boxing history with a torn rotator cuff that left him unable to be truly competitive against his greatest rival.
On Wednesday, the 42-year-old Pacquiao was asked what was more important to him, a boxing championship or his public service. Pacquiao is one of the world’s great philanthropists and has given away millions of dollars to those in need. He once bought land and then built 1,000 homes to give to people in the Philippines who couldn’t afford a home otherwise.
“Thank you for that question,” he said, putting his hand on his heart. “My heart’s desire, if you ask me, material things in this world are not important to Manny Pacquiao. Whatever I have done, my fame and my records, my position in the government, what I have is not important for me.
“What is important is my relationship with God and how I can help people and how I can inspire people. That’s my priority in my heart. Things come in and out, but your relationship to God is the most important thing and to be an inspiration. Later on, when Manny Pacquiao is no more in this world after 50 years or 40 years, I want them to remember that Manny Pacquiao is not only one of the good boxers in the ring, but he’s a friendly guy, he’s a nice guy. He does things for people. We should show real love for each other outside the ring.”
When he finished, a reporter who has covered Pacquiao’s entire 20-year run as a boxer in the U.S. turned to another who has done the same and remarked, “He was great. He’s never been better.”
He will face Yordenis Ugas on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena for a welterweight belt in what will likely be the final fight of his illustrious career. He’s all but certain to run for the presidency of the Philippines and while he’s not the favorite, anyone who has watched him fight knows it’s not wise to bet against Pacquiao doing something he has set his mind to doing.
It’s almost inconceivable for a head of state to be a professional fighter, as well, so a win in the May 9, 2022, election would probably end his boxing career.
When he came to the U.S. in 2001 to fight Lehlo Ledwaba as a late replacement on an Oscar De La Hoya undercard, Pacquiao was unknown, unsure of his English and unfamiliar with the spotlight that surrounded megastars like De La Hoya.
In 2004, a few days before he fought Juan Manuel Marquez for the first time, he sat with a reporter to discuss the fight and his career. The entourage which has more bodies than the Alabama football team now was much scarcer then.
He wore a red track suit with a McDonald’s logo. He was 4-0-1 in fights in the U.S. at that point and had stopped the great Marco Antonio Barrera, so his fame at home in the Philippines was burgeoning, even if he wasn’t well-known in the U.S.
As a 126-pounder, he was a knot of muscle. His midsection was not so much a six-pack as a 12-pack or an 18-pack, muscles rippling upon muscles.
One doesn’t get that way by eating fast food, so the McDonald’s logo seemed out of place. The reporter, who was all-too-well acquainted with McDonald’s cuisine, teased him about the logo, trying to get him to talk.
“Come on, man,” the reporter said to him. “You don’t eat that s***.”
Pacquiao, not wanting to offend anyone, insisted otherwise.
“I do,” he said, grinning broadly. “I do.”
After the fight, which was a split draw, the same reporter was standing outside his locker room talking to trainer Freddie Roach. Pacquiao came out of the locker room, limping badly, bothered by blisters on the bottom of his feet. He walked down the hall and turned toward a set of stairs when Roach shouted out to him.
“Where are you going?” Roach asked.
Pacquiao turned back and as he saw the reporter with Roach, it hit him. He recalled the conversation of a few days earlier, and he beamed.
“McDonald’s,” he said, grinning broadly as he made his way up the steps and out of view.
It was typical Pacquiao, trying to build relationships and treating everyone as his equal.
He has few equals in the ring, where he has gone to heights that could not even have been imagined in 2001 when he first set foot in the U.S. He’s a slam dunk Hall of Famer, but he’ll be remembered as one of the greatest of the great, among the small handful of the best fighters who ever lived.
As he spoke to reporters Wednesday, he said his greatest victory was his 2008 TKO of De La Hoya, who once was his idol. It was because he went from 135 to 147 to do it.
“126, 135 and then 147?” Pacquiao said. “What?”
He then said that if he fights again — and he was noncommittal about that, saying he’s only focused on Ugas — he would prefer to fight either Terence Crawford or Errol Spence Jr. He was supposed to be fighting Spence on Saturday, but Spence underwent surgery for a detached retina in his right eye, so he was replaced by Ugas.
Spence and Crawford are widely regarded as two of the five best pound-for-pound fighters in the world and Pacquiao, at what would then be 43, said he wants to fight them.
He has his faults, as everyone does, and he’s taken the criticism he’s received for some of his social views with dignity and grace.
And despite being one of the most iconic athletes in the world, he’s never taken himself too seriously. In 2013 at a news conference in Los Angeles before a fight in Macau, China, against Brandon Rios, Yahoo Sports was interviewing Pacquiao and Rios together.
Pacquiao had turned to singing at that point and so Yahoo Sports asked him and Rios to sing the Yahoo yodel.
Pacquiao belted out the yodel — “Ya-hooooooooooooooo-ou!” he said, holding the last notes as the crowd cheered — and then began to walk to his next interview. There is always something next for this diminutive and humble man.
He took a step and stopped.
“Is that what you wanted?” he asked. “Did that work for you?” Told that it did, he offered his right hand, bowed his head and said softly, “God bless you.”
He then walked over to his next interview, doing what he could to inspire and spread joy and happiness.
“A lot of people talk about what I have done for Manny,” Roach said. “But they look at it the wrong way. Really, it’s what Manny has done for me, and what he has done for so many other people. He’s a guy who just wants to do things for others and make the people he sees every day feel like they’re special and important. What he’s done for me, I’ll never forget. And there are people all over this world that he’s done things for who owe him so much. But he wants nothing, just to know that he’s made a difference.”
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