By Geoffrey Gray
LAS VEGAS -- The Bible study classes go where Manny Pacquiao goes, and earlier this week, once the fighter and his massive entourage had settled in his enormous suite on the top floor of the Mandalay Bay, the projector, keyboard, microphones and Bibles came too. Since he became a born-again Christian a few years ago, Pacquiao has ramped up the energy he puts into religious practice, and even though his trainer, Freddie Roach, has begged him to reserve more time for boxing, Pacquiao is now on a different mission.
For Pacquiao, the big fight Saturday is not about beating Floyd Mayweather, Jr -- he wants to convert him. He wants to convert everyone. That's what the preachers spoke about at Bible Study earlier in the week up in Pacquiao's suite, what they said in the theaters and conference rooms they settled into after (because the flock that follows Pacquiao got too big for the suite).
In those daily sessions -- which often lasted as long as three hours -- Pacquiao was the de facto preacher. He opened the sessions with a prayer, raised his hands in devotion and closed each one with a few remarks.
On the morning of his last session before the fight, Pacquiao wore the same outfit he had been wearing all week: blue surfer shorts, sandals, white gym socks and a brown leather jacket.
He informed the crowd of hundreds that had gathered not to worry in his fight against Mayweather, the clear favorite in the fight. Mayweather is stronger, more talented, bigger and never been beat.
"I have the strength of a 1,000 angels behind me," Pacquiao told his followers, before disappearing back to the suite with his family and a smaller version of the entourage.
Throughout the years, many boxers have turned to religion, but none have gone to the lengths Pacquiao has to use the sport as a means of proselytizing. Says one insider: "I think he really thinks that in order to be re-born, you have to hit rock bottom, and that's what he wants to do with Mayweather. He thinks Mayweather will hit rock bottom if he loses the fight, and then Manny will be able to reach him."
The religious talk, the morality play that Pacquiao has turned the promotion into, seems to have generally spooked Mayweather. For the first time in his career, "Money" has practically disappeared. No real interviews. No press tour. A genius of reinvention and personal branding, Mayweather has struggled to define himself in the biggest fight of his career, and has at times looked bewildered and at a loss on how to handle the moment.
At the weigh-in, and in interviews, Mayweather has answered questions as if another greater weight is on his mind, and the thread of his logic often strays. He thanks his dad and looks away. He regurgitates the same old maxims about having a great camp, and adjusts in his seat. The tough questions? He deflects.
"Buy the fight on pay-per-view," Mayweather says, an unconvincing sell to an event that despite his efforts to control it, then hide from it, has grown into something far greater.
All the while, Pacquiao tends to his flock.
Geoffrey Gray is a best-selling author, documentary producer and founder of True.Ink. Follow him on Twitter @geoffreymgray.