LAS VEGAS -- One afternoon in the northern Philippines in March 2011, in the Baguio hotel that contains a boxing ring -- talk about amenities! -- Manny Pacquiao didn't come downstairs to train. Nobody fretted. Nobody blustered. Trainer Freddie Roach waited on a bench by a wall with a pulse rate that did not even hint at quickening. For one thing, he knew that Pacquiao's age begins with a "3" and mandates the occasional unexpected rest. For another, those training weeks qualified as excellent all told, and Pacquiao looked dazzling, far better than needed to dispatch the feckless Shane Mosley.
For another, you just can't expect kings to focus relentlessly, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant being exceptional.
And so a hushed afternoon brought a sportswriter's dream, a chance to bring along two ears and hear Freddie Roach. It gets no better.
Amid this anecdote nirvana, Roach enthused about his "best vacation ever," two weeks off to appear as a witness in a civil case involving Pacquiao and a former promoter. (Roach adored the whole process, the verbal sparring with lawyers.) He told of traveling the world to train the actor Mickey Rourke, and of the lunch the day after the 2009 Academy Awards of Rourke's nomination for "The Wrestler" and Sean Penn's win for "Milk." (Some of Rourke's friends teased him that he could have won if only he had played a gay wrestler.)
He told of following Pacquiao to a cathedral in either London or Paris -- it's hilarious that he couldn't remember which -- and how, while Pacquiao prayed, some Filipino fans spotted Roach off to the side, whereupon they came over to pose for photos, whereupon a priest approached Roach and told him to put away his camera, whereupon Roach replied with a profane adjective that he had not brought any camera, whereupon the priest threw Roach out of the cathedral. (Among the amusements of this motley trans-Pacific arrangement is the combo of a non-religious trainer with a boxer who has the practice gym hush for a minute before training so he can pray.)
You hear so much caution in sports-speak that boxing's bracing breeze of candor can exhilarate.
So Roach told of how Pacquiao once didn't speak to him for two days because Roach wouldn't divulge the snitch when the trainer learned Pacquiao had been out late, how nobody likes to wake Pacquiao from naps for the grumpiness, how Roach does not condone Pacquiao's daily pickup basketball but Pacquiao defiantly plays on until near-midnight of the last possible day, and how he considered the eight-division champion a man of such unusual kindness and generosity that Roach's worries include that eventually Pacquiao will give away everything.
So when you get to Pacquiao's fourth bout with Juan Manuel Marquez on Saturday night, after three previous cliffhangers from which the judges gave two wins and one draw to Pacquiao, and when you see that Pacquiao's age is about hit 34, and you know that he's in the Philippine Congress, and you wonder about his last two blasé bouts (including the questionable win over Marquez 13 months ago and the very questionable loss to Timothy Bradley in June), and you vaguely mourn at the slow ebb of one of the most remarkable sports stories ever, Roach reassures.
When Roach reassures, you do listen.
"He's on fire," he said.
"The best Manny Pacquiao I've seen in a long time," he said.
"I think you're going to see the best Manny Pacquiao yet," he said.
"His focus is a lot better," he said.
There have been "four knockdowns in this training camp," a record, he said.
If you ask Roach where we stand on the long Pacquiao story arc, you get this: "This one arc goes way up now, and I think the last couple of fights, he was just going through the motions. This one brought back the fire in Manny Pacquiao. I know he needs that to win this fight and he's given me everything that I've asked for."
Pacquiao: "My focus is to fight hard."
Promoter Bob Arum, turning a sterling 81 on Saturday: "Really tremendously focused, the whole training session."
At the press conference, there's much talk about not going 12 rounds, about neither man leaving it to the judges, whom Marquez thinks have slighted him against Pacquiao and Pacquiao thinks slighted him against Bradley.
Thereby does a match that had the potential for dreariness -- Really? A fourth time? -- amass intrigue by the bucketful.
The poverty in the Philippines can burn its way into memory in a single Saturday stroll. People lie conked-out on Manila sidewalks. Children with grimy shins sell food on boulevard dividers. To think that one of those children grew up in the extreme south on dirt floors under holy roofs … then stowed away on a boat to Manila at 15 … then trained and hung out behind kitchen doors awaiting leftover food from restaurant managers … and went to cinemas with a friend just to look at the movie posters outside while trying to picture the images moving ... and sold food just like these kids now … then showed up at 22 as an Asia flyweight champion with a promoter in Roach's Los Angeles gym one day in June 2001, speaking no English … then had Roach "catch" him to reveal a phenomenal snap on the punches that the trainer found almost bewilderingly peerless … then became Manny Pacquiao, well …
I do get all biased.
I do want that story to keep going.