GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines -- The best sports story on Earth stars the takatak boys on the sidewalks with their wiry frames and their neck straps tethered to trays full of cigarettes and candy and whatnot. They're 10 or 12 or 14, and they're oblivious to their own occasional grime, and unfailingly they smile and accost with keen salesmanship. Many have come down from the mountains visible from unobstructed parts of the sunny, scruffy city of 700,000 at the base of the 7,107-island country, and most don't speak the English often embedded in Filipino schools.

All provide a vision of the scrounging that makes a hard world hard, that makes you wonder about birth-canal fate, and that makes you wonder about a wonder of wonders, which is this: One of these takatak boys from 20-odd years ago turned out to be the eight-division boxing champion Manny Pacquiao. The icon of the 12th-most-populous nation rides in his customary black Hummer toward a morning run on a modest track next to a school and a dilapidated swimming complex, he rides the boulevard where he once jogged in slippers. He can point to places where he once sold candy and slept on pavement.

He can do this not far from where, even as an underfed boy, he ambled into the mountains to rummage for wood to enable his family's too-infrequent cooking. Even more stupefying -- remember, it remains the best sports story on Earth -- he can do this while toting along his entire Pacquiao culture of characters and employees and longtime friends and less-longtime friends, lives he has lifted or abetted, many of them present through two months of training in a gym he owns for a fight he eyes on Sunday morning (Saturday night U.S. time), against Brandon Rios, across the South China Sea in gaudy Macau.

He can do this as an eight-division boxing champion and a second-term congressman from neighboring Sarangani province, in a city that people from Manila used to fear visiting, in a city where he owns two mansions, including one with a fieldhouse for his cherished game of basketball, in a city dramatically improved, according to one astute observer.

"When I first came here to General Santos, I had bodyguards, and there was one hotel down the street, the 'White House' or something, I forget the name of it," Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach said of his first visit 11 years ago. "Shakey's Pizza was across the street, there was a small mall just down the street. There were no people walking the streets. There was a kind of cold war between Catholics and Muslims at that time, and you heard about bombings here and there and so forth, but, just in case something was after me, I had bodyguards.

"I used to sneak away because I don't like bodyguards, and I keep myself in good positions, but maybe I was being too bold, but Manny still doesn't like me walking around the street by myself even though it's, like, changed so much. Because now, I see people outside and I can see Muslim people, because I know the way they dress, walking and exchanging. As many Muslim people as the Catholic people or maybe the born-again Christian people that now is getting bigger in this part of the country, they all ask me for pictures, even the ones that are wrapped up tight, and I think, It's kind of odd that you're taking a picture with a person and you can just see her eyes but, you know, she knows it's her!

"So it's really changed quite a bit and it's really nice to see that it's a lot more peaceful, and I think Manny has a lot to do with that."

Were you to defend this point given that Pacquiao has lent some fresh sense of global worthiness, you might bolster your case with an astonishing observation from "Mandirigma," which means "warrior" in Tagalog. That's what everyone around Team Pacquiao calls a handsome 41-year-old Southern Californian, avid runner and fatless athlete who says his actual name is "A.J." Remember, it's the best sports story on Earth, so it can stand astride an ocean, so not only might Pacquiao's influence have altered General Santos (its real estate, at very least), but also his adopted American city, Los Angeles.

By now "Mandirigma," whom Pacquiao befriended with typical haste in 2009, helps out, sometimes taking Pacquiao's four children to Disneyland and Magic Mountain, riding roller coasters with them, buying them pizza and burgers. By now, "Mandirigma" stands comfortably at ringside for sparring sessions as a familiar part of the portion of the Pacquiao culture that has burgeoned over the last, lavish decade. It's just that by now, with that culture closer to its boxing end than to its boxing beginning, "Mandirigma" detects a different Los Angeles.

He arrived there at age 16, in the late 1980s, feeling a good many of the immigrant's strains of displacement. He noticed a decided lack of respect toward Filipinos from workplace managers and other sorts. Along came Pacquiao, who first entered Roach's Hollywood gym on a midday in June 2001, threw some punches at the trainer (and former boxer) and prompted the trainer to think almost immediately, "This kid can f------ fight." As the years passed and the titles mounted, those titles modified people's reactions when "Mandirigma" mentioned his nationality.

Instead of saying nothing, they'd say, "Pacquiao!"

Instead of showing no deference, they'd make him feel a bit more a world citizen.

Sheesh, this must be the best sports story on Earth.

To be the best sports story on Earth, though, its whirlwind would have to froth with curiosities and oddities and possible paradoxes and stuff-that-makes-you-think, scenes many earthlings find exotic.


Despite his fame, Pacquiao continues to be accessible in his hometown of General Santos. (Photo by Mike Young)

Around here, you might see a young man crossing a dirt road cradling and stroking a brown rooster on a Saturday morning, whereupon the motorized-tricycle driver might mention that the big cockfights come Sunday. (Pacquiao used to have a cock farm.) You might run across a white American pastor in the training gym handing out little brochures about how there's not a drop of water in "Hell." You might find people promoting the Manny Pacquiao Gym as it aims to branch from General Santos and go worldwide. Across the street from the gym, you will see about 75 people line up every day on the sidewalk in front of the mall, gawking toward the third floor for a glimpse of sparring. You might see, whoa, one of the drivers of the legions of motorized tricycles, trickling by but craning out of the moving vehicle, gazing upward, trying to see.

You might see a man in nothing but flip-flops and a pair of boxer-briefs, coming to the side of the running track, taking a picture of Pacquiao jogging at 6:30 in the morning, then hurrying back over to his construction job building a hospital. Just across that track, you might see a Filipino man in a Michael Vick Atlanta Falcons jersey approach Buboy Fernandez, the learned longtime assistant and childhood friend whom Pacquiao rediscovered literally on the street in General Santos, because Buboy long since has his own residual fame. You might see a man jogging pretty hard just behind Pacquiao but in flip-flops, a pregnant woman walking in a headscarf. And in the strange and appealing sight of a superstar who still craves intermingling with the public and the poor -- way up in Baguio, he'll sit in a Starbucks greeting people for hours -- you'll see people stand around spellbound to watch Pacquiao do crunches.

When the morning jog ends, the whole multi-vehicle contingent might stop at Gamay, an open concrete eatery threadbare of décor, where women cook in big pots under a Pacquiao banner reminding him that he's still their champion. And where they might insist you have a full plate of minced pork with rice at 7:30 in the morning. And where you might sit in this anti-lavish place, look over at the next table in the Pacquiao-caused bustle and see Manny Pacquiao, acquaintance of stars and presidents and Kobe, gobbling up the lunch-like breakfast, his sneakers changed to flip-flops, his flip-flops on the dirt floor, his feet propped on a stanchion of the picnic table, looking just one little mite 14 again instead of 34, almost like it's 1990 again in General Santos.

The dear woman of the family-run place, the kind of motherly sort you want to hug, might shovel at you a soup with chunks of beef and some sort of little white balls. Scooping up one of these little white balls, you might place it into your mouth, begin chewing and evince mild horror. There's no way that thing is going down the gullet, but it'll take some acting to spit it into a napkin.

"It's cartilage," one of the numerous bodyguards will explain later.

It's part of the leg of the cow or the chicken, another will say, explaining that Filipinos use every part of animals.

He explains this as you ride in the back of a pickup truck, which has a sofa, four plastic chairs and nine Pacquiao-minded passengers strewn around. The driver, Noel Lautengco, met Pacquiao in the 1990s through the husband of his wife's sister, and next to Lautengco sits Pacman, Pacquiao's Jack Russell terrier and outdoor-training mainstay. It's Lautengco's job to tend to Pacman. He has shoveled some pork and rice into a plastic bag. Pacman has eaten that and gone freighted into a torpor.

Later, you might sit in a well-guarded mall Starbucks that's playing "Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas" while it's 94 degrees out.

* * *

That's morning, but by nightfall, around 6 p.m. here, a tricycle driver might know the way to the mansion. You might enter through the little door cut out of the big, brown, garage-style door, accepted by the guard with their big guns. Boom, on the left, immediately, there's the basketball floor with its fieldhouse covering and its hot lights and its big fans battling the soupy air. Those lights have not come on, so in the darkness sit three men.

They're Leopoldo S. Gonzaga, Ismael V. Palawan and Teofilo D. Ocena Jr.

They're the refs for tonight.

They have ridden three hours on a bus from Davao. They'll stay three nights, six games. They have their licenses from the national association in Manila -- Gonzaga with 25 years' experience, Palawan with 19 and Ocena Jr. with 11.

They know basketball is serious around here.

It's a tournament with six teams, trophies, prize money, a timekeeper, a PA announcer, an electronic scoreboard and refs, even if some of the players -- bodyguards et al -- do joke that many of the calls seem to tilt to the Pacquiao side. That's the team with Manny Pacquiao as stoic coach in socks and sandals and Bobby and Ruel Pacquiao, his brothers, as teammates, with Bobby wearing Kobe Bryant's jersey and shooting with similar frequency but suitable accuracy.

The sides warm up for the lid-lifter, but they warm not to techno or to hip-hop but to syrupy, contemporary Christian music, to songs about Jesus that inspire Manny Pacquiao nowadays -- he attended just such a concert in General Santos one night lately -- but don't necessarily quicken the blood. The players have their shootaround and layup drills as the lyrics go, "You raise me up," and, "One way, Jesus," and, "The reason that I live, the reason that I see." The players warm up near walls with placards with Bible verses, the same motif as in the training gym across town with its Corinthians and its Colossians and its Mark 9:23 ("If you believe, all things are possible to him who believes").

Pacquiao coaches basketball at a fieldhouse next to one of his mansions. (Photo by Mike Young)

Each game begins with silence for a prayer even as one night during that prayer, over at the guard hut just behind the baseline in the corner, a guard in his guard uniform checked something in the middle of his automatic rifle for proper function. That guard is not to be confused with the guard in fine, tan fatigues and a rifle hanging from his shoulder, the one who materialized for a morning workout at the court, stood at courtside through the workout, then yanked out a smartphone to take some photographs.

You see these things, and then when the game gets going, you see something really vivid, a 64-year-old woman with the agility of somebody half that, banging her jewelry-rich hand on the chairs to cheer each Pacquiao-side basket, unconcerned (and pleased) by the children laughing nearby, bouncing around the sideline verily and unapologetically. That would be Dionisia Pacquiao, mother of Manny plus five, enthusiastic ballroom dancer, "Mommy D." on her team jersey. She's the lady who once famously claimed to consult a witch doctor, and who chalked up Pacquiao's two defeats in 2012 (including his shocking knockout by Juan Manuel Marquez last Dec. 8 in Las Vegas) to his switch from Catholicism to born-again Christianity and its distracting pastors.

At game's end, beyond the fieldhouse to a fine little building for gatherings and meetings (including at least one this autumn with government dignitaries), Mommy D. practices her ballroom moves a bit out front, chats with relatives and declines an interview even after an interpreter erroneously tells her it's for "60 Minutes." Just beyond the fine little building lies another layer of security and guns guarding the actual house. Pretty soon Jinkee, Manny's wife, pregnant with child No. 5, walks toward the fieldhouse, notices a newly arrived visitor from California and says, in Tagalog, "What took you so long?" Everyone has convened for another fight, and inside the building, there seems to be a small group of Christian singers practicing, and there's Pacquiao's Samoan-Filipino spiritual adviser, Chris Aguilar.

By Sunday morning, Pacquiao will attend a service at a church next to a Jollibee chicken-and-such fast-food joint with a large replica of a giant bee outside, across the street from a Chow King billboard with a big photo of its Fried Chicken Lauriat. After two hours the parishioners will gather around him, put their hands on his shoulders and bless him for his upcoming bout of organized savagery. A religious pacifist might marvel.

There, as at basketball, there's something about General Santos that Americans might find surprising. Day to day to day here in the great-big hot, dusty scrap to get by, there's little outward cognizance -- and zero mention in a church sermon -- that one of the biggest weather catastrophes ever devastates this very country. It's about 350 miles north. It's on a different island, Visayas rather than this Mindanao. It clearly aggrieves Pacquiao, who does care, and he'll visit next Monday after the fight he has dedicated to the victims, but Americans watching CNN seem more compelled with the Typhoon Haiyan -- called "Yolanda" here -- than do TV-less people in General Santos, a city in a weather trough that tends to leave it unscathed, as now. Filipinos smile often while carrying a palpable toughness and a hard-won familiarity with disaster. For example, the cement house Roach assistant trainer Marvin Somodio built for his mother up in Iloilo became a shelter at her choosing during a recent typhoon, but Somodio takes care to note that that wasn't this typhoon.

That was a previous typhoon. In a country ranked No. 1 in the world in susceptibility to tropical storms, an average of six typhoons hit per year, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center. Somberly it hikes the hardiness of an uncommonly hardy people.

* * *

Any candidate for best sports story on Earth might need some barely conceivable biographies such as an onrushing assistant trainer who worked in the mountains farming rice at age 8 or 9, a spiritual adviser who appeared in two Chuck Norris movies and served as a bodyguard to President Ferdinand Marcos before Marcos' ouster, or a childhood friend Pacquiao later found on the street in General Santos, then ushered to his own fame.


So many unusual biographies might stem from so many biographies in general, for the crowd around Pacquiao seems to grow in perpetuity. Whatever has surfaced in the past about Pacquiao's imperfections, nobody has questioned his Secretariat-sized heart. "I've met a lot of good people, but he's the best guy, you know?" Roach said. "He's just unreal. My biggest fear is he's going to give it all away someday."

Stories abound of money hurriedly given for housing downpayments, weddings, funerals. A saying goes that Manny never fires anybody, with the notable exception of Roach jettisoning Alex Ariza, the conditioning coach who shifted to Rios and who, during that zany altercation between camps Wednesday morning in Macau, mocked Roach's Parkinson's Disease. "Manny likes all kinds of people; he likes from way down to all the way to the top," said Manny Ferrer, a Long Beach-based, Filipino-American who helps Pacquiao sometimes, and whom Pacquiao invited to a buffet straightaway one night after a fight at the Wynn in Las Vegas. "And he likes them all the same."

All around the team and the crowd you hear tales of first meetings with Pacquiao, instant connections with Pacquiao, brisk offers of fight tickets and such from Pacquiao. Even by the rich human standards of boxing, it's a marked human tapestry, with outward harmony and cloaked resentment and frequent cacophony, with relative newcomers and mid-range presences and long-term constants who date back to last century.

Only since spring 2012 has Roach brought the competent Somodio to Los Angeles, lending the team an erstwhile rice farmer who can tell of the heaviness of the soil when it rains and the heaviness of the bags going to the farm owner's house because, well, he could tell you already at 10.

The sixth of nine children from an Iloilo family, Somodio moved north to Baguio at 13, took up boxing at 14 or 15, boxed for the Philippines national team, felt underappreciated because he's undersized, and spent four years at the University of Baguio in the delicate balancing of civil-engineering courses and making weight. He helped train the undefeated Filipino fighter Karlo Maquinto, and when Maquinto died after a bout in January 2012, a traumatized Somodio tried to decide what next to do with his life.

Roach found him again that March, and by that May 26 Somodio lived in Los Angeles, residing in an apartment Roach owns next to the gym, working 7 a.m.-8 p.m. six days a week and noticing the time whoosh by. "You look up, and it's December," he said. He outlasted his own initial meekness and his culture shock that some Americans use profanity out loud. He has one of the world's better smiles and laughs, both of which he employed describing his debut in the corner for Brian Viloria last November against Hernan Marquez and trainer Robert Garcia, of which Somodio said, "I was so nervous. The best trainer against newborn trainer." (Viloria won a 10th-round TKO.)

Smart, sharp and with-it, Somodio has the comprehensive trust of Roach, who has learned he can leave Somodio alone and find everything done flawlessly, even as Somodio trains by hearing Roach's voice in his head. He has picked up Spanish and about 100 words of Russian (much from training Ruslan Provodnikov). Said the assistant due to turn 30 on Nov. 27, "If I just rely on Manny and Freddie, I'm not going to improve myself, you know? I don't want to break the trust that they've given me."

Pacquiao has been trained by the legendary Freddie Roach since 2001. (Photo by Mike Young)

Then over there, there's that huge and omnipresent man, double Somodio's age, looks like he could break most guys in half yet unwilling to do so, saying of any antagonists, "Just lift up your hands, close your eyes and God will pacify that person."

Chris Aguilar ran across Pacquiao meaningfully in 2006, he said, when a tricycle driver in Manila recognized Aguilar from the two 1980s Norris movies -- Missing in Action and Delta Force -- and suggested they ride to Pacquiao's mansion even though Aguilar was moneyless. There Aguilar waited for Pacquiao, knowing Pacquiao might have some movie projects going, almost leaving just as Pacquiao returned.

"During that time I was carrying my Bible, my words of God," Aguilar said, so soon Pacquiao said, "I don't have a project now but if you want to stay with me, be with me as a friend, as a brother. ..." Pacquiao immediately handed Aguilar 5,000 pesos (about $115), 1,000 of which Aguilar gave to the excited tricycle driver, and to this day Aguilar helps Pacquiao with devoutness -- "We try to avoid anything that God doesn't like" -- and greets people at the door at church. A former Marine boxer and Marcos guard, he reminds Pacquiao that boxing outcomes are "God's plan," even that knockout, which Aguilar attended on a tourist visa he got after he joked to a U.S. Embassy representative he was "Manny Pacquiao's garbage collector."

And from the 20th-century club, there remains the treasured Buboy Fernandez, given name Restituto. From way back in the takatak-boy days, Pacquiao spoke of becoming a champion and returning to General Santos to corral Buboy to help, so in this best sports story on Earth, Pacquiao became a champion and returned to General Santos to corral Buboy to help.

At that time, and famously by now, Buboy was homeless and delivering fish and sleeping on cardboard, and now seemingly every Filipino knows the name of this boundlessly trusted assistant trainer, just as they do with Nonoy Neri, another cog who has been Pacquiao's cook and attendant and such. After Pacquiao went down shockingly last December, a photo showed Fernandez kicking at a veteran photographer who'd gotten into the ring, after which Buboy apologized profusely to the man by saying, "You know how much [Pacquiao] means to me as I owe him my life and everything I have."

Even after he had a house, he used to say, sometimes he'd still grab a towel and sleep on the floor.

This bounty of stories boasts a veteran photographer who says, "I used to follow him around, now I'm here." It has your everyday former dialysis nurse turned videographer, Paul Morales, whose video projects have included the Russia-Afghanistan war and the killing fields of Cambodia. It sometimes has Ferrer, who came to the Philippines this time partly because he's still looking for his birth father, Andres Pilayo, who also used to help guard then-President Marcos (but whom Aguilar did not know). Ferrer still recalls being 5 or 6 and having his father call him over to a Jeepney, where his father implored friends to extract their wallets and give the lad cash. It has "Mandirigma," who first met Pacquiao on a run in Griffith Park in Los Angeles in 2009, and who said, "When I first talked to me, I couldn't speak," then who watched Pacquiao greet a Filipino guitarist at the base of the hills and wind up paying for the funeral of the stranger's mother.

All this, and the next guy coming up to you might be Gerry Penalosa, the affable retired former WBC super-flyweight and WBO bantamweight titlist of 41. He has no past with Pacquiao except he merely was among that four-man quartet of boxing history, the foursome of Penalosa, his brother Carlos, Pacquiao and Fernandez, who arrived in Los Angeles in 2001 and wound up staying at the Vagabond Inn for 14 months, four to a room, in Room 120. As Pacquiao finished final sparring last Monday, Penalosa, nowadays living in Manila, stood ringside, his friend twice going over to put hands on Penalosa's shoulders.

"I remember him, he told me before, 'Years after I will be a mayor in GenSan,'" Penalosa said. "Now he's more than a mayor, he's a congressman. I told him, 'You're ambitious, huh?' I say, 'No one will vote for you, you're a boxer. You never been to school.' He say, 'I have a good heart. This is for the people.' I say, 'I know, I know, I believe in you. I hope you can convince the people.'"

By now, closer to the boxing end than to the boxing beginning, there are so many conversations, so many stories, that you might have noticed a certain silence from the midst.

That fits.

In this hubbub, Pacquiao exists as the calm, quiet center, unless you count the otherworldly sound of his punches. When he coaches basketball, he smacks of Larry Bird when he coached the Indiana Pacers, standing and surveying with an immovable face. He speaks English well but drily in interviews, and he speaks Tagalog fluidly but prefers English with English-speaking reporters. As a result, there's a chance American fans think him simple when he's anything but. For one thing, Morales heard him campaigning for his brother Ruel last May in General Santos, for a congressional election Ruel ultimately lost, and found Manny's speeches pretty dazzling with their eloquent references to past poverty and floor-sleeping.

His soundtrack seems to go in snippets. Running laps around the basketball court one morning, he laughs out loud when Pacman, running at his heels per usual, suddenly diverts to snap inexplicably at Teerachai Kratingdaenggym. As Pacquiao sits amid the ring reading an on-camera promo asking for support for typhoon victims, he suddenly needs a stat and blurts for help: "How many families have been affected?" On his way from one bag to another on the last day, he stops at a camera and says, "Hello to the fans and the people of the Philippines."

"The man came to me one day in 1995," he said in Tagalog from the ring to some ringside reporters one day, telling a story from when he was 16. "And he gave me a contract for 10 fights in one year!"

Needling Roach from the ring when Roach wants him to stop exercising, Pacquiao pleads, "Ten minutes?" and plies his incredible inner motor to surpass 10 until Buboy has to intervene and intercept the rope, which makes Pacquiao laugh out loud all the way to the corner.

* * *

In church when the fiery church sermon ends, he follows the pastor up to the dais and, as if some fledgling fighter trying to draw up support, announces in meandering English and Tagalog, "Next Sunday 10 to 12, and the fight will be 11:30, and people can see the fight. Anyway, pay-per-view in Pacman Gym."

Then, per custom, something happens. After everyone tells you he sees everything and misses nothing, he has seen an interloping face enough to recognize it. Suddenly, unpredictably, he'll look directly at you and either wink (in 2011) or smile an humongous smile (in 2013). He'll say, "Where you from?" And then, "You live here?" And then, "How you like?" And then, "You like GenSan?"

"I thank all the people who support me," he said as camp ended, "and all the people who watch in every training, and I'm sorry for those who cannot enter the gym because the gym is very small and there are other boxers practicing. For those who are every day watching me, following me, thank you very much to the deepest in my heart. Thank you for all the support. I am ready to fight."

With an English-Tagalog mixture, he said, "I'm not going to predict this fight. I'm up in the ring to fight but God is the only one who really will be the judge or be in control. If I am blessed by God to win, so be it. I do my best for the people, and God will decide."

After God decides, Aguilar and Pacquiao have a plan. They're going to go to Rios' dressing room to pray with Rios.

Still, to retain its title as the best story on Earth, this illogical international odyssey would need some new twist, something to shovel it some fresh fascination.

Pacquiao has lost his last two fights, including a knockout by Juan Manuel Marquez last December. (Getty Images)

That did come last Dec. 8, when a sole, crushing punch from a losing Marquez at the end of the sixth round achieved three sweeping things at once. It sent a face that had been upright and ubiquitous for a decade -- Pacquiao's -- down to mash invisibly against the canvas; it puffed up with intrigue any succeeding Pacquiao fight -- he wanted April but Roach said no -- and it shocked to the socks everybody and Mitt Romney nearby.

Somodio, his past scarred so recently, felt his brain saying no and his knees giving way. Roach, with his durable bond with Pacquiao and his seen-it-all wisdom, drifted into worry. Penalosa cried. Aguilar marveled at the unprintable language around him, closed his eyes and prayed.

When Aguilar went to the dressing room -- "me and Steven Seagal," he said (!) -- he found Pacquiao praying with his hands raised. When Penalosa arrived, he said, "All of us were crying -- his wife, his father, his daughter, me and my daughter -- but I hug him and he hug me and say, 'It's boxing. Sometimes you lose.'"

"I was worried about him, but he was really sharp," Roach said. "He knew exactly where he was, and I said, 'The ambulance is coming to take you to the hospital, you want me to come with you?' He said, 'Only one can come, and Jinkee will come with me,' and I said, 'If you have any problem, let me know,' I knew the doctor because I've been doing this a long time.

"So we started walking toward the ambulance, right? And he said, 'Well, one minute, I've got to go to the bathroom.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'I've got to wash my face.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Because I have blood on it.' I thought, He's that conscious. He doesn't want to be embarrassed, and walk in, and then the doctor said, 'We have a sink in the ambulance,' and he told him he could use that sink.

"But when he said that, he was that aware, I knew he was OK.... My girlfriend's a doctor and she was ringside and she was really worried, too, but when I told her his awareness and that story, she said, 'Wow. That was good. A very positive sign.'"

From there that night, back at the Mandalay Bay, Aguilar recalled being among those charged with keeping the boxer awake as recommended post-trauma. They stayed up from around midnight until 10 a.m. as he recalls, and as Pacquiao played wee-hours chess with Jinkee's uncle, a judge. When Pacquiao scored a rare victory, the judge was incredulous, but Aguilar recalled Pacquiao saying, "It's not every day New Year's Day, it's not every day Christmas Day. It's like boxing. I believed I will win the fight but I lost."

Everyone swears he hasn't strayed from that nugget -- That's boxing -- and that has lent optimism to the camp. It's as if the person knocked out consoled the inconsolable witnesses to that knockout. Some boxers never recover from such, Roach said, but Pacquiao? "He doesn't care. He doesn't care. When you can accept that winning and losing's part of the sport, getting knocked out is part of the sport also, you're a better man than me, because when I first got knocked out, it changed my life. I was never as brave, never fearless."

Said Fernandez, "This guy's very smart, you know, not like some other fighters when that happens to them, get discouraged, or depressed, but this guy, with the two fights that's happened [adding the controversial split-decision loss to Timothy Bradley 17 months ago], he only said, 'It's done.'"

Said Roach, "When I first met him and I talked to him, like, he wanted to show me his prior fights and the ones he wanted to show me mostly was when he got knocked out [twice, in 1996 and 1999], because he wasn't ashamed of that. It was part of the sport. And you know what? He's right. Everybody can't deal with it like that, though. So, you know, we're coming off a loss, but Rios is coming off a loss, too. Nobody talks about that."

Nobody talks about that as everybody waits to see if Pacquiao at almost-35 can be Pacquiao again, or nearly Pacquiao again. His new conditioning coach Gavin MacMillan, who founded the California-based Sport Science Lab and has worked in umpteen sports from South African soccer to UFC, thinks Pacquiao can last five more years if he shuns weights and running up hills. For now, here comes Sunday morning in Macau and a new fight backlit with a preliminary inter-camp scuffle, which never hurts.

All these 12 years since Pacquiao walked into Roach's gym, and even in late 2013 it still adds up to the best sports story on Earth, such that it might have trouble trumping itself, except that everybody knows it might not. There's always that chance that after all this, all these lives brought along and changed, an altered General Santos and a slightly altered Los Angeles, a wiry little takatak boy from 20-some years ago might wind up presiding over the 12th-most-populous nation.

As the Rios fight approaches, everyone waits to see if Pacquiao at almost-35 can be Pacquiao again. (Getty Images)