GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines -- This might sound wacko after that inelegant pre-fight scuffle between the camps of Manny Pacquiao and Brandon Rios, but I'm struck lately by an exemplary case of peace ongoing in boxing.
The famous marriage of Pacquiao and his trainer Freddie Roach would have appeals aplenty if you counted only its unlikelihood (a man from the scruffy side of Boston winds up linked to a man from very scruffy southern Philippines), its duration (12 years and ticking), its mutual regard (obvious and ginormous) and its deserved standing (one of the great collaborations in all of sport). Yet as it reaches another key juncture with Pacquiao's comeback fight against Brandon Rios this weekend in Macau, it's also a primer on how to behave concerning the dicey matter of religion.
Religion doesn't knock you down at Camp Pacquiao, but it does give you a bracing little uppercut. Bible verses ring the training-gym walls and the basketball court that greets the visitor straightaway at Pacquiao's mansion. Prayers into microphones precede ritual basketball games. Contemporary Christian music plays during warmups. In the oft-shouting sermon last Sunday at Pacquiao's church, the pastor said, "Only the fool says there is no God."
Meanwhile, as Roach recalled, the promoter Bob Arum once stood at a dais and said of the Pacquiao-Arum-Roach triumvirate, "'We have a Catholic (at the time), we have a Jew and we have an agnostic.'"
Pacquiao and Roach (who suffers from Parkinson's disease) view the world in ways profoundly divergent, yet they surmount that in ways profoundly respectful. To watch them co-work, as when Pacquiao finishes a hard drill and comes to droop his hands onto Roach's shoulders, is to marvel at the abiding bond. Beyond even their runaway success, they have looked at the whole of each other and found the things that trumps contrast.
Thereby did a Catholic turned born-again Christian blog recently for HBO of a non-believer, "Freddie Roach has been good for my soul."
And: "The way he lives his life and faces his affliction (Parkinson's disease) inspires me personally and spiritually."
And: "He has been a blessing."
And: "I will always pray for him."
And meanwhile, in the overtly religious Philippines, where Roach has posed for photos with seemingly half the 105 million Filipinos (General Santos recently named Roach "a son of the city"), a man asked Roach if he would pray for a city dignitary who had a stroke. "He kept pushing and pushing, pushing," Roach said, "and I said, 'Hey.' I said, 'I don't pray.' I said, 'I hope he gets better fast.' I said, 'That's all I can do.'"
He doesn't pray, he just respects those who do. When presented with questions or proselytizing, he tends to say it's a personal matter and halt it there. A Filipino young woman did ask him so earnestly about his beliefs that he did answer earnestly, whereupon she began crying, whereupon he reckoned he should have stuck to his usual. If presented with materials about one religion, he jokes he ought to retort with materials from another -- "You're trying to change these people; why can't I change you?" -- but, of course, he resists that.
In a region that has known its share of inter-religious clashing, with some still boiling just hours away, he revels in the visible tolerance improvement in the 700,000-strong General Santos.
"I think (Pacquiao) has a lot to do with this because, I asked him one time, 'Why don't you just move to Manila? You know, somewhere safer,'" Roach said. "He says, 'It's my home, Freddie. This is where I grew up. This is home. And this will always be my home.' And I think because of him, it's a lot better place, the malls, the people, the interaction with all kinds of different people, the Muslims, the Catholics and whatever religions they are. It's like they're letting each other be whatever they want to be. So I like that. The biggest problem with religion is there's too many wars because, can't people just respect that it helps them, whatever it does for you? I don't care what religion you are, because we all could choose our own and if that helps us, why should someone think badly about it? Why should someone want to kill someone over it? So I like it because it's a much more peaceful place now, all kinds of people together. It's nice."
For the recent camp, Roach said, "I do have a bodyguard, more my driver, but he's Muslim. He works for Manny Pacquiao. Manny doesn't discriminate; he just hires who does the job."
And he said, "The other day, it was pouring rain out, we were driving to the run, when we stopped and got out of the car, the rain stopped. And I said, 'Manny, the rain stopped just for you.' He says, 'I prayed.' He said, 'All you do is believe.' I said, 'OK, let's go.'"
Pacquiao, in turn, respects Roach so thoroughly that he never tries to coax him to Bible study, even as he isn't shy about peppering a conversation with a fresh visitor with a question about what that visitor believes. Roach, in turn, does attend some Pacquiao church functions out of respect. Looking back across this dynamic relationship of differing sorts, Pacquiao wrote, "Our first fight together was when we got a late call to challenge IBF junior featherweight champion Lehlo Ledwaba. We had worked together only four or five weeks and we won our first title together when I knocked Ledwaba out. If that's not a sign I don't know what is. It was providence."
There, the trainer would not agree. That's OK.