By Geoffrey Gray
LOS ANGELES -- Manny Pacquiao is sitting in the green room before his fifth appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Down the hall is tonight's other guest, President Bill Clinton, who has met Pacquiao before and is an admirer of the boxing icon turned politician -- as Clinton should be. As anyone should be.
Along with serving as Congressman for his home province in the Philippines, Pacquiao (55-5-2) is the only fighter in the sport's history to win world titles in eight weight divisions. The 35-year-old has grown from a twig-like flyweight (112 pounds) to dominate the world's most elite boxers at welterweight (147 pounds) and even junior middleweight (154 pounds). Pacquiao's storybook career started under the roof of a cardboard box -- where he lived in the streets of Manila, having run away from his impoverished home after his father ate his pet dog for food -- and arguably peaked in 2012 when Forbes named him the second highest-grossing athlete in sports, at $62 million, ahead of Tiger Woods and LeBron James.
As historic as Pacquiao's accomplishments are, it's really the way he fights that has endeared him to so many. A snake charmer in the ring, he befuddles opponents with relentless movement -- of feet, of hips, of head, of shoulders -- then pounces from all angles with a violent fury of speed and power. It's a style that's all his own, dizzying to watch and vicious to feel, developed from the will to survive on the streets and escape that cardboard box. He iced Ricky Hatton with one punch and knocked down Juan Manuel Marquez three times in one round. He stopped world champs like Oscar De La Hoya, Miguel Cotto and Erik Morales. The list of bloodied victims goes on.
But Pacquiao inflicted all that punishment a long time ago, and there is concern in his camp that their star fighter no longer wants to hurt his opponents. His lack of primal aggression, they worry, could be a problem this Saturday in Las Vegas, as Pacquiao seeks to avenge a controversial June 2012 loss to Tim Bradley and keep his legendary career alive.
It's all true, Pacquiao tells me: "When I see the face of the opponent, and there is blood in the face ..." His voice trails off. The blood bothers him. Even dressed in a suit and starched shirt, he makes a squeamish face as he talks about that blood. "I feel like it's not about destroying," he says. "It's not about killing each other."
Pacquiao's restraint in the ring is only one of his many conflicts. The reason he's here in the green room about to go on Jimmy Kimmel again -- the reason he knows Bill Clinton, is a potential presidential candidate in the Philippines and is getting paid a guaranteed $20 million to step in the ring with Bradley again -- is because of all the blood he can create. But if he buckles at the sight of what his furious punches do, his earning capacity as a fighter will sink, as probably will his chance to one day run the Philippines, a nation of nearly 100 million. Pacquiao needs a knockout against Bradley to satisfy the world, yet he needs to hold back to be at peace with himself. There's no easy resolution.
* * *
"It all started with the Mosley fight," promoter Bob Arum says, as he sits in the breakfast room of the mansion he just renovated. Giant pieces of art are on the floor, and a housekeeper in uniform lays down plates of lunch for us while decorators come and go. The view through glass windows stretches out unfettered over the city, a spectacular display of Arum's wealth and power. No doubt a chunk of this fortune came from those knockouts by Pacquiao, who has been the pay-per-view star of Arum's company Top Rank for years.
Most of Pacquiao's major fights have generated a million-plus in pay-per-view buys, or an estimated $60 million haul per fight at $60 per buy. Pacquiao has become his own mini-economy, but it's one that revolves around his ferocious fighting style. In his 2011 bout against Shane Mosley, Pacquiao landed a straight left that knocked Mosley down in the third round. Instead of finishing Mosley off, the rounds went by. Pacquiao coasted on points; Mosley kept his pride. "Manny had enormous professional respect for Mosley," Arum says. "He didn't want to hurt him."
The next phase of Pacquiao's evolution, in Arum's assessment, came after the fighter's religious conversion. Pacquiao was raised Roman Catholic and wore rosary beads into the ring for years. After struggling with self-confessed gambling, drinking and "sins of the flesh" (as he calls them), he embraced "born-again" Christianity. "He got religious after he started losing fights," Arum says. Pacquiao is strict about his religious practice. He carries several Bibles with him, marking each of them up in fluorescent highlighter. He studies them as intensely as some fighters study videotapes of their opponents, committing many verses to memory. The spiritual mission he now espouses and preaches is directly at odds with what makes him so great. Proverbs 3:31: "Do not envy a man of violence. And do not choose any of his ways."
* * *
A few miles from Arum's lavish perch in Beverly Hills, inside the Wild Card Boxing Club on Vine Street and Santa Monica Boulevard, Pacquiao's longtime trainer Freddie Roach is frustrated. Over the last several weeks, Roach has continued to battle with Pacquiao over his new fighting style, which Roach has labeled "compassionate." More than a decade ago, when Pacquiao wandered into Roach's gym as an unknown fighter looking for a trainer, Pacquiao had the opposite belief system about punishing his opponents. He was too hungry and too aggressive, sparing no one in the ring. He lacked method, defense and science. Over the years, Roach tempered his explosiveness with skill, enhancing his natural talent with technique. Throughout the decade, they've represented the ideal pairing of knockout artist and trainer.
"The Bible stuff," Roach says, is getting between them now. Roach says he pushes Pacquiao to be more vicious, more violent. The fighter refuses, often citing scripture. Roach argues his points. "I told Manny, 'There is payback in the Bible,'" Roach says. "There is revenge in the Bible. There is a lot of death in the Bible. It's not like everyone is f---ing good in the Bible! There's bad out there." Pacquiao was not convinced, Roach says. "He told me, 'There's only bad out there if you look for it, so don't look for it.'"
Outside of morals and philosophy, though, Pacquiao's intense dedication to Bible study has disrupted his training routine. Pacquiao prays several times a day, Roach says, and those with whom he prays often wake him up in the middle of the night to stick to their prayer routine. For an aging fighter like Pacquiao, a good night's sleep might be the most important thing he can achieve in camp. His muscles need time to recover.
Roach has pushed his fighter to stay in bed, even asking Pacquiao's praying friends to wait until after the fight to resume their middle-of-the-night Bible study sessions. "I say, 'Why you waking him up? Let him f------ sleep! His praying doesn't win fights." As close as they have been, Roach now sounds like an outsider in Pacquiao's new world. "It's hard to argue with people about the Bible," the trainer says.
* * *
"I understand the religion thing, I totally dig it," Tim Bradley says, "but that still doesn't keep me from wanting to kick his ass."
A week before the fight, Bradley, 30, is having brunch at Palm Green, a natural foods restaurant in Palm Springs, Calif., where he lives and trains. Bradley and Pacquiao could not represent more opposite forces as fighters. Pacquiao is surrounded by throngs, the target of endless smartphone pictures. Bradley, the undefeated WBO welterweight champ (31-0), sits for two hours in his own hometown -- in a restaurant he goes to so often that he has a kale-mint-apple smoothie named after him -- and only a few patrons even seem to notice him. Bradley follows a strict vegan diet to help manage his weight, and he ensures that his body is not exposed to the growth hormones and other chemicals that some meat contains.
Like Pacquiao, Bradley is also looking for redemption. After the judges scored their last bout in his favor, Bradley says he became the victim of ridicule, harangued and harassed by boxing fans for stealing the championship. At school, one boy told his daughter that her daddy was a faker. His phone rang at home and pranksters told him to return the title belt he'd been awarded. Death threats arrived in the mail. He and his wife Monica sat on their couch and cried. "I was under this dark cloud," Bradley says. "I felt like I was convicted of a crime that I didn't do." He wanted to fight Pacquiao again, but many boxing fans seemed to believe that Pacquiao had beaten Bradley so thoroughly that the fight must have been a fix. With a rematch off the table, Bradley didn't know what to do.
"We had nowhere to go, nobody to talk to," Bradley recalls. He decided to take the family for a three-week vacation in Hawaii. He returned with a new attitude about what others think of him and that decision. "I was just like, F--- the world, I don't care," Bradley says.
In his next fight, against Ruslan Provodnikov, Bradley was uncharacteristically aggressive, trying to win back the public's respect with an impressive knockout. He paid for it, suffering a concussion and taking a knee in the final round, although his grit in the middle rounds won him the fight on points. He then fought Juan Manuel Marquez, who in the interim had knocked out Pacquiao with a single punch, and won another split decision. Despite the controversy, Bradley has matured as a fighter, rising to the zenith of his ability to prove himself. Pacquiao, five years and 31 pro fights his senior, has found motivation elsewhere.
"It has everything to do with his religion," Bradley says about Pacquiao's new posture. "When you get so deeply involved in religion like he is, not a lot of things will affect you, because you're not of this world anymore. The Gandhis and all those figures were the same way. They didn't care about anything but their faith. It's not good in the fight game. Boxing is a kill sport. It's kill, or be killed. You have to be lethal. You have to be lethal every second."
Just like the first time they met two years ago, the critical factor in Saturday's fight will be speed. While Bradley's frame is bigger, and his body is younger and bulkier, Pacquiao's speed and snap of punch will be critical in keeping Bradley from stalking him. A naturally defensive fighter with limited power (his last knockout victory was eight years ago), Bradley says he is planning to use Pacquiao's aggression against him, patiently wearing him down and waiting for the veteran to make a mistake, before landing the counterpunch that will take Pacquiao out. Bradley needs that counter punch. It's the only way, he believes, that he can escape the dark cloud that has hovered over him since their first bout.
"I'm not the most talented," Bradley says. "I don't have the biggest punch or the best speed. But I'm the most willed. If you don't kill me or knock me out, I am going to be there every damn round."
* * *
Pacquiao might become modern boxing's Gandhi. He talks with the spirit of a pauper, a boxer-preacher for the masses, yet wraps himself in lavish toys and surrounds himself with distractions. From the moment he wakes up in his Los Angeles mansion, the grand doors of which are nearly always open to a roving entourage of many dozens, Pacquiao is surrounded by a small army of employees, some of whom seem to do nothing at all. One of his guys sleeps at the foot of his bed. Another helps pack his bag and handles his clothes. As a man who once sold doughnuts as a street urchin in Manila, Pacquiao seems content to simply give away all he makes. Parked in the driveway is a Ferrari, which he purchased on a whim and is now looking to sell, and a late-model Mercedes, which he insists on driving to the gym himself. An ever-present mob of fans waits for him at the Wild Card, looking for pictures and autographs, very few of which he turns down.
Pacquiao is the subject of so much attention that he no longer does some things that used to relax him and make him happy.
"He doesn't sing anymore," trainer Roach says, referencing the concerts that Pacquiao would put on after fights and all the karaoke songs he would perform. Asked why he doesn't like to sing anymore, Pacquiao sounded like a stressed-out corporate executive. "I'm busy," he said. "Too busy. I have a lot of things to do."
Among his inner circle, many wish that Pacquiao were not so compromised or generous. "He's too nice," says Mike Koncz, his longtime advisor. "He doesn't have a relationship with the word 'no.'" For each fight, Koncz says that Pacquiao spends around $1 million in tickets for his friends and associates, along with $500,000 or so in first-class airfare from the Philippines and a guest list of 1,400, all of which is a nightmare for Koncz and others to coordinate. Many on the list are Pacquiao's political associates and colleagues. "He has half of Congress coming," Koncz says.
After sparring sessions and afternoon workouts, Pacquiao leads a procession to Nat's Thai Food, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant next to Roach's gym, where he always sits in the same seat and feasts on the same plate of rice and soup, while picking at other fixings that come out of Nat's small kitchen: barbecued beef tips, fried chicken, chicken fried rice. Most trainers would scream at their fighter for eating much of anything here, but Pacquiao won't let the Nat Thai Food tradition go, supporting the restaurant that supported him before he became a superstar. He shares the attention he gets by packing the place, and all his sparring partners and their friends eat on his dime. Or whoever picks up the bill.
Pacquiao rarely seems to have any time to himself, nor does he seem to want any.
After a late lunch, a fighter in training typically goes home to relax. Most nights during this camp, Pacquiao hosts a Bible study after his workout. One afternoon last week, he invited me to attend. He drove the Mercedes back to the mansion, parking it next to the Ferrari, and then walked into his home, wearing his gym shorts and sandals that endorsement partner Nike had emblazoned with his name and logo.
More than 60 people were already there, sitting around the couches in his living room or at his dining room table, making food in his kitchen, watching basketball on his big-screen television. The walls of his home were decorated with large paintings of himself, enlarged photos of his most devastating knockout punches, and sexy photos of his wife Jinkee, obviously taken by a professional. (Pacquiao told Kimmel that he isn't discounting the possibility of Jinkee, who's expecting their fifth child, giving birth before or even during Saturday's fight.) A long-haired keyboard player was pumping out soft notes and religious melodies through a speaker system.
Pacquiao grabbed a wireless microphone and sat down in a tufted, white leather chair that resembled a throne, its back rising six feet in the air if not higher. In his gym shorts, Pacquiao led the group in song after song, venturing away from the melodies to preach. "My brothers and sisters," he'd say, and then digress about his transgressions. He talked about his drinking, his gambling, his womanizing. He quoted from the Bible.
He described the last dream he had. It was apocalyptic, he told the crowd, like a premonition. He was on a trip with old friends, looking out into the distance, where he saw clouds. The clouds were big, dark. Storm clouds.
"Something is going to happen," Pacquiao said.
* * *
Geoffrey Gray is a best-selling author and reporter based in New York. A contributing editor at New York Magazine, he has covered boxing, bullfighting, tennis, female-arm wrestling, camel racing and high-end perfume.