A Fight for the Soul of Boxing?

“It’s for the soul of boxing.”

This was Freddie Roach’s summation of the stakes involved in Manny Pacquaio’s upcoming fight – the most lucrative in boxing history – against Floyd Mayweather Jr at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on May 2.

“I can’t lose this fight,” he went on as we sat downstairs from Wildcard in the private gym he opened last year for the sole purpose of working with the likes of Manny Pacquaio and Miguel Cotto in seclusion.

It had been six years since my last visit to the Wildcard Boxing Club, and ten years since I’d been a regular while living in the city. The changes that had taken place in that time were immediately obvious during my initial arrival at the gym two days prior. Before even reaching the stairs leading up to the door, I was intercepted by one of four security guys standing watch in the parking lot and told that I couldn’t go up unless I’d called or emailed ahead and been given permission. He explained to me, the security guard, that the gym was off limits to everybody apart from regulars and people who’d been vetted by Marie, Roach’s very efficient and no-nonsense personal assistant.

Fortunately, she remembered me and allowed me access to the gym. I had no business being surprised by the security presence; Manny Pacquaio is one of the biggest stars boxing has had in many a year, a national hero in the Philippines, and people travel hundreds of miles to the gym on a regular basis hoping to catch a glimpse of him training. Normally accessible to both his fans and the media, Pacquaio had decided that for this fight he couldn’t afford to be, leaving the multiple camera crews from across the world that were hanging around on the sidewalk disappointed.

The main gym was just as rough and ready as I recalled, packed with an unlikely combination of pros, ex champions, and regular people training to stay in shape. Despite his success and status as one of the most respected trainers of all time, Freddie still only charges five dollars a workout and allows most anyone who wants to workout upstairs to do so, regardless of age, gender, or experience. This alone is proof that success hasn’t gone to his head or changed him.

As we sat talking, one of his fighters was working out on the heavy bag. At regular intervals Freddie would see something he didn’t like, or needed to be corrected, and stop to give him instructions.

When he told me that his day had started at seven in the morning with Miguel Cotto, whose next outing will be the first defence of his WBC middleweight title in June against an as yet unnamed opponent – though at time of writing it looks likely to be Australia’s Daniel Geale, currently the IBF and WBA champion – and wouldn’t end until 8.30 in the evening, what with various interviews and media stuff to get through on Manny’s behalf, it was obvious that this was a side of the sport he didn’t enjoy.

“We gotta win this fight,” he stressed. “We can’t lose. It’s for boxing.”

It’s no secret that Freddie has little time for the Mayweathers and the way they represent the sport.  Where Floyd Mayweather and his trainer and father, Mayweather Sr, are all bling, bluster, and bravado, Manny is humble and down to earth, imbued with the cause of his people, for whose happiness and pride he considers he is fighting.

Then there’s the way that Manny considers he’s been disrespected by Floyd during the tortuous negotiations that went into making the fight, which boxing fans all over the world have been eagerly anticipating for the past five years. It has added an extra layer of motivation to the Pacquaio training camp.

Freddie assured me that he’s come up with a gameplan to penetrate Mayweather’s near-impregnable shoulder roll defence. When I mentioned how Marcus Maidana had been able to get to him in their first fight, Freddie agreed while asserting that Maidana is an average fighter compared to Manny.

Conventional wisdom has it that Manny will apply intensity and pressure on May 2, hoping to overpower and outwork Floyd utilising his incredible handspeed and engine to wear him down on the way to a mid to late round stoppage.

But such an analysis suffers from an underestimation of Mayweather, who will be expecting Manny to come forward throwing punches in bunches, looking for him to wilt under the ensuing avalanche. Him and his father will be aiming to land the same right hand through the middle that Juan Manuel Marquez deployed to KO Pacquaio when they met in 2013.

Though, of course, Freddie did not divulge the details of his gameplan for Mayweather to me, it’s safe to assume that it will be more sophisticated than merely applying pressure in the hope of finding a chink in the Mayweather defence. The height difference, and with it range, in favour of the pound for pound champion is a crucial factor, one that will determine to large extent Manny’s approach. Jumping in will not get the job done, nor will overreaching, both of which Pacquaio has been guilty of in the past.

It’s hard to recall a more intriguing fight than this one, which had already transcended boxing to attract wider public and international interest. Floyd Mayweather Jr is not only a boxing phenomenon, he’s a sporting phenomenon, whose wealth and unapologetic worship of money offers an insight into one aspect of US cultural life. His focus on winning, on being the best, is almost machine-like, inspiring to some while evidence of skewed values to others.

Manny Pacquiao, on the other hand, views boxing not merely as a vehicle to enrich himself, but to enrich his people. The poverty whence he came has impacted him to the extent that giving back is something he views as a duty and an obligation. It is a clash of worldviews, as well as fists, that approaches on May 2, which lends the fight more meaning than any the sport has seen in many years.

As I reflected on this Manny and his small entourage arrived, which meant it was my cue to leave. Driving along Beverly Boulevard ten minutes later, I couldn’t get Freddie’s words out of my head. “It’s for the soul of boxing.”

John Wight is the author of a politically incorrect and irreverent Hollywood memoir – Dreams That Die – published by Zero Books. He’s also written five novels, which are available as Kindle eBooks. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnWight1

John Wight is the author of a politically incorrect and irreverent Hollywood memoir – Dreams That Die – published by Zero Books. He’s also written five novels, which are available as Kindle eBooks. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnWight1