Manny Pacquiao: The Filipino boxing champ catches up with an old friend

Mar 23, 2015

Written by Geoffrey Gray

Illustration by Adam Rogers

The biggest problem with Manny Pacquiao, according to his longtime trainer Freddie Roach, is that he doesn’t sing anymore. Years ago, before he rocketed up Forbes’s list of the world’s highest paid athletes and became a rumored candidate for the presidency of the Phillipines, Pacquaio was a singer. He played guitar, belted out karoake numbers. Love songs, mostly. 

“It was a great way for him to relax,” Roach says.

Now, though, Pacquaio can’t breathe. He’s hardly ever alone. It’s unfair to say he keeps an entorouge--his followers are more like a flock, filling every room in his home, every couch, every dining room table chair. While Pacquaio makes a guaranteed $20 million per fight, it’s unclear how much he banks. For each fight, he spends roughly $2 million on tickets for his friends, inviting roughly 2,000 people to watch him fight. Any day now, he’s slated to announce a fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. for May, an event that not only stands to be the most lucrative boxing match in history, but a global clash of morals.

Mayweather is a prodigious sinner. He’s been in prison for spousal abuse, espouses wealth over virtue, trash talk over compliments. Pacquiao does not have the past of saint, but he’s chosen a path of piety. A few years ago, Pacquaio became a devout evangelical. Now his entourage includes priests and dozens of other evanagelicals that demand his presence at bible study classes once, twice, three times a week. 

Roach is fed up. “Just let the guy fight,” he says.

Pacquaio is not a fighter anymore, though. After growing up a steet urchin in Manilla and fighting his way out of abject poverty, Pacquaio has become the most transformative figure in boxing since Muhammad Ali. His smile alone — humble, earnest, boyish — inspires audiences around the world. Whatever his political furture might hold, Manny Pacquaio has become an international leader. 

In the Phillipines, his nickname is “Ninong,” which means godfather. Among his people, he’s treated with the reverence of a living diety. He enjoys a Rolex, but still eats like a monk: A bowl of peasant fish soup a day does his body good. He gives so much money away, it’s unclear if Pacquaio is wealthy or broke. The IRS has claimed Pacquiao owes them millions over the years, and while Pacquaio’s camp claims they’ve settled that outstanding debt over unpaid taxes, Pacquiao’s promoter Bob Arum tells me he worries about Pacquios extraordinary spending. He’s at once lovingly naive and a keen strategist, steering -- or simply accepting -- his path to power, fame and wealth.

When we first met last year, I asked Pacquio about Roach’s complaint that he doesn’t sing anymore. He didn’t feel inspired, he said, nor did he have the time.

“Too many things to do,” he told me.

He has two forms of relaxation, from what I gathered. The first is chess. After a sparring session preparing for a fight last year, Pacquaio invited me back to his Los Angeles mansion to play a game. He drove a late model Mercedes back to the place with a bodyguard, while I followed with the entourage. 

When we arrived at his mansion, no less than seventy people were milling about. At the center of the living room was a white throne looking chair, a back of tufted white leather rising towards the ceiling. Wearing his gym clothes, Pacquaio assumed the chair. Across the room, a keyboardist and singer were singing bible hymns and verses. Someone passed Pacquaio a microphone.

“My brothers and sisters,” Pacquiao said, addressing the crowd like a preacher. He talked about how he sidestepped the vices in life like womanizing, gambling and drinking. He talked about his dreams as if they were omens, keys to predicting the future. When he was finished with his sermon, we retreated to the chessboard.

Pacquiao is an informed player. One member of his massive entourage is a Phillipino chess master who accompanies Pacquaio during camp to help him master the proper openings, sequences and end game strategies. Before we played, Pacquaio wanted me to take on his master first. Quickly, dozens of onlookers flooded around the board to watch the game. We slapped at a clock, and Pacquio pawed at his goatee and raised his eyebrows and then rolled his eyes at the moves I was making. He played the master next and fared much better, executing a strategy that was quick to exploit poor moves, though cautious not to expose, like a boxer covering up.

Finally, it came time for us to play. We set up the pieces, and then the lights went out. A pair of friends appeared behind him. Pacquiao’s time was up. He rose, bid good night amd disappeared up the stairs to go to sleep. The keyboardist packed up the keyboard; the chessmaster rolls up the chess board. Tomorrow would bring another performance, another lesson. 

Pacquaio has so many obligations — he accepted an offer last year to work as a player-coach for a Phillipino basketball team — actual downtime is sparse. When he has a few days off, he likes to “vacation” in Israel. He’s gone to Israel so many times he’s started to learn Hebrew. 

On a recent Friday night, I sent him a text message, wishing him well. I didn’t know where in the world he was, how many people were around him, and doubted he would write back. But he did.  

“Shabbat shalom my brother,” he said. 

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