He's the best, but Manny Pacquiao is still learning to be better

Pacquiao has power, balance, determination and an alluring mystery that all help him stay at the very pinnacle of his game.
Manny Pacquiao trains with Freddie Roach in Baguio in the Philippines.
Manny Pacquiao trains with Freddie Roach in Baguio in the Philippines.
The well-worn phrase "best pound-for-pound fighter in the world" has superglued itself to Manny Pacquiao, setting up long residence in the vicinity of his name whether written or spoken.

Like many passages on the internet, it often mutates into ALL CAPS. It also morphs into fresh creations such as "pound-for-pound king" that turn up on sacred sport places such as T-shirts.

I confess to a level of boxing knowledge you charitably might call inexpert. I long have admired the game and the people who dare undertake it, but I have not gazed into the fracas and spotted the nuances. In dragging out the "pound-for-pound" phrase, I parrot the accepted words of the connoisseurs.

The Manny Pacquiao Story

Interactive: The Manny Pacquiao story

Part one of the Pacquiao story: In Mannyland

Part two of the Pacquiao story: A man unchanged by fame and fortune

Part three of the Pacquiao story: Team Pacquiao

Part four of the Pacquiao story: A farewell to Mannyland

So eight days hanging around Manny Pacquiao's camp in the high altitude of Baguio City in the northern Philippines provided a vivid glimpse of an unusual 32-year-old human being, but it also lent some insight into a beguiling question for an interloper: just what traits have made Pacquiao the best pound-for-pound fighter?

A sampling: He can throw effective punches from voluminous angles. His right hand has made most of the arduous trek upwards toward matching the mighty left. He maintains enough humility to allow for continued learning. He rather resembles raindrops.

And then you have to factor in mystery - alluring, fabulous mystery.

"He's well-built, but especially his lower stability and ability to balance himself in a way that most athletes, especially in this sport, are not able to do," says Alex Ariza, who studied exercise and nutritive sciences at San Diego State University well before becoming Pacquiao's strength-and-conditioning coach.

That uncanny equilibrium, in turn, permits a gusher of angles. "In order to punch from as many angles as he does," Ariza says, "you have to have the ability to stabilise yourself."

Mentioning the 12th-round TKO of Puerto Rico's rugged but outclassed Miguel Cotto on November 14, 2009, Ariza notes that not everybody can throw an effective punch while "leaning" or "running backward with an uppercut." In fact, most boxers ought not, for most boxers would invite peril in not only a sort of flailing but in unwanted vulnerability.

Pacquiao simply recovers.

When he recovers nowadays in this, his prime, he recovers with both hands, which brings untold satisfaction to Freddie Roach, Pacquiao's trainer since June 2001. Roach believes the Pacquiao of today would devastate early-years opponents because of the right that complements one of the best lefts in human history. Says his former trainer in Manila in 2000, Emil Romano: "He had one punch, his left hand. Every time his left hand hit, a hard left, they went down."

For the progress from there, Roach points directly to the ninth-round TKO over David Diaz in Las Vegas on June 28, 2008.

"He became so much better in that fight," Roach says. "That particular fight has helped his confidence and his momentum in everything."

They always did - and still do - drills to upgrade that right hand, but before that fight, Roach says, Pacquiao felt comfortable enough to ply his new knacks only in the gym. "But then the Diaz fight arrived . he finally changed," Roach says. "It was just a matter of time."

That also reinforces something the 79-year-old promoter Bob Arum said one day in the boxing gym on the third floor of the Cooyesan Hotel in Baguio City. "The one thing people understand about Manny is as a world-class fighter he could say, 'Hey, I'm the best, I can't learn anymore.' But he's constantly learning, constantly improving himself."

The result might call to mind . water.

"He's like water, you know what I mean?" says David Rodela, 28, who as a Los Angeles sparring partner of six years might have absorbed more Pacquiao punches than anyone. When Rodela thinks of Pacquiao, he sometimes thinks of raindrops.

Raindrops, he explains, do not cause much damage at first even though they do possess velocity, yet if they persist dropping on something, they do start causing dents. "It's not just one blast," Rodela says.

"It's like a machine gun, one after the other. To me, that's more powerful than just any one." And somewhere in the description, Rodela uses the phrase "blinding fast" and indicates the punches do come hurriedly from everywhere. This might help explain Pacquiao's peerless velocity, that velocity Roach spotted from the very first day, yet a velocity that might remain partly inexplicable.

From where does it come, anyway? How does this wiry kid from the southern-Philippines village of Tango - and later the city of General Santos - and from a deep concentric circle of poverty, wind up making the mitts crackle with a pound-for-pound sound that you cannot get out of your ear even weeks on?

In that question lies, if you will, wonder.


Published: April 10, 2011 04:00 AM


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