The first thing most notice is the speed, or that the naked eye can barely perceive it at all.
Then follows the noise. Boom. Crack. Boom-boom-crack. Crack-boom. Like a series of firecrackers exploding in a flash.
That's when it hits fully as hard as he's pounding the pads. That the man standing ahead, all 1.67 metres, who arrived late for his workout in a shirt and tie having finally extricated himself from a day spent as one of his country's senators, is Manny Pacquiao, history's only eight-division world champion who for some time represented the best pugilist on the planet.
He is a week from turning 40, but during this session at an Elorde Boxing Gym in the heart of Metro Manila, he could be Pacquiao in his prime, the boxer that rose from genuine privation in the Philippines to perch at the summit of his sport.
Here, Pacquiao rolls back the years as if he’s rolling punches.
“The man’s a freak,” deadpans Justin Fortune, his long-time strength and conditioning coach. Having boxed Lennox Lewis during the heavy-set heavyweight division of the 1990s, Fortune should know a thing or two about physical monstrosities.
An energetic cluster of fans, three deep and encircling the ring, have gathered to gaze at this anomaly of nature, this tour de force who throws combinations and uppercuts and hooks as though it’s the only thing he was put on this earth to do.
He smiles through his gum-shield, bites down on it, then thuds a right hand into the corresponding mitt held by Buboy Fernandez, an old friend from the early days in General Santos.
Buboy co-lived in the poverty, too. He has remained a constant through the starry times. At the moment, he is charged with honing his closest companion in advance of an impending return to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, not more than five weeks away at the time of writing.
Bam-bam-bam. A machine-gun flash makes Buboy wince, although he shakes loose the pain and barks encouragement. “Pah-pah-pah” screams Pacquiao as he unleashes another flurry.
Much like the rest of the team, Buboy’s life has been transformed by Pacquiao’s prowl through the never-ending weight divisions and his house contains the various trainer awards to prove it. But watching him consume heavy artillery makes some wonder whether he has taken a few too many to the head.
“Oh it hurts … it hurts,” Buboy admits later, peering down at his hands.
Nights after a session with Pacquiao and the pads are typically spent sleeping on his back, arms outstretched, palms facing upwards.
“It’s like 125mph on the wrist bone,” Buboy says, flexing the joint that has presumably received more abuse from Pacquiao than any other joint in existence. “He’s different to other fighters. Manny, when he hits, he hits dead centre. Sometimes, my hands are just pins and needles.”
Buboy bares it, because he wants to. The bout at the MGM Grand on January 19 will represent Pacquiao’s 70th as a professional when he contests the WBA welterweight belt against American foe Adrien Broner, a four-division champion and serious threat to the Filipino’s boxing future.
“Broner’s no bum,” Fortune says. “He’s not to be underestimated.”
For now, though, Pacquiao doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. No worries that he’s nearly 40, nor that he stands close to the potential conclusion to one of boxing’s most glittering careers.
Nevertheless, he is in jocular mood. Inside the ropes, right before his hands slip into his Ferrari-red “Pacman” gloves, Pacquiao feigns a basketball jump shot, much to his audience’s approval. He skips around the cordoned-off square, surveying the crowd that fence him in.
Near one corner, he mock punches Fortune, then winks toward his team stationed along the apron opposite. He practices his footwork, shadow-boxing with the speed that takes away the breath, so slick it is barely noticeable.
By the time the gloves are laced, Pacquiao glistens with sweat and his midnight-black hair has dampened. And then he is off, six rounds unleashed on poor Buboy’s mitts, the timer high on the wall bleeping through green, amber and red, at 30-second intervals.
Pacquiao is zoned in now, yet through the wild eyes and the blur of punches, he snickers. Patently, he is revelling in his work. Perhaps it’s a respite from politics, from those pressure-valve few days in the Philippine Senate that have dammed his day and delayed his training.
Shirt and tie discarded, Pacquiao delights in his natural habitat, wearing the kind of uniform that hauled him from street vendor to transcendent superstar. Deeply religious, his blue vest has “Jesus Is The Name Of The Lord” emblazoned on its back.
Pacquiao must feel like a deity here. There are giant posters depicting the expertise that makes him the reigning Fighter of the Decade, as voted by the Boxing Writers Association of America. His signature, curved and completed with a smiley face, is easily distinguishable on the gym’s “Wall of Fame”. People crane necks for a better view, hold aloft their smartphones to capture a master of his craft at work.
“Manny likes a crowd,” Fortune says. “He likes the people and they like him. They’re respectful.”
No doubt, Pacquiao feeds off of it. A bundle of energy, he is forever in motion, his feet gliding across the canvas and bouncing into angles to unleash thump after thump.
“He moves so well,” says George Kambosos Jr, an emerging lightweight peering through the ropes, taking on board whatever he can. The Australian is enjoying his third camp as Pacquiao’s sparring partner, making mental notes with every punch thrown.
“His footwork is unbelievable," he continues. "Everyone talks about his speed and his power, but it’s the feet, the way he manoeuvres and gets into different angles. That’s how he gets into the positions to land those shots. And earlier in his career, a good lot of them were knockouts.”
Sometimes, Pacquiao looks like he could put Buboy to temporary sleep. He stalks him around the ring, concludes a rapid five-shot combination with a playful knee to the ribs. He shoves Buboy back onto the ropes. Everyone laughs.
When the buzzer sounds for Round 6, Pacquiao rushes suddenly from his corner, much to everyone’s surprise. It draws guffaws and warm applause from the masses.
But boxing remains a serious pursuit. Not least when you’re about to turn 40, shortly before fighting a man 11 years your junior. Not when your days are swamped with life at the legislature, complicated by myriad attachments that come with serving your country. Pacquiao has made an estimated US$500 million (Dh1.83 billion) from the fight game already.
“It’s been chaos since 2002, so why would anything have changed?” Fortune shrugs as he contemplates the difficulties associated with Pacquiao’s shift into politics. “He’s been 16 years at the top, that he’s been champion or No 1, which is a phenomenal record in itself. In this business, it’s quite amazing actually. It’s just chaos. He thrives on it.”
Manny Pacquiao beyond the ropes:
Pacquiao is basking alright in the bedlam that has carried him to the gym on a sunlit December evening. His two hours are split between Buboy’s mitts, the heavy bag, the speedball, the crunches and the conditioning work.
It is his son Michael’s 17th birthday, but Pacquiao has barely had time to celebrate, his timetable strangled by the senate and by his battle with Broner. There will be a small party later, when Pacquiao finishes the training session and the interviews; after he signs boxing gloves for the group of policemen, hopefully off-duty, agog at his perpetual prowess; after he greets each fan as if they were the only one there and poses for yet another picture. His countenance is anything but negative.
"It's the time management that he really has to focus on," says Joe Ramos, chief operating officer of MP Promotions and part of the crew for the past decade and a half. "You've seen it here. It's just a hectic thing. it's too much sometimes."
It can be for Buboy as well. Earlier, staring out of the floor-to-ceiling window and onto the capital’s bustle, he waits and waits and waits. Originally scheduled for “around 2pm”, training has been pushed back to an unknown hour, “possibly 3pm, possibly later”.
Pacquiao has been stalled at the senate, as he and his peers seek to finalise the national budget for 2019, throwing around eye-blurring numbers that most certainly make his career earnings seem modest.
It is the final day of the session; tomorrow Pacquiao will leave for General Santos City, then Los Angeles, where he will train until January 19, free of the politics and constraints outside the ring. From that point, Broner represents his sole focus.
“It’s not the perfect time you want,” Buboy says as the clock crawls past 4.30pm. “But for me, it’s very important that Manny can show up in the gym. Very important. Although with this fight now I’m not worried. Because when we started training, I saw in Manny’s eyes that he’s still hungry for this fight.
“Many people are always talking about Manny Pacquiao being 40 years old, but the senator wants to prove to the people that only the number can go up. His moves, the style, the power, it’s still there. The dedication for boxing is still there. He’s still hungry.”
Clearly, he's still in supreme shape. That morning, as his day began with a 7am run around the gated community in Dasmarinas Village where he resides, Pacquiao completed the 7.5-kilometre circuit in 37 minutes, shaving four minutes from last week’s time. His legs are stronger, his heart rate slower.
Back in his driveway, Pacquiao, Kambosos Jr and his team hit the mats for abdominal work. His wife, Jinkee, was present, too. Bob Marley's Three Little Birds wafted from the radio, prompting into song the six team members prone on the floor behind Pacquiao. He joins in the chorus, but the reverie is perforated by another drill of sit-ups and side-crunches. He screws his face in anguish. Don't worry … cause every little thing gonna be alright.
“No one can keep up with him,” Fortune says later that afternoon in the gym. “His work ethic and his stamina, Manny has the strongest foundation of any fighter I’ve been with. His legs, his calves - they generate more speed and power than any younger fighter I see today.”
The calves are surely impressive. Packed, protruding almost. It’s as if someone has stashed bricks down the back of each leg. Little wonder, given Pacquiao spends most evenings shooting hoop.
The previous night, he could not train because of stomach cramps, but displayed enough intestinal fortitude to organise an impromptu game of basketball on the other side of Manila.
Pacquiao journeyed straight to the court from the senate, sending David, his erstwhile personal assistant, back to Dasmarinas Village to collect his basketball gear. David emerged from the darkness on the back of a police-escort motorcycle and, in an instant, was away again, navigating rush-hour Manila quicker than seemed feasible.
On an ordinary court tucked behind a mechanics shop, wearing the No 17 “Pacquiao” jersey that signifies his December birthday, Pacquiao was comfortably the smallest guy there.
Yet he could have been the tallest. He orchestrated play, dominated the ball, scored the majority of points, be if from three-point range or a drive to the basket. He contested decisions, joked with the opposition bench. He might have even pulled down the shorts of a rival, drawing belly laughs from the victim’s teammates and the many bystanders crammed around the periphery.
The night's opponents were members of the pro basketball team Pacquiao , but he more than held his own. With the second of four full games drifting to defeat, he levelled the score with four seconds left on the clock. Fouled in the build-up – that close to a fight, opponents usually oblige – Pacquiao converted the free-throws for victory. The crowd whooped and hollered. On these courts, MP is MVP.
Asked the following afternoon in Elorde Gym, as he waits for Pacquiao to show, what the soon-to-be 40-year-old would do once the boxing ceases and the training recedes, Buboy offers frankly: “Maybe he’ll continue basketball”.
“Because we have some other boxers after their career, they never mind about their health,” he adds. “That’s why some get sick, lose their balance, can’t walk, can’t talk. But him, after he’s going to retire he still needs exercise and sports. We prepare for that. But we’re not done yet.”
It’s hard to argue after eyeing Pacquiao’s two-plus hours spent in the gym, an exhibition of the speed and the power. Before his arrival, it’s easy to ponder how that soon-to-be 40-year-old, consumed by dual professions and a packed programme, manages to keep going.
But somehow he retains a boyish enthusiasm. In the ring, at least, it renders him an impossibly young man. Pacquiao seems happiest there, between the ropes and betwixt his friends and his followers.
Right here and right now, in the dwindling of the light, he convinces that his boxing career has a few more embers yet to burn.