Saturday, March 20, 2010
Knowledge plus Power: Evolution of Manny Pacquiao
His simple warm up routine carried a sense of grace befitting of the sweet science. His movement appeared choreographed like a fistic ballet… beautiful in it’s own right if not for the accompanying undertone of pending violence. As he skated around the empty ring his blazing fists in unison with his primitive grunting was a harsh reminder of the bad intentions behind what he is currently preparing for. It is the beginning of a new decade and the Filipino charge sits firmly atop the world of boxing. His goal has now become defending his crown. It is a stark contrast to the humble and scruffy young man I first watched train in the same ring during my first trip to Los Angeles in 2006. In a visit to watch then heavyweight hopeful James Toney train under the watchful guidance of the now infamous ‘Coach’ Freddie Roach, I first saw Manny Pacquiao up close and personal as he prepared for his rematch with Eric Morales. It was a quiet and subdued young fighter whom I first saw, laying in relative obscurity, finishing up his abdominal work. At the time the legions of hopeful fans needing to be turned away in droves did not yet line the side walks around the Wild Card Boxing Club, and access to the young up and coming fighter was a lot easier to come by. Unfortunately this was not the case on my most recent trip to Los Angeles. I had been hopeful I would get the chance to see Manny train this visit but knew it was far from a guarantee. Life around the Wild Card during Manny’s training camp is now up to snuff with the exclusivity in the surrounding Hollywood hills. Everyone wants a piece or a peek and the room for the champ to be made available is thin with his dire need to focus. Friday morning I made my way down to the gym bright and early hoping to catch Freddie Roach with enough fee time time for an interview. As a fellow (partial) Canadian, Freddie has always been hospitable on top of being one of the most genuine personalities in the fight game. After a lengthy chat about the current state of things surrounding him and his fighter I was fortunate enough to end up with an invitation to sit in on an afternoon of Manny’s training. I waited in the wings as the place swelled with the early morning crowd of gym rats hard at work. The speed bags were humming and standing room became scarce with the building near capacity as men and women alike struggled to get their workouts in. As the clock struck the top of the hour it was as if all the hand wraps and gloves fell empty to the floor and all signs of life seemed to suddenly vanish. The gym closes at the same time each afternoon for the private training camp of Manny Pacquiao… and once vacated the silence before the champ’s arrival is deafening. The Wild Card looks serene in the absence of all it’s members, and the afternoon sun illuminated the main ring as it sat empty awaiting it’s most famous inhabitant. Gone was the ball cap wearing up and comer who was shy about making eye contact years before. The man who entered the gym this time around was larger than life and had the entourage to go with it. From drivers to chefs to the faithful inner circle, Manny Pacquiao now travels like the attraction he has become in recent years. Arguably one of the most famous individuals in the history of his own country and one of the premiere athletes in all the world, humility is not a trait the champ lost along the way. He smiled with bright and endearing eyes upon seeing my intrusion to his camp and flashed an inviting smile as he shook my hand. After making the rounds to greet the familiar onlookers who had remained in the gym, Pacquaio entered the ring dawning a “Manila No. 25″ t-shirt and began a rigorous stretching routine with strength and conditioning coach Alex Ariza. The door to the gym was now locked as Team Pacquiao body guard Rob Peters stood watch, looking to keep eager onlookers on the outside looking in. Manny Pacquiao was all smiles as he began his workout. After stretching he started out with light shadowboxing and began to chase Ariza around the ring. Just as he would when cutting off the ring while stalking a retreating opponent, Pacquiao moved like a shark through water with deceptive speed of foot. Finally cornered, Ariza impressively leapt through the ropes to the delight of the onlookers. An impressive vanishing act not afforded to actual Pacquiao opponents. The champ continued on and would spin and throw punches every which way as he pivoted and changed angles constantly. His faithful sidekick Buboy Fernandez was the constant victim of a surprise body attack every time Manny passed by his location on the sideline. Pacquiao would change direction suddenly as he neared the rope and end a combination of punches with a slapping swipe at his friend’s mid section. One of these shots happened right in front of me as I looked on from behind the ropes and somewhat caught off guard I happened to gasp at the loud slapping sound as Buboy hunched over in some discomfort. My alarm caught the champ’s attention and he looked at me with wide eyes and raised eyebrows and laughed somewhat nervously. “Body shot!” I exclaimed. He laughed and repeated my sentiment. “Body shot!” Things took on a much more serious tone as Freddie Roach entered the ring. The long time ace trainer maintains a loose and carefree climate at his Hollywood stronghold along with his band of merry men, but when it comes time to enter the ring with his star pupil, he is all business. The multi million dollar athlete gave a slight bow in the direction of his mentor. The reverence in Pacquiao’s eyes as he submits to the advice and instructions of Coach Freddie further contrast the shades of the humble, naive young man who first came through those doors several years back. The teacher-student dynamic between Roach and Pacquiao remains paramount to the ongoing success the dynamic duo currently enjoys. As much room as there is for clowning and play, Roach knows when it’s time to bear down and Pacquiao follows his lead without question. As the two began to engage in thunderous mitt-work, Joshua Clottey’s name came up for the first time. As is often the case while working the mitts, the two focused on strategic movements particular to Manny’s March 13 opponent. We had been asked to turn off our video cameras during the pad work portion of the training and it was immediately evident why. Precise movements are tirelessly choreographed between the two with the intention of capitalizing on their opponent’s style and habits. The dialogue between the trainer and fighter was fascinating as they meticulously practiced angles and the exploding of particular punches out of varied movements. Roach has already studied a great deal of Joshua Clottey footage and feels he has the ground work for a solid game plan. From his comments to Freddie in mid flight it’s clear Pacquiao has done a great deal of studying in his own right as he stops to ask the coach for his opinion on certain adjustments the African challenger may attempt to employ. A trend that has emerged in recent fights continues in training as Pacquiao becomes increasingly more effective at generating explosive power while retreating on the back foot. Early in his career when he was often guilty of being a one-handed stalker the majority of the damage he did was reserved to when he was coming forward with his foot firmly on the gas. Critics were quick to point out that in instances where opponents managed to back the effectiveness of the Filipino fighter’s technique diminished.
Present day Pacquiao seems to have summoned the ability to spring forward out of a retreating crouch with the reflexes of a cat. It appears to be one of the many elements of movement tirelessly included in his training routine. As Roach and Pacquiao continued with their mitt work the combination punching was nothing short of awe inspiring. Earlier in the day I asked Freddie to convey to me how much harder Manny is punching now that he’s settled in to a welterweight frame. “He’s hitting fucking hard,” was his reply, the expletive appeared inserted for emphasis, and for the aches that surely accompany a long session of catching such ferocious punches. Coach Roach is literally playing with fire these days in that regard. In practicing combination punching on the mitts, one might liken him catching the blazing fast sequences of punches to juggling explosives. To the naked eye there appears to be so little room for error with the velocity of the punches that at times Roach’s face is split seconds and millimetres away from absorbing a potential knock out blow. Manny would tirelessly throw combinations at Roach in under a second’s time. As they repeated this lightning fast sequence, Roach would occasionally ask his star pupil to “hook out”, adding a “clean up” hook for good measure. Each time this was done I cringed as the fine line of Pacquiao’s control over the precision of those final punches appeared to flirt with the possibility of blasting Roach near his chin. To my surprise it never happened. The high octane choreography continued on and on with pin point accuracy. Trainer and pupil were tireless in their attention to detail. Manny would often speak of particular punches in his arsenal as though they were literally weapons. He appears obsessed with the tactical aspect of perfecting minute details and movements. Again, a stark contrast to the younger stalking, pressure fighter of many years ago, who came blazing on to the world scene on the coat tails of ferocity alone. Manny Pacquiao in 2010 is a whole other beast. “I’m smart!” he exclaimed as he danced around the ring upon completing the strategic mitt work with Roach. Like a kid in a candy store he spun around the ring like a wind up toy. All through out the training session that day the champ would mix in an occasional “Ali Shuffle”… a quick shuffling of the feet made famous by the legendary Muhammad Ali. Roach later confirmed Manny seems to greatly enjoy doing that as of late. “Knowledge plus power…” Manny exclaimed. “Knowledge plus power!” The words were repeated like a mantra that afternoon as he continued speeding his way around the ring. From the young man who slowly discovered the debilitating power he possessed at boxing’s top level to the grown man who now tirelessly works to plot his destruction with a thinking man’s prognostication… there has been an evolution in Manny Pacquiao in these last few years. He has superseded the perfection of a singular style and instead of feeling the need to drive endlessly forward, he seems to have grasped the fact that it is the unbending tree that breaks in the wind. His newfound ability to retreat and react has truly added a superior dimension to his fold. It is something he still works on endlessly and it is the reason we see so much improvement with each fight he takes. Manny finished the training session that afternoon with work on the speed bags. As he worked to a nice rhythm in the setting afternoon sun I couldn’t help but notice a old faded photo of a young Floyd Mayweather Jr. on the Wild Card wall. It hung among many photos high above Manny’s head as he droned away on the bag. After a proposed mega fight for early this year fell by the wayside, Mayweather continues to be the elephant in the room around Team Pacquiao, and it was not a topic that went untouched through out the afternoon. Pacquiao took a moment in his clowning around the ring to do his impression of Mayweather’s patented defense. Everyone was all smiles as he exaggerated pulling away from imaginary punches to his own delight. “Floyd is good,” Manny said at one point. “… but he is the former pound-for-pound king.” The entire training session was over in just under three hours. When everything was said and done we were lucky enough to have garnered an invite from Manny’s culinary specialist Archie to join Team Pacquiao for dinner. In a small and secluded Thai restaurant near the Wild Card – closed down just for Manny’s visit – we enjoyed a healthy selection of fish, soup, chicken and rice served to a group of fifteen or so. A big screen TV sat high on the wall surrounded by autographed photos of the champ. One in particular read “I love Thai food” along with his patented signature. While we ate we watched early fights of a seventeen year old Manny Pacquiao wildly swinging away at scrawny fellow junior flyweights. The champ sat transfixed watching his wild swinging younger self with wide and irreproachable eyes. As the knockout punches came the table cheered and Manny would burst out with child like laughter. I couldn’t help but smile at the irony. Pacquiao vs Clottey.