Manny Pacquiao: The Early Years in L.A.
Light speed best describes how quickly the years pass in a prizefighter’s career.
A mere 12 years ago the upstairs boxing gym was in full throttle when a few of us zigzagged our way through the maze of boxers, trainers, groupies and journalists at the Wild Card Boxing gym.
Headmaster Freddie Roach smiled and ambled his way toward us. He seemed a little more peppy as he stuck his hand out to greet us.
“I’ve got a new fighter you should see,” said Roach. “He’s a Filipino kid and he’s been knocking out everyone here.”
Today, everyone knows Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao (seen in above Chris Farina-Top Rank photo, ahead of Roach, as they arrive in Macao), but back in 2001, just those regulars at the Hollywood boxing haven knew about the quicksilver southpaw. Other than the regular boxing beat writers, there were no several hundred boxing fans waiting outside. In those days James Toney was the marquee fighter in that gym and others like Israel Vazquez, Roger “Speedy” Gonzalez, Ian MacKillop and a few others trained there.
Roach was anxious to show off Pacquiao and itching to grab a fight for his newest protégé. When IBF junior featherweight titlist Lehlo Ledwaba’s opponent fell through they called Roach and he immediately took the fight. It was one of those unique breaks that seem to come at the right time.
A few of us had watched Pacquiao spar and he worked like a human buzz saw inside the ring. It didn’t matter who sparred, they all ate a lot of punches as Pacquiao darted in and out and fired blurring combinations. So when the contract was finalized, those few of us who knew about Pacquiao made sure to mention this fight to our readers and friends.
Pacquiao’s television debut took place on June 23, 2001, at the MGM Grand. The main event was Oscar De La Hoya facing Spain’s Javier Castillejo. Few gave the Spaniard a chance against De La Hoya. And even fewer realized about the coming of Pacquiao.
What I remember is HBO’s television boxing crew crowing about the talent of Ledwaba. They hyped the South African who was making his sixth title defense and mentioned little about Pacquiao. It’s one of their failings. They rarely bother to watch preliminary fights, let alone visit boxing gyms. So when Pacman made his entrance they were completely surprised.
A handful of Southern California journalists knew what was going to happen. We had seen his exploits in the gym and were confident about Pacquiao being able to transfer that to the prize ring. It was an eager moment for this writer because I had promised many of my friends that Pacquiao would run over Ledwaba.
Poor Ledwaba. Pacquiao was a replacement just two weeks before the fight date. There was no reason to believe that a former flyweight world champion would give much trouble. But that night Ledwaba was massacred from the first round until the sixth when he no longer could continue. Just like that Pacquiao was a world champion again.
Five months later Pacquiao would be defending that title against Agapito Sanchez in San Francisco. Sadly, Sanchez was murdered in 2005 in a dancing ballroom in his native country. The diminutive Dominican southpaw trained at the old L.A. Boxing Club located behind the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. He was a clever boxer who was very familiar with Pacquiao’s style. When he met Pacquiao at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium it was already pre-determined what needed to be done.
Pacquiao was butted and held and frustrated by Sanchez’s tactics. Cuts flowed from the champion’s face and though he tried to fight his way through the constant butts and clinches, it was just not possible. Sanchez used every trick in his arsenal to keep the champion from utilizing his power. The fight ended in a technical draw after ringside physicians ruled that Pacquiao could not continue.
It proved to be a good learning experience for Pacquiao.
After a two-round demolition of Jorge Eliecer Julio in Memphis, the U.S. did not see Pacquiao in the ring for another year. The champion fought twice in the Philippines and brought along his trainer Roach to the islands for the first time.
Pacquiao’s L.A. fight debut finally took place in the summer of 2003 at the Olympic Auditorium. It would be his first and only appearance in the historic boxing venue. The historic boxing structure where every great fighter like Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali to Salvador Sanchez showed their skills would shutter its doors for good two years later.
A few of us arrived early and were talking outside on the parking lot when trainer Roach arrived with his boxing gear over his shoulder. He had just returned from the Philippines and was anxious to tell us about his experience.
“The people are very friendly but the place is very poor,” said Roach, adding that amenities like tissue paper and other small items were not readily available. “I learned a lot. Next time I go I’m bringing stuff with me.”
Pacman’s next opponent would be undefeated Emmanuel Lucero of New York. Though he was living in the Big Apple he was actually born in Mexico City. Not many boxing journalists knew much about Lucero except that he was Mexican.
It was a good fight card that night. Fernando Vargas had recently lost against rival Oscar De La Hoya and chose to fight Fitz Vanderpool. Others fighting and winning were Sergio Mora, BJ Flores and Malik Scott. A large boxing crowd showed up that night to see the solid fight card.
Filipino prizefighters had been showcased in the Olympic Auditorium for many decades. Guys like Speedy Dado and Pablo Dano were great Filipino boxers and attractions at the L.A. boxing venue from the 1930s on. Pacquiao was yet another link to great Filipino fighters of the past.
Lucero entered the ring with an unorthodox low crouch and ducked under Pacquiao’s immediate attacks. But the Mexican from New York couldn’t touch Pacquiao who would dart back a few feet before resuming the attack. Then came those uppercuts. When Pacman zipped in to deliver one of those left-hand uppercuts, Lucero seemed to walk into the punch and down he went like a sniper had shot him from one of those seats in the rafters. It was over in a mere three rounds and the crowd was in awe.
Next would be the real awe-inspiring fight when he met Mexico’s Marco Antonio Barrera.
First Mexican challenge
A triumvirate of Mexican prizefighters ruled the boxing landscape in the junior featherweight and featherweight divisions in 2003. Barrera, Erik Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez conquered most of the best fighters from 122 to 126 pounds and their followers debated who was superior.
Roach was not sure what to expect.
“We’ll see what happens,” said Roach before the fight. “Barrera is a good fighter and very smart, but he’s never faced anyone like Manny.”
Little was expected of Pacquiao when he signed to face Barrera on November 2003. Barrera had humiliated United Kingdom’s Prince Hamed and defeated Morales in a rematch a year earlier. He had also run over former world champions Johnny Tapia, Enrique Sanchez and Kevin Kelley. Plus, he had just signed a contract with the new promotion company Golden Boy Promotions. But everything went wrong for the Mexican fighter from day one.
When he left his former promoter it caused bad feelings including an announcement from them that Barrera had suffered a head injury and had a metal plate place in his head. Then a major fire at his Big Bear Lake location forced his training camp to move. Plus, he simply did not take Pacquiao seriously.
Pacquiao floored Barrera several times and never allowed the Mexican champion to regain footing. If anything, Barrera could only look to survive the onslaught but even in survival mode, Pacquiao stormed past the barricades of Barrera’s defense. It ended in round 11.
“What I do remember is fighting a guy I knew nothing about and a very explosive fighter. What I remember about other than losing the fight was he really beat me with the body shots,” said Barrera in a recent telephone press conference.“He was an extremely quick fighter that I was not prepared for.”
Most of the boxing world was unprepared for Pacquiao but soon would appreciate his talent. Crowds began to gather outside the Wild Card Boxing Gym and soon even the boxing reporters doubled and tripled on the doorsteps. From this point on Pacquiao’s journey would never be overlooked again.
End of part one.