MANILA, Philippines – Twenty-one years on and the Manny Pacquiao show is still running.
The number of onlookers at his training sessions has increased since those early days, and it takes Pacquiao longer to get into third gear each time he returns to training. But when he steps on the gas for short bursts of powerful combinations on the mitts, the punches still make that familiar crack, and he growls like the young man he was when he still had something left to prove.
Familiar faces congregated Wednesday evening to watch a training session at an Elorde Gym branch in Pasay City, Philippines, just a few minutes down the street from the Philippine Senate, where Pacquiao now serves as a first-term legislator.
The 37-year-old Pacquiao is in the early stages of training for a comeback from an announced retirement which lasted shorter than some of his recent gaps between fights. He’ll face WBO welterweight titleholder Jessie Vargas on Nov. 5 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, the same venue where he twice knocked out Erik Morales in 2006. It’ll be his first fight outside of a casino since his 2010 win over Antonio Margarito at Cowboys Stadium.
Despite co-starring in the most financially lucrative boxing event in history last year against Floyd Mayweather Jr., and the slim prospects of a rematch, he continues to fight on, with promoter Bob Arum saying he’ll fight twice more in 2017.
Why does he do it? For the same reason many boxers find it hard to stay away. Being an “ex” something you’ve been great at is hard to accept, and the cheers are never as loud in the memory as they are in the moment.
“I missed boxing, I grew up in boxing. I felt lonely when I stopped boxing. Boxing is my passion,” says Pacquiao.
His schedule these days as someone with a day job is similar to that of an upstart boxer who has to work a 9-to-5 while his career gathers steam. He wakes up and does roadwork around his exclusive Makati City neighborhood at 6 a.m., then heads to his senate job from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m., after which he trains.
On this day he worked the mitts with Buboy Fernandez, his longtime biggest supporter and constant companion. On Friday night he’ll trade in his boxing shoes for basketball sneakers: his Philippine Basketball Association team, Mahindra Enforcer, has a 7 p.m. game against Rain or Shine Elasto Painters.
Pacquiao says he will train in Manila for this fight, and leave for the U.S. to fight when the senate is on break. He had been criticized heavily in the Philippines for being among the most chronically absent congressmen during his two three-year terms from 2010 to 2016, and had run for higher office this year on the promise that he’d focus fully on his duties should he be elected to one of the 12 senatorial seats up for grabs.
His retirement didn’t stick, but he has been diligent in attending senate sessions. Pacquiao confidante Joe Ramos says Pacquiao will leave for the United States on Wednesday night, Sept. 7, after attending his senate hearings, to participate in a promotional press conference in Los Angeles on Thursday. The plan is to arrive back in the Philippines on Monday, Sept. 12 to be back at his day job.
Still to be worked out is when trainer Freddie Roach will come to the Philippines. An exact date for when they go to the U.S. ahead of the fight has also not been established as they figure out when the senate is in recess (he promised not to take a leave for the fight), but Pacquiao says he’ll be in the States “at least 10 days before the fight.”
Pacquiao also isn’t sure about the matter of U.S. television after HBO passed on the Vargas fight, saying they didn’t want two pay-per-views in the same billing cycle with the Andre Ward vs. Sergey Kovalev light heavyweight title showdown set for two weeks after, according to ESPN. That’s a matter for Arum to handle though, Pacquiao says.
Pacquiao confirmed that there was talk of fighting twice more in 2017 but says he would discuss his next fight only after getting past Vargas (27-1, 10 knockouts), a fighter 10 years his junior who is coming off his biggest win to date, a ninth-round technical knockout of 2008 U.S. Olympian Sadam Ali to win the welterweight belt Bradley abandoned to face Pacquiao a third time for a bigger payday than he’d get for a rematch with Vargas, whom he defeated by decision in June of 2015.
The Vargas matchup has not generated any excitement about Pacquiao’s comeback at home or abroad, with consensus opinion being that RING junior welterweight titleholder Terence Crawford is more of a fight worth coming back for.
Still, the eight-division champion says he’ll approach his Mexican-American opponent like he does any other foe.
“I don’t want to underestimate him. He’s a champion so I always consider my opponent as one of the best,” said Pacquiao.
With a full schedule set for 2017 and the gyms lined with spectators to watch him train, Pacquiao won’t be feeling lonely again any time soon. Onward to year 22 and beyond.
© Ryan Songalia sports editor of Rappler | craveonline.com