Entering Manny Pacquiao's inner circle

Despite his grueling training schedule, Manny Pacquiao always finds time for a laugh with his team. Peter Owen Nelson for ESPN.com

In Baguio City, Philippines, Manny Pacquiao enters the Shape Up Boxing Gym to find himself in a house of mirrors. Every T-shirt is emblazoned with his face, every pair of shorts etched with his initials, every spectator's tongue poised to speak his name as he marches in and they whisper to themselves, "Manny Pacquiao," as if in utter shock to see the man here -- of all places -- in a boxing gym.

It is here that Pacquiao, 31, is preparing for his Nov. 13 showdown in Dallas at Cowboys Stadium for the WBC super welterweight title against Antonio Margarito (38-6), who will be the tallest and heaviest opponent the seven-division champion has ever faced. Pacquiao's regimen for the fight is no less strenuous than his previous 56 bouts: In a single day he ingests 7,000 calories over six meals; strategizes over 14 rounds of mitt work with trainer Freddie Roach; crunches out a few hundred sit-ups; and then, for a nightcap, plays several games of full-court basketball.

Before each training session, Pacquiao (51-3-2) grins as he steps into the elevated ring, contemplating what form of mental torture he'll enact on strength coach Alex Ariza, the overseer of Pacquiao's physically torturous isometric drills and daybreak sprints. As Ariza assists the fighter with his stretching, Pacquiao looks at him and pretends to cry: "My mommy! My mommy!" Ariza grinds his teeth.

Perhaps the trainer should have gotten the tattoo.

On Sept. 27, their first day of training in Baguio, Pacquiao asked Ariza to get a tattoo of a meteor on his left forearm. As Ariza declined the request, he said, "My mom would kill me." Stretching has begun with Pacquiao's taunts ever since.

Instead, it's Pacquiao's left forearm that bears the meteor tattoo, and Nike has made T-shirts memorializing it for Team Pacquiao (a playful band of cooks, assistants, hangers-on, advisers, childhood friends and grafters). Pacquiao recently offered one of his managers, Joe Ramos, $20,000 to get the tattoo, which led Ramos to put Pacquiao on the phone with his wife, who, on the verge of tears, pleaded with the champion to relent. She was successful -- for the time being.

Ariza's refusal was a reversal of sorts, as many members of Team Pacquiao volunteered their limbs for the tattoo. If the T-shirts with Pacquiao's face are a symbol of idolatry, the tattoo is one of supreme loyalty. It is an inked brotherhood extending through the Philippines, from his training assistant in Baguio to his chief of security in Manila to a local mayor from Sarangani Province, the district that Pacquiao now serves in Congress.

The hilltop city of Baguio is 5,100 feet above, and a six-hour car ride from, Pacquiao's congressional seat in Manila. The distance does not keep the newly elected congressman from staying informed. As he eats a plate of rice, white fish and beef stew on his bed, located on the third floor of the Cooyeesan Hotel Plaza in a section of dorms for Korean college students learning English, Pacquiao watches a rebroadcasting of congressional appropriation hearings.

While eating, Pacquiao offers a reporter in the room a plate of food. As with almost all moves the fighter makes, this serves two purposes: It is not only the gracious gesture of a kind host, but it also keeps the reporter's mouth too full to pester Pacquiao with questions while he consumes a massive caloric dose. Across the bed from Pacquiao sits Ariza, armed with a protein shake, monitoring Pacquiao's progress. "He's walking around now at 148 pounds," said Ariza. "We do everything backwards. Manny has to gain weight to make his target weight. A normal fighter has to lose weight -- but Manny isn't a normal fighter."

On his first day of sparring against New Jersey native Glen Tapia (which is closed to the public and press), Pacquaio shows some troubling timing and an overeagerness to lunge with his punches. It's the usual rust of an elite boxer who is seeing his first punches in more than six months, the first since his unanimous decision over Joshua Clottey last March. What concerns Roach is Pacquiao's insistence on fighting with his back against the ropes. "Fighters that either use movement or never go to the ropes beat Margarito: Paul Williams, Daniel Santos and Shane Mosley," Roach said. "Go to the ropes and Margarito will break you down by throwing six- to eight-punch combinations."

The next day, while Roach and Pacquiao work mitts together, Pacquiao backs up to the ropes and asks a question: "What about when I am here?" Roach answers the question with one of his own: "Manny, how about don't be there?"

On his second day of sparring, against young contender Michael Medina (24-2-2), Pacquiao seems sharper and more focused. He also keeps the session open to the public. "I knew when Manny told the press they could stay, something was up," Medina said.

After sparring, Medina would be more experienced by four rounds and one black eye, noting, "I've never been through sparring like that." The statement holds a certain weight considering that three years prior, Medina sparred with Floyd Mayweather Jr. for his fight against Oscar De La Hoya.

When asked if the press access and consequent thrashing of his sparring partner were premeditated by Pacquiao, Roach grinned. "One-hundred percent," he said.

After the sparring, in a makeshift cardboard-reinforced changing room, Pacquiao sits alone with an assistant who helps him cut off his wraps, change and spray his T-shirt with Polo Blue cologne. Just outside, a throng waits for interviews, autographs and photo-ops. When asked if he ever tires of the adulation, Pacquiao laughs. "No, never," he said.

He was about to leave for Manila, where he would deliver, as the Philippine Star eloquently reported, "some speech somewhere." Pacquiao then exits the room to his house of mirrors: a constellation of flashing cameras, calls of his name and T-shirts featuring his likeness -- including the one he himself was wearing.