When Manny Pacquiao fights, the Philippines grind to a halt. Business ceases to get done. Kids clear the streets and huddle around a TV set to see PacMan do his thing in the ring. Even the Muslim guerrilla bands put down their weapons and concentrate on Pacquiao when he gloves up.
Filipino-born Nonito Donaire doesn't have the power to provoke peace on that level, but the bantamweight champion, who fights unheralded Argentine Omar Narvaez on Saturday at Madison Square Garden's Theater arena, is edging closer to the Congressman from Sarangani Province on pundits' pound-for-pound lists, and as a Filipino icon.
"I was told things shut down, everyone watches, but maybe not the rebels," said Donaire, 28, a San Leandro, Calif., resident who moved from the Philippines when he was 10. "My ratings there are good, but not Pacquiao levels."
And quite candidly, Donaire isn't likely to get to the level enjoyed by Pacquiao, regarded in his nation as an athlete/humanitarian unlike any the world has known. At 28-1 with 18 KOs, Donaire will need to stamp on the gas to propel himself into the financial range of Pacquiao, who will make $20 million to fight Juan Manuel Marquez on Nov. 12. (By contrast, Donaire will take home $750,000 for the Narvaez fight.)
In speaking to Donaire, who can disarm with his humility and a heckuva Robert DeNiro-in-"Taxi Driver" impression, you get the sense that he's aiming for Pacquiao-type achievement in the ring, if not the purse department. Donaire, who has previously snagged titles at flyweight and super fly, talks about a potential progression in weight classes similar to that of his countryman, one that could lead him all the way to 140 pounds.
It's clear that the stakes here are immense, and Donaire's ambition level is on par with Pacquiao's. So it's no surprise that he seeks out methods and people whom he believes will help him to join and perhaps surpass Pacquiao on the top rungs of the pound-for-pound ladder. Perhaps, then, it shouldn't come as a surprise that he has retained the services of the man once known as the bad boy of BALCO, the Notorious VIC, Victor Conte.
It's possible that Victor Conte dropped off your radar these past few years. In October 2005, he was sentenced to four months in prison and four months of home confinement after pleading guilty to money laundering and steroid distribution. His sentence complete, the man who helped introduce us to a panoply of lengthy chemical compounds -- which he had helped introduce to a bevy of world-class athletes such as Olympians Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, major league slugger Jason Giambi and NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski -- needed to choose a way to make a living.
An accomplished bass guitar player who gigged with the esteemed Tower of Power in the '70s, Conte didn't re-enter the music world. Instead, he went back to concocting nutritional supplements and finding ways for athletes to maximize their bodily potential. Only this time, the man who felt that prosecutors and the media built him into "the Adolf Hitler of sport," an evil agent who sought to create a master race of athletes, promised he would do it by the book. No cheating, no shortcuts, no administering of banned substances with tongue-twister names.
That was all well and good. But the public wondered who would do business with Conte. He's a pariah, it was whispered, a convicted concocter of odious creams and salves, a mad scientist who helped inflate the muscles and bank accounts of countless athletes, a man who deflated the quaint notions of fair play and ethical conduct among athletes that some squares still hung on to.
But the athletes found Conte, slowly, then more steadily. Some hesitated, worried that Conte -- who seemed repentant -- still railed against what he saw as a double-standard employed by zealous prosecutors whom he said fabricated material to bolster their case against him.
Donaire hooked up with Conte by coincidence. They both used a bank in San Mateo, and in May 2010, Donaire was there, talking to someone about the May 1 Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Shane Mosley fight. He overheard Conte talking about rest and recovery, and was impressed by his knowledge base. It didn't click that this was the Notorious VIC. Outside, Conte saw Donaire's van, which features his likeness. They chatted, discovered they knew people in common and a relationship was born -- or almost born. Well-meaning pals warned Donaire about making a "deal with the devil."
If this guy is the devil, Donaire thought to himself, he sure has some fascinating insights into different training techniques. So they met, and Donaire signed on, shortly before "The Filipino Flash" TKO'd Hernan Marquez in Puerto Rico in July 2010.
Skeptics -- and there were and are plenty still -- couldn't figure out what the repentant mad scientist could bring to the table. Only the most brazen of sociopaths would get back into the game and dispense designer steroids and growth hormones, so most figured Conte's potions were not verboten (and therefore particularly effective). But Donaire, and super middleweight champion Andre Ward, and welterweight champion Andre Berto, who all have consulted with Conte in the past few years, have been impressed with his theories on workout and recovery intervals.
Conte himself explains what he brings to the table: "I think it's new-school training. In boxing, I'm a relative newcomer, but I saw a real tendency and history of overtraining. They typically train twice a day, six days a week. They don't allow for a real recovery. They just fail to understand, not every day is a green-light day. You have to have recovery workouts and recovery days off."
After three fights with Conte, all knockout victories, Donaire is an enthusiastic booster of the once-radioactive nutritionist. "I wasn't really uncomfortable when we met," Donaire said. "He was very smart.
"Now he's a great part of my team. He's made me focus on recovery so I can work hard the next day."
And you don't worry about the guilt-by-association angle?
"My conscience is clean," Donaire said. "I've been clean, I'm a clean guy."
Conte, along with his sidekick, 79-year-old sprinting coach Remi Korchemny, have Donaire doing sprint-interval training, and doing away with the five- and six-mile a.m. jogs. The boxer swears by the hypoxic regimen Conte prescribes, which the latter says boosts red blood cell levels because it mimics high-altitude training.
So with Conte in his corner, Donaire has scored wins over Marquez, Vlad Sydorenko and Fernando Montiel. The fighter doesn't talk about any downside to the Conte connection. But while Conte may appear to have been humbled by his prison term, he hasn't been muzzled. His outspoken nature has put Donaire in a bit of a pickle.
Periodically, Conte takes a poke on Twitter at Manny Pacquiao's strength and conditioning coach, Alex Ariza. Ariza burst onto the scene in 2008, and has drawn raves from Freddie Roach, who took Ariza into the fold to work with Roach's fighters. On Sept. 28, Conte wrote on Twitter, "Alex Ariza predicts early Pacquiao KO Victory. Most potent and powerful supplement I give Manny is Glucosamine... Hmm."
Conte is asked about his suspicion of Ariza and confirms he is skeptical about athletes, such as Pacquiao, who enjoy heady spikes in performance after a long period of static achievement. "I'm highly suspicious of all the obvious reasons everyone else is debating [regarding Pacquiao]," Conte said.
So does it put Donaire in a tough spot when Conte insinuates that Ariza isn't on the up-and-up?
"It does," Donaire said. "Manny is a great friend. I support Manny a lot. Ariza and Victor can go back and forth. But it does put me in a predicament."
In an interview set up to get his take on Conte's needling, Ariza didn't hide his disdain for the BALCO founder.
"I've read a few things about Victor [insinuating Ariza's clients use illegal PEDs or methods to heighten performance]. He's not really on anyone's radar, hasn't done anything really where people say, 'Oh, wow, what's he doing? They must be on steroids.' It's no knock on Nonito, but he's doing what he's doing in his weight class," Ariza said. "Conte doesn't have the capacity to understand why my fighters perform the way they do. Maybe it's his lack of training. Maybe he looks in the mirror and says, 'Why can't I do this without having to cheat?'"
Ariza continued: "He took a shortcut, so he has to try to become legit. He can't figure it out, and it shows his limitation. That's why the top guys [like Pacquiao, and junior welterweight titlist Amir Khan] come to us. Sorry he doesn't have the mental capacity. He should stay out of the elite level, stay at the lower levels where he's competitive or he can sell what he's selling."
He wasn't done.
"I respect his hustle -- he's an ex-con -- but I don't respect him degrading my work," said Ariza, declaring that all his fighters are clean. "In my own opinion, he's a moron. Do I have medical or scientific proof that he's an idiot? No, it's an opinion."
Andre Berto is in the Donaire camp, a backer of Conte, and also says he's more than pleased with Conte's know-how. The 28-1 Floridian worked with Conte before his last fight, a stoppage win over Jan Zaveck in Mississippi on Sept 3. Berto had noticed he would get fatigued in fights, but he figured if it ain't badly broke, why fix it? Andre Ward's trainer, Virgil Hunter, suggested that Berto meet with Conte. Conte analyzed the fighter's blood and told him he was anemic. Now, Conte draws and analyzes his blood every couple of weeks, gives him supplements to keep his levels normal and fills his brain with knowledge.
"He's like a science dictionary for the body," Berto said. "I felt so much behind the curve; I got to where I did with just talent."
And no, Berto says, he never worries that Conte will fall back to his old ways, and slip him something funky.
"Athletes he worked with, they knew exactly what they were doing. He did what everyone wanted him to," Berto said.
(One athlete and ex-Conte client who fits the description Berto refers to is Shane Mosley. He sued Conte in 2008 for stating that the boxer knowingly took PEDs. The case was dismissed in 2010, after a leaked 2009 taped deposition featured Mosley admitting he knowingly took the red blood cell booster EPO in 2003.)
Said Berto of Conte: "He's walking the straight and narrow now."
But is he? Is everyone else? How dirty is boxing? These are the things we question as we consider that the fight everyone wants -- Pacquiao versus Mayweather -- is apparently hung up because the fighters' sides can't iron out a blood-testing protocol. There is a line of thinking that suggests Conte is as good a choice as any to make inroads cleaning up sports, removing PED usage and blood doping from the equation to level the playing field. It takes a thief, right? Conte maintains that this is his main motivation, the reason he's back running a cleaned-up BALCO.
"Do I think there is rampant PED use in boxing? I most definitely do," Conte said. "So, what I did was a mistake and I accept full responsibility. All I can do is join the anti-doping side. In a case like mine, you have to learn to forgive yourself, and others -- like Nonito and Berto -- it takes them to be willing to pay the price of the stigma of being attached to me."
Donaire says he's impressed that Conte has been vocal about trying to clean up all sports of doping: "If one person can catch people and clean it up, it's Victor. You've got to give a person a second chance."
Michael Woods writes about boxing for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, and is the editor of TheSweetScience.com.