Harnessing PacMan's powers no easy task

LOS ANGELES -- In boxing, Freddie Roach's reputation is that of the best trainer, perhaps, in the world. But in the Philippines he is simply the third most recognized person in any walk of life -- behind only Manny Pacquiao and Filipino President Gloria Arroyo.

"The kind of popularity that Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan enjoyed at the peak of their powers in America, that's nothing compared to Pacquiao's popularity in the Philippines," Roach said with a chuckle at the Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles, ahead of departing for Las Vegas for this weekend's lightweight title fight between Pacquiao and holder David Diaz. "Manny is the man and I'm a celebrity over there just because I train the man. It's crazy."

How crazy? Well, despite being well-known to casual observers of boxing for the role he has played in the careers of James Toney, Mike Tyson, Pacquiao, Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins and a host of champions and former champions, Roach can still walk the streets where he lives in Hollywood, Calif., in relative anonymity.

In General Santos City, Philippines, where Pacquiao resides, Roach cannot go to the mall without being mobbed. He has spent between two and three hours at a time signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans.

"That kind of thing could get to you after a while. I mean, sometimes the line is never-ending," Roach said. "But the Filipino people are just so nice. I had to leave a mall once because I was causing a disturbance. There were so many people looking for me to sign and take pictures and security had to get me out of there.

"Hey, that was one day. Manny lives with that every day. He's John, Paul, George and Ringo rolled into one."

Like the Beatles, Pacquiao has produced hit records (OK, not quite like the Beatles). He has had a movie made about his life and, alongside Roach and Erik Morales (whom Pacquiao defeated in two out of three bouts), he has starred in a series of TV commercials for San Miguel Beer, which end with the two fighters toasting their friendship.

"Manny's favorite pastime is basketball and he owns the PacMan Gensan team [of the Mindanao Visayas Basketball Association] in General Santos City," said Roach. "Whenever they play and no matter who they are playing, the scoreboard always reads: Team Pacquiao versus Team Morales, because of their rivalry.

"Manny's boxing career is part of the popular culture in the Philippines."

Inevitably, his iconic status invites a multitude of distractions. Prior to Pacquiao's rematch with Marco Antonio Barrera in October last year, Roach had to fly to the Philippines to track him down and begin training.

"He was supposed to be here in Los Angeles and I wanted him to be here because he's more focused away from the Philippines where everybody wants a piece of him," Roach said. "There were stories about him being in pool halls, enjoying heavy drinking sessions and all of that but he was actually training, doing what he was supposed to be doing. He just wanted to be closer to his family."

Even in L.A., Pacquiao has gained a reputation for running with the Hollywood crowd when he ought to be running in the Hollywood Hills.

But Roach reports that he has stopped drinking and that he no longer hangs around with the wrong set. Pacquiao is taking a college degree course in business studies and he is serious about embarking upon a political career after his days in the ring are over.

When he ran recently for a congressional seat to represent the 1st District of South Cotabato in his native Philippines, he was defeated by Darlene Antonino-Custodio, who polled 139,061 votes to his 75,908 votes.

"Manny is making better choices in his life and it's a sign of his growing maturity," said Roach. "I think he'll run for president one day and he will probably win. He cares deeply about his country and he wants to make it better for the people, but too many in power want to keep it the way it is."

First Pacquaio must take care of business against Diaz in his first bout at 135 pounds. Roach believes that the weight gain will help Pacquiao because, increasingly, he was having trouble making the 130-pound junior lightweight limit.

"He was almost starving himself to get down to the weight and then he would gain 15 pounds after the weigh-in, which wasn't good because it made him feel sluggish," Roach said. "This was a factor in the rematch [in March] against Juan Manuel Marquez [whom Pacquiao overcame by a disputed split decision].

Roach feels Pacquiao is in great shape for this fight and that he's stronger physically than he has been in the past. Still, he admits his charge needs to get a knockout win over Diaz to show he can move up to junior welterweight to challenge Ricky Hatton for the world title at 140 pounds.

"That's the fight we want after this one because, stylewise, it's a great fight and it's a straightforward sell between two massively popular fighters," Roach said.

Diaz, whose record of 34-1-1 (17 KOs) includes a win over a faded Morales and a stoppage defeat by Kendall Holt, has an alternative vision of Pacquiao's future.

"I will get out and put pressure on him and try to beat him at his own game," he said. "I don't care if people say Manny will win by knockout. I know what to do to win this fight and I am going to get out there and try to do it."

Roach would like to see the 29-year-old Pacquiao retired by the end of next year.

Together they have forged a formidable legacy and they have shared some unforgettable experiences.

"People will always remember the fights, the showdowns against Morales, Marquez and Barrera, but I'll have my own memories of life with Manny, like the time I stayed in his house and had two bodyguards sleeping on my floor, both of them lying there with M16 rifles," said Roach. "Particularly in the south [of the Philippines, especially because of the ongoing war], Manny needs the protection of armed guards."

So how does Roach feel about time spent in the Philippines?

"Like I say, it's a crazy place but I like it a lot," Roach said. "I remember we were driving to the gym one day and it's just chaos on the roads there … I turned to Manny and I said, 'I've been here 10 times now and I've never been in an accident.' Next thing you know some guy hits us and he takes the mirror off the side of the car.

"[Pacquiao's friend and associate] Rex 'Wakee' Salud got out of the car and confronted the guy and after a rather heated conversation Wakee hit him and knocked him down. The guy stood up, got in his car and drove off … the guy must have no insurance, so the rule is: 'You hit, you pay.' I just love his country."

Pacquiao lives by the same philosophy in the ring, just another reason you have to love the fighter.

Brian Doogan writes on sport for the London Sunday Times and is the longtime European correspondent for The Ring magazine.