Pacquiao recalls journey to the top

LOS ANGELES -- A dozen days before he is to face Floyd Mayweather in the richest boxing match of all time, Manny Pacquiao walks through the front door of his gated home as a fine, golden light settles on the Hancock Park section of the city.

He's wearing a pink Nike T-shirt and blue mesh shorts, and he looks tired. Maybe it's because he was up early running three steep miles in nearby Griffith Park, home of the famous Hollywood sign. Or blasting through an hour of speed and agility drills with trainer Justin Fortune, then working for several more hours at Freddie Roach's Wild Card Boxing Club over in Hollywood. Perhaps it's the enormous pressure he's feeling before the biggest fight of his life.

Offering his hand, Pacquiao nods politely. Considering he makes a living beating people with his fists, the pressure is remarkably light.

"Food," he says to no one in particular, but with an undeniable sense of urgency. "Food. I need food."

Growing up in the Philippines, Pacquiao went to bed hungry most nights. These days, he can afford a proper meal; in two decades as a professional, he has made more than $335 million in the ring and stands to collect another $120 million against Mayweather. Yet, at the age of 36, he hasn't forgotten that gnawing pain in his gut; the many, many times his single mother could only offer her six children warm water in lieu of food before bedtime.

"Is this going to be about boxing?" he asks the television reporter, clearly tired of the incessant Mayweather questions.

"No," comes the reply. "It's about your life."

Names of those interviewed half a world away in the Philippines are offered, and Pacquiao's dark brown eyes brighten. He smiles. Twenty minutes later, at the head of the dining room table, surrounded by his inner entourage, he's literally attacking a huge plate of steaming white rice -- his daily bread and fuel for life -- and broccoli.

In news conferences, Pacquiao speaks a credible if sometimes indifferent English. Those who know him well say he is more expressive and expansive when he talks in his native dialect of Visayan -- and the subject interests him. The ESPN crew, looking for maximum insight, offered to subtitle his words but he declined, saying he preferred English and would make every effort to articulate this thoughts. His publicist, Fred Sternburg, said this was his A-game.

"You want to know why I became a boxer?' Pacquiao asked midway through the engaging interview. "It's a good story. It's a very good story."

And he laughed, thinking of his 12-year-old self, scuffling on the streets of General Santos, the largest city on the southern island of Mindanao.

"I heard that when you fight, even when you lose, you have money," he explained. "And when you win, you receive 100 pesos, which is the equivalent of two dollars. If you lose, one dollar, which is 50 pesos.

"Just put the gloves there, and tape this time. I don't know boxing. But after that fight, I get 100 pesos. One hundred pesos. I can buy one kilo of rice only four pesos. One hundred pesos, big."

Delighted, he laughed again and clapped his hands. He holds those memories close, similar to the way Oscar De La Hoya always carried a food stamp in his wallet to keep himself humble.

Twenty-three years later, rice remains the currency of that realm. You can get a kilo of the well-milled grain at the sprawling public market in Gen-San for 32 pesos -- or about 75 cents. The fancy stuff is 65 pesos. They are stacked in neat pyramids, in four or five different grades, under colorful awnings, amid a myriad of exotic smells and sounds. Not far from there, his mother, Dionisia, sister Liza and uncle Alijardo Mejia, who laced on his first pair of gloves -- made from a pair of pants -- will all tell you how the resilient boy overcame a series of daunting obstacles.

Yet it's Pacquiao himself who remembers most poignantly. As a 6-year-old in Sarangani, living in a rustic hut in the mountains outside the provincial city, Pacquiao was sometimes caught in the crossfire of government soldiers and Muslim rebels. When he makes the sound of shots -- dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit -- his eyes widen. That's the beginning of the arc of his remarkable story. The end of that parabola: A few years ago, as a member of the Philippines House of Representatives and a national hero, Pacquiao went back to the mountains and met with the still-embedded rebels. He asked them to lay their guns down.

"It's kind of scary," Pacquiao said of the visit. "I want peace. That's the most important thing: Peace in your place. I said, 'I'm here to offer my help. If you surrender your arms and go back to the government, I will help you have a sustainable livelihood, with money and rice.'"

This is what Pacquiao does, again and again. When Typhoon Yolanda shattered the city of Tacloban in 2013, Pacquiao brought rice, water and sardines to the victims. Twenty-four days after the storm took some 6,000 lives, Pacquiao himself pulled three of the dead out of the wreckage. Typically, after he wins a fight, Pacquiao buys rice and groceries and gives them to the people -- thousands, he says -- who line up outside the gate of his sprawling compound in Gen-San.

He has become the ultimate patriarch, the father who was largely absent from his upbringing.

"I want to let them know where I came from," Pacquiao said softly. "I want to inspire them not to surrender to whatever circumstances they're facing in life.

"The Filipino people are very proud at the honor I'm bringing to my country. Dreams that I had, to become a champion in boxing, they're part of it. I've always told them 'I can't be like this without your support and prayers.' There is hope when you dream like I did."