Column: Pacquiao needs to be impressive
The gym had been cleared, and the wait for Manny Pacquiao had begun. He would spar six rounds this day to prepare for his fight with Timothy Bradley, and there was security at the door of the Wild Card to make sure no one but the usual entourage and assorted fight types were on hand to watch.
No cameras, no video. Nothing to give away what Pacquiao plans to do in the ring Saturday night against Bradley, though trainer Freddie Roach hardly seemed concerned.
Listen to Roach, and Pacquiao couldn't have picked a better opponent. After struggling in his last fight against Juan Manuel Marquez, he gets a fighter who doesn't hit all that hard and shouldn't be able to match Pacquiao's speed.
''He's no killer, but he tries hard,'' Roach said of Bradley. ''Manny should eat him up as he comes forward. I think Manny should look really good in this fight.''
And if he doesn't? Well, then you finally can forget about that big fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. that now seems destined never to happen.
''If he looks bad, he retires,'' Roach said. ''At least I'll tell him to. And he may be the first one who will listen to me.''
Roach knows something about aging fighters. He once was one himself, losing five of his last six fights and taking the kind of beatings that may have led to the Parkinson's he suffers from today. He fought on club cards and in casinos far from the Las Vegas Strip, always sure that in his next fight he would do better.
The fighter is almost always the last one to acknowledge it's over and, though Pacquiao is only 33, he's been in a lot of fights and a lot of wars.
Pacquiao plans to fight only a few more times anyway. But to make sure he understands when it's finally time to quit, fighter and trainer have made a pact.
''I always ask Freddie, what's my strength like, what's my speed,'' Pacquiao said. ''If my speed is going down I want to know. I would listen to Freddie.''
So far, neither trainer nor fighter have noticed much slippage, at least in the gym. Pacquiao blames his performance against Marquez to distractions he was facing in his family life, and the fact that Marquez is a very tough matchup for him style-wise.
Still, as he sat in a small dressing room getting his hands wrapped after finally arriving in his Ferrari, Pacquiao said he knows this is a fight in which he must look impressive.
''I want to prove that I'm still young, and I can still fight,'' he said.
To do that, the Filipino slugger is trying to block out the distractions that accumulated during his remarkable run. He sold his interest in a casino back home, got rid of his cockfighting ranch, and stopped playing basketball. More importantly, perhaps, he rededicated himself to his wife and his religion, spending most of his nights now doing Bible study.
There will be no concert stretching into the early morning hours on the Las Vegas Strip after this fight, as had been Pacquiao's habit. There may not even be a run at governor in his home province of Sarangani, something Pacquiao said he would make his mind up about later this year.
He says he's at peace with himself finally because he believes he has eternal salvation. It's not a gimmick to sell the fight, but a major change in his life. And it worries some in his entourage, who wonder if Pacquiao can still bring himself to be angry in the ring.
The champ laughs when asked about it.
''Yes,'' Pacquiao says simply.
On this day, just a little more than a week before the fight, Pacquiao goes three rounds each with two different fighters. He starts slow, constantly grabbing at his headgear as if doesn't fit, while trying to fend off some rushes by his younger sparring partners. He gets hit with several hard left hooks, but by the last few rounds is delivering more punishment than he is taking.
Roach knows what he's looking for, and he likes what he sees. Fighter and trainer have been together for 26 fight camps now over 11 years, and the partnership has made them both wealthy and famous in different ways.
The late trainer Eddie Futch had told him to never open a gym. Too much trouble, too much hassle, too many fighters skipping out without paying. Indeed, there's a sign at the counter in the gym upstairs in a rundown strip mall reminding everyone that May dues of $50 are now overdue.
The Wild Card draws aspiring fighters, and actors who think they're fighters. They train together democratically, but when Pacquiao arrives the gym is his alone.
''I started this because I thought you never know when the next Muhammad Ali is going to walk through the door,'' Roach said. ''Next thing I know, here comes Manny Pacquiao.''
Their time together is inevitably drawing to a close, because no fighter escapes the ravages of age. Just like Mayweather no longer seems to have the legs to stay away from an opponent for 12 rounds, Pacquiao showed in recent fights that he might be becoming beatable, too.
He'll make millions to fight the unbeaten Bradley, though he knows it's not the fight fans really want to see. Not much he can do about that, Pacquiao says, as long as Mayweather insists on getting the lion's share of the purse when they should be splitting it equally.
''If he wants to fight it's up to him,'' Pacquiao said. ''I'm ready to fight.''
No doubt, because Pacquiao always seems to be up for a good fight.
The real question now is how much longer he will fight.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg