It’s 6:20 a.m. on a Monday morning and I’m parked in front of a two-story, Mediterranean-style mansion in Los Angeles, a few short strides away from the famous Paramount Pictures lot. In the middle of the street, someone has spray-painted a depiction of Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man munching on power pellets. The car parked in front of me has a vanity plate that reads TEAM MP. Another car has a license plate that says PACMANP.
For boxing fans, these clues make it abundantly clear where I am: superstar Manny Pacquiao’s posh multi-million dollar property.
Before long, a swarm of people in workout clothes begin to leave the house and pile into a caravan of cars. Surrounded by a group of his friends and training partners, the Filpino fighter and senator sits in a Cadillac Escalade as it drives off to nearby Griffith Park. Pacquiao has run over a thousand miles in the scenic mountains that overlook Tinseltown, making it his go-to course whenever he’s trained for a fight in L.A. since he first arrived to America in 2001.
At 40 years old, boxing’s only eight-division world champion (he boasts a 61-7-2 record as well, with 39 knockouts) still has the passion and motivation for training that athletes half his age often lack. To get a better understanding of the mindset and focus required to be a generational talent, I’m following Pacquiao throughout his two-a-day workout regimen as he prepares for his 70th professional fight against undefeated Keith Thurman, a fight Pacquiao is penciled to lose on July 20.
Just as I’m about to follow the Escalade, Emmanuel Ferrer, a member of Team Pacquiao who I’ve never met in my life, casually opens my passenger door and sits down next to me. “Are you ready to run?” he asks, rhetorically. “Let’s go!”
Ferrer doesn’t care that I won’t have time for a Starbucks run, or offer me any pity. He’s amped and ready to join the group of 20, including the likes of professional Filipino boxers like Jhack Tepora, Genisis Libranza, John Riel Casimero and Jayar Inson, along with U.S. Army veterans and Pacquiao’s younger brother, Bobby, for the morning cardio session.
During the car ride to Griffith Park, Ferrer tells me he was merely a fan when he first met Pacquiao the morning after the boxer beat Juan Manuel Marquez in 2008. Ferrer, also a Filipino who has an uncanny resemblance to Pacquiao, wandered into the Wynn Las Vegas buffet for breakfast, and was invited by the boxer to eat with his crew. They’ve been friends ever since, and Ferrer has been on over 100 of these runs.
Ferrer guides me to the starting point of the run, and I park. He advises me to give the keys to his friend Rhea, so she can follow us to the Griffith Observatory, where a throng of supporters will be waiting for the culmination of the exercise.
“You’re not going to want to run back down after he finishes,” Ferrer says. “Trust me.”
I hand over my keys, and off we go as Sean Gibbons, Pacquiao’s right-hand man and matchmaker for the boxer’s MP Promotions, gives me an encouraging “Let’s go champ!” sendoff.
I’ve covered Pacquiao’s career at length, but never like this. We lock eyes, and he gives me a look, as if to ask “are you seriously doing this?”
I quickly down my pre-workout drink, queue my Spotify playlist, and hit the road.
Even though he’s a quadragenarian who’s boxed over 470 rounds in his pro career, Pacquiao is still training like he’s in his twenties. For this camp, he’s been at it six days per week. Three of those days are double sessions, split into morning and mid-afternoon workouts. In between, he spars twice a week, too, staying technically sharp to take on the challenge Thurman, an elite, undefeated American champion ten years his junior, is expected to pose.
Pacquiao is also training with a chip on his shoulder because people believe he’s lost the killer instinct that catapulted him into an all-time great and the fighter of the decade for the 2000s. Although he owns a 63 percent career K.O. ratio, he’s only finished one opponent over his last 15 fights, which spans a nine year period. His record since 2012 is 7-4 (two of those losses were controversial decisions), and he’s seemingly lost a pep in his power punches.
Could Father Time finally catch up with the Filipino fighter when he faces Thurman (29-0, 22 knockouts), unquestionably his fiercest foe since Mayweather? Many pundits consider it a 50-50 fight as Pacquiao will fight a man who was 10 years old when he first became a champion.
“There are hard days,” Pacquiao tells me later as he sits in the locker of the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, waiting to wrap his hands for a sparring session. “I’m addicted to training and exercise, even when I don’t have a fight scheduled. I work hard so I can fight easy.”
Trainers and coaches Freddie Roach, Buboy Fernandez, Justin Fortune, and Marvin Somodio have been pleading for Pacquiao to dial down his prep and work in more days off, but the fighter is still calling the shots. Whenever he’s tired, he communicates. If he needs a day off or wants to cancel a second workout, he’ll say so, but those instances are few and far between. If he wants to train on his scheduled day off, which happens frequently, it’s his prerogative to do so. If he wants to drill for a few more rounds, they’ll first need to rip the gloves off his fists so that it doesn’t happen.
Pacquiao credits his impressive run in the sport to durability and determination. Twenty-four years after he first turned pro as a 106-pound 16-year-old, everyone around him says he’s still scared to waste a workout. “This is God’s grace, giving me good health, protecting me and giving me strength,” says Pacquiao, a born-again Christian pastor. “I’m thankful to God because my power and speed is still there.”
He told me one time, ‘I want to stop, but I can’t because my body wants it.’ He’s a training addict.
Today, he’ll further test his strength and spar a total of 10 rounds with two separate opponents to improve timing and targeting. He’ll immediately follow that up with 15 rounds on the heavy bag, double-ended bag, speed bag, jump rope, and shadowboxing. The workout will be over after a thousand sit-ups.
“His work ethic is great, and he’s training harder today than he ever did,” says Roach. “That’s why he’s at this level. He knows how to get in shape. Without boxing, all of this is gone.”
According to Roach, Pacquiao’s daily diet of several thousand sit-ups stems from a hard a 1999 loss, his second, from a body shot. He promised himself that his midsection would never succumb to a punch again.
“At 40, your supposed to be slow and lazy. For him, it’s a big difference. He’s still fast and strong as ever because of his motivation,” says Fernandez, a lifelong friend of Pacquiao who took over lead training duties from Roach in 2018. “He told me one time, ‘I want to stop, but I can’t because my body wants it.’ He’s a training addict.”
Even when he’s not preparing for a fight, Pacquiao plays four hours of basketball a day during his offseason.
Nearly three weeks before fight night, Pacquiao is walking around at 144 pounds, three pounds less than the weight he’s contracted to fight at against Thurman. He eats around 3,500 calories a day, and the fighter who has won world titles in the 112, 122, 126, 130, 135, 140, 147 and 154 pound divisions said he has no issues building his body. The approach is vastly different than other pugilists who have to drain their bodies to make weight.
“He’s training smarter, not harder, and listening to his body,” says Fortune, a strength and conditioning coach who previously trained Mike Tyson. “He now realizes the advantages of not burning himself out. One extra workout that turns bad could set you back two-or-three weeks. When Manny calls me and says ‘I need to rest,’ I want to thank him because a lot of fighters will try to push through it, and that’s a mistake.”
Back to the run. My lungs are badly burning as I’m desperately gasping for breath. My hamstrings feel as if they’re about to snap, like an old rubber band stretched too far after being left out in the summer sun. As it turns out, running up a mountain with an all-time great athlete is a bit more difficult than the scenic hikes I have with my girlfriend and later document on Instagram.
Finally, I hit my limit. I bail on the run to avoid cardiac arrest, and take a ride in the backseat of my car as Rhea drives Emmanuel and I to the top of the Griffith Observatory. I lasted roughly 15 minutes on the road.
After catching a second wind in the moving car, like a marathoner who found a shortcut on his way to the finish line, I rejoin Pacquiao and his crew as he progresses forward on the path. Ferrer advises I stay back once we reach the summit, and instead wait for Pacquiao to return. That’s when he climaxes and kicks his cardio into second gear on the dirt trails at faster speeds.
I wait atop the parking lot, where by now, over a hundred of Pacquiao’s friends and fans, mostly Filipinos, have gathered to catch a glimpse of the fighter. After all, who knows how many more of these kind of public workouts he has in him.
Brian Campagna, 40, a former marine and now a Sergeant First Class in the United States Army, also stayed back. He started the run with Pacquiao too, but stopped for a more credible reason. He has a herniated disc in his back and isn’t supposed to be running in the first place. But he’s Filipino, and he couldn’t pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train with an idol.
“I feel honored, and it’s amazing to be a part of this,” Campagna says. “He’s such an inspirational person.”
After Pacquiao finishes the nine-mile run in less than an hour, he does an array of plyometric exercises designed to improve speed and footwork under the watchful eyes of Fortune, Hernandez, and a mass of onlookers as Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” blare through a portable speaker.
“I love to run the Hollywood hills,” Pacquiao says afterward. “It’s good for me. The fans give me motivation and support.”
“Would you rather have a 40-year-old Tom Brady, or a 30-year-old Kirk Cousins?”
Pacquiao caps off the session with 1,500 sit-ups, a prayer, pictures and autographs for onlookers, and by 8 a.m. he’s completed his 90-minute workout. He’ll go home, have breakfast, rest and relax, and by 1:30 p.m., he’s back at Wild Card with about 30 more of his friends and members of Team Pacquiao to take on another workout in the ring.
“He would be lonely if no one was here. He doesn’t like to do anything in solitude,” says Gibbons, before dispensing some pre-fight smack talk. “He’s still doing this at the highest level. Would you rather have a 40-year-old Tom Brady, or a 30-year-old Kirk Cousins? A 40-year-old Manny Pacquiao will beat the best version of the 30-year-old Keith Thurman.”
Pacquiao says he never thought he’d still be fighting at this age, and he’s already accomplished more than he ever imagined in his career. He believes his success serves a bigger purpose, and if it’s God will and plan, he will one day be President of the Philippines.
He just can’t quite quit the sport that he loves in the meantime. Pacquiao says he’s as focused and conditioned as he’s ever been, as evidenced by his January dismantling of Adrien Broner, and Lucas Matthysse before that last summer. So he presses on.
“I don’t know how many more fights I have,” says Pacquiao. “All I know is that I’m pushing myself with hard work. Motivation is a desire from my heart. I love doing what I do.”
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