MANILA, Philippines - The first time he worked the mitts with Manny Pacquiao nine years ago, Freddie Roach had no doubt the Filipino has the making of a future world champion.
What he didn’t expect was how Pacquiao would turn out to be the kind of fighter he is right now.
“I didn’t see this coming,” said Roach, recalling his first meeting with the boxing icon early in 2001 at the Wild Card gym in Los Angeles. “I never thought he’ll be this great.”
But in typical Pacquiao fashion, the former bread vendor and construction worker turned boxing superstar would defy the odds, stunning the boxing world with a sixth round technical knockout of fearsome South African Lehlo Ledwaba to win the International Boxing Federation (IBF) super-bantamweight title.
The win began Pacquiao’s meteoric rise to the top, the man the world would later recognized as the top pound-for-pound boxer, considered one of the best – if not the best – southpaw fighters in prizefighting history, first to win seven world titles in seven different weight classes (flyweight, super-bantamweight, featherweight, junior lightweight, lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight), and easily, among the few who made a lasting imprint in a sport teeming with stars and heroes.
Pacquiao indeed has come a long way from being a struggling, skinny 17-year-old teener, who first fought as a pro in the mid-90s, to the electrifying sport icon who has become the face of boxing today.
The Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) is not one to deny Pacquiao of his achievements, conferring to him the honor Athlete of the Decade during its traditional annual Awards Night set March 1 at the Manila Hotel.
Pacquiao has been named PSA Athlete of the Year five times this decade – from 2002 to 2004, then in 2006 and 2008.
Already elevated by the country’s oldest media organization to the Hall of Fame last year, Pacquiao is no longer eligible for the coveted Athlete of the Year award, but remains a major part of the year’s top sports achievers’ list on account of his Hall of Fame exploits in the first 10 years of the new century.
During that span, Philippine sports saw Jennifer Rosales and Dorothy Delasin score breakthrough wins in the LPGA Tour, CJ Suarez ruling bowling’s World Cup, Team Philippines winning a historic first overall championship in the Southeast Asian Games, Miguel Molina emerging as the Best Male Athlete in the SEAG for his four gold medals in swimming and Ronnie Alcano reigning as double world champion in billiards.
But by sheer impact and consistency, none of them came close to what the “Pacman” did.
Since upsetting Ledwaba in his first fight on US soil, Pacquiao has gobbled up every opposition that came his way in the last decade – 21 of them under the guidance of Roach.
In that stretch, the Filipino boxing champion won 26 of his 27 fights – 21 of them coming by way of knockout, while the rest of them were by decision.
Mexican great Erik Morales was the lone warrior to survive the devastating fists of Pacquiao (50-3, 38 KOs), carving out a unanimous, but close decision in the first of their classic trilogy in 2005 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Morales happened to be just one of six Hall of Fame fighters Pacquiao has faced during the period that also included Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez, Oscar de la Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto.
In 10 fights between all these boxing greats, the Filipino boxing icon won eight – two against Morales and Barrera – drew once (Marquez in 2004) and lost once.
More so, in less than two years, Pacquiao won all of his bouts in five different weight divisions, beginning with Marquez, Diaz, De la Hoya, Hatton and Cotto.
His recent 12th round stoppage of Cotto, one among the long line of great fighters produced by Puerto Rico, to win the World Boxing Organization (WBO) welterweight crown, catapulted him further into the annals of boxing as one of its greatest fighters ever.