LAS VEGAS — It was 10 years ago this summer and Oscar De La Hoya was the big attraction, as he often was on Saturday nights in this gambling town. Many of the high-rollers who came to watch De La Hoya fight Javier Castillejo hadn’t even made their way to their $1,000 ringside seats at the MGM Grand hotel when a 121-pounder from the Philippines made his U.S. debut.
Manny Pacquiao had taken the fight on two weeks’ notice. His chances of beating rising star Lehlohonolo Ledwaba were considered so slim that oddsmakers refused to even put a line up on it.
Pacquiao would give Ledwaba such a beating that the fight didn’t last six rounds. Then he was gone, leaving the arena like the other undercard fighters to clear the way for the main event.
Those who watched that night saw promise, sure. But no one in the arena would have believed what was to come.
A decade later, Pacquiao is the star, fighting Saturday night in the same ring where he had his coming out party. He’ll make a minimum of $20 million to take on Shane Mosley in a bout that should only further cement his place among the great fighters of his time.
And he’ll do it wearing yellow gloves, because there are fights that are bigger than those taking place in the ring.
“All my life I’ve had to fight. As a child, I had to fight just to eat,” Pacquiao said. “The biggest fight in my life is not in boxing. The biggest fight in my life is how to end poverty in my country.”
The yellow gloves to promote unity against poverty aren’t just a symbolic gesture. Neither was getting elected to congress in the Philippines.
Pacquiao is celebrated like no other Filipino athlete. But his legacy may one day be more important for what he does outside the ring.
He hands out money to strangers for the asking. He bought land recently to build subsidized housing for the homeless. And he went directly to Philippine president Benigno Aquino III to ask for $5 million for a badly needed hospital in his Sarangani Province.
He got it, because no one other than Floyd Mayweather Jr. has ever said no to Manny Pacquiao.
“I’ve said it many times,” promoter Bob Arum said. “The Philippines has a social safety net and they call it Manny Pacquiao.”
Boxing, of course, is Pacquiao’s day job, and it’s one he’s excelled at in recent years. He gave De La Hoya such a beating a few years back that he sent him into retirement, and he’s put on a string of sensational performances against some of the biggest names around.
The only name missing is Mayweather, though Pacquiao seems tired of the topic. Mayweather hasn’t fought in a year and shows little interest of getting in the ring with Pacquiao in what could be boxing’s richest fight ever.
“I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to talk about someone behind his back,” Pacquiao said. “He did his best in boxing. He contributed to the history of boxing. Let’s talk about the fight on Saturday.”
The problem is, you can’t talk about Saturday’s fight without talking about Mayweather. Part of the reason for that is that Mayweather dominated Mosley in winning a decision last May and Pacquiao’s performance against the same foe will be used as a measurement for who would hold the upper hand should the two eventually meet.
Assuming they ever meet, that is. Mayweather has legal issues and he also seems to have issues with the fact there’s a fighter out there would have a legitimate chance of handing him his first professional defeat.
“If he [Mayweather] doesn’t participate in an event pretty soon he’s going to become totally irrelevant,” Arum said.
Right now, though, Pacquiao is just thinking about Mosley, who may give him a better fight than most boxing fans expect. Yes, he’s 39 in a young man’s sport and, yes, he looked bad in his last two fights. But Mosley still has the speed to match up with Pacquiao and he’s never been knocked out in his career.
Pacquiao warned at Wednesday’s final prefight press conference that Mosley is dangerous. But he didn’t seem especially fearful as the two boxers posed chin-to-chin for photographers and Pacquiao tried unsuccessfully to stop from bursting out laughing.
When they finished, Pacquiao walked over to the edge of the stage in the showroom at the MGM, leaned over and shook hands with Mosley’s father, Jack, and several other friends and family members. In his suit he looked more politician than fighter, someone pressing the flesh for their votes rather than preparing to beat up on their guy.
He’s done remarkable things as a fighter since making his debut here a decade ago, made more money than he ever thought imaginable. The best thing about Pacquiao, though, may be how he’s grown in stature as a man.
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