Two years ago today Floyd Mayweather fought Manny Pacquiao. John Dennen was on the trail
I hadn’t expected to be writing about Floyd Mayweather on a Sunday morning in Macau. When I’d started working for Boxing News, five years ago, Floyd Mayweather versus Manny Pacquiao was an obvious match to make. But with boxing doing as boxing does, every laboured effort to bring about The Big One collapsed into nothing more than verbal barbs, seasoned with the odd lawsuit. It had gone on for so long that there seemed little more to add to the tale of The Best Fight that Never Happened. Once Pacquiao had lost a controversial judgement against Tim Bradley and a single, stunning blow from bitter rival Juan Manuel Marquez had knocked him cold, the Mayweather fight slid almost completely out of sight.
Yet Pacquiao had struck out for the Far East, rebuilt and suddenly, with the blood from his last fight scarcely washed off his gloves, he stood in front of the world to declare baldly what everyone had longed to hear. He called out Floyd Mayweather.
“I think it’s time to say something,” he announced in his soft voice. “The people deserve that fight. The fans deserve that fight. I think it’s time to make that fight happen.
“It has to happen.”
As he spoke the words, the possibility, once distant, seemed real.
I couldn’t deal with the queues. My journey to Pacquiao began on Jeju Island, the far side of the East China Sea from Macau (I was taking in the start of the Women’s World championships naturally enough). China is of course one of the great civilisations, not to mention the world’s economic powerhouse – why then is the queuing system, or lackthereof, so insane?
I de-planed in Shanghai with 10 hours to catch my connection to Macau, which began to look like far too short a period of time after some protracted confusion about what a Transit Visa was, how I got one and what I was doing in Pudong airport. That flung me into the maelstrom of my first queue in mainland China. So many bodies, jostling into one mass, with no real patience for waiting or for personal space. It might have offended my English sense of decorum but I had to shrug off my sense of politeness and shove my way into scrum with similar gusto.
I ended up in a taxi. In my brief experience of Korea, the taxis had been ultra-modern, comfortable, replete with satnav, even a phone to call a translator if there were any problems. But I wasn’t in Korea any more. As I flopped into the back of the cab, heaving the rusted door closed behind me, I was confronted by a small, angry man in a transparent perspex case, welded round the driving seat. He didn’t seem pleased to see me. It dawned on me he probably didn’t speak English. I’d printed out the address, in what appeared to be Chinese characters, of a hotel I’d found near the terminal of the airpoirt I’d be leaving from in the morning. He peered at the sheet of the paper, looked up and started shouting at me. Given I don’t speak Chinese and given I had no idea where I was, and given I could not face the queue again, all I could do was sit back in the seat of this rust bucket and let the waves of sound wash over me as I wondered whether I would indeed make my flight to Macau the next morning.
Eventually the engine wheezed into life and the little cab rattled off into the night.
I hadn’t quite grasped that the terminal I’d arrived at was 10 miles away from the one I’d be leaving from. That was the sheer scale of Shanghai. Looking through the greasy window as we thumped along a dark and empty motorway huge skyscrapers glimmered on the far horizon. Only for the driver to drag the car across two lanes, let it grind to a halt and gaze again with increasing frustration at the paper I’d handed him. He looked up, squinted at me and shouted some more. I started to feel distinctly uncomfortable, especially once my beady eyes noted the picture on the licence card in his dashboard bore little relation to the elderly man screaming feverishly at me. Finally, scowling, all the while he phoned what I hoped was the hotel’s number. We appeared to have settled on an uneasy truce and set off again.
The Jinjiang Inn is probably not somewhere I’ll return to, a hotel inspired by, or perhaps unchanged from the décor of the Cold War. The small square window carved through the concrete wall was too low for me to see the sea but it did transmit the sound of the planes landing on the airstrip, lest I forget that I had a flight to catch in a few hours and to prevent anything as luxorious as sleep interrupting my vigil.
The contrast with Macau couldn’t have been greater. From a compact, musty room in Shanghai, a plane disgorged me into the beaming sun of a hot day on the Cotai peninsular. An air-conditioned bus, complete with wifi for the 10 minute journey, swept round the vast casinos that shaped the flat island. There was a small Old Quarter, with 19th century Portuguese villas and a few restaurants. But otherwise there was nothing on the streets, there was no need. The casinos, like of a web of fantastical forts contained everything, from shops, bars to of course the arena where Manny Pacquiao would box Chris Algieri in a few days.
I wasn’t in the fight venue, the Venetian. I was staying at the Holiday Inn over the road, which, rather than being the motel-like place I’d expected, turned out to be by far the most grand hotel I’d ever stayed in. For a start it was massive, my room had a vertigo-inducing view and was only halfway up the tower. It, of course, housed its own casino, mini shopping mall and its guests, if they were so inclined could enjoy ‘Shrekfast’ (yes, that is indeed a breakfast served by a cast of costumed characters from the film Shrek).
That was nothing compared to the Venetian, a casino just like its counterpart in Las Vegas only bigger. Indeed Macau was Las Vegas, transposed to the coast of China and doubled, if not trebled in scale. The casino floor was disorientating, there were vastly more people than you found in Sin City pouring through the doors out to the slot machines and blackjack tables. The volume of money sluicing through the coffers of these buildings was similarly on a new level to Las Vegas.
To reach the press room for the Pacquiao fight I joined a tight packed stream of bodies that flowed through a shopping mall built as a replica of Venice, complete with a canal containing gondolas and the fronts of fake houses built over the store windows along the promenade. There was a fake town square, with a sky painted on to the ceiling overhead, illuminated with its own sunlight beamed out of hidden bulbs. The unseen sun inside never set. The lights of the casino always stayed lit, so the gambling could go on whatever the hour.
The real and the unreal overlapped easily here among the shuffling decks of cards. In Macau Chris Algieri could make a case that he provided a genuine threat to Manny Pacquiao. He had never shared a ring with anyone like the great Filipino though he had earned the WBO light-welterweight title with a gutsy win over rough Siberian Ruslan Provodnikov. He had to pack on a few more pounds to meet Manny at a catchweight but stood before a waiting crowd in the lobby of the Venetian looking for all the world as if he was a star to rival Pacquiao. He entered the Venetian for his ‘Grand Arrival’, as these functions are known, wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket as though he were walking down the red carpet of his own movie premiere.
The assembled throng might have been waiting for Pacquiao but he nevertheless informed them, “This is a dream come true.”
But the real icon could only be Manny Pacquiao. The photographers suddenly sprang to the door en mass. As one the body of snappers scuttled back. Momentarily through a forest of heads and cameras I could a catch a glimpse of the great man. Functionaries buzzed round to force back the wave of photographers and there revealed was Pacquiao. He smiled faintly at the onlookers. The fans, held back behind me by a small fence, stretched glimmering cameraphones high above their heads. Pacquiao shuffled back to pose alongside Algieri, both holding a bouquet of flowers they had been given on entry. Neither man looked especially pleased to see the other. Fight week had begun.
The next day Algieri was in a gym in the bowels of the Venetian hotel. A single enthusiastic camp follower leant on the ring apron in the near empty gym and cried out, ‘Yeah!” with a chuckle as the American’s strikes connected with the pads. Algieri was lean, looking sharp as he cracked punches into his padman’s mitts. He gazed at himself as he shadowboxed in front of the mirror, well pleased with his condition.
He’d thrown his final punch before sharing a ring with Manny Pacquiao. Speaking in clear, clipped tones, he said, “This ends in a fight so you got to be prepared not only physically but mentally in the right psychological/emotional state. We’re about there.”
Algieri wound up his training there and then. While Algieri might have been soaking in the atmosphere, Pacquiao wasn’t enjoying himself. He trained right up to the fight. The day before the weigh in he was in the gym for hours. He didn’t arrive when advertised, the great man operated according to his own timeframe. But when he did come to the gym, his sizeable entourage streaming in after, he worked his body far longer than expected for someone who would be boxing a 12 round contest in less than 48 hours.
In contrast to the genial Algieri, Pacquiao was withdrawn. Normally cheerful with a beaming smile in public, here he was almost sullen, Manny sat on a stool oblivious both to the journalists and his compatriots clustering round him. He pulled on his own boots and barely spoke. The words that did pass his lips were hushed too quiet to hear.
“Manny, he’s really ready, he’s hungry for the first time in a long time,” his trainer Freddy Roach said. “He needs a big win right now, he knows that, to make the world come back on his side.”
Pacquiao was looking at a challenge far bigger than Chris Algieri. He was fighting to return to the top of the sport. “He’s really fired up,” Roach continued. “I like what I see. I don’t talk about it too much with him because I don’t want to bother him about it but I like what I see. He’s very focused. He’s very mean on the mitts. Usually when he hits me a good shot, sometimes he knows he hurts me, he’ll say sorry and stuff like this. This time he stayed on me, he knocked me down one day on the mitts. For the first time in a long time he had two knockdowns with the sparring partners, which is something I haven’t seen in a while. Everything I see is very good. I like what I see. I think he’s going to bring it out in the fight.”
It may have only been a training session but he had his hands wrapped intently. It was a long time before he even began limbering up. Once he had stretched, he gradually built up the speed of his shadowboxing as he bounded across the ring. He was fast on his feet, very fast, bursting forward, shifting easily forward and back, all signs of power.
Algieri had looked slick, light on his toes as he shot out smooth punches. But Pacquiao carried a different order of force. It was clear just in the way he moved, his boulder-like calf muscles contracting to spring over the ring canvas. He radiated power. Algieri was an athlete, scientific in his approach, who handled his own nutrition. Pacquiao was a pure fighter. The Filipino had taken his training back to his roots, back to how he worked with Freddie when he won his first world title in America against Lehlo Ledwaba.
“Manny came up to me and he said we’ve been doing the same thing for a long time, the same workouts and so forth and he wanted to go back to the old workouts,” Roach had said, “with more heavy bag, less mitts and more strength work. So I said yes it’s time to change back to that. So we used the heavy bag quite a bit this time. We did five to six to eight rounds a day on the heavy bag, just exploding on it. It helped his strength, he’s punching a lot harder I feel. His punch rate has actually gone up since then also. His punch rate actually had been slipping a little bit in his last couple of fights. So I think that he just wanted to get back to where he was when we were fighting Ledwaba and those guys a long time ago because I think we were getting a little stale with each other.”
In the gym Freddie put on the mitts and strapped the body belt round his waist. Pacquiao worked forward, taking Roach into corners, on to the ropes. He hammered in rapid-fire shots, multiple southpaw rights whipping across before he slammed a wickedly hard backhand into the pad. Even though the weigh-in would take place the next morning, there was an intensity to Pacquiao’s training here. His fists drummed against the pads and he finished with an attacking burst into the body belt.
A stint on the speedball, his blurring rhythm apparent, and Pacquiao was warming down on the gym floor, still moving, grinning now at those around him. He held his arms up as he looked into the mirror and declared happily, “Victory is mine.”
Pacquiao ran for 23 minutes before the weigh in, early on a Saturday morning in Macau. It’s unlikely he had any concerns about making the 144lbs catchweight. He was just that focused on the battle ahead.
I hadn’t realised Manny’s mother was a cult hero. With the scales waiting on the empty stage, she processed down the stands to a huge cheer from the patient crowd at the Cotai Arena. Pacquiao’s mother was renowned for uttering such fervent prayers over Manny it looked like she was casting incantations.
Chris Algieri soon arrived. He stepped on to the scales, flexed his biceps and his face contorted into a strained grin as the screen beside him displayed his weight, 0.4 of a pound over their agreed limit. Chris stripped naked to try again, doubly embarrassing for Algieri as not only was he coming up from the weight division below but also because he had spoken so proudly of his holistic approach to his own preparation where he took control of the food he was eating. He therefore owned this failure. On the second attempt, with his modesty concealed by a Stony Brook jersey stretched taut in front of him, the New Yorker was still 0.2lbs over the limit.
“I know I did all the hard work I need to do,” he still insisted.
Pacquiao might have been of the old school in his approach, but swept in to make weight comfortably, 0.2lbs under the limit. Algieri still had to endure the obligatory head-to-head before he could prepare for his third attempt. Manny stared up at the taller man, relishing the following day’s fight.
“I’m so excited to show my speed and quickness, like I did in those early days of my boxing career. I want to get back the hunger and aggression that I had when I was young,” Pacquiao declared. “I love to fight undefeated fighters like Algieri.”
Long after the arena had emptied, Algieri returned to a silent stage to make weight, 143.6lbs in fact, at the third time of asking. Boxing, even at the highest level, can be a lonely sport.
Nine o’clock on a Sunday morning is a strange time for a major prizefight. But then everything in the course of a week in Macau had a strange veneer of unreality to it. The weigh in had been even earlier on Saturday, the press conferences took place deep into the night, you could find yourself wandering through ‘Venice’ at two o’clock in the morning with the fake sunlight still burning brightly above you. Croupiers stood behind empty blackjack tables, saying nothing but holding out a palm to beckon you to a seat.
Fictions cling to boxing. Nevertheless at the weigh flaws appeared in the story Algieri had been telling himself. They ripped wide open in the fight. He was just an ordinary man fighting against one of the gods of the modern sport.
Pacquiao had smiled as he waited for the fight to start. It might have been the joy he tends to exude when he’s surrounded by chaos. He might have smiled just at seeing the side show melt away from him, leaving him alone in the ring with Algieri. Or it could have been a cruel pleasure in the storm he was about to unleash on the callow American.
Pacquiao fell on him. Whatever Algieri told himself, Manny seered through the illusions to impose a clear truth on the fight. He was a level beyond his prey. The American couldn’t staunch the onslaught Pacquiao unleashed, he couldn’t hold his ground, he was scarcely able to keep his feet beneath him.
The great Filipino rolled his shoulders as he walked Algieri down in the first round, as though he were still warming up for the job. Pacquiao hadn’t won by knockout since battering Miguel Cotto, with unbelievable skill and venom, five years earlier. He set about Algieri, determined to prove he was still the finisher of old.
Chris peeled away from the Filipino southpaw, trying to keep clear of danger. But the pressure he applied flung Algieri off his feet as early as the second round. That looked like a slip, but Pacquiao was linking his punches into a chain, his hard left hand finding the mark. In the third round Algieri gripped him tightly in a clinch, desperate to contain the threat but already running short of ideas. Manny struck with his backhand, his right followed before he thumped over a double left hook.
Algieri dabbed at him with his punches. He essayed a right hand to the body. The shots didn’t trouble Pacquiao. He looked strong enough just to walk through the American but Manny possesses a fine judgement of distance, so essential for an elite boxer. He could bounce in to attack, slide back fast enough to make a counter miss before bounding in once again to press home his advantage with real spite.
He rushed Algieri with a one-two, breaking the American’s rhythm. Pacquiao didn’t let up the assault, keeping a serious focus throughout. A cuffing left in the sixth round saw Chris reel away. Pacquiao followed up with same fist, pitching Algieri over and down. Manny stayed on him. The cross hurt the American and Pacquiao ripped off a combination that slung Algieri into the ropes and back down to the canvas.
Pacquiao struck him down twice more in the ninth round. Algieri hit the deck heavily. There was real power in Manny’s hands, which he could trigger in a sudden explosive burst.
Algieri shifted round the ring but he was boxing just to see out the bout. Pacquiao beat pain into his body, eager to prove he hadn’t lost his spite. The Filipino led with his rear hand, his right hook hacked down and bowled Algieri over once again.
But he couldn’t apply that final, decisive touch. Algieri kept managing, just, to elude disaster. Pacquiao drummed in a double jab and a straight left. He led with his back hand to drive in a right. He chased Algieri until the last bell, finishing the contest in the centre of the ring, shuffling his feet.
Lights flashed round the arena, the crowd still roared in appreciation, well pleased at seeing 12 rounds of vintage Pacquiao. He had won this as emphatically as he could have without a stoppage, 119-103 twice and 120-102 on the cards.
During a fight a boxing ring can seem vast. The referee fades out of focus as the eye focuses on only the two fighters. But as soon as the final bell tolls, the ropes can barely contain the volume of bodies that flood in, whoever they are, officials maybe, corner teams, entourages, broadcast crew, it tends to be a free for all. But visible among the bedlam was Pacquiao’s mother, holding her rosary out over him.
The inevitable Mayweather question was thrown at Manny afterwards. The familiar grin crept across his face. “He’s going to fight me?” Pacquiao cried. “Yes!”
The formalities of the final press conference were over. Freddie Roach drifted over to the metal barrier that sat on the opulent carpet of one of the Venetian hotel’s cavernous conference rooms, separating the stars from journalists. So I asked Freddie about the Mayweather fight. “I think it’s going to happen,” he said.
He was in a position to know. Roach had been the man to bring together Les Moonves, the head of CBS, the corporation which contained Mayweather’s broadcaster Showtime, with Bob Arum, Pacquiao’s ageing but sharp promoter. That was no mean feat. Those with a history in the sport seem to have built up enough grudges to last a lifetime. “Moonves was trying to get the fight together without Bob and I said no, you’ve got to get Bob involved,” Roach revealed. “He called Bob ‘the devil’ but you know what – I put them together. We had a meeting at Bob’s house. It was hard to get them together but just for that fight. I was at the meeting and if they both do what they say they’re going to do, the fight will happen. They walked out of the meeting with their arms around each other and I said look at that, maybe it has a chance. I hope so.”
More and more reporters clustered round as Freddie spoke. “Moonves and Bob got together and spoke, it was a good meeting. I listened, I didn’t say anything, because I’m really not the deciding factor in that. I just put them both together at Bob’s house and I got them both to show up at the same time. It was good. I was trying to make this fight happen,” he continued. “I’m doing things I’m really not supposed to be doing to make this fight happen. It’s way out of my league but the thing is I want this fight to happen and those two guys can do it. It was a good meeting and I was very happy afterwards because I thought what was said was good. What was said could be done. He says he can deliver one guy and Bob can deliver the other. That’s really all we need.”
Slowly the pieces were moving into place. Showtime and HBO, commercial rivals still had to thrash out how the fight would be distributed, the ticket allocation was another battleground between the promoters. But the final call lay with Floyd Mayweather. The world would wait for him to tweet yes or no.
Click below to read Part Two.