Metro Manila never stops moving. I guess, objectively, that can’t be true: The roughly 20 million souls who inhabit the Philippine capital have seen their lives halted by typhoons and floods; they have checked out for the Easter holiday; and they have become so enraptured by certain rare, monumental occurrences that they’ve ceased their endless hustle to just bear witness. Basically, it takes an act of God, a day of God, or something like a military coup to stop this metropolis in its tracks.
But on most any other day, the streets will be humming. You’ll find sinewy old-timers filling kariton wheelbarrows with discarded newspapers and empty plastic bottles; squatting 6-year-olds slamming pogs into the sidewalk; and uniformed students and security guards rushing to work or, if they’re headed home, stopping in front of a charcoal grill to snack on skewered sine curves of chicken intestine. There’ll be a woman selling single-wrapped mints and loosie cigarettes from a wooden tray; tricycle drivers buzzing by, shouting over the chain-saw din of their two-stroke engines for pedestrians to hop into their sidecars for a 25-cent ride; and a lone balloon vendor, looking as if he might float away with his moon-size bundle of helium Despicable Me minions. And that’s really only a fraction of Manila’s milieu.
Then, of course, there’s that one other event for which time stops in Manila and the entire Philippines: a Manny Pacquiao fight. By now, sports fans have heard this so many times — zero crime, empty roads, a captive nation — that it can feel tiresome. On the ground, however, the quiet that engulfs Manila before Pacquiao performs can feel surreal. Early Sunday morning, on my way to a free public viewing of Mayweather-Pacquiao, I saw people leisurely walking up EDSA, Manila’s famously congested central traffic artery, an uncanny sight on par with New Yorkers doing rush-hour cartwheels through Times Square. Later, after I arrived at Neptali Gonzales High School in Mandaluyong City to watch the fight, I noticed the local tricycles had been parked and deserted, the hawkers and commuters and scavengers had vanished, and no one was playing basketball or pogs or anything whatsoever in the street.
Nearly the entire neighborhood, from infants cradled in their mothers’ arms to weary-eyed, white-haired elders, was inside the high school gym, waiting for Pacquiao to enter the ring at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, more than 7,000 miles away. The gym was the kind of open-air “covered court” that’s common all over the Philippines — concrete bleachers surrounding a cement floor, with cage-fence walls and a pointed, gable-style roof to ward off the elements. A 10-by-14-foot screen faced the crowd from a stage at one end of the court, with seven rows of white monoblock chairs set up for elderly, pregnant, and disabled viewers to watch in front. Both basketball stanchions had been pushed all the way back to the opposite wall, while just about every remaining inch of space had been claimed by the 1,000 or so locals who came to watch.
Besides a few children tiptoeing through slivers of space to collect empty plastic bottles, hardly anyone would budge in the minutes before the opening bell. The crowd stood but kept its cool during the Philippine national anthem. There was mild applause for a highlight package of Pacquiao’s knockouts, but none of the MAN-NY chants that were common in Vegas. Even when Queenie Gonzales, wife of local congressman Neptali Gonzales II (whose father is the school’s namesake), dropped by to lead a prayer on Pacquiao’s behalf and to announce that her husband’s staff would be distributing free Emperador Light brandy after the fight, no one stirred. It wasn’t until Pacquiao appeared onscreen, moments before the opening bell, that the Mandaluyong masses leapt to their feet and roared.
There were larger venues where I could have watched the fight. A handful of municipalities in Metro Manila were showing Mayweather-Pacquiao in basketball arenas big enough to handle thousands of spectators. There were certainly fancier options, like the four-star hotels that offered fight-plus-buffet deals, an IMAX movie theater, or the still new 55,000-seat Philippine Arena just outside Greater Manila, which was screening the pay-per-view on its massive LED panels. But I came to Mandaluyong because this was where Pacquiao’s career got its first push.
Pacquiao fought three of his first six pro bouts at the Mandaluyong City municipal gym. The earliest available footage of him in a boxing ring, competing on the TV program Blow by Blow, was filmed there. In that brief first appearance, a 16-year-old Pacquiao and Dele Decierto traded winging shots until the latter turned away from the action and quit. Those raw, 1995 slugfests — basketball hoops visible in the background, faded San Miguel Beer decals on the corner posts, and local government slogans painted on a wall behind the fighters — show nothing that suggests Pacquiao would end up in Las Vegas, about to shatter boxing’s all-time pay-per-view record with Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Mandaluyong is also where the 11-0 Pacquiao faced a squat, 111-pound puncher named Rustico Torrecampo in early 1996. Pacquiao missed weight for the fight and was penalized by having to wear heavier gloves than his opponent, a factor that may have helped Torrecampo survive Pacquiao’s fusillade of looping left hands. In the third round, Pacquiao, eager to finish his fading opponent, feinted and then stepped forward with a left that sailed over the head of a ducking Torrecampo, who launched his own haymaker. What came next feels like retroactive déjà vu, knowing how Pacquiao would eventually lose to Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012: He ran straight into Torrecampo’s counter and crumpled to the mat. It’s hard to see where Torrecampo’s punch landed, but based on Pacquiao’s dazed reaction and announcer Quinito Henson’s repeated call of “His eyes are crossed!” it appears that Torrecampo’s fist clipped Pacquiao on the point of the chin before following through to his midsection.
What became of the first man to knock out Pacquiao is yet another testament to the mind-blowing odds Pacquiao beat by rising to the top of the sport. Torrecampo fought seven more professional bouts before being swallowed back into the kind of life Pacquiao managed to leave behind. He became a sidewalk noodle vendor, was wanted in the stabbing death of a garbage truck driver who knocked over his noodle cart, and in recent years has resurfaced in harrowing YouTube street fighting clips with titles like “Rustico Torrecampo VS Gym Instructor.”
I had hoped to watch Mayweather-Pacquiao in the same Mandaluyong gym where Torrecampo had blanked Pacquiao. Win or lose on May 3 (Manila time), watching from those history-rich bleachers would feel like a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Pacquiao’s legend. And according to some prefight listings, it would be possible. But when I visited the site last Thursday, a pair of guards stationed in a room where Pacquiao used to sleep after training explained that there had been a change of plans: The mayor decided against screening Mayweather-Pacquiao in the municipal gym and instead opted to host viewings in more spacious, less sweltering venues elsewhere in the city. They suggested I watch at the high school.
At first, it was a letdown. There was something irresistibly romantic about watching the fight while breathing tropical air thick with the memories of Decierto and Torrecampo. But it was also fitting, given how far Pacquiao had come, that the moldering gymnasium where he earned his first stoppage and suffered his first KO was considered unworthy of hosting even a screening of the Pambansang Kamao’s biggest bout.
Even if Pacquiao’s ring walk hadn’t been the best in his career, the throng at Neptali Gonzales High School would have gone berserk. But holy shit did he pull out all the stops for this one, with Jimmy Kimmel strutting behind him in Justin Bieber garb, a ridiculous selfie pit stop that felt like an homage to the Philippines’ fondness for smartphone vamping, and the booming chirr of his own singing voice, scraping its way through a patriotic monster ballad he recorded for this fight. It was easy to get swept up in the grand time Pacquiao was having and think it might lead to him staying loose and then going for broke against Mayweather. Instead, that walk ended up being one of the few moments that went well for Pacquiao.
I watched with dread as the first two rounds unfolded. It looked like Pacquiao couldn’t find a single meaningful opening to attack Mayweather, whose long left jab might as well have been a force field. Pacquiao spent most of these rounds stuck on the end of that jab, trying to feint and fake his way in, but getting nowhere. When Pacquiao did jump through Mayweather’s first line of defense, he was stymied again. Mayweather would spin or pivot out of range before Pacquiao could release his combinations. When Mayweather was backed into a corner with no escape route, he’d smother Pacquiao’s punches and force a clinch (that would sometimes morph into a headlock).1
The Mandaluyong crowd, however, seemed unperturbed by Mayweather’s defensive clinic. Perhaps this was because many average Filipinos, with help from the partisan local media, haven’t been privy to the thorny, complicated history of why this fight took five years to be made. For them, the story is simple: It didn’t happen because Mayweather was afraid of Pacquiao. In Manila, the dominant fight-week narrative wasn’t Mayweather’s history of violence against women, but how Pacquiao would finally get a chance to shut up loudmouth “Money” Mayweather. So even though Mayweather was flummoxing Pacquiao early, the fans around me remained mostly untroubled because Mayweather wasn’t landing many telling blows of his own. Every time Mayweather jumped away from a Pacquiao blow or hugged him to squelch his combinations, the crowd hooted and laughed. They saw what they already believed: an opponent who feared the power behind their countryman’s fists.
Pacquiao, on the other hand, appeared to understand that Mayweather was getting the better of him, and he fought harder to make up for it. Starting in the third round, he cornered Mayweather and attacked with quick combinations. Even when he didn’t land cleanly, Pacquiao’s activity prevented Mayweather from scoring many points and gave the Filipino a chance to win rounds. Then, in the fourth, Pacquiao finally landed a solid counter left over Mayweather’s jab. The punch brought the Mandaluyong crowd to its feet and sent Mayweather backpedaling into the ropes, where he covered up and let Pacquiao pound away on his sides and arms.
The middle rounds continued similarly, with Pacquiao forcing the action and searching for ways to penetrate Mayweather’s defense. Pacquiao didn’t land another blow like the one in Round 4, but he snuck in a few more meaningful punches and managed to batter Mayweather along the ropes a few times. Just as often, Mayweather would freeze Pacquiao with feints, plant a couple of jabs on his nose, and retreat to a safe distance. They were close rounds, and Pacquiao, although struggling, seemed to still be in the fight. He was pursuing Mayweather, probing for openings, and generating enough offense to keep the scores close.
Then, maybe 30 seconds into Round 8, the crowd’s pattern of eruptions — shriek when Pacquiao throws combinations, ooooohhhh when he lands, guffaw when Mayweather escapes — was interrupted by a gasp. The screen had frozen. We stared at a pixelated tableau of the fight for about a minute, and then the screen went black. A “No Signal” message appeared as local officials rushed to check on the satellite feed. Had one of the kids stomping around backstage kicked out a wire? Bursts of nervous laughter fluttered through the crowd. People whipped out cell phones to call relatives in other towns and ask if the signal had been lost nationwide (it hadn’t). The 15 uniformed soldiers who’d been enjoying the fight surveyed the crowd with a new alertness. Everyone seemed to be wondering the same two things: What the hell went wrong? and What’s happening to Manny?
Seven minutes and 52 seconds of ring time later — a short, frenzied eternity in Mandaluyong — the picture reappeared, with 38 seconds remaining in the 10th round and Pacquiao locked in another clinch. There was no way to know what we’d missed during the two-and-a-half-round plunge into darkness, but whatever happened seemed to have changed Pacquiao. A highlight during the break before Round 11 hinted at how the fight’s momentum had shifted: a signature Mayweather pull counter, where he drew his chin back to dodge a Pacquiao shot, then whipped a straight right into the side of Pacquiao’s head like a rubber band snapping back. If the rounds we’d missed had gone like that, then it made sense why Pacquiao was cautiously bouncing just outside of Mayweather’s punching range, juking left and right in search of an angle to attack, and coming up short of the success he’d need to turn the fight around.
In the final two rounds, Pacquiao often had Mayweather in front of him, but he seemed more tentative than ever about plunging into the pocket and trading shots. Maybe a right shoulder injury that Pacquiao revealed after the fight influenced this uncharacteristic hesitancy, but in the moment (and in retrospect), Mayweather’s performance seemed to deserve the credit. It took longer than it did with most of Mayweather’s foes, but by the end of Sunday’s bout, even Pacquiao’s indomitable fighting spirit had been dulled by Mayweather’s elusive movement and punishing counters. Pacquiao had landed some of the cleanest shots on Mayweather since Shane Mosley wobbled Floyd five years ago, but the outcome of the competitive fight seemed obvious — at least to me. But after the final bell rang, the guy next to me nodded and smiled. “Panalo Pacman!” he announced. Win for Pacman!
The moment the first score was read, 118-110, it forecast a Mayweather win. A judge who rewarded Pacquiao’s aggression might have found enough rounds to score a narrow Pacquiao decision, but a card that wide could only favor Mayweather. The Mandaluyong crowd held on to hope, however, listening closely until the words “Floyd Mayweather Jr.” rolled off the ring announcer’s tongue. With Pacquiao’s loss official, the people’s emotional tether to the bout snapped. There was no mass outpouring of grief, just a procession of thousand-yard stares filing out of the gym. By the time Pacquiao appeared on the screen and told Max Kellerman “I thought I won the fight,” nearly everyone had left. For about an hour Sunday morning, Pacquiao and Mayweather had cast a spell over Mandaluyong City and the rest of the Philippines. When it ended, life picked up wherever it had left off, only a little more bitter.
Wait. There was still the matter of that free post-fight brandy the congressman’s wife had promised. Maybe if Pacquiao had won, someone would have bothered to pour shots into a few hundred Dixie cups and pass them around for all to enjoy. As it happened, two men hopped out of the back of a truck, dropped four cases of booze on the ground, and let a few dozen guys wrestle for the bottles. Whatever you could get your hands on was yours to keep.
I didn’t get a bottle, or even a little taste, but it was probably for the better. I’ve had Emperador Light before; it burns.