LAS VEGAS — The human instinct isn’t merely to root for Manny Pacquiao. It’s also to hug him, hang with him, croon silly songs with him, read Bible verses with him, try to understand why he wears a permanent smile when everyone else in life seemingly must force one. The public polls predicting he’d win Saturday night, the money wagered in his favor, the range of celebrities who adore him — those aren’t sentiments from the head, where the smart action was on Floyd Mayweather.
They come from the heart, through which Pacquiao has connected with people in ways Mayweather never could without a personality transplant. “Thank you,” he whispered to a scowling Mayweather at the Friday weigh-in, unable to suppress a small grin during a staredown that lasted only 15 seconds because Pacquiao kept looking away.
Thanked him for what?
“Thanked him for the fans that the fight will happen,” he said. “I believe that the fight must happen because the fans deserve it. This is a great, great responsibility. The fans deserve a good fight.”
Let’s not be naive: Pacquiao stands to earn upwards of $120 million thanks to the power players who finally made the Fight That Wouldn’t Happen happen, which had much more to do with Hollywood mogul Leslie Moonves than a long-resistant Mayweather. Still, when you see Pacquiao stop in his red Nike hoodie inside MGM Grand Garden Arena and take a smiling selfie as famed fight barker Michael Buffer chants, “THE FIGHTING PRIDE OF THE PHILLIPINES, HERE HE IS, THE PAC-MAN, MANNYYYYY PACQUIAOWWWWWWWW!!!” — you realize the man is much more in love with life than himself. So do Mark Wahlberg, Dave Chappelle, Tim Tebow, Sly Stallone, Jimmy Kimmel, Robert Duvall and other show-biz types who have pledged allegiance and stopped by his training sessions.
If sport can breed goodness amid an inexorable swirl of greed and hubris, then Pacquiao would pack up his Manny Love motorhome and flee the 90-degree desert heat as his generation’s pound-for-pound champ. It wouldn’t take much decency, of course, to eclipse Mayweather, who irritates us in pointing out his wealth as the world’s highest-paid athlete — “Let’s say I make $200 million. That means my kids will get $50 million apiece,” he said, nailing the week’s math test — and disturbs us in how he pooh-poohs five cases of domestic violence allegations against him. As opined by Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, “When Manny beats Mayweather, it won’t only be about unifying the welterweight titles. It will also be a public service to boxing.”
And to humankind.
Yet even if Mayweather ignores the morality play, extends his tactical brilliance to 48-0 and dispatches his opponent back to the House of Representatives in the Philippines, where he is serving his second term, Pacquiao will endure as a warm, affable charmer who relates to fans worldwide. It helps that he rose from nothing, overcoming abject poverty to learn basics of the fight game in his native streets, showing up raw at Roach’s strip-mall gym in Hollywood and becoming one of Forbes’ top 10 sports earners last year. It helps that Pacquiao is fighting for the Filipino people more than he’s fighting for his legacy, which is considerable in boxing and sport. It helps that he speaks publicly about his struggles after his breakthrough win over Oscar De La Hoya in 2008, when he cashed in newfound stardom for a partying lifestyle — drinking, gambling, womanizing — only to save his career and marriage when he abandoned Catholicism and became a born-again Christian. He is not perfect, but unlike his rival, he’ll acknowledge it.
“I feel the Lord is always with me and gives me strength,” Pacquiao said. “I am at peace with myself.”
With such soothing, non-violent thoughts come concerns that Pacquiao has lost his edge. Roach has said as much, relating that Manny’s mother, Dionisia, thought his religious transition was responsible for a knockout loss, to Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012, that almost sent Pacquiao into retirement. But don’t discount the possibility this could be a version of verbal rope-a-dope, with Mayweather as the dope. Just because Pacquiao is calm on the exterior doesn’t mean he isn’t burning inside, recalling how Mayweather, in 2010, referred to him as “that little yellow chump” and “Pooch-iao.”
“I cannot say that he is that difficult an opponent,” Pacquiao said during the week. “My confidence right now is different than the other fights I’ve had. I feel excited, this is it. I have to prove something.”
While they both will fight a few pounds short of 150, Pacquaio gives up inches to Mayweather. “He is a little bit bigger, but like David and Goliath, size doesn’t matter,” Roach said. “We are the better puncher, and we are faster.”
Mayweather, too, says he has a burden of proof. “I’ve never wanted to win a fight this bad in my life,” he said. But his is a self-induced burden, all because of a mouth that can’t stop mentioning money. How curious to hear him say, “Everyone talks about the money, the money, the money. I want the fight to live up to its magnitude. That’s what it’s really about.” Then shut up, already.
It may be too late to help Mayweather. When asked which was more important — legacy or money — he said, “At the end of the day, my daughter can’t eat no zero. She can’t spend a boxing ring.” This came after he claimed his career has surpassed that of the great Muhammad Ali, who has stood for far more in life than a mansion and private jet.
Ali’s daughter, Laila, responded by calling Mayweather “a little boy” and “broken person.” Former champion Roy Jones Jr., who will analyze the fight on TV, says he’ll be concerned about his “lonely” state of mind if he loses. Everyone is piling on Money Mayweather.
It’s trite to refer to a sports event as “good versus evil.’’ This time, in a colossal moment for boxing, the theme applies. We have a villain. We have a darling.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.