Copyright to GQ Magazine By Andrew Corsello
He is in the car. I am in the car. Physically we are, both of us, in the car. Still, I wonder.
It's now January. In December, I spent a week traversing the Philippine archipelago in a vain attempt to speak with this man. Though it is difficult to arrive at an exact number, it is safe to say that during that week, slightly less than half the national population of 90 million people assured me with a wink that they would get me "in the car" with Manny Pacquiao. But there had been no car. No Manny Pacquiao. (Pronounced like a comic-book sound effect: pack-ee-ow!) I did spend the afternoon of the man's thirty-first birthday in his living room, playing a series of increasingly aggressive Christmas carols on his Yamaha grand piano in a last-ditch effort to flush him from his bedroom. (It was five in the afternoon. He had risen for the day an hour earlier.) But there was no Manny. At 6 p.m., in a single brisk movement, he descended from the balcony—eerily reminiscent of the one on which Al Pacino dies after screaming, "Say hello to my lee-tle frien'!" in Scarface—and out to a waiting caravan. He brushed my shoulder without looking at me as he passed. Or did he? Later, I could not shake my suspicion that the shoulder brush, the whole trip, was a dream. A vivid dream, of a place where every soul and every thing was lit from within by the still, small voice of Manny Pacquiao—Manny… Emmanuel…Hebrew for "God is with us"— but where Manny Pacquiao himself was nowhere to be seen.
But now, at a promotional event in Texas, the first boxer ever to win seven world titles in as many weight divisions, the first athlete ever to appear on a Philippine postage stamp, a man who in 2008 portrayed the Philippine warrior Lapu-Lapu, whose forces killed Magellan and repelled his conquistadores, in a reenactment of the 1521 Battle of Mactan, a man who often survives on three hours' sleep and is said to possess a photographic memory, is "in the car." As am I.
"Manny," I begin, "one of the many reasons GQ wants to feature you is that we want to explain why your appeal in the United States extends far beyond the sport of boxing. Do you have a theory about this?"
The members of his posse, encircling him at ten, two, three, four, six, eight, and nine o'clock, lean in and look. Nothing about the man moves. He remains perfectly postured, eyes forward, arms crossed, the vertical of his chassis aligned with, determining, the center of the SUV's bench seat and of the vehicle itself. Time passes.
"Manny," I begin again, "are you aware that millions of people in this country who don't follow boxing follow you?" I can see myself reflected in his oversize mirrored Oakleys. I look ridiculous.
After a time, the tiniest parting of the lips, just a sliver of a shadow between them, and a low exhalation:
Then Manny Pacquiao tilts his head back several degrees to indicate the departure of his presence.
It is then, at long last, that a phrase Pacquiao's people use to explain his mysterious ways—which isn't an explanation at all but a surrender—begins to seem adequate.
Because he is Pacquiao.
After the car ride, we all fly to New York on his promoter's plane. There is great consternation in the hangar prior to departure. Five men huddle over a small package. They look ashen, cancer-stricken. A decision is reached. The tallest of them, a Canadian named Michael Koncz, takes the package and marches, as if toward his own death, onto the airplane.
After takeoff, Koncz opens the package. It's Manny's dinner. Koncz presents the dish to Pacquiao and, in a tone born more in sorrow than in anger, announces that something has gone terribly wrong; instead of rice, the chef has accompanied Manny's meat with mashed potatoes. Manny nods. "I'm so sorry, Manny," Koncz says as he begins to cut Pacquiao's steak and season his cooked vegetables for him. "The bread is very soft, though." Manny prays, eats. After, he reposes on a couch. As one member of Team Pacquiao begins to massage his feet, calves, and thighs, Koncz drapes him in a blanket, methodically but gently tucking its edges in.
"And now," Manny Pacquiao says to me with a lovely smile, "you talk."
You're not a boxing fan? Doesn't matter. We're all fans of the strange, hardwired to seek and behold it—and Manny Pacquiao is the most beautifully strange human being to befall boxing, and perhaps even all of sport, in a generation.
Beautiful and strange to the eye, of course. That speed! The coil and float. The spooky slowing of time. The suspicion he creates in you that your naked eye only partially apprehends him—that what he does in the ring exceeds your spectrum.
And beautifully strange on paper. At the elite level, a boxer's optimal fighting weight involves a trade-off of speed and power. Particularly in the lighter weight classes, a boxer who enters the ring thirty-two ounces over or under his natural fighting weight is often too slowed or weakened to win. Despite such parameters, Pacquiao has won divisions ranging from flyweight, a belt he won in 1998 as a 112-pound 19-year-old, to welterweight, a division that tops out at 147 pounds, in November 2009. (He began his career in 1995, as a 16-year-old, 106-pound light flyweight.) On March 13, he'll defend his welterweight belt against the Ghanaian fighter Joshua Clottey. According to every metric, Pacquiao…can't be. Which is why, over the past fifteen years, the expert nay-saying has come even from his own corner. "I would think that Manny can fight at 140. But I think going past 140 would be a mistake," Pacquiao's promoter, Bob Arum, told ESPN in December 2008. "Every time I think of Manny in a ring with [Puerto Rican welterweight] Miguel Cotto… it begins to look a little ludicrous." In other words, even Pacquiao's supernatural speed wouldn't matter. A natural welterweight like Cotto would register the punches as love taps; Pacquiao, in turn, would be crushed.
Copyright to GQ Magazine By Andrew Corsello
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