It was Dec. 4, 1998. Bangkok, Thailand was hosting the 13th Asian Games and the Philippine national basketball team was dancing on top of tables and exchanging high fives.
They were celebrating a championship victory, but it wasn't their own. The opening ceremonies were still two days away, yet there was already music in their ears.
A perfect left hand by Pacquiao, and Chatchai's down, he's out! He's not gonna get up, he's not gonna get up, he's not gonna get up, he's not gonna get up, he's not gonna get up, he's not gonna get up! IT'S OVER!
Manny Pacquiao is the WORLD CHAMPION, Manny Pacquiao is the WORLD CHAMPION!
From the gutters of Manila all the way to the bright lights of Hollywood, this was the fight, and call, that carried Manny Pacquiao out of abject poverty and onto the path of fame and fortune.
"I was so excited because very few people believed Manny would win," Ronnie Nathanielsz, who announced the fight with Quinito Henson, recently explained to me. "But I told my boss, Mr. Bobong Velez, let's [televise] this fight, he will win. And he did."
The fight was Pacquiao (23-1, 14 KO's) vs. WBC flyweight champion Chatchai Sasakul (33-1, 23 KO's) at Tonsuk College in Phutthamonthon, Thailand, just outside of Bangkok. It was the first of Pacquiao's seven world title bouts, and undoubtedly one of his most spectacular moments.
"The [match] was outdoors and free as most fights are in Thailand," Nathanielsz said. "Thais get into their boxing in a big way, with a drummer and guys bashing cymbals, [and] a noisy commentator in the crowd who only apparently sees punches thrown by the Thai fighters and screams his head off."
And, "punches thrown by the Thai fighter," were actually a common occurrence on that December day. Heading into the eighth round, the hometown hero was ahead of Pacquiao on all three scorecards: 70-64, 69-64, 68-65.
"An overwhelming favorite and a tremendous fighter, Sasakul was giving Manny a boxing lesson for the first six rounds," Nathanielsz let on.
"But each time he got hit, Manny grit his teeth, banged his gloves together and came forward. It was only in the seventh round that Manny caught Sasakul with a vicious left to the mid-section which made Sasakul grunt and double up a little.
"I knew then it was going to be over."
Nathanielsz, who has been covering Pacquiao's illustrious career on television and through the press since 1995, was correct in his premonition that the fight would soon be over.
"Manny went after Sasakul in the next round and dropped him with another wicked left and the Thai fell flat on his back. He tried to get up, but [he fell] face down on the canvas to be counted out."
But the eeriness that ensued, no amount of experience could have foretold.
"There was a deathly silence when Manny knocked out Sasakul," Nathanielsz continued.
"The only Filipinos there were [promoter] Rod Nazario (who recently passed away), his long-time partners, Moy Lainez and Lito Mondejar, trainer Rick Stehely, and [former] Mayor Ben Abalos of Mandaluyong City, who built a gymnasium where Manny fought and made a name for himself as a skinny 17-year-old.
"In fact, the Mayor was scared because we were so badly outnumbered by the Thai crowd and while we all jumped for joy and cheered, we soon had to moderate our joy so as not to incur the ire of the Thai fans.
"Stehely was so excited to jump into the ring, embrace Manny and carry him that someone knocked the jacket off one of his teeth and he could be seen on TV checking on whether his tooth was still there!"
When all was said and done, everything was just fine.
There was a new WBC flyweight champion crowned and by all accounts Stehely's tooth is still intact. Mr. Abalos to this day is an avid fight fan and continues to watch all the fights at his gym and Pacquiao's fights in a theater.
The basketball team went on to win the bronze medal by defeating Kazakhstan, 73-68 in the Asian Games, and the Philippines in total tallied 17 more medals with the valiant efforts of their inspired athletes.
None of them though, admittedly, could match the magical performance that Manny Pacquiao pulled out of his hat on Dec. 4, 1998.
It was the biggest trick of his young career.
The malnourished kid from General Santos City, Philippines—who once lived on the streets of Manila and sold cigarettes—was a world champion boxer for the first time.
Now a seven time world champion, Pacquiao is training for his Mar. 13 fight with Joshua Clottey at the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, Calif., and the world is seemingly at his fingertips.
Last night, he made his second appearance in the past four months on the Hollywood set of ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live! late-night talk show. And just like the first time, Pacquiao mesmerized the crowd, entertained the masses, and sang a short tune.
It puts the fight that catapulted him to this position in a whole new perspective.
Special thanks to Ronnie Nathanielsz for sharing his memories with me
Photo of Manny Pacquiao (circa 1996) courtesy of Gerhard Joren