Tracing Manny Pacquiao's Path to Boxing Superstardom

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterNovember 19, 2014

Tracing Manny Pacquiao's Path to Boxing Superstardom

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    Eric Jamison/Associated Press

    Before he represented his province in Congress, before he had his first hit single, and before he headlined his first boxing pay-per-view, Manny Pacquiao was a mere mortal just like the rest of us. There were no autograph seekers and no desperately poor seeking his salvation. There were no private planes and no public service.

    There was nothing but hope and the kind of dream that is all too often dashed in the face of harsh reality.

    Pacquiao is not supposed to occupy this rarefied air. This is the territory typically controlled by Olympians and those groomed for success and carefully matched by a team of promoters and trainers.

    Pacquiao is not that fighter.

    Desperately poor as a kid, living in a one room house with a family of seven, he survived his teen years by fighting. Brought to America for the first time as a mere opponent for a now forgotten champion, Pacquiao captured the imagination of a fanbase that was waiting for someone just like him to appear.

    "Never had a clue," Pacquiao's trainer Freddie Roach told Yahoo's Kevin Iole. "Never expected this. Never. Not in my wildest dreams."

    The path between poverty and prosperity was fraught with danger and obstacles. To reach his potential he had to navigate eight weight classes and some of the best fighters in the world.

    Today every fight is an event. He matters, not just in his native Philippines—but globally. These are the five fights that got him there, the ones that turned a mere boxer into an icon. 

Lehlo Ledwaba (6/23/2001)

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    Manny Pacquiao, despite being six years into his career, was still a complete unknown when he stepped into Enrique Sanchez's shoes on just two weeks notice to challenge IBF super bantamweight champion Lehlo Ledwaba. Before this star turn on HBO, Pacquiao had only competed three times outside of his native Philippines in 34 career bouts, including a 1999 fight with Medgoen Singsurat in Thailand that saw Manny fail to make weight and then get knocked out in the third round.

    As a result, no one was expecting much, at least no one in the broadcast booth. But those on tuned into the California scene knew, having seen Pacquiao dominate in the gym with the kind of speed and ferocity you don't witness every day. Pacquiao delivered the star turn they expected.

    HBO thought it had something special. It turns out they were right—it just wasn't Ledwaba.  

    The highlights in his Dumb and Dumber style haircut may no longer be stylish, but the beating he put on Ledwaba has stood the test of time. For just $40,000  Pacquiao dropped the champion three times, a straight left hand sending him to the mat for good for a TKO victory in round six. 

Marco Antonio Barrera (11/15/2003)

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    It seems funny to think about now, when we've seen Pacquiao earn world championships in an astounding eight weight classes, but in 2003 there were significant questions about whether he could step up to 126 pounds against Marco Antonio Barrera.

    Barrera, of course, wasn't just a bigger fighter—he was a legitimately great one, among the very best Mexican fighters in boxing history and the reigning Ring Magazine featherweight champion. You'd have never guessed that by watching the bout. Pacquiao battered him, moving with a speed Barrera simply couldn't match.

    By the eleventh round, after Barrera had already been down twice in the fight, trainer Rudy Perez had seen enough. He courageously made the decision to step into the ring to protect his fighter from further punishment. 

Erik Morales (3/19/2005)

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    Donald Miralle/Getty Images

    Pacquiao had been a superstar in the Philippines for years. While still an undercard fighter in the rest of the world, he was greeted by thousands at the airport when returning from America as world champion after the Ledwaba fight. There just wasn't generally much good news to celebrate in his struggling country and his international success made him a national hero.

    America, slowly, began to catch on. He was still known only to boxing connoisseurs for several years, but the Barrera fight changed that, propelling him into wider orbits. When he stepped into the ring against Morales it was in the main event of a pay-per-view for the first time.

    The fight was an instant classic, a dizzying back and forth display of violence that only ended because the bell finally rang to end the twelfth round. You had a feeling the two men might have stood toe-to-toe for all eternity otherwise.

    "This is a picture that doesn't need any captions," HBO commentator Larry Merchant said as the two fought to the final second.

    It might seem odd to include a loss on a list of star making performances, but it's hard to imagine Pacquiao's career without the first Morales fight. It was the best fight of his career and solidified his reputation among boxing fans as must-see television.

Oscar De La Hoya (12/6/08)

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    The Barrera fight opened the door and the Morales bout established Pacquiao as a legitimate player in the pay-per-view arena. Rematches with both men, and fights with the likes of Juan Manuel Marquez, showed Pacquiao was a fighter you could count on for 300,000 to 400,000 pay-per-view buys a pop.

    But he wasn't Oscar De La Hoya. No one was. 

    The Golden Boy was the biggest draw in boxing. But, as his career came to a close, he had a significant problem. Moving into the promotional realm, there was no successor in sight. If De La Hoya wanted the next big thing as a promoter, he was going to have to help make him.

    In boxing, stars make stars. While it's not a perfect alchemy, a fighter with potential can collide with someone like De La Hoya and walk away with some of his star power attached. Interest by osmosis.

    It required fighters who could carry the role. Not just anyone could be a player, no matter how good their boxing chops. Only the special few have that special "it" factor. De La Hoya identified two—Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr.

    After losing a decision to "Money," De La Hoya turned his attention to Manny. Pacquiao had to go up two weight classes from lightweight, where he was the champion. Once again the world wondered if Pacquiao could handle the bigger, stronger man.

    It didn't take long for him to dismiss all doubts, battering De La Hoya with fast, accurate left hands from the jump. After the eighth round, Team Oscar had seen enough. He didn't go out to start the ninth, a Hall of Fame career ending that night on the stool. 

    But emerging from the ashes of Oscar's demise emerged a new star. Younger. Stronger. Better. Manny Pacquiao had, at long last, ascended the throne.

Miguel Cotto (11/14/2009)

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    Pacquiao's follow up to the De La Hoya fight, a one-sided shellacking of Ricky Hatton, proved that something had clicked with the fans. Instead of descending back into the 300,000 range, Pacquiao managed to sell 850,000 pay-per-views against the popular British star. 

    His subsequent fight, with Puerto Rican slugger Miguel Cotto, showed Pacquiao could break the magical million buy mark. Another sign of his growing power? He commanded 65 percent of the purse, with just 35 percent going to Cotto.

    More than that, business aside, it was a transcendent performance in the ring. Pacquiao, once a 106-pound fighter, proved he belonged at 147 pounds. He knocked Cotto down twice early in the fight and dominated throughout. 

    After the eleventh round it appeared Cotto and his corner were considering stopping the fight. Instead, unlike De La Hoya, Cotto returned to the ring and referee Kenny Bayless was forced to jump in and waive the fight off in the twelfth. 

    "Pacquiao is the greatest boxer I've ever seen," Pacquiao's promoter Bob Arum told the press. "And I've seen them all, including Ali, Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard."

    Talk turned almost immediately to a potential bout with fellow superstar Floyd Mayweather Jr. It was a fight that, unfortunately, was never made.

    Big fights followed, including very successful box office bouts with Juan Manuel Marquez and Shane Mosley. But none of them were Mayweather. That, more than any other fight, is the contest that will define Pacquiao—the one that got away.