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Thursday, May 7, 2009

My postfight sit-in with Pacquiao

LAS VEGAS -- The day began like so many other Sundays after a big fight: I woke up in my MGM Grand room a bit weary after a long week, and not looking forward to a tiring day of cross-country travel back home to Northern Virginia.

I followed my usual routine by packing, working on Monday's weekend scorecard and fielding phone calls and requests for radio interviews around the country from those who wanted to talk about the fight.

In this case, the big fight was Manny Pacquiao, the world's best fighter, against Ricky Hatton. Pacquiao had obliterated Hatton in two rounds only hours earlier to win the world junior welterweight championship, a title in a record-tying sixth weight class and a record-setting fourth lineal championship.

As usual, I planned to hang around my room working while waiting for my 4:21 p.m. flight. (Thanks to the lovely Stephanie Heller from the MGM public relations team, who always takes care of me with a late checkout.) I was also planning to have lunch with a friend who lives in Las Vegas before heading to the airport. (Yes, I had the upgrade.)

The PacMan had devoured Hatton, scoring two first-round knockdowns and then putting him to sleep with a massive left cross -- one of the greatest knockouts I have ever witnessed ringside -- just before the end of the second round.

Little did I know at the time that some 15 hours later I would have an unexpected audience with the pound-for-pound king in his private suite at The Hotel at Mandalay Bay, where I would rewatch the fight with Pacquiao, who was seeing the video for the first time.

It was quite a day. Here's what happened:

I got a call from my buddy Brad "Abdul" Goodman, the Top Rank matchmaker with whom I have been friends since the early 1990s, long before either us began our current boxing gigs. Goodman, who lives in Las Vegas, had been asked by Pacquiao adviser Michael Koncz if he could burn a DVD of the fight because Pacquiao wanted to see it.

So Goodman called me to see if I wanted to get together a little earlier than planned. He would pick me up at the MGM and I'd go with him on his errand to Mandalay Bay to drop off the DVD, then we'd have lunch there. Sounded good to me, so I finished packing, wrote as much of the weekend scorecard as I could, and checked out.

Goodman picked me up, and off to The Hotel we went. It turned out that Koncz and Pacquiao and crew were running a little late because Pacquiao, a devout Catholic, had attended church Sunday morning and was in no rush to get back. He had stayed after the service to take pictures with fans and sign autographs.

Goodman and I had lunch, and afterward we ran into Top Rank boss Bob Arum and his wife, Lovey Arum, in the lobby. They, too, were waiting for Pacquiao to return because they were meeting friends whom they had promised to introduce to the boxer.

While we were all waiting, Pacquiao's superstar trainer, Freddie Roach, showed up. It was quite a scene.

Several hotel guests had approached Arum to take pictures with him, which he happily posed for. One Japanese guest apparently had recognized me from my television appearances and asked if I would also pose in the photo with him and Arum.

But once Roach arrived, the guests turned their attention to him. At one point, about a dozen people had gathered around him and spontaneously began applauding him for a job well done.

Then Arum's guests showed up: Nevada Sen. John Ensign and his two children. Arum introduced me to the senator and we chatted for a bit. Turns out Ensign is a huge boxing fan and one-eighth Filipino, so he was excited to meet Pacquiao and have him pose for a photo with him and his kids.

Finally, we got word that Pacquiao was back, apparently having arrived through a private entrance. So we were summoned. The gathering crowd wanted to get into our elevator, but security wouldn't allow it. Up to the top floor of The Hotel we went. When we exited the elevator, there were people and security everywhere, but we were led down the hall to Pacquiao's room.

Inside the massive suite, at least 20 people could be seen hanging around and eating from a buffet that was set up in the main room, which had a spectacular view of the Vegas Strip. While the rest of the group -- Arum, his wife, Goodman, Koncz, Ensign and his kids -- were ushered into Pacquiao's private bedroom in the suite, I had to tape a previously scheduled phone interview for ESPN SportsCenter at that exact moment. Great timing, huh?

I found a quiet place on the other side of the suite, did the interview and then went to the bedroom, where a large security guard nodded at me, opened the door and allowed me in.

The room was split in two. Pacquiao's wife, Jinkee, was on one side of the partition packing for the long trip home to the Philippines. On the other side, about 15 other people were gathered near the couch and chairs and the big TV. Pacquiao, of course, had the best seat as the DVD began playing. In front of Pacquiao on the table was a plate with a large steak he was working on, a big bowl of rice and a side of assorted fruit.

Ensign and his kids met Pacquiao, talked for a few minutes and had their photo taken. Pacquiao couldn't have been more gracious. Then the Ensigns and the Arums left, leaving the rest of us to watch the fight.

One of the people in the room was Father Marlon Beof, Pacquiao's spiritual adviser, who, as it turns out, is a regular reader of mine and a huge fan of the ESPN.com boxing page. I thanked him for that. Who knew my blog and weekly notebook appealed to the Catholic priest demographic?

As we watched the ring walks and intros, Pacquiao's guests were quite excited. At one point, Pacquiao said to me as the fight was beginning, "My first time seeing this. Easy fight." Then he broke out into a broad smile.

As the fight went on, I asked Pacquiao if he was enjoying watching his dominant performance.

He answered "Yes" and broke into another broad smile before taking a big bite of steak between rounds.

When HBO announcer Jim Lampley exclaimed "It's a Pacquiao storm" at one point in the fight, Pacquiao repeated the line and broke out into another big smile.

He was talking to the TV as well. During the second round, he kept telling his image on the screen to "jab, jab." Roach has that approach ingrained in him, it seems.

While most of Pacquiao's guests were cheering his every punch, Pacquiao was staring intensely at the television and taking bites of his steak.

When the knockout bomb landed on Hatton's jaw, the room went crazy. But Pacquiao had a very serious look on his face and crossed himself, as though he was praying for Hatton to be OK, though he already knew it to be the case since the fight had been the previous night.

Still, that's the sort of guy Pacquiao is.

He looked at me again before I could say anything and said, "Yeah, it's a good shot."

You think?

"I felt it on my knuckles."

I asked him if he thought it would be the knockout of the year.

"Yeah, I think so," he answered.

Then, without being asked, Pacquiao volunteered: "People think Hatton is bigger and stronger than me. I don't think so."

And then came another smile.

Between the big knockout he had just watched and the juicy steak he had put away, Pacquiao seemed content as he leaned back on the couch with his hands behind his head.

It's good to be the king.

Once the fight was over, folks began to file out of the room. As I was leaving, Pacquiao stood up, laid a man-hug on me and thanked me for coming.

It was my pleasure.

Source: espn.go.com