Manny's home is his castle
Pugilist, politician and philanthropist throws open his door to welcome visitors from around the world as he prepares for his biggest ever fight
Less than four weeks before he puts his reputation on the line in the "Clash in Cotai", Manny Pacquiao is in an unusually relaxed mood. It is the calm before the storm few have seen before.
"Welcome to my home," says a smiling Pacquiao as he ushers in a group of journalists to his home in downtown General Santos, the Philippines' southernmost city that's home to the country's most famous and beloved icon.
Pacquiao is giving a rare insight into his private life and as host of his own domain, he is loving every moment.
"I'm honoured to have you come and visit me in my home. Make yourself comfortable," says the Philippine superstar before he asks his guests to feast on a hearty meal.
This is a candid, more open Pacquiao, who faces Brandon Rios on November 24 at the Venetian's Cotai Arena, his first fight of the year since suffering a stunning sixth-round knockout loss to Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez last December. Comfortable in his own surroundings - a one-hectare, three-building complex - the 34-year-old Pacquiao appears more confident than he has for some months.
"This is the first time I have opened my home to the media. No special reason, really, just want you guys to visit," says the Sarangani province Congressman. "I want them to see that the Philippines people are friendly and hospitable. This is my town [General Santos] and I was brought up here. I'm happy that you are here," he tells a group of about 20 journalists from China, Macau and Hong Kong.
For a rags-to-riches boxer whose future will be in jeopardy if he loses a third straight fight (he also lost to American Timothy Bradley in a controversial decision last June), the welterweight is showing his softer side before he is forced to toughen up the edges in Macau next month. If he is nervous about the fight, it doesn't show.
Pacquiao's generosity doesn't stop with the media. He has also invited four Chinese fighters to his training camp - two-time Olympic gold medallist Zou Shiming, fellow mainlander Yang Lianhui (another Chinese prospect signed by Top Rank in August) Macau's Ng Kuok Kun and Hong Kong's Rex Tso Sing-yu. The boxers will spend a few days with the multiple world champion in his gym, Wildcard.
This is the other side few people get to see: Pacquiao playing Mr Nice Guy.
The visiting entourage includes Top Rank boss Bob Arum, Pacquiao's long-time trainer Freddie Roach, and some of his closest confidants like adviser Michael Koncz, plus the top honchos from the Venetian, including Sands China chief executive Edward Tracy, who arrives by private jet to meet the legend.
Pacquiao's home, although not extravagantly decorated, is a modern complex with every amenity against a backdrop of a shanty town, where brownouts and poverty are common. There's everything an athlete would want - a fully equipped gym, billiard tables, dart boards, a theatre, swimming pool and even a basketball court.
The bedroom and living quarters are located further inside the common grounds. This is one of at least three homes Pacquiao owns (he also has homes in Manila and Los Angeles).
A big iron gate leads to the courtyard and the indoor basketball court, where a serious game is under way. Apparently, Pacquiao opens his doors to local teams who need to use his court.
At Wildcard Gym, a three-storey fitness complex near his home, a small crowd of people are gathered outside the glass door, hoping to get a glimpse of their hero. An armed guard stands outside and security is tight.
"I came all the way from Manila just to catch a glimpse of him," says seafood exporter Vina Benedicto, 51. "In the Philippines, you don't get any bigger than Manny Pacquiao. I want to see him because he is my idol and I want to take a picture with him. I want to see him in person.
"We know his gym is here and we are waiting for him to appear. We know he is fighting in November. He must win. The whole country is counting on him. He had a long rest and maybe he can win this time," she says.
Elmer Organia, a male nurse, 28, is at the Wildcard Gym with his girlfriend, hoping to meet his idol, saying he would visit the gym more often if he had the time.
"I come here every week hoping to catch a glimpse of him. He's a hero, an icon and a boxing idol. Everybody in the Philippines loves him. Every day people like myself come here hoping to see him. This city owes a lot to Manny Pacquiao. There are more modern buildings now and the city is developing because of him," said Organia.
Pacquiao's generosity is well known in General Santos. He donates millions to the city and he is always quick to respond with help when it is needed, such as after the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that recently struck the islands of Bohol, Cebu and Siquijor that left at least 213 dead.
"Unfortunately I had to train and I wasn't able to fly there to survey the damage. But I did what I could. I sent help to them," Pacquiao says.
The Filipino refuses to give "a full comment" on the dispute between Hong Kong and the Philippines government, who are at loggerheads over the blotched rescue attempt during the 2010 Manila bus hijacking that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead.
Pacquiao is careful with his words, refusing to take sides. "We need unity," he says. "We have to love one another and forgive each other. Whoever made mistakes we should ask for forgiveness," adds Pacquiao.
"Sports can help mend relationships. That's a good idea. I can be an ambassador," he laughs.
Asked if he has ambitions to become Philippines president one day, Pacquiao laughs again. "I'm very happy to be a Congressman. But you never know. There's a saying, if there are no changes, there is no butterfly."
Right now, Pacquiao has to get serious and stay focused on his fight with Rios. He has trained harder than he has in years and says he will be 100 per cent ready come November 24. He's happy because his training has gone well so far. He's looking great in training. Sparring partners have been changed because they are getting hurt, such is his determination to get into shape.
"He even caught me in the lip," quips Roach. "His training has been going fabulous. We are in a really good position now. We are ahead of schedule. He's looking good," said the Hall of Fame coach.
Pacquiao adds: "My preparations are more serious and focused than in years. My training camp is one of the longest preparations of my career.
"I am spending eight weeks in General Santos to get ready. I need to train more. I am hungry. I'm very happy with my condition so far."
Maybe that's why Pacquiao is happy. He feels he needs to show the boxing world what they have been missing and that he will be back in a big way.
"Boxing is hard work, and so is being involved in politics. I have to be ready for Rios. We know each other in the ring and we both have a job to do. I will certainly do my best. He has to do his best against me. We will give a good fight."
The fight has caught the imagination of the world with a number of celebrities making enquiries about tickets. "We had inquiries from people in 31 countries around the world," says Tracy. "We had inquiries from all over Asia, Hong Kong and China, Zimbabwe and even Russia. The response has been very good and we couldn't be happier.
"A number of Hollywood celebrities like Denzel Washington, Eva Longoria, George Clooney want to come.
"So far 80 per cent of tickets have been sold. Only the most expensive tickets [HK$30,000-plus ringside] are still available but they're expected to be gone the day of the fight."