Pacman's Greatest Hits: "Manny Pacquiao vs. Lehlo Ledwaba, June 23rd, 2001"
Legendary Hall of Fame boxing promoter Don "War a Week" Chargin often said, "a trainer is only as strong as the horses he jockeys".
Yes, success in boxing is a symbiont effort, comprised of capable management, influential promoters, and wise trainers. But great fortune at the elite level isn't attainable without a special and exceptional talent.
Most knowledgeable fight trainers within the global boxing community never receive the opportunity to nurture or work with a once in a generation type of talent like Floyd Mayweather Jr., Manny Pacquiao, Muhammad Ali, etc...
Heralded boxing mentor Freddie Roach reminisces on the time when his "diamond in the rough" initially entered the Wildcard Gym almost two decades ago.
"I was telling my trainer Eddie Futch one time that owning a boxing gym, you never know when the next 'Muhammad Ali' will walk through those doors," the Hall of Fame trainer recently stated to "Little Giant Boxing". "Then one day Manny Pacquiao walks through my doors, and that was my 'Muhammad Ali'."
Although the young aspiring prizefighter from General Santos City had already won a major world title in 1999 within the talented 112-pound weight division, the 22-year-old athlete was raw and in desperate need of world-class tutelage to compete and ultimately succeed at the elite level.
By doing just three minutes of mitt-work drills and combinations with the hungry Filipino puncher, Coach Freddie saw something very special in the young Mr. Pacquiao.
"I was working the mitts with one of my fighters, and I saw this kid come in the door with a couple of guys, who were his managers of course. He came over and said, 'can you do mitts with me?' I said, yeah sure."
"So we started, and after one round of mitt work, I said, 'this kid can fight'. After that one round of working mitts with him, he walked over to his manager and said, 'we have a new trainer'."
The now world-renowned boxing tandem immediately knew they possessed rare chemistry back in 2001. And while both men were optimistic and hopeful of the young fighter's potential, neither man realized to what heights Pacquiao's career would eventually soar.
But regardless of talent, every fighter's success is contingent on opportunities received. Upon an entire month working with Freddie Roach without any potential fight opportunities, Team Pacquiao started to become discouraged. After contemplating a return home to the Philippines, his "golden ticket" fortuitously arrived.
Lehlo Ledwaba originally captured the IBF Super Bantamweight Championship by defeating former titleholder John Michael Johnson in May of 1999 and had successfully defended his belt five times, stopping four of his last five opponents. The talented South African champion was considered by most to be one of the best "pound for pound" fighters in the world, and a virtual nightmare for most competing 122-pound fighters stylistically.
The 29-year-old titleholder was scheduled to defend his coveted championship against Mexican contender Enrique Sanchez on the undercard of the June 23rd, 2001, "De la Hoya vs. Castillejo" PPV, when Sanchez was forced to back out of the title fight with a sudden hand injury. With only two weeks before the contest, Ledwaba had to find a suitable replacement.
That's when Team Pacquiao received the fateful phone call which consequently changed everything.
"We started working every day together, but they were almost ready to go back home because they weren't getting any good offers for fights," says Roach.
"Ledwaba's opponent had fallen out, and Manny was the next available opponent. So we went to Las Vegas and had our first fight together with one of the toughest fighters in the world at that time. He was really a feared fighter at the time."
Despite being labeled as a 7 to 1 betting underdog on most Race and Sports Books heading into the contest, Roach had little doubt his fighter would emerge victorious...even with only two weeks to prepare for the avoided champion.
"I knew Pacquiao was going to knock this guy out. People were laughing at me, telling me 'Freddie, don't waste your money. Ledwaba's going to kill him'. I said, 'you guys don't know, this kid is special'."
"There's something special about this kid...the way he works, the way he punches, his speed...I knew Pacquiao would knock him out."
The result was a shocking 6th round knock-out victory, in which Manny dominated the heavily favored champion from pillar to post, beating him relentlessly with speed, volume and precision.
The upset sparked a series of impressive performances that catapulted the relative unknown to "pound for pound" and global recognition.
The Pacman became a boxing icon, and his Featherweight and Super Featherweight wars with Barrera, Morales, and Marquez, helped change how fans viewed the industry. Although the "little men" of boxing had always been an entertaining commodity, combining great action and high-level technical ability, very seldom had any division under 147 pounds produced massive live gate numbers and PPV proceeds throughout the sport's rich history.
Manny's overwhelming and dramatic ring style made him a genuine attraction in boxing, but one fight specifically in 2008 elevated Pacquiao into a worldwide phenomenon.
"I think my favorite weight class for Manny was at 130 pounds," said trainer Freddie Roach. "But at 147 pounds, he accomplished possibly his greatest accomplishment as a professional."
"I don't have many trophies or anything like that at my house, but I do have the gloves Manny used when he beat Oscar De la Hoya. It has a picture of us and a caption that reads, 'you're too fast for him, son, he can't handle your speed'. That was my quote...that's what I said in the corner."
...but that's a story for another time.
Later this week, FightSaga.com will revisit "Manny Pacquiao vs. Oscar De la Hoya" in Part 2 of "Pacman's Greatest Hits"!