The projector screen drops down, and suddenly Manny Pacquiao's Los Angeles apartment is transformed. For years Pacquiao's digs resembled a souped-up frat house, with electronic dartboards on the wall, a large charcoal grill on the deck and plush leather couches parked in front of a 36-inch flat-screen TV. The two-bedroom pad comfortably sleeps four, though it rarely housed fewer than 12. Bunk beds were stuffed in a spare room adjacent to the kitchen; members of his entourage who couldn't fit moved across the street to a hotel. When they weren't eating they were drinking; when they weren't drinking they were smoking cigarettes; and when they weren't smoking they were gambling. Scuffles occasionally broke out over something as small as a card game. Pacquiao oversaw it all, the lord of Animal House.
The people are still there, but these days the vibe is discernibly different. Drinking is forbidden, smoking is discouraged and cursing—in or out of the apartment—can draw a lecture from the boss. Every night that projector screen drops down, and Jeric Soriano, a part-time pastor, part-time television-commercial director in the Philippines whom Pacquiao befriended last December, presides over Bible study, with hymn lyrics glowing behind him. Folding chairs are set up, seven across, six rows deep, with still more friends, relatives and other visitors packed in at the back. They sing, they pray, they share Bible verses and devote nearly an hour to dissecting their meaning.
From his front-row seat, with his wife, Jinkee, and other relatives often by his side, Pacquiao soaks it all in, a serene smile creasing his face. Eight months ago his personal life was in shambles. He was immersed in the vices of celebrity—the drinking, the gambling, the womanizing—and was about to lose his family. He saved it by turning to God and pleading with Jinkee for forgiveness. He saved his marriage and, says Pacquiao, rescued his soul. "If I died before I changed, I would not have gone to the eternal kingdom," he says. "I was an immoral man. Now I am a new creation."
Indeed, Pacquiao says this tranquillity is his finest achievement. But that raises a question as he prepares to face the undefeated Timothy Bradley on Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas: Will Pacquiao's newfound peace outside the ring affect his ability to go to war in it?
Pacquiao's transformation began last October, when he told James Dayap, his longtime friend and photographer, "I need to change." Rumors of Pacquiao's Charlie Sheen--like behavior had flooded boxing message boards, but few people knew the full extent of it. They didn't know about the cases of Johnny Walker Blue that Pacquiao had shipped to the Philippines and swilled late into the night. They didn't know that in recent years the fighter, who earns $25 million to $30 million per bout, had been forced to go to his promoter, Bob Arum, for cash to pay his gambling debts. One associate recalls that Pacquiao asked Arum for a $2 million advance on a purse. Arum says that "five or six times" he has wired hundreds of thousands of dollars to casinos. "[Manny] had one of the worst gambling habits of any athlete I've ever known," says Arum. "He was addicted to it."
Most people also didn't know the extent of his infidelity, though Jinkee certainly did. Last November she flew to Las Vegas, where Pacquiao was preparing to face Juan Manuel Màrquez. Pacquiao thought she was coming to watch the fight; according to sources close to him, she told him she wanted a divorce. "They weren't getting along," says his trainer, Freddie Roach, "and it really shook him up." On the day of the fight Manny went to Jinkee's room to ask her to ride with him to the arena. The two argued for 40 minutes, pushing a scheduled 6 p.m. arrival to 7 and leaving Manny just enough time to dress and warm up with Roach for 10 minutes before going to the ring. Pacquiao won a narrow decision that easily could have gone the other way.
The couple have repaired their relationship in part because Pacquiao has backed up his promise to change. He removed the hard-core gamblers and drinkers from his inner circle. He gave away his cockfighting farm. He sold his casino and shut down his bar and restaurant in the Philippines. He still takes care of several employees; he gave one of his blackjack dealers the seed money to start her own clothing line. But he has cut the unsavory elements out of his life. "I used to pray every day, but then I kept on cheating [on Jinkee] and doing bad things," he says. "It's different now. The old Manny Pacquiao is gone."
Roach remembers the first time he heard about the more peaceful Pacquiao. He remembers his reaction, too. "I thought he should quit," says Roach. "If that's how he felt, maybe he should choose a different sport." There is a place for peace, but it isn't in a boxing ring, where hesitation can get you hurt. Roach admits that he wondered if Pacquiao still had his killer instinct.
He still has it, and then some, says the trainer. Roach has been thrilled with Pacquiao's work in this camp. Sure, some things have changed. Pacquiao used to sing Beatles songs during training; now it's Bible verses. The intensity is still there, now even more focused. Pacquiao quit playing basketball because it sapped his energy during training, and he's coming to the gym fresher every day. "His boxing," says Roach, "is as consistent as it has ever been."
Pacquiao says there is no conflict between his commitments to religion and to boxing; if the opportunity to put Bradley down is there, he will take it. "It's nothing personal," he says. "We are both throwing punches. It's my job to give a good fight. We're enemies in the ring. Afterward we will be friends."
Pacquiao's faith has insulated him from distractions, and in this camp there has been a big one: Roach and Alex Ariza, Pacquiao's strength and conditioning coach, barely speak. Roach is upset that Ariza left Pacquiao's camp in the Philippines early to work with Julio César Chàvez Jr.; Roach is even more upset that Ariza tried to take another fighter they share, Amir Khan, with him. "I said, 'Who is going to train him?'" says Roach. "He tells me, 'I will.' When did he become a f------ trainer?" Pacquiao has refused to fire Ariza, instead assigning him Bible verses to study that Pacquiao believes will help Ariza through his problems with Roach. (Ariza declines to speak with reporters.)
Pacquiao says he remains committed to being a congressman in the Philippines, but friends say his political ambitions have cooled. "He doesn't talk about politics much anymore," says Roach. "I used to tell him he was going to be president someday, and he would smile. He doesn't smile when I say it now."
Roach is satisfied with Pacquiao's commitment to boxing; he sees a fighter still near the top of his game. Negotiations for a megabout with Floyd Mayweather Jr. have stalled, but Roach sees a fighter who can wait for Mayweather to come around. The trainer eased up on Pacquiao in this camp, cutting his sparring rounds and replacing his stable of sparring partners to give Pacquiao fresh looks. "He's not the same fighter he was five years ago," says Roach, "but he is still better than everyone else."
Better, or just more at peace? On the wall of his apartment is a portrait of Pacquiao dressed in a flashy dark suit, a cigar in his mouth and his welterweight title belt on his arm. It is one of the few reminders of a life lived in excess, of a lifestyle he can't put behind him fast enough.
SAYS ROACH, "HE'S NOT THE FIGHTER HE WAS FIVE YEARS AGO, BUT HE IS STILL BETTER THAN EVERYONE ELSE."
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
MANNY IN FULL Pacquiao, who defends his WBO welterweight belt against Bradley on Saturday, has removed the heavy drinkers and gamblers from his entourage and participates in nightly Bible study.
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
FIT AND FOCUSED After repairing his relationship with Jinkee (peach blouse, in back) by keeping his promise to reform, Pacquiao has trained as well as ever, according to Roach.