HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — The boxing genius of Manny Pacquiao includes feet that belong in “Riverdance,” calves the size of grapefruits and deceptive power generated from his core. His movement is unorthodox, scattered and perpetual, as if designed by a jazz musician. He creates angles unlike any other fighter, past or present, appearing, disappearing, shifting, striking; on balance, off balance, even off one foot.
|Bruce Lee FoundationPacquiao, who fights Shane Mosley on Saturday in Las Vegas, watched the films of Bruce Lee, pictured, while growing up.
Enlarge This Image
|Gabriel Bouys/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesPacquiao’s speed and continual movement help him create different angles from which to challenge opponents.|
It is this style — part performance art, part technical wizardry, unique to Pacquiao— that defines perhaps the best boxer of his generation. And it started with a videotape of the martial artist who became his idol. It started with Bruce Lee.
Last month, as Pacquiao molded his style specific to Shane Mosley, his welterweight opponent on Saturday in Las Vegas, he wrapped his hands inside the dressing room at the Wild Card boxing gym here. To explain the way he fights, he settled on three words.
“Like Bruce Lee,” he said.
Growing up in the Philippines, Pacquiao studied Lee, watching his movies on endless loops. He still often views his collector’s set. “Enter the Dragon” is his favorite. His conditioning coach, Alex Ariza, says he believes Pacquiao built his baseline movement off Lee’s template, the continual attacking, the feet drummed in and out.
“Bruce Lee jumped around and kicked his feet and shook his head and shoulders,” Ariza said. “His feet moved in concert with his hands. He could be choppy, but he was rhythmic. Manny does the same thing. It comes from that.”
A stick-thin, one-dimensional left-hander arrived at Wild Card in 2001, his style still reckless, raw. Pacquiao punched at high volume, seeking knockouts, but struggled against superior technicians.
By then, Pacquiao possessed the basics of his skill set. Because he fought with the speed of the boxers he most admired, Pacquiao cornered opponents, made them feel squeezed. His tempo, the sparring partner Shawn Porter said, feels less like 1 … 2 … 3 and more like 1-2-3-4-5-6.
If Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, could place one boxing skill above all others, he said, “speed is the greatest asset in the world.” Pacquiao’s speed is evident. At one workout, even the comedian Don Rickles said Pacquiao reminded him of Sugar Ray Leonard.
The early Pacquiao combined feet that moved like lightning with uncommon power for a man his size, power that started in those calves (his adviser Mike Koncz said thick legs ran in the family) and wound through his torso.
After Erik Morales defeated Pacquiao in 2005, Roach decided Pacquiao needed balance, and Roach set about enhancing his right hand. In practice, Roach instructed Pacquiao to throw jabs, uppercuts and hooks in three- to four-punch combinations, all right-handed. It took three years, but a different fighter emerged against David Diaz, and Pacquiao later knocked out Ricky Hatton with a right.
Roach divides Pacquiao’s career into two periods: before the Diaz fight and after. His style had started to take shape.
The next epiphany occurred by accident, when, during training, Pacquiao shifted left, around Roach and tapped his trainer on his left shoulder. “What are you going to do now?” he asked. Roach was stunned.
Back when Roach fought, boxers mostly engaged straight on. His work with Pacquiao, the angles they created, changed the way Roach trained. If Pacquiao shifted left, outside the right foot of his opponents, their natural instinct was to follow — into his left hand. If opponents chose not to engage, they had one option, to back away. Roach says Pacquiao improves his position with each angle created and makes it more difficult to counterpunch.
Roach and Pacquiao design angles specific to each opponent. The key, Roach said, is creating space and confusion.
“He still taps me on the shoulder every session,” Roach said. “I’ll always try to counter with what his next opponent would do. I always lose.”
Roach and Pacquiao did not invent this approach to boxing — Roach cited George Foreman’s 1990 knockout of Gerry Cooney as an earlier example — but they elevated angles into art. Roach sees boxing’s future in Pacquiao’s fancy footwork.
As Pacquiao kept moving up in weight divisions, Roach worried less about the weight or power that Pacquiao could add and more about the speed he could lose. Roach told Ariza, “Do not screw up his speed.”
In all his years, through dozens of world champions, Roach never saw a fighter who gained so much weight and retained speed and power. As a result, suspicions have been raised that Pacquiao used performance-enhancing drugs, a charge his camp denies. (Pacquiao has never failed a test.) Ariza points to other factors: different diet, isometric exercises for balance, plyometric exercises for explosiveness.
“He’s also just a freak,” Ariza said. “His resting heart rate in the morning is 42 beats per minute. If he did half the work he does, he would still be where he is today.”
In his last fight, Pacquiao contested the junior middleweight Antonio Margarito. When Margarito’s trainer, Robert Garcia, watched film of Pacquiao, he saw a somewhat vulnerable fighter who lunged too often and left himself exposed. At least it seemed that way.
Garcia instructed Margarito to attack the body, but he failed to keep up and lost vision in one eye when Pacquiao fractured his orbital bone.
“Whatever plan you have against Pacquiao, he just terminates it,” Garcia said. “What seems possible on video is not. Nobody fights like him — awkward, quick, strong, fast, good reflexes — nobody that complete.”
In recent years, Pacquiao honed the footwork that Roach said he deserved more credit for.
“When he moves,” Roach said, “his footwork is so exact, so perfect, it’s what creates the angles and wins all his fights.” Roach sees poetry when Pacquiao’s feet pump, but less like ballet and more like what Ariza calls “the Riverdance.”
The continual movement makes Pacquiao difficult to time. This disrupts the rhythm of his opponents, forces them to take risks.
“It’s an unpolished but very compelling and original athleticism,” the veteran trainer Joe Goossen said. “It’s not a continuing flow of beauty. It can be herky-jerky. It can be harsh, deliberate, unorthodox. But it’s effective.”
Roach says he wishes Pacquiao would finish opponents sooner, thinks Pacquiao is too nice. But Pacquiao views his style as boxing entertainment. He relishes the stage, revels in the attention.
Pacquiao also became a more polished strategist in recent years. Last month, he and Roach slowed regularly during mitt work, and Pacquiao made suggestions that they incorporated on the spot. Koncz said Pacquiao became a “professor of boxing” in his 2008 victory over Oscar De La Hoya.
As opposed to “volume of punches,” Koncz said, Pacquiao “moves sideways, makes angles, with more intent and purpose.” Roach taught Pacquiao elusive tactics, blocking tactics and sidestepping tactics that he had never used before. His style has become more nuanced, more advanced, his results a direct reflection of his evolution.
Pacquiao, 32, attributed that in part to age. Ariza credited the fighter’s outside interests, all the chess and darts and political ambition, for heightened brain activity that, rather than distract Pacquiao, helped him focus.
To beat the improved Pacquiao, Garcia and Goossen said, would require a superb defensive performance, movement to match his movement, an offensive assault to force him backward and, simply, luck. Because of his defensive style and tactical brilliance, Floyd Mayweather Jr. poses the biggest threat.
As Ariza surveys the boxing landscape, he sees fighters emulating Pacquiao, or trying to. They bounce like him, dance like him, shift like him. But they are not as efficient, powerful, creative or balanced. Pacquiao boasts a style that is often imitated, never replicated.
Ariza has long wanted to test Pacquiao for scientific purposes, for lung capacity, red blood cells, endurance. He could publish his findings in a scientific journal. But Pacquiao wants none of that. Part of his genius remains a mystery and always will.
“Bruce Lee,” Ariza said, “was like that.”