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Thursday, November 21, 2013
Still KO demons to slay for Pacquiao

By Brian Campbell


It was one of the longest minutes I can recall as a boxing fan.

As millions around the world held their collective breath, exactly 62 seconds elapsed between the time Manny Pacquiao fell face-first to the canvas and ringside doctors completed the process of reviving him from a frightening state of unconsciousness last December.

Watching an ending as dramatic as Juan Manuel Marquez's sixth-round knockout of Pacquiao in their brutal fourth fight creates a Molotov cocktail of emotions for any fight fan. Warm from the celebration of such a historically significant war, yet chilled by concern for Pacquiao's health, all anyone could do was exhale at the first sign of movement from the Filipino icon.

Thoughts flash through the mind at a rapid pace during moments of shock, making a minute feel infinitely longer. But like most, I wasn't contemplating whether Pacquiao would ever be the same as a fighter or whether his prime had been taken with one punch as he lay motionless in the ring.

I wonder whether he would wake up.

The only person not privy to the same inner conflict was Pacquiao himself, who could only later view a replay of the knockout -- and did so with the emotional disconnect of watching an actor, dressed up as him, stand in to endure the fall.

In some ways, I wonder if that act has only continued during the promotion of Saturday's bout between Pacquiao and all-action slugger Brandon Rios in Macau, (HBO PPV, 9 p.m. ET).

It's no secret that Pacquiao doesn't reveal much of his true self to the public. He can be an excruciating interview. And as questions about his physical and mental state have built over the past 12 months, Pacquiao has fielded media inquiries with one of two scripted personalities.

There is PacMan, the jovial celebrity who replies to queries with an intoxicating smile and a thunderous laugh, often deployed to mask a lack of depth to his answers. And then there is Shy Manny, who isn't above concealing his full understanding of the English language if he feels the need to withhold a fitting response.

I saw a little of both when I got a few minutes to sit down with Pacquiao during the fall media tour for the fight, with the transition from Shy Manny to PacMan eased by my admission to sharing a love for his Boston Celtics, prompting questions of whether the team would ever be the same without Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

But just as pleasant small talk at the doctor's office can be merely a precursor to a penetrating exam, the inevitable questions about whether Pacquiao -- like his beloved Celtics -- would ever be the same soon followed.

Trying to get inside Pacquiao's head is a lot like trying to trade punches with him in the ring. He has the muscle memory to instantly parry the true meaning of your question before countering from an awkward angle, forcing you to take a step back.

For the most part, Pacquiao was direct and consistent, firing back variations of the same responses:

"I am not thinking about my last fight."

"This is part of boxing."

"That's not my first time to lose like that."

By no means was I expecting an emotional admission of any fear or doubt he was battling inside. Yet with each response, I couldn't help but shake a feeling of understated heaviness behind his prodigious brown eyes.

Manny Pacquiao has done a great job throughout the promotion of the fight playing the role of Manny Pacquiao. But the one person I believe he has yet to fully convince is himself, and that won't happen until he finally steps into the ring and regains his comfort level in an actual fight.

This goes deeper than any superficial fear of facing Rios, or even Pacquiao doubting his own punch resistance after such a brutal knockout. This is more about overcoming the loss of his invincibility, something Pacquiao had been able to maintain even through multiple defeats.

Pacquiao is quick to mention that he has come back from a knockout defeat twice before. But those fights came in the 20th century, when Manny was still a teen, and in both cases he was depleted after missing weight. In fact, his most recent KO loss, in a 1999 flyweight title fight against Medgoen Singsurat, came on a body shot.

The knockout loss to Marquez holds significantly more meaning. Pacquiao is now a worldwide star and a not-long-deposed pound-for-pound king who has redefined what's possible for a fighter his size by successfully making unprecedented climbs in weight. Moreover, before last December, he hadn't suffered a legitimate knockdown in nearly 10 years.

Moreover, history has been unkind to fighters Pacquiao's age -- he turns 35 next month -- and particularly those attempting to regain top form after such a brutal defeat. Having to deal with the realities of suddenly feeling mortal is a heavy burden for anyone, but it carries a special sting for a fighter: It means he's frighteningly close to his scariest opponent -- the end.

Pacquiao may have built himself a life of royalty as an international celebrity and humanitarian who moonlights as a congressman in his native land. But in his heart, he's a fighter. It's his identity and has been his profession and craft for more than half his life. Without that foundation, he might think, what is he really?

After listening to Manny dance and feint around more questions with typical deftness -- "That's just boxing" and "It comes with the territory" -- I closed my time with him by asking whether he hopes to someday avenge the defeat to Marquez. He told me about how he was convinced, after watching the replay of their fourth fight, that he was one round away from finishing JMM.

"Before that accident happened ..." Pacquiao said, before stopping in his tracks to catch himself mid-sentence.

It was the way he said "accident" that was startling, and we locked eyes with the same surprised look. It was as if the word snuck out from behind his tight defense -- a rare moment of honest clarity during an otherwise forgettable stop on an infinite journey of standard-fare interviews.

Pacquiao paused, prompting members of his team to break free from their own conversations, as if a record playing in a club had come to a screeching halt. He looked at them. They looked back at him. And just like that, the curtain revealing the man closed. Pacquiao began again, as if the moment had never happened: "Before the knockdown happened, the fight is very good."

But Pacquiao will find that he can't dodge or slip any lingering self-doubt he carries into the ring on Saturday. He'll have to face it just as he does a come-forward brawler in Rios: head on.