But as the Filipino prepares for his career-defining fight against the undefeated champ Floyd Mayweather Jr. on Saturday, it is his powerful story that will put viewers in his corner — and that story begins with a moment of absolute powerlessness.
Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao was born on Dec. 17, 1978, in a thatched hut in the poor Filipino farming town of Kibawe. “There was no hospital, pharmacy, doctor, or nurse within any reasonable distance from where my family lived,” he wrote in his 2010 autobiography, “Pacman.” “We were poor, very poor.” His father was a farm hand who frequently left the family to harvest coconuts. His mother sold peanuts and scrimped to provide for him and his six siblings.
Enthralled by Bruce Lee movies, Pacquiao developed his punch by beating up on the banana tree in front of his home. But the energetic tyke was otherwise quiet and reserved. One of his only friends was a stray dog, which he adopted.
One night, his father came home drunk, Pacquiao recalled years later. The two argued, and Pacquiao’s enraged father allegedly killed his dog. Even worse, Pacquiao then watched, powerless, as his dad ate his pet.
“He killed my dog,” Pacquiao wrote in his autobiography. “He took the puppy I found and killed it. To a young boy, that was unforgivable — it was stealing something I loved, which is far more terrible than stealing money.”
“Manny ran away from home after his father ate his dog,” Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s trainer, said.
If there is a silver lining to Pacquiao’s childhood nightmare, it’s that it drove him to Manila, a bustling metropolis and boxing mecca. It was there he would prove himself as an athlete before moving to America for big money bouts.
Pacquiao arrived in Manila even poorer than he had been in Kibawe. “He lived on the street,” Roach said, “where he bought doughnuts at a doughnut store and then sold each one for a nickel more to survive. He slept in a cardboard box. He fought his way through all this, turned pro at 14, and look at the man he is today.”
Part of his success stems from the anger toward his father he funneled into fighting.
“My father was a part of my early life when I was boxing at the park in General Santos, and he really enjoyed my early years — watching me grow up and watching how competitive I was,” Pacquiao wrote, referring to General Santos City in the southern Philippines. “But I still held bitterness against him for killing my dog and for leaving the family.”
That bitterness drove Pacquiao to a nearly flawless record in America, with only one loss between 2001 and 2009, the year Pacquiao finally made peace with his father.
“I saw him when he came to the United States for the Miguel Cotto fight,” he wrote. “When I locked eyes with my father for the first time in almost two decades, I was not bitter or mad anymore. I forgave him immediately.”
For Pacquiao, a born-again Christian, it was the moment that he put his painful past behind him. But the 2009 fight — in which Pacquiao won his record-breaking seventh world championship — was also his high point. Since letting go of his anger, Pacquiao’s career has slipped. In 2012, he lost back-to-back bouts versus Timothy Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez.
It’s taken the powerful Filipino three more years to earn his biggest — and perhaps final — bout of all. He may now be full of inner peace, but even those closest to Pacquiao wonder if he wouldn’t be better off dredging up some of his youthful rage on Saturday.