Sparring partners pay toll for role with Pacman

LAS VEGAS – David Rodela is an affable guy with an intense desire to provide for his family and a keen sense of the best way to do that.

His job is to get beaten up for a living.

He’s a sparring partner, one of the world’s least glamorous jobs and one with a short shelf life. For the better part of the last decade, however, Rodela has eagerly slipped on a headgear, pulled on his gloves and traded punches with some of the world’s elite boxers.

Most were bigger, faster or stronger than he. Frequently, they were all three simultaneously.

“Hey,” he says, proudly, “I’ve been in there with the best: Victor Ortiz, Zab Judah, Ricky Hatton, Juan Lazcano, Joel Casamayor, Amir Khan, Antonio Margarito. A lot of great guys.”

Then, Rodela chuckles, realizing he’s left off a significant name off his list of employers.

“And then, there is this guy,” Rodela said, referring to Manny Pacquiao, boxing’s reigning pound-for-pound champion. “He’s different than all of them.”

Rodela, 25, has worked for Pacquiao since 2004, when Rodela was an amateur and happened to wander into the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, Calif., where Pacquiao trains under the tutelage of Freddie Roach.

In those seven years, he’s endured about as much abuse – black eyes, contusions, bloody noses, broken bones, sore muscles, you name it – as a crash-test dummy.

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Nothing could convince him to give it up. Especially when it means competing against the likes of Pacquiao.

“He’s one of the greatest ever,” said Rodela (15-5-3, 6 KOs), the 2004 national lightweight champion as an amateur who boxes professionally as a super featherweight. “It’s like sparring with Muhammad Ali. Ali was ‘The Greatest’ and if you were around in those days, you wanted to be with him, or around him, in some way. And it’s the same now with Pacquiao.”

Pacquiao will meet Juan Manuel Marquez on Saturday in a welterweight title fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in a bid to finally end the lingering doubts about his previous fights with Marquez.

They met in 2004 as featherweights and, despite scoring three first-round knockdowns, Pacquiao could not hang on to win. Marquez battled back and made it a draw. The rematch in 2008 was contested one weight class higher, and Pacquiao again knocked Marquez down. This time, he pulled out a split-decision victory.

Still, many in boxing are convinced that Marquez deserved to win both fights. During a press tour to promote their bout that covered 25,000 miles, Pacquiao and Marquez generally got along famously. Marquez, though, managed to raise Pacquiao’s ire by wearing a T-shirt to one stop that proclaimed, “Marquez Beat Pacquiao Twice.”

The slight has raised Pacquiao’s already legendary work ethic several notches, say Rodela and fellow sparring partner Ray Beltran. The boss is among the hardest workers in the sport, but he’s so obsessed with beating Marquez convincingly that his intensity has amazed even those who have been working with him for years.

Rodela said Pacquiao’s focus for the bout has been greater than for any of his most memorable triumphs, including transcendent victories over Oscar De La Hoya, Margarito and Hatton.

Manny Pacquiao (center) poses with sparring partners Ray Beltran (left) and David Rodela after a recent training session at Los Angeles' Wild Card Gym.
(Chris Farina photo)

“Brutal. Vicious. Totally focused,” Rodela says of Pacquiao’s training camp demeanor.

He would know. This is a guy who helped Pacquiao prepare for Hatton in 2009. In the first round on the first day of camp, Pacquiao’s first punch caused a hairline fracture that began at Rodela’s orbital bone and extended the full length of his jaw.

This was despite the fact that Pacquiao was wearing 16-ounce sparring gloves and Rodela had head gear on.

Despite that, Rodela showed up for work the next day and every day after that. Roach hires numerous sparring partners for Pacquiao, looking for both fighters who can mimic the upcoming opponent’s style as well as guys durable enough to take the punishment Pacquiao invariably dishes out.

“You can only be in there with Manny for so long,” Roach said. “Guys just need a break.”

Having extra sparring partners around is as important as an ample supply of cold water. Roach knows he’s going to go through them quickly.

“Happens all the time,” the legendary trainer said.

Beltran is in his 14th camp with Pacquiao and counts the superstar as a friend. A 30-year-old lightweight with a 25-5 record and 17 knockouts, Beltran has watched Pacquiao develop from a wild, one-fisted fighter into one what many believe is the best in the world.

Pacquiao is like a blur in the ring, Beltran says, and never seems to tire. It’s a bad combination for a sparring partner, but like Rodela, Beltran says there is no other place he’d rather be than in Pacquiao’s camp.

“Physically, it’s super hard – really, really hard,” Beltran said. “But it’s a dream come true. I’m like a little kid. I never imagined that in my life, I’d get to help one of the greats of this game for so many years. I have so many stories to tell, to my family, my kids and my grandkids. Working with Manny is one of the greatest things that could ever have happened to me.”

While having a front row seat for history is a nice perk, both Rodela and Beltran insist that working for Pacquiao is more than just a job. He’s an open, accommodating guy who has welcomed each of them into his inner circle, they say.

Pacquiao is the boss and, like all those in the outsized entourage, Rodela and Beltran are acutely aware of it. But Pacquiao is a kind and giving boss who has repeatedly helped them whenever asked, and sometimes when he isn’t asked.

“Manny gave me the down payment for my house as a wedding gift,” Rodela said. “How many guys do that? He just takes care of everyone. He’s the best.”

And as a fighter, they insist, he’s getting better. Each camp they’ve worked with him, they’ve noticed things improve ever so much: his footwork, his accuracy, his quickness, his power.

For this training camp, he’s hit a level they never believed he could reach.

“He’s way, way better now than he was in 2008 [when he last fought Marquez],” Beltran said. “He was more predictable then. He was always an aggressive guy, but you could kind of figure out what was coming. Not anymore, though. He’s giving you head movement now. He’s got a right hand, which he was only starting to develop back then. And he’s really smart now and he sets traps and walks you into punches. This is by far the best I’ve ever seen him.

“I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t know what they’re paying Marquez, but I hope it’s a lot, because being in there for 12 rounds with Manny, the way he is now, isn’t going to be any fun. He’s going to see easily the best Manny Pacquiao ever.”

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Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Nov 7, 2011