LAS VEGAS — Nearly 18 years ago, a reporter approached Freddie Roach for an interview about Johnny Tapia. Roach, though, preferred to talk about a fighter few in the U.S. had heard about.
That fighter was Manny Pacquiao, now a cultural icon and one of the most familiar faces in boxing. In 2001, though, Pacquiao was all but unknown to the American audience. He was making his debut in the U.S., at the MGM Grand Garden on an Oscar De La Hoya undercard against Lehlo Ledwaba.
The plan was for Ledwaba to fight Tapia, but Tapia’s management wanted no part of him, and so Pacquiao got the call. Ledwaba was a highly regarded fighter and was so heavily favored to defeat Pacquiao that most sportsbooks wouldn’t take any bets on it.
It was the one-sided bout the bookmakers expected, but it was Pacquiao who dominated Ledwaba and stopped him in the sixth.
That was the beginning of his career under Roach for the now-40-year-old Filipino senator. He’s earned roughly a half-billion dollars in purses and endorsements and will add to that on Saturday; he’s guaranteed $10 million plus a percentage of the pay-per-view sales when he defends his WBA welterweight belt against Adrien Broner.
Pacquiao not only became one of the greatest fighters in boxing history but has become one of the most important figures in the sport. He’s won titles or championship recognition in a record and almost impossible-to-fathom eight weight classes. He’s fought all comers and has been in the ring with three men who are in the International Boxing Hall of Fame already (Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera and De La Hoya) and with six others (Floyd Mayweather, Juan Manuel Marquez, Miguel Cotto, Shane Mosley, Ricky Hatton and Timothy Bradley) who at least have a shot of being inducted.
But it took a bout at the tail end of his marvelous career against Broner in a grossly overpriced PPV ($74.99) to remind us of Pacquiao’s importance to this sport.
The contrast between the men is stark. Broner’s boorish behavior has been on display throughout, and continued at Wednesday’s news conference when he made racist comments about Filipinos and insulted Showtime’s Al Bernstein. Broner was upset at the affable and classy Bernstein because he said that Bernstein has ripped him on social media.
No one else has seen it, though there is much to rip Broner about, both inside and outside of the ring. The fact that Showtime condones his behavior and continues to give him major fights that earn him millions is galling.
Pacquiao has had a smile on his face just about everywhere he’s been this week as he’s fulfilled his pre-fight media obligations. He’s been accessible and insightful and has carried the promotion throughout.
His pride was wounded a bit when he heard calls for his retirement, and he’s responded with the best camp he’s had in years.
“All the people saying I was done and couldn’t fight, I wanted to show them, ‘Hey, I’m still here [and] I’m not too old,’” Pacquiao said.
He signed with the Premier Boxing Champions last year in order to be able to land fights with its high-profile welterweights including Broner, IBF champion Errol Spence Jr; WBC champion Shawn Porter; WBA champion Keith Thurman; ex-champion Danny Garcia; Mikey Garcia and, potentially, a rematch with Floyd Mayweather.
Top Rank has pushed the narrative that Pacquiao didn’t want to fight WBO champion Terence Crawford, but Pacquiao has denied that. He told Yahoo Sports he’d be willing to fight anyone, including a heavyweight, and said following Wednesday’s news conference that he asked to fight Crawford before he was paired with Jeff Horn.
It’s an ambitious agenda, and it’s virtually impossible for him to face all of them. But Pacquiao is helping the sport that made him rich and famous by showing his peers how to conduct oneself and to be open to any challenge.
He has said repeatedly that he feels a responsibility to the fans to make an action-filled fight, and that could put him at risk.
While Broner’s résumé — and overall skills — can’t compare to Pacquiao’s, he does have talent and he can hit hard. It’s not inconceivable that Broner could catch Pacquiao and end the fight.
“Manny Pacquiao has done a lot for the sport,” Broner said. “I’m going to beat him up and have a drink with him afterward. I grew up in boxing and I know what’s going on. It’s a business, but don’t get it twisted: I’m going to dominate and win.”
Broner has never dominated an elite opponent in his prime, and it’s because of his approach. He’s been more about talk, and telling people how great he is, rather than proving it by fighting and beating the best.
Pacquiao is the modern era’s gold standard when it comes to walking the walk.
Boxing has made him rich beyond his wildest dreams. He earned the equivalent of $20 in his pro debut, but has gone on to become the second-highest earner in boxing history, behind only Mayweather. It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a guy who weighed in with rocks in his pockets in his first pro fight 23 years ago so he’d be over 100 pounds.
For as much as boxing has done for him, though, he’s done more for it. He’s provided magic moments repeatedly in his career, and has represented the sport in a classy and dignified manner.
It’s just sad it took the boorish actions of a boxer who isn’t close to his equal in accomplishments to remind us of that.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Turkey seeks arrest warrant for NBA star
• Atlanta mayor clarifies Saints Super Bowl remark
• The real reason for NFL playoff star’s weight gain
• Paylor: ‘Redshirt’ year big for Mahomes