Center of attention

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

LAS VEGAS – Freddie Roach looks more like Mr. Peepers than Mr. Universe, hardly the type who would be referred to as "Idol." He lives in Hollywood, but it's in a tiny apartment above a musty boxing gym.

Yet, the diminutive boxing trainer is one of the most popular men in the Philippines, where he is either known as "Coach Freddie," or, more commonly, "Idol." Walking through a shopping mall, he said, can be a chore.

"It takes me a couple of hours to get out, because of all the people," Roach says, sighing. Roach, though, has no illusions about his fame. It's not because Filipinos have suddenly grown infatuated with middle-aged ex-fighters.

"All because of him," Roach says, nodding toward Manny Pacquiao, who was surrounded by a small army of Filipino reporters. "His popularity there is incredible."

And because of that popularity, and the chaos that frequently ensues when he's spotted in public in his homeland, there has been much debate regarding Pacquiao's decision to train at home for his super featherweight fight with Marco Antonio Barrera on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

Roach lost his cool in the early days of Pacquiao's training camp in Cebu City, Philippines, because so many people were crammed into the gym trying to catch a glimpse of him.

Roach shooed away enough people to make a respectable crowd for a Clippers game. And he's had to plead with Pacquiao to give up, at least temporarily, basketball. Pacquiao would leave the boxing gym after a rigorous and hit the basketball court.

Roach managed to extract a promise from Pacquiao that he would quit playing basketball four weeks from the fight. But the next day, Roach read of Pacquiao's exploits in a Filipino newspaper, a story which detailed Pacquiao's 31-point effort.

Pacquiao, who is ranked No. 2 in the Yahoo! Sports Top 10 pound-for-pound poll, grins impishly when he recounts the story.

"What can I say?" he asked. "I love basketball."

Roach sighs. He knows he's fighting a losing battle, because trying to slow Pacquiao is something like trying to make water flow up hill.

But with all that is going on in his life and in his world, there is the question of whether Pacquiao paid enough attention to Roach's lessons.

He handled Barrera with ease in their first bout, on Nov. 15, 2003, in San Antonio, stopping him in 11. But it was Barrera, not Pacquiao, battling the distractions before that fight.

Barrera promoter Oscar De La Hoya, whom Pacquiao regards as an idol, questioned whether Pacquiao's outside interests have hurt his preparations.

"He was running for (Congress), he's got people after him everywhere he goes, he's got all of these different interests, it's amazing," De La Hoya said. "But does he remember that he has Barrera in front of him? I'm not sure if he was able to commit himself to his training the way he should, and as fighter, I can tell you, if you're not committed to training you might as well not train. You're wasting your time."

Barrera knows a thing or two about the impact distractions can have on a fighter's preparations. Before the fight with Pacquiao in 2003, Barrera had to break training camp in Big Bear, Calif., to appear before the Nevada Athletic Commission and explain why he had had a steel plate inserted into his head because of a non-boxing related surgery.

And then he had to leave camp early because of wildfires in Big Bear that left so much soot in the air that it was unsuitable for an athlete in training.

The result was a listless and lethargic performance and the only loss by knockout off his career.

Barrera said he's been a different fighter in camp this time around in what he says is his last fight.

"It's been a long time since I've been as dedicated training as I have for this fight," Barrera said. "Sometimes, you prepare with not as much will, but this time, I prepared myself with a little extra will."

The question Pacquiao must answer on Saturday is whether he prepared with the same kind of will and intensity when he was at home, where business interests and distractions of all sorts pulled him away.

Pacquiao, though, might be the most difficult to distract boxer in the business. An ex-manager once said of him, "Manny just loves the chaos. He thrives on it."

Despite a zany life, he's found enough time to train to become one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport as well a national icon in the Philippines. His promoter, Bob Arum, calls him the best pound-for-pound fighter in the game.

It's a jab at Floyd Mayweather Jr., whom Arum once promoted, to be sure. But it's also a measure of Arum's respect for Pacquiao.

"If you talk about fighters, guys who aren't worried to stand in there and throw punches and entertain and give the people what they want, there's none better than this kid," Arum said. "I've been around 40 years and I can tell a real fighter when I see one. This kid is a real fighter. He lives to fight. And when I say fight, I don't mean running around and shaking his (back side). I mean getting in there and throwing punches and fighting."

And though Roach said Pacquiao's boxing is going to be more important on Saturday than his ability to brawl, he says it with an impish grin on his face.

Pacquiao shrugs his shoulders when asked how the fight might play out.

"We'll see," he says. "It depends on how the fight goes. I'm just focused on winning. Whatever I have to do to win."

And that's probably going to mean fighting at a high pace and pushing the aging Barrera to, and, hopefully from Pacquiao's standpoint, beyond his limits.

It takes great conditioning to fight that way, but Pacquiao has no doubts he'll be able to do that if that's required.

"My conditioning is fine," he said. "That's never an issue for me."

Not even, he was asked, with all the distractions.

"Nope," he said, smiling. "This is what I love. Training and fighting. It's not work. It's what I love."

More: Barrera's fire burns.

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