Stardom can’t keep Manny Pacquiao from staying humble, or cooking in a restaurant kitchen

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – The former laundromat in the strip mall at 1123 North Vine is now home to trainer Freddie Roach's best fighters. There's been an addition to the Wild Card Gym.

The venerable gym upstairs remains and is where Roach's dues-paying members work out, as well as less-accomplished boxers.

Manny Pacquiao helps cook at Nat's, a Thai restaurant by the Wild Card Gym. (Ping Nepo/Team Pacquiao)
Manny Pacquiao helps cook at Nat's, a Thai restaurant by the Wild Card Gym. (Ping Nepo/Team Pacquiao)

But in need of more space – as well as the four parking spots that came with it, Roach said, only half-jokingly – Roach took over the laundromat when it went out of business and converted it into another gym.

It’s the gym Roach reserves for the best.

"It's a good incentive because I tell the kids it's where the stars train, so when they get to come down here, they feel they've done something," Roach said.

Nobody has done more than Manny Pacquiao, the most significant fighter in Roach's large and growing stable. On Tuesday, Pacquiao was tucked away in a tiny room that looked like it once might have been used to store leftover boxes of detergent.

Eight people crowded into the room that comfortably would have fit three, maybe four. As usual, they focused on every move Pacquiao made as he slowly wrapped his hands as he prepared to spar.

Pacquiao is a month away from the fight of his life, a May 2 bout in Las Vegas against rival Floyd Mayweather Jr. that will pay each man in excess of $100 million.

But that doesn't mean Pacquiao has forgotten how to impact the people in his life. Tina Ribakun is the owner of a small Thai restaurant Nat's that is in the same strip mall as the Wild Card Gym.

When he's in town training for a fight, Pacquiao is a frequent guest at Nat's. He even occasionally goes into the kitchen and helps Ribakun cook.

"He's so nice and so humble," she says of Pacquiao. "Everybody around here loves him because he's so good to everybody."

Every Pacquiao fight is like Mardi Gras in his native Philippines, but Mayweather-Pacquiao is on a different scale.

"I knew this was going to be a huge fight, but as big as my expectations for it were, it's already gone way past them," said Michael Koncz, Pacquiao's top adviser.

Dozens of Filipino reporters stake out the parking lot at the Wild Card Gym, hoping to be allowed even a few seconds with Pacquiao. He is a star of unfathomable magnitude in the Philippines, unlike anything the U.S. has seen in many years.

In the Philippines, Pacquiao is regarded almost as a deity. Crime literally comes to a halt on the nights he fights, because everyone stops to watch him.

In his 2010 profile of Pacquiao for 60 Minutes, the late Bob Simon said, "In the Philippines, he's an obsession. Everybody watches every fight. When he's in the ring, the insurgents call a cease fire in their running battles with the Philippine Army."

Pacquiao travels with a massive entourage, and on fight weeks, people wind up sleeping everywhere in his suite. There are men sleeping in the closets, under tables and at the foot of his bed. One has to tiptoe over bodies just to get to the bathroom, or to grab a cup of water.

All of that makes what occurred in 2007 so puzzling. Two months after the biggest win of his career, a third-round knockout of Erik Morales, Pacquiao announced he would run for a seat in the Filipino House of Representatives.

He knocked out Jorge Solis on April 14, 2007, a month before the election. With Pacquiao's rousing victory still fresh in their minds, voters went to the polls and handed him an embarrassing loss.

Pacquiao, right, dines with his team at Nat's. (Ping Nepo/Team Pacquiao)
Pacquiao, right, dines with his team at Nat's. (Ping Nepo/Team Pacquiao)

Incumbent Darlene Antonino-Custodio trounced him, winning the election by 29 points.

For a man so popular, it was hard to imagine the magnitude of the defeat.

At the mention of the wide defeat, Pacquiao stares at a visitor impassively. He betrays no emotion.

But surely, for a man so used to success, so accustomed to widespread adoration, it had to be painful.

"I wanted to help the people, but they refused my offer to help them," Pacquiao says.

Clearly, but it doesn't explain why a man so esteemed would get beaten so easily, rejected as if he were a perennial candidate not to be taken seriously.

Pacquiao announced he was running about three months before the election, but he then immediately went into training camp in the U.S. and was rarely seen in the months leading up to the election.

When he got home, he had two weeks to campaign. He wasn't prepared. Boxing is tough, but there is no fight like an election. He didn't approach the campaign the same way he approached his training camp and it cost him.

The voters saw it, and they rejected him in a landslide.

It stung, no doubt, but it didn't overwhelm him.

"I understood, because they wanted to see something and I didn't give it to them," Pacquiao said.

They wanted to see him. They wanted a candidate who understood the issues, who had a plan to help them improve their lives. And he was off training for a boxing match and had entered the race almost as if it were on a lark.

But the competitive fire that fuels him as a fighter flared as he glumly saw the returns come in.

He began plotting the next campaign the night of that loss.

"I got my party together; I got ready and I did it right," Pacquiao said.

He won his seat in the House in 2010, trouncing the incumbent by 33 points. He ran unopposed for re-election in 2013.

Tina Ribakun is the owner of Nat's, which is in the same strip mall as the Wild Card Gym. (Yahoo Sports)
Tina Ribakun is the owner of Nat's, which is in the same strip mall as the Wild Card Gym. (Yahoo Sports)

He's pushed through numerous projects, some of which he's paid out of his own pocket. He said he's worked to improve the quality of health care and schools, to create more job opportunities and to help people build homes.

"I just want to show them I'm different from other politicians," Pacquiao said of his constituents.

Much like Mayweather, he's became wealthy beyond his wildest imagination. He earned the equivalent of $2 for his first bout, and now is likely to take home a nine-figure paycheck for facing Mayweather.

He's used his wealth to secure his family's future and make a difference for the downtrodden in his country.

While his public service is important to him, it can't replace the significance of boxing in his life. Without boxing, none of the other things would have been possible.

"For me, boxing is a very important part of my life," he said. "I can give honor to my country [by boxing] and boxing of course is how I help my family. And I can help others, too. I know the feeling you have inside when you have nothing. I can understand what it feels like to be poor and to have nothing, because I was that way.

"And so now, I can do things to help people because of what boxing has done for me."

One of the many things it's done for him is that it's enabled him to live a life of luxury. He's recently signed a contract to buy a $12.5 million, 10,000-square-foot home in Beverly Hills.

In that regard, he's not much different from Mayweather, who has adopted the "Money" persona for his ostentatious ways.

But Pacquiao, who said Mayweather "should humble himself before God," insists he's the same person he was when he caught a ferry to Manila as a teenager in hopes of becoming a boxer.

He's way richer and infinitely more famous, but he swears he has the same personal values he did when he was a penniless teen hawking cigarettes on the street.

"When you were there, when you had nothing, you don't forget that," he said. "I came from [extreme poverty] and I've never forgotten where I came from."

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