LAS VEGAS – Manny Pacquiao cruised into Sin City in the back seat of a Honda Odyssey, knees squeezed up against his chin and leg muscles cramping from four hours drifting through the scorching desert.
He stepped out of the vehicle, stretched his arms towards the sky and looked up at his face spread across a gigantic electronic billboard, complete with flashing lights, computer-generated flames and the image of his foe, Shane Mosley.
A few minutes later he strolled through the foyer of the MGM Grand, where Saturday’s biggest fight of the year will take place, and sparked mild chaos. Boxing fans stopped in their tracks, mouths wide open, and clamored for a photograph. People rushed over, offering good luck wishes and grinning from ear to ear. Young women giggled and nudged each other, daring one another to approach the champ.
Before long the object of their attention was ready to move on, heading into the casino in search of a hearty meal, a coffee and perhaps a late-night party.
If you think such an entrance was odd for the world’s best fighter, you’d be right. Manny Pacquiao, in this case, was not actually Manny Pacquiao.
He is Allan Rivera Manuel, a 26-year-old airport worker and father of one from Houston, and he bears such an uncanny resemblance to the Pacman that he has turned an appreciation for a modern legend into a profession. Manuel rocked up in Vegas after flying from Texas to Los Angeles to meet his manager, and will spend the next few days soaking up the residual adulation of the Pacquiao show.
The likeness is so convincing that an hour in Manuel’s company made me forget he wasn’t the real Manny, despite having covered several Pacquiao fights and having sat within touching distance of the superstar at a news conference a day earlier.
I’m not the only one getting confused. Among those fooled the last time Manuel was in Vegas were Roy Jones Jr. and, incredibly, Antonio Margarito, who spent 12 brutal rounds in the ring with the Pacman at Cowboys Stadium in November and ended up with a cracked facial bone for his trouble.
“Margarito was playing blackjack when he saw me and he dropped his stack of chips,” Manuel told Yahoo! Sports. “He couldn’t tell at all. It is the same everywhere, the response is amazing. I have had paparazzi chasing me, people trying to grab me. This time I had to come with bodyguards.
“I sometimes feel a bit bad but a lot of the time people refuse to believe me even if I tell them I am not Manny. And often even the ones who realize still want their picture taken with me.”
A few years back Pacquiao himself could have merrily wandered down the Strip without so much as a second glance from the vacationing populace. No more. He is now not just a Filipino hero, but a genuine sports icon across the United States. The Mosley fight sold out in a few weeks and pay-per-view sales are already through the roof.
“Manny has transcended sports,” said his promoter, Bob Arum. “It has been amazing to see the growth in his popularity over the last few years, and he is the kind of character who just unites people around him. You can’t help but like him. And I even heard there was a guy who is out there impersonating him.”
That guy would be Manuel, who was eating sushi and preparing to walk the Strip the following day, complete with a Pacquiao-sized entourage of 50. Team Pacquiao had already been in contact, inviting him to a post-fight after-party and other events.
“I met Manny recently at the Wildcard Gym,” Manuel said. “As soon as I walked in, he got this big smile. We spoke a little but I was too nervous to talk. I was blushing.
“I grew up in a Filipino family so I have always loved boxing and followed Pacquiao’s career from the beginning. A lot of people have always said I looked like him, but it was only in the last year that I started thinking about it as a second career.
“I want to be careful with it, to respect Manny and represent him in the right way. That is important to me.”
As the night wound down, Pacquiao the fighter was in his suite towering above the Vegas skyline, surrounded by his ever-present mass of followers and sleeping in preparation for his $20 million payday.
Allan Rivera Manuel pushed up his shades and wandered off to his own hotel, with his manager and his buddies doubling as bodyguards. He didn’t sleep on satin sheets, but he wore a huge smile. And why not? He’d just spent another day living the life of boxing’s biggest celebrity.
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