GRAPEVINE, Texas – Only minutes after the greatest performance of Manny Pacquiao's career to date, after he drubbed Oscar De La Hoya and stopped him following eight one-sided rounds, trainer Freddie Roach was asked about a potential match with Antonio Margarito.
Roach laughed, shook his head and insisted the fight would never happen.
"Too big," Roach said. "Far too big."
But in the nearly two years since that night, Pacquiao has plowed through Ricky Hatton (second-round knockout), Miguel Cotto (12th-round technical knockout) and Joshua Clottey (one-sided unanimous decision), on the way earning wide recognition as the finest boxer in the world.
His promoter, Bob Arum, calls Pacquiao the greatest fighter he's ever seen, including the legendary former heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali.
So, earlier this year, when Arum called Roach and proposed Margarito as Pacquiao's next opponent, Roach never hesitated in accepting. On Saturday at Cowboys Stadium, Pacquiao will meet Margarito for the World Boxing Council super welterweight championship in a bout that will attract perhaps 70,000 fans and which has created a worldwide media frenzy.
And Roach, who once worried that the one-time flyweight champion was too small to compete with a big, physical welterweight like Margarito, is now so confident in Pacquiao that he is predicting an eighth-round knockout.
"Manny's grown so much as a fighter, even since the Oscar fight," Roach said. "The guy amazes me sometimes, and I see him all the time."
Pacquiao is a better than 5-1 favorite in Las Vegas sports books to win his 12th consecutive fight and capture a world championship in his eighth weight class. He will concede 4½ inches in height, 6½ inches in reach and perhaps as many as 15 pounds when the bell rings.
And yet, the newly installed congressman from the Sarangani province in the Philippines is completely unfazed by the challenge in front of him. He'll concede nothing else.
"With our strategy, we are not worried about the size," Pacquiao said. "I believe I can fight the bigger guys even though I am small compared to them. We always believe in our talent."
The simple equation in the fight is Pacquiao's overwhelming advantage in speed compared to Margarito's massive size advantage. Margarito is a volume puncher who loves to go to the body and a hard body attack is one of the best ways to combat speed. Hit a guy in the rib cage enough and it's not long before he slows appreciably.
But Clottey, who along with Cotto fought each man, said Margarito should be wary of Pacquiao's punching power.
"If Margarito uses his head, and if he respects Pacquiao's power, he has a chance," Clottey said. "But if he believes he's so much bigger and stronger than Manny Pacquiao, he could wind up on the floor."
Cotto, who was knocked down twice by Pacquiao, concurred with Clottey, noting "Manny is a very strong fighter."
Margarito is notorious for having a strong chin and relentlessly stalking his opponent, but he is extraordinarily slow and throws wide punches. He'll be vulnerable to Pacquiao's lightning fast hands unless he doubles his jab, uses it frequently and shortens his other punches.
Margarito is eager to return to the limelight and, more significantly, start collecting paychecks after a long period of inactivity. Other than a May fight against journeyman Roberto Garcia, who is no relation to his trainer, Robert Garcia, Margarito hasn't fought since Jan. 24, 2009, when an illegal knuckle pad was discovered in his hand wraps before a loss to Shane Mosley.
Arum said Margarito has been through "torture" and "hell" in the last 21 months, as he's battled to save his boxing career and fought allegations that he's a cheater.
His former trainer, Javier Capetillo, took blame for the illegal pad in Margarito's wraps. In an interview with Ringtv.com, Capetillo said he put the illegal pad into Margarito's wraps because he worried about his fighter's condition. Arum said Margarito had to lose 35 pounds in the final month before the fight to make the 147-pound welterweight limit.
"I started panicking the week of the fight," Capetillo told Ring. "I knew we were in deep [expletive], and we couldn't tell anyone. It was too late to pull out of the fight. But I want to make it clear that I did not plan what happened. Maybe I was feeling the pressure of the fight and not paying attention to what I was doing when I reached into my bag and grabbed the training gauze, but I didn't do it on purpose.
"I made a mistake. I wasn't trying to hide anything. I just screwed up, and I did it in front of Mosley's trainer and the commissioners. I was just under a lot of pressure because I knew we shouldn't have taken the fight, I knew Tony was in trouble and I knew that I had put him in that position. I wrapped Tony's hands four times in front of Mosley's trainer and the commissioners and two representatives from Golden Boy [Promotions] after they found the gauze. I admitted then that I made a mistake. I confessed to the commission after the fight. I took responsibility for my actions and I think I've been punished as if Tony had fought with the gauze."
Margarito has been under enormous pressure and faced near-constant scrutiny since the fight was signed earlier this year. Pacquiao, by contrast, has been relaxed and loose. On Wednesday, after a late-night workout, he went into a hotel ballroom and practiced his singing with his band.
He's so worried about Margarito's size and power that he's planning to do a concert on Tuesday for some customers of a Lake Tahoe, Nev., casino.
"Manny had a slow start to his [training] camp, but he's exactly where he needs to be right now," Roach said. "He's going to knock this guy out."