ARLINGTON, Texas – Nearly 10 years ago, a boxer largely unknown outside of his homeland arrived in San Francisco for a vacation. He then hopped on a Greyhound bus, made the trek to Los Angeles and began asking strangers if they knew of a boxing gym where he could work out.
Fortunately for Freddie Roach, and fortunately for boxing, the stranger directed Manny Pacquiao to Hollywood's Wild Card Boxing Club. Had that stranger sent Pacquiao anywhere else, boxing history might be drastically different and Pacquiao might never have been known beyond the borders of the Philippines.
But on Saturday, he'll meet Antonio Margarito for the World Boxing Council super welterweight championship in front of a Cowboys Stadium crowd that could swell in excess of 70,000. A win would give him recognition as a world champion in a record eighth division.
"My life would be tremendously different had Manny Pacquiao not walked through those doors," said Roach, the Wild Card owner as well as Pacquiao's trainer, friend and confidant. "Who knows where I'd be now?"
Who knows where boxing would be?
Pacquiao has supplanted his rival, Floyd Mayweather Jr., as the top pound-for-pound boxer in the world in most polls – including Yahoo! Sports. And though Mayweather has consistently been a better pay-per-view draw, that, too, may be about to change.
There is a very real chance that the Pacquiao-Margarito fight on Saturday could exceed the 1.4 million in pay-per-view sales generated by Mayweather's fight with Shane Mosley in May. And should that occur, it would make Pacquiao the king – albeit the disputed king – of pay-per-view in the United States.
A figure of 1.5 million sales or above could impact negotiations yet again for a Pacquiao-Mayweather fight, which twice previously were started and aborted. The boxers are clearly the two best fighters in the world and, just as plainly, the sport's biggest draws. They also pull from dramatically different fan bases, with Pacquiao's being strongest in the Southwest and Mayweather's in the Midwest and in urban markets on the East Coast.
Most experts say a fight between them would shatter the existing pay-per-view record of 2.45 million sales, set in 2007 when Mayweather fought Oscar De La Hoya, and could reach three million.
Mayweather has said that he would be the man dictating the terms in any negotiations because, he insisted, he is the bigger star. While Pacquiao has routinely sold more tickets, Mayweather has attracted much larger paid gates. Mayweather has also clearly outsold Pacquiao on pay-per-view.
But Pacquiao has been slowly but steadily gaining on the top spot. He didn't have the platform of the Olympics, as Mayweather did in 1996, to help launch his career under an intense public spotlight. And he didn't have a big-time promoter to help him build his profile until more than a decade into his career.
But after unexpectedly one-sided victories over David Diaz at lightweight; De La Hoya at welterweight; Ricky Hatton at super lightweight; and Miguel Cotto and Joshua Clottey at welterweight, Pacquiao has built himself into an attraction with an exciting style and a unique story. In each bout, there was a question about whether Pacquiao had taken on too much. He was a fighter who had begun at 106 pounds and was moving up to face theoretically stronger, tougher opponents.
That willingness to take on those kinds of challenges endeared him to those who root for the underdog and rarely see the smaller man win, whether in sports or in business.
"Manny Pacquiao has a story that the average person, regardless of where they're from, regardless of their race, regardless of their religion, regardless of their nationality, can easily relate to," promoter Bob Arum said. "This kid came from nothing – I mean nothing. He knows what it's like to struggle to eat and keep a roof over his head. He's had a lot of tremendous difficulties in his life, and people relate to that.
"And because he's so empathetic, people gravitate toward him and they want to be with him and around him."
Pacquiao was elected to the House of Representatives in the Philippines earlier this year, running largely because he wanted to be in a position to assist his countrymen. Poverty there is extremely high and health care coverage is minimal. He was once one of them and has firsthand knowledge of the day-to-day struggles they face to survive.
"I know what it is like to eat maybe once a day, or to go a day without eating," Pacquiao said.
In large part because he wanted to earn money to support his family, Pacquiao left his home as a teenager to go to Manila to become a boxer. But his purses weren't much in those early days. He earned about $2 a fight for his earliest matches, which is a bit in contrast to the guaranteed purse of $15 million he'll receive for Saturday's bout. With a strong pay-per-view performance, that could soar well above $20 million.
He gives large sums of his money away, and it's a daily occurrence in the Philippines that the needy gather outside the gates of his home, begging for a handout. Pacquiao usually obliges.
But he ran for Congress because he believed it would be an easier way to help more people. He's tackling issues such as health care, education and the economy, which are also hot button items in the United States.
As his unique story has spread, interest in Pacquiao has increased proportionally. Arum expects that factor to push the pay-per-view figures to a stratospheric range.
"We have [HBO's] '24/7' on this fight, which we didn't have for the [Joshua] Clottey fight [in March], and that's a great vehicle to help us sell [pay-per-view]," Arum said. "But this '60 Minutes' thing is completely different. It pushes things to a whole other level. There are people who aren't even boxing fans who saw it. They know about it now. I didn't realize this, but that's seen all over the world. My sister lives in Jerusalem and she saw it.
"We've been getting incredible coverage, and Manny's story has been out there so much that it's got to have an impact."
Pacquiao's bout with Clottey at Cowboys Stadium in March sold 51,000 tickets and 750,000 on pay-per-view – both astonishing figures, given the difficulties which promoters faced. The bout was made on short notice, after talks for a Mayweather fight broke down; Clottey was largely unknown; and there were less than six full weeks to promote the bout.
This time, Arum has had several months to promote the bout. Margarito's hand-wraps controversy has helped generate attention as well.
Pacquiao, though, remains largely unaffected. He was wearing a slick navy-blue suit to Wednesday's final news conference, looking very much like the politician he is. But he's still a soft-spoken, humble man who said his only goal on Saturday is to please.
"I want everyone to be happy and I just want to make a good fight," he said.
Given the soaring projections of ticket sales and pay-per-view buys, he's already made one man – his promoter – very happy. Now, all he has to do is please the other 1.6 million or so who are going to pay to watch him.
Nobody can please everybody all the time, but few athletes come as close as regularly as Manny Pacquiao.