MANILA, March 11, 2004  (STAR) By Joaquin Henson - The date is set. The opponent is 90 percent sure. And the site is still to be determined. Those are the circumstances surrounding uncrowned world featherweight boxing champion Manny Pacquiao’s next fight.

Pacquiao’s business manager Rod Nazario confirmed yesterday the bout will be on May 8, probably against International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Association featherweight titlist Juan Manuel Marquez of Mexico in San Francisco. He said Pacquiao will leave Manila for Los Angeles next week to start training in Freddie Roach’s gym.

Nazario said he sought a postponement of the fight, originally booked by HBO (Home Box Office) on May 22, but US promoter Murad Muhammad couldn’t get a slot earlier than July. HBO advanced Pacquiao’s schedule to accommodate a World Boxing Council (WBC) lightweight title fight between Floyd Mayweather and Paul Spadafora.

A postponement to July will make Pacquiao too rusty, noted Nazario. It will mean eight months since he beat Marco Antonio Barrera in San Antonio last November.

Nazario said Pacquiao initially planned to start training in Roach’s gym late this month but agreed to leave next week because of the change in schedule.

"I wanted Manny to leave this Monday but he asked to postpone his departure until next Friday," said Nazario. Pacquiao flew back Tuesday night to Manila after attending the wake of his wife Jinky’s uncle in General Santos City.

Nazario said he has already advised the Elorde family that Pacquiao will not be able to attend the annual Boxing Awards Night on March 25 in Makati. Pacquiao will also not be at ringside when his brother Bobby takes on Baby Lorona two days later.

US promoter Murad Muhammad told Nazario the other day Marquez’ manager Bob Arum of Top Rank had agreed to terms of the May 8 fight but the Mexican is holding out for a bigger purse. Muhammad, however, said he was 90 percent sure Marquez would sign up.

Even as oddsmakers installed Marquez the early favorite to beat Pacquiao, Muhammad is unperturbed.

"Marquez is too mechanical, too stiff," said Muhammad. "He’s not fluid. He can’t beat Manny. The only reason why I’m pushing for Marquez as an opponent is because he’s got two belts."

If and when Pacquiao dethrones Marquez, Muhammad said his stock as a marquee million-dollar fighter will get a big boost. Muhammad’s goal is to mold Pacquiao into a pay-per-view star like Oscar de la Hoya. HBO’s plan is for Pacquiao to crush the Mexican dynasty in the lighter divisions. After Marquez, the target is WBC superfeatherweight champion Erik Morales in late July or early August.

Muhammad’s publicist Ricardo Salazar also took issue with the oddsmakers. "Manny is poison to Mexican fighters who come right at you," said Salazar. "He has too many angles for Marquez. Manny will beat Marquez just like he’ll beat Barrera if they ever fight again. Barrera can never beat Manny."

Nazario said he’s studied Marquez’ style carefully on film. "I’m not worried," he intimated. "He’s a tough opponent like Barrera was. He’s hungry. But he hasn’t fought anybody like Manny. Madaling tamaan. Hindi magalaw. He’s tailor-made for Manny."

The rub is whether or not Pacquiao will be in shape for the fight.

Ring Magazine editor Nigel Collins, who’s in town, said Pacquiao can’t afford to take Marquez lightly and described the Mexican as a dangerous opponent.

Pacquiao hasn’t trained in the gym since beating Barrera although he began his early morning running routine in Davao last week. He’s been busy attending to social commitments, filming commercials, appearing on TV shows, and playing pool.

The concern is Pacquiao won’t be ready–physically and mentally–to fight Marquez.

Collins said fighters should never lay off training. The secret to 39-year-old middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins’ longevity, he pointed out, is he is always in shape. "Fighters don’t get in shape for a fight, they stay in shape," stressed Collins.

When the Wild Card gym was inaugurated on President’s Avenue, near B. F. Parañaque, a month ago, Pacquiao begged off from sparring—-triggering speculation he was in no condition to put on the gloves.

Collins credited Roach for Pacquiao’s transformation into a total package. He said Roach and James (Buddy) McGirt are the fight game’s best trainers today.

"Freddie learned from (Eddie) Futch," said Collins. "It’s important for Manny to report to Freddie in condition to fight. If Manny is in shape, he’ll beat Marquez. If he’s not, then I’ll be going to Mexico to award the next Ring championship belt to Marquez."

Collins admitted he didn’t think Pacquiao could defeat Barrera. "It was a slim chance but I told Ted (Lerner) I’d go to Manila and award the Ring championship belt to Manny if he won," related Collins. "Ted later told me he dreamed of me coming to Manila." Lerner, an American who lives in Angeles City with his Filipina wife Aurora and their daughter, is the Ring Magazine’s local correspondent.

Lerner’s dream and destiny brought Collins here. Yesterday morning, Collins awarded the belt to Pacquiao in President Arroyo’s presence at Malacañang.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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