MANILA, March 13, 2004  (STAR) By Joaquin Henson - World featherweight boxing champion Manny Pacquiao has come a long way since riding a slow boat with eight other aspiring fighters from General Santos City to find fame and fortune in Manila nearly 10 years ago.

Pacquiao had just turned 17 then, wide-eyed and determined to box his way out of poverty. The second of four children, the southpaw was 13 when he started fighting as an amateur. His father Rosalio barely made both ends meet as a rice farmer and mother Dionisia kept house. He used to watch townmate Abner Cordero, a highly-touted fighter, train in the gym and thought he could do better.

Pacquiao compiled an amateur record of 60-4 and gained a reputation as a knockout artist. He finished Grade 6 at the Saway Elementary School and decided to forego higher education for boxing. As a boy, he imagined growing up to be a champion like his ring idols Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson. He jogged alone in the streets, making like a fighter in training and learned the fundamentals of the Sweet Science from Cordero’s father.

It was local talent scout Nanay Parcon who sent a group of nine fighters to boxing stable owner Polding Correa in Malabon. Cordero, Pacquiao and Eugene Barutag were among the hopefuls who took the trip without a centavo in their pockets. Cordero eventually became the Philippine bantamweight champion but retired prematurely after contracting hepatitis. Barutag was the unluckiest fighter in the batch—-he died of head injuries from a bout in Mandaluyong.

Pacquiao didn’t waste any time making a name for himself in Manila.

Today, he is the consensus world featherweight titleholder although none of the alphabet soup governing bodies recognize his reign. Pacquiao has held the World Boxing Council (WBC) flyweight and International Boxing Federation (IBF) superbantamweight crowns. After halting Marco Antonio Barrera in San Antonio last November, he was acclaimed by the Ring Magazine as the undisputed world featherweight king.

Last month, Pacquiao and business manager Rod Nazario flew to New York City for a conference arranged by US promoter Murad Muhammad at the HBO (Home Box Office) headquarters.

In a two-hour closed-door meeting, HBO Sports vice president Kery Davis and vice president for programming Xavier James told Pacquiao the giant cable TV network was prepared to bankroll his rise to stardom.

Muhammad’s dream is to mold Pacquiao into another Oscar de la Hoya whose pay-per-view status guarantees at least a million dollars for each fight. Pacquiao took a giant step up the ladder when he beat Barrera. Next in line is Juan Manuel Marquez who holds both the IBF and World Boxing Association featherweight titles on May 8, possibly in San Francisco. Then, Pacquiao will shoot for the WBC superfeatherweight belt around Erik Morales’ waist in July or August.

Nazario said the two-fight deal will rake in over a million dollars for Pacquiao. HBO tried to lock in Pacquiao for a third bout in March next year but Nazario held off.

HBO has big plans for Pacquiao. In New York City, a TV crew took footage of Pacquiao walking up and down a Times Square sidewalk. No one paid attention to the Filipino. To passersby, Pacquiao was a nobody. HBO intends to turn Pacquiao into a somebody.

On Tuesday, HBO Sports TV producer Brook Silva-Braga will arrive here to shoot a feature on Pacquiao. "I’ll be following Manny for a day to witness his lifestyle and celebrity status in his homeland," wrote Silva-Braga in an e-mail to The Star. On Wednesday, Muhammad will plane in. On Thursday, Silva-Braga will film Pacquiao paying a courtesy call on Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, visiting Sandiganbayan Justice Minita Chico-Nazario, signing autographs for adoring fans, being mobbed by admirers, training at the Wild Card gym near B. F. Homes Parañaque and playing pool at the Coronado hall in Makati.

The footage showing Pacquiao’s popularity in his country will be juxtaposed with the footage taken at Times Square. The film will be aired to promote the May 8 fight.

On Friday, Muhammad will join Pacquiao and Nazario in a plane bound for Los Angeles where the fighter begins serious training for Marquez. Silva-Braga will also film Pacquiao training in Freddie Roach’s Hollywood gym.

What endears Pacquiao to HBO is his passion for the sport. Pacquiao brings a lot of pizzazz to the table. He’s charismatic, flamboyant and deadly. It’s not often a fighter of his caliber and style emerges from the lighter weights.

"Manny’s a potential star," said Davis. "He’s like a smaller version of a Roberto Duran and Tito Trinidad. We love the way he fights. The energy he brings to the ring is contagious. We think he’s got what it takes to become a big star."

With the Latin population comprising at least a third of the world boxing market, Pacquiao will be portrayed as the kid from the Far East out to crush the Hispanic fistic dynasty in the lighter divisions. He will be the Filipino conqueror, the curse of Latinos. With Barrera disposed of, the battleplan is for Pacquiao to dethrone Marquez and Morales. Then, it could be a $2 Million purse for a rematch with Barrera next year.

If Pacquiao succeeds in steamrolling the Mexicans, he will be the target of every macho Latino fighter crying out for vengeance and the darling of the growing Asian community in the US. That will set the stage for Pacquiao to become a million-dollar HBO marquee pay-per-view star.

The only catch to the plan is Pacquiao can’t afford to lose along the way. HBO is offering Pacquiao a chance of a lifetime. The kid who took a slow boat to Manila without a centavo in his pocket in 1995 is on the verge of blossoming into a global boxing icon.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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