[PHOTO AT LEFT - Former US President Bill Clinton greets Filipino boxing champion Manny Pacquiao Thursday night at the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas. Clinton invited Pacquiao to the hotel where the former US president is billeted to wish him luck in his prizefight. Abac Cordero LAS VEGAS]

LAS VEGAS, MAY 2, 2009 (STAR) By Abac Cordero - The scare over the disease formerly known as swine flu has dampened the much-awaited “Battle of East and West,” but Team Pacquiao is not pushing the panic button because of it.

In fact, Manny Pacquiao, just two days before his big fight with Ricky Hatton, continued to welcome guests in his hotel suite, although with some restrictions.

The virus that causes swine flu, renamed H1N1 Influenza, has caused some concern here, but despite its first detection in Nevada, on a two-year-old girl from Washoe County, tourists continue to flock in.

They’re here for a big weekend, one that features the highly awaited showdown between two great boxers coming from opposite ends of the world, on Saturday (Sunday, Manila time) at the MGM Grand.

In Pacquiao’s suite, everything is swine flu-free.

The only visitor so far who came to the room wearing a facemask was Rod Nazario, Pacquiao’s former business manager. He said at his age, in his seventies perhaps, he’s just playing it safe.

Visitors came in groups to visit Pacquiao late Thursday afternoon, after he returned from a workout at the IBA Gym, and stayed there until dinner time. Visitors are allowed to remain only until 8:30 p.m.

They are allowed to take pictures, but with no flash. Autographs are a no-no.

“Kung maaari lang nga huwag munang magla-lalabas. Istrikto sila dahil may swine flu kaya sana maintindihan nila (If possible, I should not keep going out. They’re strict and I hope they understand),” said Pacquiao.

Still, it doesn’t seem to be that way as Pacquiao continued to mingle with people inside his suite.

The other night, almost the entire Philippine basketball team came up to his 60th floor nest, each one of them having pictures taken with the boxing superstar. Among the visitors Thursday was actor Richard Gomez.

“Ang daming tao sa kuwarto (There are too many people in the room),” said Pacquiao’s brother Bobby along the hallway.

Everything will change though on the eve of the fight when the “no-visitors” rule will be observed based on tradition.

An invite from Clinton

But the pound-for-pound champion’s admirers also include the rich, the mighty, and the famous.

No less than former US President Bill Clinton has wished him luck for his match with Hatton.

Pacquiao was just getting ready to sleep at around 10 p.m. Wednesday when they got a very important call that the former president, who’s in town to deliver a speech for a global convention on recycling, wanted an audience with him.

He had just finished praying the rosary when the call came. He literally jumped out of bed, changed clothes, and in no time was at the grand lobby of Mandalay Bay.

A private limousine was sent to pick up the boxer and a small entourage. They were brought to the Four Seasons Hotel where Clinton was waiting.

Pacquiao was led into a room along with his close friends, Environment Secretary Lito Atienza, national security deputy adviser Chavit Singson, trainer Michael Moorer and Canadian Mike Koncz who set up the meeting.

According to a witness, security was tight in and out of the room, with probably a dozen Secret Service agents on hand. Only one camera was allowed inside, one that took a rare picture of Pacquiao and Clinton together.

The Filipino boxing icon, in case Clinton didn’t know, heads Task Force Kalikasan (Nature) back home.

The meeting lasted for about 10 minutes.

“He just said good luck to me,” said Pacquiao Thursday when asked to recall the meeting with Clinton, who used to be the world’s most powerful man.

“It is my honor to meet him. He said a few other things but I couldn’t remember them. But we talked about the fight and I knew he likes boxing. He was kind. But it was quick because I had to rest,” he said.

Precautionary measures

And with only several hours before the big night, hotels in this gambling capital have started taking precautions, which include procedures to distribute medication, conduct quarantine and keeping the public aware of the contagious disease.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman continued to welcome visitors.

“The hotels have no problems as I have been told by the health department. There is no reason not to come here. It’s probably safer to come here than where they are,” the mayor said.

It’s just about the same case in Pacquiao’s suite.

But some Filipinos in Reno are going to miss out on the live action at the MGM Grand.

With one confirmed case of H1N1 Influenza virus infection in Reno, some Pinoy boxing enthusiasts worry about going to crowded areas. They would rather stay indoors and watch the match on television.

“We’re trying to avoid unnecessary exposure to certain viruses that may be happening in crowded places,” said Jun Aragon.

In Manila, the Department of Health advised Filipinos who will troop to Las Vegas to watch the Pacquiao-Hatton fisticuffs to wear protective gear.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said there is a possibility that anyone of the spectators could be affected by the deadly virus because of the venue’s proximity to Mexico where the virus was said to have originated.

Duque also issued the same appeal to Pacquiao fans all over the country who are expected to converge in theaters, bars and other recreational places to watch the live coverage.

The Philippine National Police (PNP), on the other hand, has assured the public that vital installations will be secured during Pacquiao’s fight.

Just like in his previous fight, police are anticipating that there will be zero crime rate for the duration of the bout.

TIME magazine’s elite

Meanwhile, Pacquiao’s popularity has transcended cultural differences.

Lennox Lewis, a Briton and former world heavyweight champion, was all praises for the Filipino southpaw and said he sees Pacquiao becoming the Philippine president one day.

Lewis, who wrote a tribute for the pound-for-pound champion in TIME magazine’s annual “World’s 100 Most Influential People,” was in awe of Pacman’s god-like appeal.

“The grip he holds over the Philippines is similar to Nelson Mandela’s influence in South Africa. I can surely see Manny becoming the Philippine president one day,” Lewis wrote.

He even rationalized Pacquiao’s 2007 debacle in the congressional polls, saying the “voters thought he could do more for the country as an inspirational champion boxer. I agree with the Filipino people.”

Lewis became a Pacquiao fan after the 30-year-old boxer beat Oscar de la Hoya last December.

The former world champion went on to praise Pacquiao for keeping controversies at bay while he is fighting in the ring.

“Boxing needs a guy like Manny,” Lewis said. “Too often, when something positive develops, the sport takes two steps backward; you never know where the black eye is going to come from. With Manny, you don’t have to worry about that. He just loves the sport and knows he’s carrying the hopes of his country in the ring.”

Pacquiao emerged as the 22nd most popular vote-getter in the online polls conducted by TIME magazine for its annual issue.

He is only the second Filipino to be included in the TIME 100 list after former President Corazon Aquino.

The Filipino ring icon even bested newly elected US President Barack Obama, who came in at No. 37.

Aside from Obama, those who fell behind the Filipino pugilist after the final tally were Britney Spears (30), Vladimir Putin (35), Arnold Schwarzenegger (39), Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt (44 and 45), Hillary Clinton (54), Rafael Nadal (60), Clint Eastwood (68), Michael Phelps (72), George Bush (75), Pope Benedict XVI (78), Oprah Winfrey (98).

Pacquiao is the first athlete that the Philippine Postal Corp. has honored with his own stamp. – With Perseus Echeminada and Cecille Suerte Felipe

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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