Sunday, March 25, 2007

Boxing needs to hype-ventilate

By Bill Dwyre

Pacquiao's meeting with the press provides a lot of noise, little information

Against a backdrop of chaos found in boxing and on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Manny Pacquiao met the press in Los Angeles last week.

He is a 130-pounder, a super-featherweight who Bob Arum says is "the most beloved fighter in the world today." Arum sells tickets and pay-per-view showings of his fights, so you may dismiss his hyperbole.

Pacquiao, from the Philippines, is top-ranked in all of the "WB" groups, World Boxing Assn., Council and Organization. His presence draws a breathing-room-only crowd at the Palm restaurant on Santa Monica.

It is hard to tell the reporters from the groupies, or if the reporters are the groupies. At one point, there are 81 people in a room designed for 50, and it becomes believable that Pacquiao may, indeed, be the biggest thing in the Philippines since Imelda Marcos' shoe closet.

His story is compelling. He slept on a mat on a dirt floor until he was 12, helping the family survive by selling cigarettes and doughnuts on the street. He wasn't a street fighter but loved to watch highlight films of Ali and Foreman, and eventually left his home in General Santos City for Manila and the pursuit of a boxing career. There, while he learned to box, he sewed buttons in a clothing plant and struggled to learn the different Tagalog dialect spoken in Manila.

Now, at 28, with a record of 43-3-2 and 33 knockouts, he is the Kentucky Derby horse in Arum's Top Rank stable. He is in our city because Arum wants to sell about 50,000 pay-per-views here of Pacquiao's fight April 14 in San Antonio against Jorge Solis, and is so wildly popular, we are told, that 600 people showed up at LAX to greet his arriving plane.

"We never release his arrival time," says Top Rank publicist Bill Caplan. Good thing, because Pacquiao is about 90 minutes late.

With the noise level and body heat rising, a large, muscular man sits down, and introduces himself as Michael Bentt. He is a former heavyweight boxer, now a sometime star of stage and screen. Among Bentt's highlights are knocking out Tommy Morrison and playing the role of Sonny Liston in the movie "Ali."

He says he stopped after only 14 pro fights "because I got hit too much."

This moment of sanity in a sea of nonsense passes quickly. Arum sits down and theorizes on why boxing is losing so much audience to the UFC, Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Turns out, he says, that the UFC, although its product stinks and is actually more violent and dangerous than boxing, understands its audience better, keeps the action going, the fights coming and the young crowd hyped up.

He says boxing doesn't do that anymore — except Arum will now — because it has sold its soul to television, and television, mostly HBO, makes promoters stop the music and hype so it can have a quiet background for between-fight announcers' analyses.

Arum says his shows will no longer have pauses "for Larry Merchant to pontificate."

Nor does Arum want Pacquiao's show to be a sham, a battle already lost. Realizing his news conference has become a noisy sardine can, he slams his fist on the table and bellows, "I won't have this kind of schlocky show."

Soon, Caplan is trying, and failing, to establish order by inviting the gathering to the buffet line as the program is about to begin and announcing, "I don't want to hear any noise in this room except the chomping of your gums."

In the back, the buffet line lurches forward as a server tries to speed things up by barehanding hamburgers and tomatoes onto buns.

Eventually, there is a seat next to Pacquiao and a chance to ask some questions.

His English is passable, he is friendly, but the exchange of real information is difficult. He says he has seven homes and when he is in the Philippines, people find him and ask him for money every day.

One of his advisors, Michael Koncz of Foothill Ranch, confirms that, saying that Pacquiao will go through as much as $1,000 in a day and that the only time he saw the fighter turn somebody down, Pacquiao didn't have his wallet with him.

Pacquiao is so popular he is running for a seat in the Philippine congress. The fight with Solis was scheduled April 14 so he could campaign before the May 11 election day. The image of California Congressman David Dreier in silk Everlast boxing trunks pops to mind, and, thankfully, pops out.

Pacquiao says he is running to "help the people." Isn't $1,000 a day more helpful than a signature on a sewage bond?

Then, there is the story of the bag with $250,000 in cash delivered to Pacquiao by the competing Golden Boy Promotions camp last fall, a bag that was accepted, then returned, along with Arum's status as Pacquiao's promoter.

Pacquiao is asked about it and looks blankly into the distance. Arum labels the Golden Boy move "thuggery," and Koncz explains that it is all being cleaned up by lawyers. Understandably, lawyers hover around boxing like sparrows at a picnic.

Almost three hours into this non-solitary confinement, Arum tells reporters that Solis, Pacquiao's opponent, would have been there but is having visa problems in Tijuana. Arum says Solis is in line at City Hall but is delayed because "there is a mariachi band in line in front of him."

Outside, where there are air, sunshine and a chance for clear thinking, the decision is made to write about this. Readers will know you can't make this stuff up. It is boxing.


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