Too often, books about boxing diminish themselves because the caliber of the prose and storytelling can’t rival the drama in the ring or the brilliantly-colored feathers of the sport’s quirky characters. The stories tell themselves sometimes, but the reader is left wanting a more skillful guide. In Gary Andrew Poole’s excellent biography, “Pacman: Behind the Scenes with Manny Pacquiao, the Greatest Pound-For-Pound Fighter in the World,” the author vanquishes that bugbear. It’s a wonderful read, marked by genuine insights into a man every fight fan already knows well, a telling eye for detail about the people and places that surround Pacquiao and a narrative structure that makes explicit how the past and present for the boxer are intimately linked.
If the name sounds familiar, it is because Poole has the chops for the task. You might have read some of his recent pieces on boxing for The Atlantic, and he’s contributed to The New York Times, GQ and Time. The book — provided to this site by a request to the author — is to be released Nov. 2, two weeks before Pacquiao ventures forth for his latest conquest against Antonio Margarito in his latest division, junior middleweight, and beats Pacquiao’s own autobiography to the shelves by another week besides. Poole’s tale has few shortcomings, but one of them is the same as Pacquiao’s autobiography: For all Pacquiao has accomplished to emerge as one of the greatest fighters ever and the greatest of his era, for as jaw-dropping as his early life and rise to fame and even political office have been, there is a giant blinking red question mark about whether the boxer’s destiny is yet unfulfilled by an unlikely but enormously historic bout with Floyd Mayweather. That is, this might be a biography produced too soon, and thus is necessarily incomplete.
At 240 pages, with large type, “Pacman” can be completed quickly by even the slowest reader. And, in some ways, it reads like a series of magazine articles, which might sound like an insult, except the episodic chapters flow naturally into the whole, as a book should. Many a fine magazine article has been converted into a book, besides. This is a book of substance, no matter how breezy it is to read.
By the end of the prologue, Poole — who clearly spent a lot of time hanging around Pacquiao, his family and his associates for the bio — establishes his worth. On a seemingly typical day in Pacworld (not to be confused with Pacland, the website), the four-division lineal world champion plays pranks, ADDs out on his BlackBerry, and generally behaves like the full-grown child who is well-known and well-loved for it. Poole doesn’t miss a thing in the chaos, down to noticing that everyone laughs obligingly at a joke Pacquiao has played many times — hiding a fork in a guest’s jacket, then ratting him out to the restaurant owner for a big production about the guest’s thieving ways. But the scene turns on a dime when Poole writes that perhaps Pacquiao “acts like a child because he had no childhood.”
The transition established (and Poole does a great job of bouncing back and forth between present day and past, one informing the other) the subsequent chapters could be a rehashing of the now-familiar outlines of Pacquiao’s early life — of Pacquiao’s father eating the family dog out of hunger when Pacquiao was only a child, the cigarettes sold on the street, the pockets loaded with weights so the malnourished Pacquiao could meet the minimum poundage requirements to box, and so forth.
Those facts make the recounting, but between the cracks of the well-worn tale, Poole finds illuminating anecdotes that explain some of the prominent Pacquiao indiosycrasies that charm and amuse reporters who have covered him. Like so — as a young boxer, Pacquiao made friends with other starving urchins with boxing dreams who slept in a cramped space together (Pacquiao, of course, is famous/infamous for his habit of hosting friends and associates who sleep near his bed, as chronicled by The New York Times, HBO 24/7 and others):
[As a youth] One of their roommates, Eddie Cadalzo, a young amateur, who slept in Pacquiao’s quarters, died in his sleep one evening. No one is sure why.
Despite his current fame and fortune, Pacquiao continues to have people sleep on the floor next to him. So when American television host Jimmy Kimmel would ask him, years later, about his entourage and wonder why they slept around his bed, Pacquiao looked desparately confused. He was unable to really explain it.
For anyone who saw that somewhat awkward interview, played for comedy as befitting a comedy program, it makes Pacquiao’s reaction to the question more poignant than funny.
Pacquiao’s religiosity, his yearning to help the people of the Philippines and other character traits are given similar powerful explanations. Some of Poole’s best work is in describing the Philippines and Filipinos themselves. Boxing is a sport given many of its greatest fighters by the mean streets, and the streets of the Philippines are more than mean. They are oppressive, and they create a fascinating people, for whom Pacquiao is both a prime example and its most extraordinary success story. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry when you learn that presidential candidate and Pacquiao political ally Manny Villar had an election song that began, “Have you ever had to swim in a river of garbage?” and that’s meant as a putdown of his opponent for allegedly not suffering enough. It’s a place where poverty and danger exist to degrees completely unimaginable in the United States, such as on the island of Mindanao, where death squads and Islamic extremists roam. “After someone gets shot in the head with a .45, it is not unusual for a relative to receive a rather unfriendly text, such as ‘the person who receives this message will be the next one to be killed,'” Poole writes. Somehow, from this, Filipinos are an oft-cheery group. Poole notes that, in war-torn Afghanistan, the Filipinos on bases doing some of the worst jobs are also the only ones smiling. And so Pacquiao smiles, even en route to battle.
All the chapters are good, but some are better than others. The period where Pacquiao really developed into a special fighter, in a series of featherweight fights that ranks among one of the best eras in featherweight history, is, strangely, not as engaging as the rest of the book. It is interesting primarily for fleshing out a pattern of habits Pacquiao established earlier in his career, where he would slack off after some success and then rededicate himself anew when he hit a bumpy patch. Given that Pacquiao’s work ethic is so legendary, it’s telling for those who wonder if the reports of Pacquiao’s poor training camp for Margarito signal a slow move from boxer to boxer/politician to full-time politician. Maybe Pacquiao’s just had it too good lately.
The most amusing chapter is the one that examines the business side of Pacquiao, “Going Global.” In the Philippines, according to the previous chapter, “The revealing of [Pacquiao’s] dog’s name was given its own segment on the Filipino national news.” But attempts to make Pacquiao big time elsewhere have been somewhat clueless. Pacquiao’s team turned down a chance to appear on the Jay Leno Show because they didn’t know who Leno was. Some of it is mystifying, such as a scene where Pacquiao and controversial adviser Michael Koncz await a Kimmel appearance: “If someone from the show wants something, they talk to Koncz, who simply repeats the request in English to Manny who then tells Koncz his answer, in English, who in turn says the same thing to the show representative. No one even blinks at the nontranslation translation.”
There are mysteries to Pacquiao still, as Poole acknowledges. Pacquiao is fairly candid with reporters at times, but he’s also frequently standoffish or indifferent toward them, such as when he stood up the television program “Nightline” for 14 hours. There’s one tense moment, even, where Pacquiao bristles at Poole’s questions. Poole nonetheless drags some worthwhile quotes out of a subject who is prone to rote statements like “I fight to make the people happy” and can be a difficult interview because of it. Where he misses insights from the subject himself, Poole makes off pretty well with material from Pacquiao’s mother, his friends and even tangential figures, although given how many people claim to know Pacquiao in the Philippines, one wonders if there aren’t a few tall tales that slipped into the book.
If there is one aspect of Pacquiao’s character that remains most mysterious after reading “Pacman,” it is that Poole firmly establishes that Pacquiao has a dark side but it is not as clear as elsewhere in the book with other aspects of character where it comes from. Pacquiao’s womanizing can be attributed to his country’s culture of “side action” for Filipino males. But why does Pacquiao, the joyous philanthropist, like imagining himself as a gangster, as Poole asserts? Is it because of the pain of his youth somehow? It’s not totally clear, at least to this reader.
The understandable inability to explain some of those mysteries don’t justify a few minor, but distracting, things that Poole gets wrong. For instance: Miguel Cotto didn’t want to beat Pacquiao for his deceased father, as Poole writes, because Cotto’s father didn’t die until months afterward. And Poole occasionally repeats himself. Poole calls Pacquiao a demigod in the Philippines, then, later, quotes Time magazine calling Pacquiao a demigod, as though this was a noteworthy new term.
But these are quibbles. Your average boxing book has all these warts and more.
That really only leaves the blinking red question mark. If the Mayweather fight never happens, Poole’s epilogue on Pacquiao-Mayweather, particularly his final line, will stand the test of time. Yet even if the achingly distant prospects of the bout become reality, “Pacman” will stand as one of the few finest boxer biographies I have read, and a pillar of the Pacquiao literature canon, no matter how good his autobiography is. If you don’t know Pacquiao’s amazing story, Poole will open your eyes. If know Pacquiao already, Poole will help you know him more deeply. And with a masterful guide like Poole leading you down the path, you’ll enjoy the experience immensely.