Classy documentary doesn't tell us much that is new, but the story of Manny Pacquiao still fascinates...
by Don Stradley
Manny: The Untold Story is not the best way to appreciate Manny Pacquiao.
I don't mean this in a bad way. For most of this documentary's 86 minutes, it's fun to see the Manny Pacquiao story presented in a classy, respectful way, just as it was enjoyable to see Muhammad Ali in When We Were Kings, and Emile Griffith in Ring of Fire. Even Mike Tyson's story was enjoyable in James Toback's overwrought Tyson, which had Tyson strolling along the beach, ruminating on his past like a guest on Oprah.
These are good movies, and in the case of When We Were Kings, even great. But what leaves them in the dust is the real thing. When it comes to Pacquiao, the real thing can be compressed into a single fight, for no matter how many corny ballads he records, or how many bills he passes as a Filipino congressman, it's his work in the boxing ring that has made him the most compelling, and electrifying character in boxing since the Tyson era.
The fight I mention took place more than 11 years ago, November 2003. That's when Pacquiao stepped into a San Antonio boxing ring and took the featherweight championship from Marco Antonio Barrera. A future Hall of Famer, Barrera had a reputation for destroying young upstarts. Prince Hamed, a screwy left-hander known for putting opponents on their asses, had been humiliated by Barrera. Most expected Pacquiao to go the same route.
But Pacquiao had come to the States from the Philippines determined to do something big. He'd grown up rough, "in the shadow of war" as narrator Liam Neeson informs us, living in a village where he once saw the decapitated head of a rebel soldier in his front yard. He left home at 12 to make money fighting, battling other kids for two-dollar purses. By the time he fought Barrera he was a sort of cult figure among boxing fans, known as a bubbly youngster with a hammer for a left-hand. He'd aligned himself with trainer Freddie Roach, another cultish figure who runs a Hollywood boxing gym where people like Mickey Rourke hang out and absorb the tough vibes. Roach tamed some of Pacquiao's wilder instincts, taught him that it wasn't a crime to block a punch with something besides your face.
Pacquiao, who had spent his teen years fighting in venues that looked like tents erected for cock fights, seemed strengthened by the bright lights of America. The boy who used to sell donuts on the streets of General Santos City stepped into the ring to face Barrera like a grinning boy on Christmas morning. "I was surprised he lasted so long," Pacquiao said of Barrera at the time. "Because I knew very early that I was going to knock him out." Pacquiao was on fire from the opening gong, coming at Barrera from unexpected angles, his feet never quite in perfect union with his slashing fists. Barrera was a Mexican icon who was only troubled by the very best, but he couldn't find shelter from this blizzard in front of him. Barrera's corner stopped the fight in the 11th, their man bleeding and on the verge of collapse.
How to describe it? If Ali was the absolute zenith of physical perfection in motion, and Tyson was the embodiment of the hate-filled urban jungle, Pacquiao was a blend of optimism, spirituality, and hurricane force. It's a shame there are no writers working today to give Pacquiao's story the proper mythical slant. Co-director Leon Gast was also at the helm of When We Were Kings, and for that movie was able to bring in the likes of Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. Manny: The Untold Story relies on bores like Mark Wahlberg and Jeremy Piven. Not surprisingly, the second-rate celebrities who hang around Roach's gym offer no valuable insights; their presence in the movie is almost embarrassing.
The Barrera fight is given only a small amount of coverage in the movie, but it looms large in the story, and certainly sticks in my mind as Pacquiao's key achievment. It was the first time that many American boxing fans saw Pacquiao, who was installed as an 8-1 underdog. Like all of Pacquiao's best fights, it was a high-wire act, and there was always the feeling that he was simply too raw, too unorthodox, to win. Yet over and over again, Pacquiao flew into Barrera, battered him around the ring, and then returned to his corner between rounds where he listened to Roach like an eager Boy Scout. The only visual hint of Pacquiao’s inner fire was the occasional darkening of his eyes, as if he were imagining the danger he held in his hands.
When he's not boxing, there's an almost holy quality to Pacquiao. There are plenty of scenes in the movie where he's in a church, or leading a group in prayer, or telling his "flock" not to be sad after one of his losses, assuring them that God has a bigger plan than we do. Though he has stepped into politics in recent years, there’s an interesting clip in the movie of Pacquiao giving a Bible sermon at a large cathedral, where he commands the stage like a pint-sized, Filipino Joel Osteen. Pacquiao's future could very well be as the Billy Graham of the Pacific Rim.
Still, my mind keeps returning to the bout against Barrera, when Pacquiao was not quite a living legend. This was 2003, and Pacquiao was not yet yoked to strength coaches who would bulk him up to 147 pounds where he can't quite punch his weight. He wasn't yet in love with the finer points of boxing - in his more recent bouts he's been as slick as Willie Pep - and wasn't far removed from the recklessly aggressive flyweight who fought in the Philippines. It was refreshing. Sports Illustrated and The New York Times didn’t bother covering the bout, but Nigel Collins, reporting on the event for The Ring magazine, wrote glowingly about the new Phillipino sensation. "The gleeful way he goes about his brutal trade is contagious," Collins wrote, "and it's easy to fall in love with the way he goes for the knockout every time out. There's no half-stepping for Pac-Man, a distinction conspicuously lacking among many of today's top fighters."
Fighters are conspicuously absent from the documentary, though we do see a few clips of Floyd Mayweather, a petulant hothead who seems offended by Pacquiao's mere existence. Gast and his co-director cram in some bits about Mayweather, some bits about Pacquiao's managerial problems, and the long rivalry with Juan Manual Marquez, but that side of the movie seems rushed. The filmmakers are better at chronicling Pacquiao's rise, where his story resembles something from boxing's antediluvian era; he lied about his age so he could turn pro, and put rocks in his pockets so he could make the minimum weight requirement. So poor were his surroundings that the first boxing gloves Pacquiao wore look like tattered, oversized pillows, something from the days of Harry Greb.
By all means, see Manny: The Untold Story. True, it's not much better than some of the HBO 24/7 stuff we've seen, and Neeson's narrative is a bit dull ("Boxing is a cruel sport..."). But it's a good place to start. Then look for the Barrera fight, which is on YouTube. The bouts that came later helped Pacquiao become a superstar, but his career path started to feel orchestrated and commercialized. He became a product, no different than the fried chicken he endorses in the Philippines. The night he whipped Barrera, though, felt like a bolt of lightning had struck the sport.
I once sat near Pacquiao at an awards dinner in New York. What caught my eye was that his sizable entourage included a sort of hoodoo man, a chubby little guy who walked alongside Pacquiao, waving what looked like a gourd filled with sand to ward off evil spirits. I also learned that when Pacquiao is on the road, he often sleeps with several people at the foot of his bed, their purpose being to absorb evil spirits before they can get to Pacquiao, their meal ticket. Manny: The Untold Story doesn’t touch on this stuff. I wish it did. I think there's more to Pacquiao than we'll ever know.
Manny: The Untold Story is playing in select theaters, and availble on various streaming services, such as On Demand.