Friday, November 12, 2010

Interview with Gary Andrew Poole: PacMan Biographer on Manny, Mayweather, Margarito and More

On the eve of what was to be supposed to be the date of the fight of the century - a mega-fight between offense vs. defense, humility vs. flashiness, Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr - the sporting world is instead gearing up for Pacquiao/Antonio Margarito.

While the matchup might not be one for the ages, the main attraction is. Pacquiao, widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world - perhaps ever - goes for his unprecedented eight title in eight weight classes.

Early last year we were fortunate to be able to interview Red Grange biographer Gary Andrew Poole.

We jumped at the chance to pick up his latest book, PacMan: Behind the Scenes With Manny Pacquiao (Da Capo), and talk with the author about not just tomorrow's match-up, but the experience of documenting one of the most iconic sports figures in the world.

HHR: Who is to blame for a lack of a Pacquiao-Mayweather superfight? Mayweather, De La Hoya/Golden Boy or Pacquiao’s pride and/or hypochondria?

GAP: At this point, I think you have to wonder what's going through Mayweather's mind. The $40 million question is--why won't he fight Pacquiao? But there is plenty of blame to go around: hypochondria or not, Pacquiao decided not to submit to an Olympic style blood test when they were initially trying to make this fight happen. During the second go-around, Pacquiao agreed to the blood testing, but it appears that Mayweather had no desire to fight the PacMan. Negotiations were taking place and then, in another bizarre twist, Mayweather said no negotiations took place, then the racist video emerged on YouTube and his current legal issues....

HHR: Is Mayweather’s gamesmanship a way of escalating the anticipation for an eventual bout or is he truly afraid that he would lose the fight, and not only blemish his record, but also be remembered for being on the losing end of the most anticipated and hyped fight in generations?

GAP: I used to think it was gamesmanship. Perhaps that was his goal. But is he really increasing interest in the fight by delaying it, like, forever? I don't think so. Most of the public doesn't really care about boxing, but they wanted to see this fight. There was really great momentum. But we're approaching a who-cares moment. Has this really increased the drama or is it just a bad, weird and increasingly irrelevant soap opera? As for Mayweather's record, I do think he is worried about losing to Pacquiao. Mayweather really, really cares about being undefeated.

HHR: What can we expect this Saturday in Texas from Pacquiao-Margarito?

GAP: I think it will be an exciting fight. I have seen both fighters train. They both looked good. Pacquiao had difficulty at the beginning of his training camp as he tried to gain weight. It hurt his speed. But that's behind him. He is in great shape. Margarito is much slower and he was almost lethargic when I watched him in camp. But he seems fresher now. He is a pressure fighter and comes forward and he will try and corner the PacMan. Pacquiao comes in quick, attacks, and then escapes at different angles. I think Margarito will have a difficult time catching him. Pacquiao has a tendency to take crazy risks: he will let an opponent hit him just to test his strength. Margarito, who has a five-inch height advantage, has a vicious uppercut and Pacquiao has to worry about goofing around inside too much and getting banged around by his much larger opponent. That could be dangerous. But I think Pacquiao is just too fast and skilled and powerful.

HHR: Given Pacquiao and Freddie Roach’s relationship, besides tasteless, how tactically stupid were the cheap shots by the Margarito camp against Roach’s illness?

GAP: Margarito spent the Wednesday press conference apologizing, and then he came unannounced to the Thursday press conference to apologize again. Freddie was upset. He told me that he didn't want to tell Pacquiao because he was worried that Pacquiao would be upset and it would hurt his focus. I think Pacquiao will try and make Margarito pay by punishing him in the ring--I think he will consider Team Margarito's mockery as violating Roach's honor. Pacquiao takes honor very seriously.

HHR: There are parts of the book that indicated that you’ve followed the sport previous to this project. How did you writing the biography come about?

GAP: I have always been a fan. I have written about boxing for a few publications (TIME, Esquire, The Atlantic). And I like reading about boxing--one of my favorite books is The Sweet Science. One day, several years ago, I was sitting in the Wild Card Boxing Club talking with Freddie Roach, and he kept going on and on about Pacquiao. That's where this book started.

HHR: Did he truly let you inside?

GAP: Manny Pacquiao is an icon in the Philippines and elsewhere. He is considered the greatest boxer alive, and he is also a Congressman. Pacquiao is inundated with requests. It's a circus around him at all times. I was given some pretty good access. I told Freddie I wanted to write a book and he let me hang out in the gym. Then I was given chances to interview Pacquiao. Then I went to the Philippines to cover him. It was a combination of interviews and fly-on-the-wall reporting. I think the book has great detail and scenes, and all those come from spending time reporting it. Not just doing a few Internet searches, or interviewing Pacquiao a couple times, but hanging out at the gym, going into the jungles of the southern Philippines, traveling to Manila, watching his fights ringside, interviewing people around him. I was trying to write an honest take on this guy and I wanted it to have nuance. I went out and did some old school long-form journalism.

HHR: Horse fighting, cock fighting, boxing. What is the infatuation of Filipinos with such seemingly violent sports - how much of that is a reflection of the poverty the societies in the country face? Is it a metaphor for life there?

GAP: I think violent sports are a reflection of poverty, yes.

HHR: Manny’s entourage seems to serve many purposes, not the least of which is entertaining him, but also to fulfill his charitable nature. How is he able to separate the true inner circle from the ridiculously large number of hangers-on? In other words - those he truly needs, from those who truly need him.

GAP: Manny might seem aloof, but I think he knows what's going on around him. A fellow boxing writer, Gareth A. Davies of the Daily Telegraph, compared him to a shark; not in a pejorative way, just that Pacquiao is super-aware of what's going on around him. He might not seem like it, but he knows who to trust and who not to. He keeps a check on people more than anyone knows. He does have a tendency to be overly generous, even with people who have not always had his best interest at heart.

HHR: Pacquiao is in many ways a living, breathing, walking contradiction - simultaneously noted for both his humility as well as his lust for lavish pleasures; both disciplined at times, while also unengaged with things and people around him; deeply religious, while deeply sinful.

GAP: That is one reason he is such a great subject for a biography.

HHR: What is undeniable seems his want to better his country. Recently Roach was on television indicating that Manny is distracted by politics. Throughout the book, its noted that he feels public service is his true calling. Is there any credence to him being ill prepared to fight because of his “other career?”

GAP: I think he is slowly losing his focus on boxing. At the beginning of this camp, he went to visit the president of the Philippines. Roach graded this camp a B instead of the usual A. He has worked his way into his old fighting shape over the last two weeks. I think he is back to his old self for this fight, but you have to wonder if his career is winding down. He told me a month or so ago that he would fight three or four more times, but I wonder if it might be closer to two more times.

HHR: Manny is repeatedly compared, mostly by Bob Arum, but others as well, to Muhammed Ali - being a transitional figure that can transcend beyond a boxer into something larger and legendary. With the state of boxing nowhere near where it once was, is it realistic to claim any boxer can become a global icon much less compare to an Ali?

GAP: He is a global icon. Boxing is a global sport. It's just not a popular American sport anymore. We are seeing a globalization of sports. Looks at all the foreign stars in the NBA. Pacquiao is big news in the UK, Asia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Middle East...Obviously there is only one Ali--and no one can really compare--but Pacquiao's back-story, his humility, and his interest in helping the poor speak to millions upon millions of people. There is a chance Pacquiao could be the president of a country of 94 million people, many of whom live in abject poverty.

HHR: Who can you compare PacMan to?

GAP: We live in a world in which sports figures are neatly packaged and almost robotic. Pacquiao breaks this mold. He wants to stand for something, like an Ali or a Jim Brown. Because he is from a developing country, I think a fair comparison might be Pele.

HHR: Does PacMan have the voice of an angel?

GAP: God bless him--and his voice coach is a really nice person, I just saw her at a Pacquiao workout--but I am not a big fan of his singing. The only miracle? That he has sold so many records.

HHR: Where does Pacquiao go from here? Reality TV? Filipino president?

GAP: He is serious about his congressional duties. He has worked on anti-human trafficking legislation, and he is desperately trying to get a hospital built in his district. All joking aside, he comes from abject poverty. This is developing world poverty. A can of sardines was a luxury. He had to leave school in sixth grade to hawk donuts and cigarettes on the street. I don't want to make him out to be a saint, but people who can't afford to pay their medical bills, who have walked barefoot for several days, line up at his house and he pays their bills. I have seen it. He has a desire to bring a better life to these people. I think that's one thing that's pulling him away from boxing. It will be fascinating to see what happens to Manny Pacquiao in the next decade or two. He is only 31.

HHR: Prediction for Saturday…?

GAP: Pacquiao wins by the eighth. He overwhelms Margarito in a fight that won't be dissimilar to Pacquiao-De La Hoya.

HHR: And finally, will we ever see a Pacquiao-Mayweather fight while they are still in their prime?

GAP: Unfortunately, I don't see the fight happening anytime soon, if ever. The non-fight of the century hurts the sport of boxing. And it hurts both of their legacies.

To get a copy of PacMan, click here for Amazon US; here for Amazon UK; and here for the Kindle.

You can follow Poole on Twitter @orangerose.

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