By Nick Giongco
LOS ANGELES – “There are places I’ll remember all my life, though some have changed,” somebody once sang. The same rings true for Manny Pacquiao.
Many of the establishments – stores, restaurants, and landmarks – that remind Pacquiao of his beginnings in Hollywood no longer exist.
The Wild Card Boxing Club on Vine Street near the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard still stands but has gone through minor facelift. The main gym remains on the second floor but a newer, separate gym – meant to be used by trainer Freddie Roach’s top fighters – is just downstairs.
The Chinese eatery manned by a middle-aged couple on Vine Street has been replaced by a popular chain.
Time was when tasty treats from Chinatown Express served as Pacquiao’s source of sustenance, alongside the heaping bowls of beef rice from Yoshinoya and the Thai delicacies from Nat’s just a stone’s throw away from Roach’s sweat shop.
Even the infamous dollar store where he got a pair of cheap socks that gave him blisters during the first fight against Juan Manuel Marquez in May 2004 has been replaced by another store of the same kind, albeit much more mainstream but nonetheless a place where spendthrifts, misers and the homeless mill around.
An Armenian church has now risen on the spot where James Dean used to bring his ill-fated Porsche Spyder which he named Little Bastard for tweaks and repairs in the 1950s, just a block from where the old Vagabond Inn, a seedy motel Pacquiao had slept in for months while getting ready for a big fight, once proudly stood.
Hampton Inn and Suites now occupies the piece of real estate where Vagabond Inn used to stand and during its construction, Vagabond Inn regulars, consisting of Pacquiao’s entourage, friends who flew in from the Philippines, sparmates and even the sports media had to be relocated to Park Plaza Lodge on 3rd Street, a 15-minute drive from the heart of Hollywood.
When he began training under Roach, those were utterly trying times for Pacquiao, who pointed to poverty as the reason behind his decision to box professionally.
“I left home because we were very poor, had nothing to eat,” recalled Pacquiao of the times when his mother, Dionisia, did everything to ensure that there is food on the table.
“I helped pack fish crackers so we can sell them. I did my best to help my mother but life was very hard,” he said.
Although he was fascinated with boxing, Pacquiao had to do odd jobs so he can support his family back home in General Santos City.
He worked as a laborer in Malabon under the late construction magnate Polding Correa, who eventually became his first manager.
There was also a time when he sold bread on the streets.
But boxing proved to be the reason why Pacquiao succeeded in giving his family a better life, something that guarantees even his descendants a comfortable life.
Nowadays, the motivation to fight no longer points to poverty as the prime factor behind his willingness to continue to risk life and limb.
“I fight for my people,” said Pacquiao, 40, who is facing a younger foe in Keith Thurman at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on July 20.
Pacquiao shrugs off remarks regarding his age, stressing that “age is just a number” and that there is still a lot left in the tank.
So what motivates him to fight when his contemporaries have long decided to ride into the sunset?
“I enjoy it. I enjoy boxing, fighting,” said Pacquiao as he was wrapping his hands inside his cramped dressing room, getting ready for another day in the “office.”
A few years ago, Pacquiao briefly retired but bared that he had done so owing to the urging of his loved ones.
“I felt pressure from my family, my wife, kids and mother, that’s why I announced that I was retiring from boxing,” he said.
Soon after, Pacquiao had a change of heart and revealed that he was going to put on his gloves again.
Fights followed and Pacquiao easily eased his way back into the spotlight.
Despite dropping a decision to Jeff Horn in Australia in 2017, Pacquiao had no trouble regaining the world’s trust and respect and a year later, he mauled Lucas Matthysse in Kuala Lumpur to win a world title.
He followed it up with another emphatic win, this time against the crafty Adrien Broner last January, about a month after turning 40.
Now that he is going up against another up-and-comer, age is again the focal point of discussion.
In an interview with the Manila Bulletin and former Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Dwyre on Thursday, Pacquiao credited his religious beliefs as reason behind his continued success.
“I believe that this is a blessing from God,” said Pacquiao. “Even at this age, I could still fight and win against younger opponents.”
He added: “There are guys who are much younger than me, 32, 35 years old but they can no longer do what I do.”
One of his sparmates, AB Lopez, is a true believer.
“Manny’s footwork and hand speed is right there. You won’t think he is 40,” he said after a recent workout.
As he was tapering off following an intense training session, Pacquiao shuffled his feet and bobbed and weaved.
“Do I look and move like a 40-year-old?” he asked.
The sportswriters in front of him shook their heads.
A lot has changed around the man and his legend, for sure. But what remains intact is his heart, pure and true, courageous and strong, a warrior’s heart even before he became a global icon.