By Nick Giongco
It was a story he never got tired of telling over and over whenever some guy asked him to recall Manny Pacquiao’s landmark US debut on June 23, 2001.
Rod Nazario, who was Pacquiao’s business manager at that time, swore he had scoured every betting station on the Las Vegas Strip looking to place a bet on his prized puncher’s knockout win over Lehlo Ledwaba.
“I got tired looking for someone willing to take my bet,” Nazario said as recalled by this writer when they ran into each other at the MGM Grand on the eve of the fight for Ledwaba’s International Boxing Federation super-bantamweight title.
At first, Nazario, who passed away in September 2009, went to check out the MGM Grand’s massive sportsbook, his heartbeat racing at the prospects of making a killing.
Nazario then asked around but was given either the run-around or heard the same insulting thing: Who is Manny Pacquiao?
Less than 24 hours later, everyone, not just those in attendance at the venue, learned who Pacquiao was.
Shortly before mauling Ledwaba, even the TV announcers had a hard time pronouncing his name.
After his grand debut, everyone had learned how to say ‘Pacquiao’ without being teased for saying it the wrong and foul way.
Unlike in the years that followed, especially when Pacquiao began hanging out in Los Angeles, only a few were present when he beat up Ledwaba to a bloody pulp.
There was Nazario, his San Francisco-based son Boying, assistant trainer Ben Delgado, former fighter Vernie Torres, registered manager Marty Elorde, and of course, lead trainer Freddie Roach.
This scribe, at that time working for a different paper, and PhilStar’s Quinito Henson, alongside the Bay Area-based mother-and-son tandem of Boots and Jason Aniel, rounded up the small entourage.
The chance to fight in the Oscar De La Hoya headliner, much less get a shot at a world title, was a product of the planets aligning at a perfect and opportune time.
Pacquiao, then 22, was already training at the Wild Card in Hollywood when Nazario received news that the Filipino southpaw had gotten a slot to fight in an eight-rounder.
Ledwaba was about to make a defense of the IBF 122-lb crown against Mexican lefty Enrique Sanchez, who withdrew owing to an injury two weeks before the match.
Sensing the urgency to fill in the void, the promoters went out looking for a last-minute substitute and immediately signed up Pacquiao, leaving Nazario ecstatic over the turn of events.
“From economy to business class,” said Nazario on the fight upgrade.
Still, Pacquiao only earned $40,000 but the victory in itself was more than enough to make up for the relatively paltry purse.
The rest, as they say, is history.