Forty years ago, one of the greatest boxing matches in history took place in an unlikely setting: the capital of the Philippines. Muhammad Ali’s epic win over great rival Joe Frazier in 1975 became known as the “Thrilla in Manila.”
Four decades later, and a crowd is gathered at the same venue in this sweating, sprawling city — known as the Araneta Coliseum — for a very different contest: a basketball game between two of the country’s pro teams.
And yet, the Coliseum cannot seem to escape its boxing legacy.
The most famous athlete on court today just happens to be a boxer.
Manny “the Pacman” Pacquiao is the coach, as well as one of the shortest players on the roster at just five foot, six inches (168cm) tall, of team Kia Carnival. But the Filipino is best known around the world as one of the greatest boxers of his generation, the first fighter to win championship belts in eight different weight divisions.
Training for the big fight. Manny Pacquiao spars with deputy trainer and childhood friend Buboy Fernandez in a Manila gym. The Pacman told CNN his highly anticipated May 2nd bout against Floyd Mayweather will be one of the most important fights of his career. He called it a "mega-fight" that's been "5 years in the making." #Philippines #Manila #mannypacquiao #FloydMayweather #megafight #boxing @mannypacquiao @floydmayweather
A photo posted by ivancnn (@ivancnn) on Feb 26, 2015 at 4:52am PST
But despite his on-court distraction, he’s not finished in the ring. Pacquiao is little more than two months away from the most highly anticipated battle of his career. On May 2, he will finally go toe to toe with American welterweight boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. in Las Vegas — the fight most boxing fans have wanted to see for years.
READ: Mayweather vs Pacquiao: It’s on
Pacquiao insists that instead of networking in the capital, he focuses on helping poor people in his electoral district. “If you compare my accomplishments to other Congressmen, I think I did a lot,” he says.
Some critics argue Pacquiao’s boxing has suffered due to his many other distractions. “He’s spreading himself thin,” says Recah Trinidad, the newspaper columnist.
Trinidad points to Pacquiao’s knock-out at the hands of Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012. “I hope Manny could win [on May 2], I’ve been praying,” Trinidad says.
But the journalist fears Pacquiao may not be able to break through Mayweather’s much-vaunted defense.
“He’s got to adopt a more mature style of boxing. He cannot rely on what we call an explosive, kamikaze style,” Trinidad tells CNN.
Back on court at the Araneta Coliseum, Pacquiao’s Kia Carnival still trails by several points. But they soon manage to pick up some momentum and for the first time, take the lead.
The boxer stalks the sidelines, watching closely, exchanging high-fives when his players come on and off the court.
When the final horn sounds, Pacquiao’s underdogs have beaten their better-ranked opponents — an upset unlikely to be lost on him as he plots his own success against a more fancied opponent in the ring.