Manny Pacquiao (Photo credit JOE KLAMAR/AFP/GettyImages)
By Bob Velin, USA TODAY
LAS VEGAS - Amid the glitz, glamour and gold of The Hotel at Mandalay Bay, with family and friends swarming around him, boxing champion Manny Pacquiao sits quietly at the breakfast table, head bowed, his left hand within reach of what has become an ever-present Bible.
This is the new Manny Pacquiao, one who says he is devout, God-fearing, Bible-toting and quoting. Wednesday morning, three days from his big pay-per-view fight against undefeated Timothy Bradley (HBO, 9 p.m. ET), he looks completely relaxed while men scurry to clean the remnants of breakfast off the table in his suite, women work in the kitchen and children run around.
How does he remain calm amid the chaos?
"Because when I die, I know where I'm going," the future Hall of Fame boxer said with a smile. It has become one of his favorite lines.
Pacquiao is one of the world's best-known boxers, and his fights are the ticket. But while millions will be watching Saturday night, one very key person will not. Floyd Mayweather Jr. sits in a jail cell a few miles from where Pacquiao sits in luxury. Theirs is the fight the world really wants to see, but the camps cannot come to an agreement. Besides, Mayweather is spending the next few months in jail for domestic violence.
"I don't judge people; I don't condemn people," Pacquiao says. "I'm praying for him that everything will be fine and he will realize the truth."
During an exclusive interview with USA TODAY Sports, Pacquiao discussed his past, present and future, and it has everything to do with God and religion.
"I learned how to obey and follow the manual of your life that is the Bible," he says.
The new Pacquiao was born after his third fight against Juan Manuel Marquez in November at the MGM Grand. Pacquiao won by the slimmest of margins, but most news media thought he lost. He looked uncomfortable and nervous, and it was later learned that Pacquiao and his wife, Jinkee, were engaged in a 40-minute argument before the main event. There were reports she had come to the fight to ask for a divorce.
Pacquiao said that wasn't the case, but he agreed his life was spinning out of control. He says he was drinking, cheating on his wife, gambling - he owned a casino in Manila and a large cockfighting operation - and it was affecting his training, his fighting and even his work as a congressman in the Philippines.
"Almost every fight I had family problems like that," he says. "But we always fixed that after the fight."
Despite his promoter, Bob Arum, saying Pacquiao had a severe gambling problem, Pacquiao said, "I don't really gamble. I gamble if I'm not busy, but I'm always busy. What I did in the Philippines was drinking and girls. That was my problems. I'd gamble if I wanted to, but sometimes I didn't want to."
Pacquiao, 33, says he "promised God" he would change, and he did. He sold his casino, restaurant and cockfighting operation and says he stopped womanizing and drinking and turned to the Bible.
"The moment came to me that I don't like cockfighting anymore," he says. "I don't like anymore gambling, drinking, girls, stuff like that, because I was reading the word of God."
He does Bible study and "Bible-sharing" up to two hours a day and says he loves to quote from what he calls his manual for life.
The man who used to put on concerts after his fights even sings a few verses to the reporter.
"God will make our way,
Where there seems to be no way,
He works in ways we cannot see.
He will make a way for me."
Pacquiao says God led him to a man he calls "Pastor Jeric," an Americanized Filipino named Jeric Soriano who is a part-time pastor and does commercials. Pacquiao calls him his spiritual adviser. According to Michael Koncz, Pacquiao's adviser, and Arum, Pastor Jeric has helped keep Pacquiao grounded. Yet almost to a man, those around Pacquiao - and there are many in his still sizable entourage - love the changes in him.
"I've been with Manny for eight years, so I know the old Manny and the new Manny," Koncz says. "And I'm very pleased with the new Manny, specifically for the reason that he seems to be more at peace and content with himself and has devoted much more time with his wife and family, especially the kids."
His longtime trainer, Freddie Roach, also is happy with his new fighter.
"Yes, definitely. There have been a lot of distractions that have been bad for his career, but he's got one new distraction that's a lot more healthy for him and his family," Roach says. "He's happy, he comes to the gym every day. He gave up basketball, his favorite sport. (Playing basketball) killed him. He'd work out three hours in the morning, then go play basketball for three hours. He said maybe that's why he's getting leg cramps. He's doing good now."
Arum says he's a little concerned Pacquiao, always a devout Catholic, might be leaning more toward evangelism and distancing himself from the Catholic Church.
"He has become consumed with his religious feeling, and in a lot of ways, which I think concerns the church, he has drifted away from Catholicism towards evangelical Christianity," Arum says. "That's the deep, dark secret. But I can tell from Jinkee that she is becoming less Roman Catholic and more evangelical.
"On Sunday she went to the church of Pastor Rick Warren, who is an evangelical."
Arum, who is Jewish, finds himself amazed by the fact Pacquiao's religious conversion has been swept up even beyond the news media.
"The dialogue on this fight has shifted from left hooks and straight rights, and everybody is engaged in religious dialogue, and this is resonating with the evangelical Christian community," Arum says.
"When you track these websites, they're running features on Pacquiao. And there's the same type of feeling towards Pacquiao as there is toward Tim Tebow. The (New York) Jets have no idea of the tsunami they're reaping in godless New York with Tim Tebow. So Pacquiao has created this interest in boxing among a group that probably never watched a fight."
Pacquiao returns to the subject of boxing and says he will continue to fight, at least for a few more fights. Arum thinks maybe three more.
"This is what God guided me to do, in boxing," Pacquiao says. "I don't want to be like other guys who retire, then come back. If I retire, no more boxing."
Will Mayweather be one of those remaining opponents? "I hope so," says Pacquiao, a smile spreading across his face.
But first, Pacquiao needs to defend his WBO welterweight title against Bradley (28-0, 12 KOs) on Saturday, when they meet at the MGM Grand. Pacquiao is a 4-1 favorite and is guaranteed $26 million, plus upside from the pay-per-view revenue.
Pacquiao (54-3-2, 38 KOs), who has titles in a record eight weight classes and has not lost since 2005, expects to have his hands full with Bradley, who says this easily is the biggest challenge of his life.
"This is my moment to stardom, baby," said Bradley, who appeared so confident that he unveiled a large ticket during their final news conference Wednesday with Bradley-Pacquiao II written on it, a reference to a rematch after Bradley wins. "I gotta win."
And if he does, that would change everything when it comes to a Mayweather fight. A Pacquiao win means the megamatch remains possible.
So while Mayweather sits a few miles away, he nonetheless looms large over this bout.
Consider that Pacquiao's son, Emanuel Jr., told his dad he wanted him to retire soon. "But before you retire, I have one request," Pacquiao said his son told him.
"I said, 'What is that, son?'
"He said, 'Fight Mayweather and beat him.' "