LAS VEGAS — Twenty years ago, Freddie Roach was a nascent trainer. His mentor, Eddie Futch, had set him off on his own and Roach was proving to be a worthy successor to the master.
The star of Roach’s stable at that point was James Toney, the former middleweight champion who remained one of the most talented figures in boxing.
Roach was in Las Vegas to train a fighter on the undercard of an Oscar De La Hoya fight. A reporter approached Roach to ask about Toney, but all Roach could talk about was his undercard fighter.
He wouldn’t be an undercard fighter much longer.
Manny Pacquiao destroyed Lehlo Ledwaba that week to win a super bantamweight championship and to start an unmatched partnership that exists to this day.
On Saturday (9 p.m. ET, PPV) at T-Mobile Arena, Pacquiao will take on Yordenis Ugas in the main event of a Fox Sports PBC card in the Filipino senator’s first bout since defeating Keith Thurman for a belt in 2019.
He’s a few months away from a run for the presidency of his country and he’s rapidly closing in on his 43rd birthday. But Roach said the love of the game, the desire to succeed and the eagerness to take on all comers remains.
Social media was filled with fears for Pacquiao’s safety in June when he announced he’d fight Errol Spence Jr. in a welterweight title bout. But when Spence tore his retina and needed surgery on his right eye last week, Pacquiao never hesitated.
Had he opted to wait until Spence was healed, the entire card would have been scrapped. And if he had, he’d have had good reason: Ugas is a right-hander and Pacquiao spent nearly his entire camp preparing for a left-hander.
That he said yes so quickly and without reservation is one of the things that makes him arguably the most beloved figure in the sport.
“Manny has been the same way ever since I’ve known him,” Roach said. “He loves what he does and you can tell by the way he trains.”
When Pacquiao left the Philippines in early July to head to the U.S. to complete his training camp at Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, California, a medical emergency on the plane he was on forced it to divert to Tokyo.
The plane then went back to the Philippines while passengers waited several hours before it departed again for the U.S. It was more than 30 hours but the day after he arrived, he was in the gym training.
“I just do my job,” he said with the humility of one just starting in life not one of the most iconic figures in the world.
By doing his job, he saved the payday for all the fighters on the card, as well as their corner people and managers. And he gave the fans the show he promised, a chance to see one of the all-time greats in what could be his final fight.
Pacquiao: ‘My title was given to Ugas’
A big deal has been made about how quickly Pacquiao accepted the bout, but listen to him talk and it’s like he doesn’t understand what the fuss is about. He took the fight against Ledwaba on short notice and went out and won in dominating fashion.
Now, he’s taking the change in opponent from Spence to Ugas in stride and said he’ll be prepared to fight at his best when he hits the ring on Saturday.
“This was a great opportunity,” Pacquiao said of fighting Ledwaba on short notice. “There was no way I was going to pass it up. Freddie and I worked every day those two weeks until the weigh-in. That is how we started to get to know each other. Ugas is in a similar situation. He was already training for a welterweight title fight on the same card as mine so he, too, is ready to make the most of this opportunity. I know what Ugas is feeling because 20 years ago I was Ugas.
“I am not taking him for granted. In fact, I am taking him as seriously as I took Errol Spence. I will not make the same mistake Ledwaba made with me. I still have the same hunger to win. I live for it. I have had a great training camp and I am well-prepared. I want to prove to everyone, especially Yordenis Ugas, that I am still here.”
Pacquiao has championships in eight weight classes to his credit, and so the fact that a sanctioning body stripped him of the belt he had won by beating Thurman shouldn’t faze him that much.
Part of his motivation for fighting Ugas is that the WBA gave his belt to Ugas who became the super champion while sitting on the sidelines.
That’s not the way Pacquiao does business and it gnawed at him.
“My title was given to Ugas,” Pacquiao said. “That is not how you become a champion. You earn it by winning it inside the ring. We will fight for the title. That is the proper way a champion is crowned.”
His fighting skills are stellar, but it’s that attitude that has made Pacquiao so beloved. A Nevada regulation requires promoters to offer refunds if the main event changes, as it did in this case. There have been fans who took advantage of that and got their money back for tickets they’d purchased to see Pacquiao fight Spence.
But those who kept their tickets are the real winners. This may be the last time this legendary fighter ever slips between the ropes with gloves on his hands.
It’s hard to put a price on seeing that in person.
More from Yahoo Sports: