The return of Manny Pacquiao to the MGM Grand boxing ring Saturday night, more than 17 years after his U.S. debut there, is a remarkable event made more meaningful to him because his three longtime cornermen are joining him.
Seven-time trainer of the year Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s recently promoted lead trainer Restituto “Buboy” Fernandez and conditioning coach Justin Fortune can’t help but bask in their sentimental journey this week as they’ve readied the welterweight champion for his Showtime pay-per-view bout against Adrien Broner, a former four-division champion from Cincinnati.
“It’s great, nostalgic,” said Fortune, an Australian former heavyweight who once fought Lennox Lewis. “We’re like those old married couples. We’ve had ups and downs, bumps in the road, but we’re still here and Manny still is fighting with something to prove,” in his first bout at age 40.
“Having something to prove is the best thing I have going for me as I’m pushing Manny, telling him, ‘People want to see you fail. Prove them wrong.’”
Whether that’s true, with Broner doing his best to take on the villain’s role this week, is up for debate. What can’t be questioned is the sincerity of the bond between the record eight-division champion and his corner.
Fernandez made that evident Wednesday at a news conference. Upon his introduction as Pacquiao’s head coach, Fernandez yielded the floor to Roach, nodding to Fortune too by saying, “I cannot fly without my wings.”
Said Fernandez: “I did that because I wanted to give respect to the mentor, to the legendary trainer and the legendary conditioner Justin. As he is with Manny, Freddie is also my mentor and teacher. I’m proud of myself for being a head coach now, and I’m proud that they’re still by my side.”
For his July fight in Malaysia against then-secondary World Boxing Assn. champion Lucas Matthysse, Pacquiao left Roach uninvited, explaining that he wanted Fernandez to lead the corner as preparation for the pressure Fernandez will experience in training nearly 50 fighters who make up Pacquiao’s Philippines-based MP Promotions stable.
Roach was distraught, the demotion coming after his mother died from cancer and amid the defections from his Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood of his 140-pound world champion Jose Ramirez and his top prospect.
The brief split was painful for Roach but didn’t diminish Pacquiao, who asked Fortune to accompany him. The conditioning coach emphasized a training regimen that incorporated rest and recovery and the finished product was sensational: Pacquiao’s first knockout victory since 2009.
“I had the ultimate chance to pull him back … you can’t let an athlete like Manny do what he wants to do because he will over-train,” Fortune said. “That’s who he is — a … machine. You have to know your fighter.”
Fortune had his own parting with Pacquiao from 2007-2012, the coach’s return coinciding with his battle to survive cancer that “was in my mouth, all over the joint,” and required 10-hour surgery to transplant a left arm vein from his jaw to his neck.
Pacquiao said that he never abandoned Roach, and after joining Premier Boxing Champions and landing the Broner fight in Las Vegas, he invited Roach to a meeting inside his Waldorf-Astoria hotel suite in Beverly Hills and asked for a reunion.
“I’ve never seen Freddie so affected as when Manny left him, and I’ve never seen Freddie so affected as when Manny came back,” Roach’s longtime assistant Marie Spivey said.
Roach has called the Malaysia parting “water under the bridge,” and Fernandez eased the transition back at Wild Card.
One day Fernandez asked Pacquiao, “Do you want your teacher, your mentor?” Pacquiao responded, “No, you’re the head coach.” Fernandez understood the designation, but reminded the fighter, “We need to give our respect. He wants to do that with you. He’s been missing you.”
Explained Fernandez: “Freddie’s helped me so much. He’s the one who led me to a life in boxing. He taught me how to discipline the fighter, how to keep a distance between the fighter and the trainer. Mostly, especially, what I learned from Coach Freddie is the attitude. Coach Freddie knows how to handle it if the boxer is feeling bad. Freddie treats his fighters like a brother. It’s very important to raise them up.”
Pacquiao has been reflective about returning to the ring where he ended Oscar De La Hoya’s career, knocked out Ricky Hatton, wore down now-retired four-division champion Miguel Cotto and will stand again following a vicious 2012 knockout loss to his rival, Juan Manuel Marquez.
It was Fernandez who raced to Pacquiao’s side that night, and it was Fernandez who had a far less glamorous job under Roach when Pacquiao made his U.S. debut at MGM in 2001.