By Bert Eljera
LAS VEGAS –As Manny Pacquiao prepares for his fight Saturday against Juan Manuel Marquez, he has brought along a stable of fighters who toughens him up and provides a fair gauge of his readiness for the ring encounter.
Some of these boxers had impressive careers in their own right or on the verge of ascending through their weight classes, perhaps to be champions some day.
But with Pacquiao, their job basically is to be live punching bags – and sure, they can punch back. Cuts and bruises on their faces show, however, who get the better of these exchanges more often.
One of these sparring partners is David Rodela, the 2004 national lightweight champion as an amateur who boxes professionally as a super featherweight.
Rodela, 25, has worked for Pacquiao since 2004, when Rodela was an amateur and happened to wander into the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, Calif., where Pacquiao trains under Freddie Roach.
In those seven years, he’s endured about as much abuse – black eyes, contusions, bloody noses, broken bones, sore muscles, you name it – as a crash-test dummy.
In a recent talk with Yahoo Sports, Rodela said he finds it a privilege to work for Pacquiao, considered the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter.
“He’s one of the greatest ever,” said Rodela, adding that training with Pacquiao was like sparring with Muhammad Ali. Ali was ‘The Greatest’ and if you were around in those days, you wanted to be with him, or around him, in some way. And it’s the same now with Pacquiao.”
Rodela, who has compiled a not-too-shabby boxing record, has traded punches with some of the world’s best boxers.
“Hey,” he says, proudly, “I’ve been in there with the best: Victor Ortiz, Zab Judah, Ricky Hatton, Juan Lazcano, Joel Casamayor, Amir Khan, Antonio Margarito. A lot of great guys.”
Pacquiao will meet Juan Manuel Marquez on Saturday in a welterweight title fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. They first fought in 2004 as featherweights and, despite scoring three first-round knockdowns, Pacquiao could not hang on to win. Marquez battled back and made it a draw.
The rematch in 2008 was contested one weight class higher, and Pacquiao again knocked Marquez down. This time, he pulled out a split-decision victory.
Still, many in boxing are convinced that Marquez deserved to win both fights. During a press tour to promote their bout, Marquez managed to raise Pacquiao’s ire by wearing a T-shirt to one stop that proclaimed, “Marquez Beat Pacquiao Twice.”
The slight has raised Pacquiao’s already legendary work ethic several notches, say Rodela and fellow sparring partner Ray Beltran.
(Chris Farina photo)
Rodela said Pacquiao’s focus for the bout has been greater than his fights with Oscar De La Hoya, Margarito and Hatton.
“Brutal. Vicious. Totally focused,” Rodela said.
When Pacquiao prepared for Hatton in 2009, in the first round on the first day of camp, Pacquiao’s first punch caused a hairline fracture that began at Rodela’s orbital bone and extended the full length of his jaw.
This was despite the fact that Pacquiao was wearing 16-ounce sparring gloves and Rodela had head gear on.
Despite that, Rodela showed up for work the next day and every day after that. Roach hires numerous sparring partners for Pacquiao, looking for both fighters who can mimic the upcoming opponent’s style as well as guys durable enough to take the punishment Pacquiao invariably dishes out.
“You can only be in there with Manny for so long,” Roach said. “Guys just need a break.”
Beltran is in his 14th camp with Pacquiao. A 30-year-old lightweight with a 25-5 record and 17 knockouts, Beltran has watched Pacquiao develop from a wild, one-fisted fighter into one what many believe is the best in the world.
Pacquiao is like a blur in the ring, Beltran said, and never seems to tire. It’s a bad combination for a sparring partner, but like Rodela, Beltran says there is no other place he’d rather be than in Pacquiao’s camp.
“Physically, it’s super hard – really, really hard,” Beltran said. “But it’s a dream come true. I’m like a little kid. I never imagined that in my life, I’d get to help one of the greats of this game for so many years. I have so many stories to tell, to my family, my kids and my grandkids. Working with Manny is one of the greatest things that could ever have happened to me.”