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While the ring is where Manny Pacquiao became a legend, the court deserves a little bit of credit for helping boxing’s only eight-division champion creep into the GOAT conversation.
If the second half of the above sentence sounds preposterous, you haven’t been paying attention. But with Pacquiao returning to action for the first time following his rousing victory over Keith Thurman two summers ago, and on the precipice of making history yet again, it’s worth highlighting the other sport the PacMan is obsessed with and the role it’s played in his incomparable career.
“If I don’t have a fight, I always play basketball for cross-training and to stay fit,” the 42-year-old Pacquiao tells Complex Sports over the phone.
From an unheralded pro who debuted in 1995 at 106 pounds to one of the greatest welterweights boxing has seen 26 years later, there are a lot of reasons why Pacquiao will (eventually) retire with a resume worthy of being considered among the greatest. Natural ability, incredible instincts, a tenacious work ethic, and some spiritual serendipity are the obvious ones. Basketball deserves an assist.
“It’s great footwork for fighters,” says Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s Hall of Fame trainer. “We do have a rule: Four weeks before a fight Manny’s not allowed to play basketball. We made that a while ago.”
When you watch Pacquiao at his best—like his throwback performance against Thurman when he was darting and ducking, shuffling then pivoting to create angles the formerly undefeated welterweight champ had trouble handling—you catch glimpses of basketball’s impact on him. Watch his feet and the difference in quickness between Pacquiao and his opponent is often startingly. Impressively agile, Pacquiao’s an explosive athlete whose lower half looks nothing like other welterweights’.
“Everyone says, ‘Where do those calves come from?’” says Roach.
Basketball’s been a passion of Pacquiao’s for a long time since it’s the No. 1 sport in his native Philippines. Forever a Michael Jordan fan, Pacquiao long ago perfected his left-handed jump shot that’s as awkward as it is reliable. “Maybe it’s not the best style I’ve ever seen in my life, but it goes in,” says Roach. Pacquiao actually made his professional basketball dreams come true when made his debut in the Philippines Basketball Association in 2014, a month before a title defense. There are plenty of YouTube videos of the pint-sized Pacquiao dribbling, driving, and launching during various pro and pickup games.