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In Pacquiao, a fighter like no other

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Manny Pacquiao, of the Philippines, arrives at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009 in Las Vegas. Pacquiao will face Miguel Cotto, of Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken) Manny Pacquiao, of the Philippines, arrives at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009 in Las Vegas. Pacquiao will face Miguel Cotto, of Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The best little fighter you will probably ever see had the seat of honor on the bus carrying him to his grand arrival at the MGM Grand casino. Manny Pacquiao had some more promoting to do, some more hands to shake, some more fans to meet.

This is boxing, and every sale counts. Pacquiao has been doing it long enough to understand that the more people who buy his pay-per-view fight with Miguel Cotto, the more his guaranteed $13 million purse goes up.

You get the feeling, though, that he might be doing it even if it didn't make him an extra dime.

"I'm enjoying it," Pacquiao said as the bus passes a not-so-ancient pyramid on the Las Vegas Strip. "I never thought I would be this popular in the United States."

In the stairwell just in front of him, a cameraman tries to keep his balance as he films the fighter. The footage likely will show up on the final HBO "24/7" show that will air Friday, the night before Pacquiao gets down to his real work against Cotto.

I got the seat next to Pacquiao, which didn't make me the most popular person with his vast entourage, who clamor daily for the champ's attention. There were so many of them they nearly filled the bus Tuesday as it took the Pacquiao camp from its base at the Mandalay Bay to the hotel where a few thousand people were waiting to give him a raucous welcome.

Still, it was a chance to get a few minutes alone with him — or as alone as anyone can get with Pacquiao. A few minutes to try to understand how he stays so calm while chaos swirls around him. A few minutes in a very different kind of Mannywood that a certain baseball player would never understand.

"I'm a very friendly person," Pacquiao said, condensing things to just a few words as he tries to explain his popularity. "I'm nice to everybody."

Perhaps too nice at times. In his native Philippines, where he is revered for his success inside the ring and his generosity outside of it, Pacquiao gives away money and sends kids to school on scholarships. After a recent typhoon, he bought wood so coffins could be built.

"The Philippines has only one social welfare system, and it's Manny Pacquiao," promoter Bob Arum said.

The Philippines also has only one star. Pacquiao's face is everywhere, singing on TV with his band, promoting his action-figure movie that opens next month. He plans to run for Congress next year, and there's talk of him becoming president one day.

Did I mention he's also the best pound-for-pound fighter in the game?

He gave a beating to Oscar De La Hoya, made him quit on his stool. He followed that by barely breaking a sweat in flattening Ricky Hatton.

He's fought in six weight divisions and won six titles, and now he's winning over the hearts of the most hardened fight fans.

"For me, boxing is kind of entertainment," Pacquiao said. "You have to entertain people. You have to earn their respect."

Pacquiao plans to do just that Saturday night when he takes on the once-beaten Cotto, of Puerto Rico, in a 145-pound fight that could set up a megafight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. On paper it shapes up as perhaps his toughest fight yet, but fights are held on canvas, not paper.

Pacquiao has prepared well, sparring endless rounds until trainer Freddie Roach begs him to quit. Still, there is time to entertain actors in Roach's Hollywood gym, and time to croon along with the house band on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," something far more nerve-racking than getting hit in the face.

There also is time for the entourage, many of whom have been sleeping in hideaway beds in Pacquiao's 60th floor hotel suite. House rules are spelled out in signs on the wall that impose a 9 p.m. curfew and prohibit ringing the bell on the champ's bedroom door. There are also visiting hours for friends, relatives and fans — 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., tickets required.

Roach remembers the day Pacquiao walked into his gym eight years ago looking for a new trainer.

"We did a round with the mitts and he went back to his people to tell them he had found a trainer," Roach said. "I went back to my people and told them we had found a great fighter."

The partnership has blossomed beyond their wildest expectations. Pacquiao is fighting for millions of dollars every time he laces up the gloves, and Roach is becoming a different kind of star in Hollywood.

They are looking out the window as the bus pulls into the MGM. A beaming Arum is waiting to greet his fighter, while excited fans jostle each other inside the entrance, trying to get a picture or glimpse of the champ.

Pacquiao, wearing shades, follows a security team through the middle of it all, seemingly unfazed. He's smaller than most of the people around him, but he cuts a large figure.

"Forget about boxing for a moment," Roach said. "I've never seen anyone like him anywhere."

____

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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