LOS ANGELES – The last 14 years, Manny Pacquiao has taken the land trip to Las Vegas countless times, often returning triumphant and a few times sad and lonely.
As his convoy makes the four-hour 300-mile journey to Sin City on Monday afternoon, Pacquiao will take special pride in this particular ride to the destination that played a big role in his rise from abject poverty to extreme wealth in less than a decade.
Fourteen years ago, Pacquiao came in as a last-minute replacement against Lehlo Ledwaba, a fight that netted him the South African’s International Boxing Federation super-bantamweight titlebelt and a $40,000 paycheck.
Fast forward to 2015 as Pacquiao gets ready to face Floyd Mayweather this Saturday at the MGM Grand for a staggering $80 million purse, over three times bigger than his previous-best of $25 million.
“I’ve definitely come a long way,” said Pacquiao as he recalled the day in June 2001 when he exploded into the US fight scene with a smashing sixth-round smackdown of Ledwaba at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, where Mayweather will lie in wait, hoping to dash the Filipino’s hopes.
As fate would have it, Pacquiao wasn’t even supposed to fight for the IBF 122-lb crown.
While Pacquiao was training at the Wild Card Boxing Club under Freddie Roach, Murad Muhammad, then his promoter, got a call asking if the unheralded Pacquiao would be willing to step up to the plate and challenge Ledwaba.
Ledwaba’s original foe, Mexican Enrique Sanchez, had gotten injured in training and a replacement was needed to save the fight and Pacquiao perfectly fit the bill of cannon fodder.
Pacquiao, though a terror in Asia, was completely unknown in the US, and he was up against a solid champion in Ledwaba.
But Pacquiao made a rousing introduction that paved the way for his intrusion into big-time boxing, battering Ledwaba and turning him into a rag doll before referee Joe Cortez intervened.
After Ledwaba, Pacquiao racked up a string of wins, encountered a minor setback in 2005, regained control with wins over Oscar de la Hoya and Ricky Hatton and ran into a wall anew in 2012 when Juan Manuel Marquez knocked him out cold.
Following the Marquez debacle, it seemed that an era had ended.
But Pacquiao fulfilled his promise of rising again and, going into this weekend’s blockbuster brawl, he has actually scored three straight victories and angling for a fourth straight coming at the expense of the sport’s No. 1 face.
“Mayweather’s time is up,” said Pacquiao, confident of putting a stop to Mayweather’s marvelous 47-fight winning streak.
“I have him (Mayweather) all figured out,” he said, implying that he considers Marquez a tougher challenge.
On May 3, the day after the richest fight in history, Pacquiao will make that long trip once again to La-La Land.