Thirteen years and 29 pounds ago, Manny Pacquiao was a flyweight with a dream. Much has happened in the interim, but the dream, in expanded form, lives on.
On June 28, Pacquiao will try to add his fourth world title to a resume that has left him universally rated the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, now that Floyd Mayweather Jr. has -- at least for the moment -- left the stage. Yet as accomplished as Pacquiao has become, all men have their limits. The question is: Has Pacquiao finally reached his?
When Pacquiao slips into the ring to challenge WBC lightweight champion David Diaz, he will be facing a 135-pound opponent who began his career weighing 142 and has worked down from there. In other words, when these two first became professionals there were 36 pounds between them.
In the end, none of that may make a difference, but it's an issue that will have to be dealt with by Pacquiao regardless of what the scales actually say at the Mandalay Bay Events Center two days before they square off. By that point both will weigh about the same, but will they feel the same?
To be frank, not even Pacquiao's trainer, the venerable Freddie Roach, claims to know. He can believe, as he does, that he has the better fighter, but to know for sure the full effect of such a climb in weight is something else entirely.
"Manny was having a lot of trouble making 130 lately," Roach said. "He was starving himself to do it and that made him a little weak. Then he'd overeat after the weigh-in to compensate. He gained 15, 16 pounds after the weigh-in before the last (Juan Manuel) Marquez fight. That kind of extra weight makes you sluggish.
"With each fight he was feeling more and more like he'd been starving himself so he'd put more weight back on after the weigh in. That became more and more of a problem. We need to avoid that this time, but all I can do is talk to him about what to do after the weigh-in.
"He doesn't have a great diet. Manny can't eat a meal without white rice. He doesn't feel good if he isn't eating starchy white rice, but I'm not so concerned about what he'll weigh at the weigh-in. I'm concerned about what he weighs in the ring that night." Roach has been preparing Pacquiao for this title challenge in the harsh way he always does. He has prepared him to do what he likes to do best - which is pursue, pester and pound on the opponents who try to stand in front of him.
This has not changed as his body has expanded. He has been a power puncher and an aggressor all his career and he does not intend to alter that approach when he challenges for the lightweight title. But who knows what will happen once he hits a true 135 pound man?
"There are a lot of unanswered questions with that," Roach said of Pacquiao's move up from 130, the weight at which he just won the WBC super featherweight title from Marquez by split decision 3 1/2 months ago. "I think he can handle it, but we won't know until the fight if he can take the power of a 135-pound guy.
"I believe his punch and speed will be there but we can only guess right now. It could be like (Ricky) Hatton when he moved to welterweight. He didn't have the same power or strength.
"There's not much you can do to test that out in the gym, so it's really hard to say until fight time. But you can make an educated guess."
Roach's guess is that Pacquiao (46-3-2, 35 KO) will show why he is now considered the best prize fighter in the world. Diaz expects no less. But, he is here to argue that this time, being the best may not be enough.
"I've been wanting a big fight like this for a long time," Diaz (34-1-1, 17 KO) said. "I feel pretty good about this fight. Pacquiao is a top fighter in his prime, but when I look at him I see a guy I can hit real easy. I see a guy I can beat. I honestly feel that.
"What Pacquiao does is make you fight his type of fight. In my case that's fine because his type of fight is my type of fight: Pressure. That's my best offense and my best defense.
"He's an all-out type fighter. He throws in volume, so I have to match that. Punching power-wise, I don't know who's stronger, but my determination will be the difference. This fight means more to me than it does to him."
That, like the weight issue, is no sure thing. Certainly for the former Olympian who has for so long been written off as the B side of every big fight he's been involved in - and mostly won - this is the biggest night of his life. But Pacquiao's toughness, both mental and physical, is far less in question than what the consequences of this latest jump up in weight may prove to be.
In a sense, the weight issue is also significant for the champion, a hard guy from Chicago who Roach feels has never gotten the respect he's earned. If he can find a way to upset Pacquiao, that problem will be a thing of the past. But to do it, Roach knows Diaz has to make his edge in strength an issue, so he and Pacquiao may need to find an unexpected way to counter it.
"I get so mad when people say Diaz isn't anything," Roach growled from behind his desk at the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, CA. "He went to the Olympic Games. He won a world title. Those things don't happen by accident.
"He's a much bigger guy physically than Manny. Not taller but naturally bigger. He'll be stronger on the inside. So the key to victory for Manny is his footwork."
His footwork? Footwork is one of the last things one thinks about when the subject is Manny Pacquiao. Fast hands, you think about that. A powerful left hand and a dangerous right, those might be on your mind. Unbridled aggression is surely a topic of conversation, as is his relentless stalking. But footwork as the key for the best fighter in the world against a heavy underdog like David Diaz?
"People don't connect Manny to footwork because he has one-punch knockout power," Roach explained. "We could stand and bang with Diaz but why do it? In the last Marquez fight there were two rounds where Manny was really on his toes and he was tattooing Marquez. That's when Manny is at his best - moving in and out. That's really his biggest asset.
"Diaz is a strong guy, but he's kind of a plodder. Manny can be elusive against him. He'll exchange at some points, but he doesn't have to trade with him all night and I don't want him to.
"Usually when my guy hits someone they go, but we don't know yet what happens when he hits a natural lightweight. I remember when I had (former two-time welterweight champion) Marlon Starling and he moved up to fight Michael Nunn. He was just too small. So we'll see."
A lifelong welterweight, Starling moved up to challenge for the middleweight title, a shift of 13 pounds, and he lost a majority decision by a wide margin on two of the three judges' cards. Starling could never make Nunn take a backwards step, so he immediately moved back to welterweight for one last fight with Maurice Blocker but again lost a majority decision and retired.
How much the wear and tear of dealing with a naturally bigger man wore Starling down will never be known, but he clearly was not strong enough to deal with Nunn at 160. Could the same happen to Manny Pacquiao?
David Diaz hopes so. "Look, this is a tough fight," Diaz conceded. "I know Pacquiao can fight. But I don't know any fighter who doesn't want to be in this type of fight.
"This is the biggest fight of my life. Bigger than when I won the title. Even bigger than beating a legend like (Erik) Morales because Pacquiao is a guy in his prime. He's a guy who's been beating up people in different weight classes. Now I have a title he wants and heâ€TMs trying to put me on the mat. It's one of those fights where you got to prove yourself to yourself.
"That's really all I care about. Proving to myself what I can do in boxing. Becoming champion at one time was something I didn't think I'd achieve. I thought maybe I was just another pro. Now I know I can be more than that. I'm not content with what I have." Neither is Pacquiao, who arrived at Roach's gym for seven weeks of training weighing 142 pounds. That is four pounds less than he weighed when he stepped into the ring to face Marquez, having slapped on 16 pounds in the 48 hours between the weigh-in and the first bell.
"It's a great opportunity for Manny, but we don't know yet what he'll feel like at that weight," Roach said. "He could win, and we might still decide to go back to 130 (as Hatton did after fighting Luis Collazo and then Mayweather at 147). You don't know until you do it."
The oddsmakers are considering his latest jump in weight as a factor, but they dismiss it in the end the same way they have for so long dismissed David Diaz himself, an underdog champion who has heard doubters so often he no longer accepts their word as gospel.
"It's the way it's been for a long time," Diaz said as he prepares to face the best little fighter in the world. "By now you'd think some people would give me a little bit of a chance, but that's all right. The only thing that really matters is when your hand is raised.
That's what matters, to be sure, but if the lightweight champion on June 29 is the same guy it was on June 28, it will likely be because of the scales, and what they said about a former flyweight named Manny Pacquiao.