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Bigger Than Boxing: How Pacquiao rose to World No 1

Seven-weight world champion, politician, philanthropist and, er...pop star. Steve Bunce on the amazing Filipino who fights tonight

Manny Pacquiao lived on the streets as a child in Manila, fights for a living today, visited President Obama recently and will inevitably upgrade from congressman to presidential candidate in the Philippines in the next 10 years.

His days under cardboard on the streets of the sprawling city, after leaving home when his father allegedly slaughtered and cooked his pet dog, and his improbable rise to the Philippine congress, where he is the architect of new anti-sex slave legislation, make his story one of boxing's most amazing.

Pacquiao will defend his World Boxing Organisation welterweight title tonight at the MGM in Las Vegas against the once brilliant but now slightly jaded Shane Mosley. He is unbeaten since 1995 and has added world titles at five weights since his last loss. As a fighter Pacquiao has won world titles at seven different weights and has a truly remarkable back catalogue of startling finishes in brutal fights. His savage series of meetings with Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez, the finest Mexicans of this and arguably any generation, and his cold-eyed destructions of Ricky Hatton and Oscar de la Hoya guarantee Pacquiao a special place in boxing's history books.

Last May he won a seat in the Philippine congress for the province of Sarangani and he has taken his congressional duties so seriously that his trainer, Freddie Roach, was convinced that he would walk away from the sport. "I think we will lose him to politics," Roach told me last summer. However, Pacquiao is skilled at manipulating time and his entourage, which is a staggering moving, cooking, laughing and singing gang, and now includes his political chief of staff.

At his last fight in November against Antonio Margarito, he hired a 747 and flew in more than 200 people from Manila to Dallas. They disembarked to join his retinue in several plush suites, where Pacquiao always sleeps with a dozen or so close friends. The fighter and his people cook their own food, watch kung fu films and perform endless hours of karaoke in the days and hours before fights. His wife and any other women have their own rooms.

As a child in the Manila slums Pacquiao slept on the floors in gyms with dozens of other homeless and desperate little fighters. His passage from six-stone anonymity, fighting for peanuts in long forgotten Filipino outposts, to the smiling, bilingual boxer with a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at $70m (£43m) is one of the legends of the boxing business. He had over 30 fights before turning professional, weighed less than 90 pounds and was unbeaten, always winning about $3 and enough rice to feed the other dwellers in the gym's filthy bunk beds. He was just 16 when he turned professional, having lied about being 18 and he was still undoubtedly malnourished, often having to weigh in with lumps of metal in his socks. The $40 purses he received for his early fights meant he could eat and send money to his mother.

After 24 fights, and still when he was only 19, Pacquiao won and then lost the flyweight world title in bouts against the odds and against hometown favourites in Thailand. He was still well under boxing's radar even when he won titles at super-bantamweight and reigned without equal for three years. In 2003 he arrived on the true international stage when he ruined Barrera in a non-title fight at featherweight, sending the exceptional Mexican staggering from corner to corner before the brutality ended in round 11.

Mosley will be Pacquiao's 18th opponent since the night he dismantled Barrera; the list includes De la Hoya, left stunned on his stool at the end of seven rounds and looking like a man who had just glimpsed hell and not really fancied the journey very much. Hatton went down and out in two rounds and the Mexicans succumbed in slugfests that continually wrote and rewrote their way into the pantheon of great fights involving great fighters.

It is the quality of Pacquiao's opponents over such a long period of time that places him with the modern giants; it is hard to mix talk about present-day and ancient fighters because of the way the sport operated before the 1960s. Pacquiao is one of the best boxers of the last 50 years.

Bob Arum, the promoter who travelled with Muhammad Ali and promotes Pacquiao, is convinced that he is a bigger star. "Ali never had this level of devotion," Arum said. "In the Philippines he [Pacquiao] is the social welfare system – the best one. He helps everybody".

The sharing of wealth is called balato and since his congressional victory it has become a lot more serious. The people of Sarangani do not have a hospital so Pacquiao went to see President Benigno Aquino III. "The sick had to travel for hospital care," said Pacquiao. "I promised a hospital and they will get a hospital." Pacquiao sat with Aquino and was given $5m to start the build. The ground will be broken in a ceremony when he returns after the Mosley fight. Aquino had pushed through legislation that guaranteed Pacquiao and his family military protection long before the new congressman sat with him and asked for a favour that he simply could not refuse.

"I want to achieve the same in politics that I have in boxing," said Pacquiao. "I will start with what I know best and what I know needs to change." He has personally written parts of the anti-human trafficking legislation that he is pushing through the Filipino congress.

At the same time, the 32-year-old has unfinished business inside the ring and is still hoping for a showdown with the evasive American Floyd Mayweather in a fight that would guarantee the pair $50m if it can possibly be made. The partial motivation for fighting Mosley is to try to beat him inside the distance and improve on the points win by Mayweather against Mosley last year. Meanwhile, Mayweather has to answer serious criminal charges in Las Vegas in July. All planned attempts to get them together have sadly faltered, the main stumbling block being the American's insistence on Olympic-style drug tests before and after the fight. Pacquiao has passed every drug test he has ever taken.

Pacquiao's road show shifted from Roach's shabby Los Angeles gym to the opulent plastic-plant wonder of the MGM this week. The entourage was in tow, swiftly setting up music and food areas in his suites. Pacquiao's latest CD was released last month and reputedly sold out immediately. It is called Sometimes When We Touch and is a compilation of power ballads from the Seventies and includes no fewer than seven versions of the title song. His love of music does not end there – Roach has continually to monitor the time spent by his fighter in the ring and at the microphone belting out Tony Christie numbers – and tonight Survivor's Jimi Jamison will perform "Eye of the Tiger" live for Pacquiao's ring walk.

"My heart is in focus," insists Pacquiao. "I ignore distractions and do what I have to do in boxing and in life." One thing is certain: the tiny genius with the gloves and the mission will be missed when he quits.

Kings of the Ring: Steve Bunce's five greatest fighters since 1960

1. Muhammad Ali

Won Olympic gold in 1960. He had 25 world title fights and regained the world heavyweight title three times. Backed up his boxing with his banter. 1960-1981: Won 56 of 61 fights.

2. Manny Pacquiao

Turned pro at 16, won first world title at 19. Has won world titles at seven weights and beaten the best at their best and at their best weight. 1995-present: Won 52 of 57 fights.

3. Sugar Ray Leonard

American won Olympic gold in 1976 and had 13 world title fights and held titles at five different weights. First to earn $100m in purses. 1977-1997: Won 36 of 40 fights.

4. Roberto Duran

Turned pro at 17. He had 22 world title fights between 1972 and 1998 and held titles at four weights. He once knocked out a horse. 1968-2001: Won 103 of 109 fights.

5. Oscar de la Hoya

Mexican American from a boxing family won Olympic gold in 1992, had 29 world title fights and won world titles at six different weights. 1992-2008: Won 39 of his 45 fights.