General Santos City, Philippines - As boxing superstar and future hall of famer Manny Pacquiao prepares for yet another title defense in what could be among his last few fights, focus across the sporting world has shifted to who could be the Filipino great's heir apparent.
Across General Santos City, Pacquiao's southern Philippine hometown, boxing is considered a virtual religion and a golden ticket out of crushing poverty - a narrative that has played out in real life for the man who once went hungry on the streets before becoming the first fighter in history to bag eight world titles in as many weight divisions.
Fathers train their boys from an early age to join amateur boxing contests in General Santos and its sprawling rural communities, hoping their wards will develop enough power in their fists to propel them into a lucrative pro career, or at least catch the eye of promoters who can pay for proper training.
And with Pacquiao setting up his training camp on local ground ahead of his November 22 World Boxing Organization welterweight bout against American Chris Algeiri in Macau, the boxer - affectionately called "Pacman" here - is motivating a generation of young boxing hopefuls.
I have loved boxing since I was a little boy, when I would keep punching a boxing bag placed under a guava tree. It's all I want to do.
No one, however, has caught the attention of Pacquiao's camp more than Vince Paras, a 15-year-old local amateur phenom whose quick hands and passion for the sport has reminded many of Pacquiao when he was young and hungry for titles.
Pacquiao's legendary coach Freddie Roach spotted Paras hanging outside his ward's upmarket gym early this year as the boy tried to catch a glimpse of his idol. Roach inquired about the boy, and found out he had already joined and won amateur bouts here, despite having no proper training and using only hand-me-own gloves.
Roach took him in for a few training sessions, gave him some equipment, advised him to finish high school and get off the streets of General Santos, where Paras had been working odd jobs, including scavenging.
"I really love boxing. I have loved boxing since I was a little boy, when I would keep punching a boxing bag placed under a guava tree," a soft-spoken Paras told Al Jazeera at an open air boxing gym nestled under coconut trees on the outskirts of General Santos. "It's all I want to do."
Speedballs are suspended in old wood, while a discarded tyre wrapped around a coconut's trunk serves as a stationary punching bag. His coach, Alberto Gaballo, has a stable of four fighters that also include his 11-year-old son who has fought 67 matches already.
Among his fighters, he said Paras was the most promising, and could one day become a world title holder given the proper breaks.
"He really has the potential and the speed. He moves like Manny," Gaballo said. "He punches hard and if you get hit, it will certainly take you somewhere."
Neighbours come to watch the coach and his ward in their training sessions, the boy's agile footwork kicking up dust as he mimics Pacquiao, down to the famous fighter's patented whirlwind combinations.
|Pacquiao with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III [AP]
At a recent amateur fight night, 10 boys showcased their skills in front of a paying audience. Gym scouts, including trainers from Pacquiao's local boxing academy, were present, and Paras didn't disappoint.
He was matched with a bigger local boy called Jaguar, who has won several boxing medals in local competitions and was touted to make it big once he turns pro in the future.
Jaguar unleashed a flurry of punishing punches in what seemed to be an evenly matched fight in the first two rounds. But Paras stunned Jaguar with a left hook in the third, sending him to the canvass and ending the bout in a technical knockout to the roar of the crowd.
A week earlier, local match-makers said Paras fought a 30-year-old who was sent home with a bloodied nose and a crying wife.
"I have already told him that I will gladly hand him over to any coach who can train him more with better equipment and give him more exposure," Gaballo said. "As you can see, we do not have much here, just hand-me downs from other gyms."
Gaballo said Paras trained every day after school, sometimes well into darkness, forcing his mother to come over and beg him to turn in for the night.
$10 a fight
For all the beating his body takes, Paras takes home an average of $10 per fight, just enough for a few kilos of rice. His coach, however, said boxing had taught war-like discipline and given him a direction in life.
He [Pacquiao] really is a well-loved icon here and in the Philippines. If he retires, it would be difficult to replace him.
"You used to have difficulty talking to people but that has changed," Gaballo said of Paras. "It [boxing] has taught him gratitude. If he wins a fight, he brings gifts and food to his trainers."
It is, however, too early to say whether Paras, or anyone, could actually follow in the footsteps of Pacquiao, who has parlayed his boxing fame into a career in politics and entertainment.
"He is not only a boxing champion, for me and the people of General Santos, he is a champion because he has a very big heart and he knows how to look back where he came from," Buboy Fernandez, Pacquiao's best friend and assistant trainer, told Al Jazeera.
He said local boxing officials were not looking to develop younger fighters, with Pacquiao now concentrating on his political career and businesses, just a few more matches away from finally hanging up his gloves.
"He is definitely running for senator, 101 percent in 2016," Fernandez said.
"He really is a well-loved icon here and in the Philippines," city Mayor Ronnel Rivera added, stressing that Pacquiao has brought prestige and honour and big business to General Santos by being its most ardent promoter.
"If he retires, it would be difficult to replace him," he said.
Source: Al Jazeera