Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
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The line seemed to get longer and longer.
It was nearly two hours Saturday before the doors to the MGM Grand Garden Arena were scheduled to open and a group of nearly 100 fighting fans had already assembled for a meet-and-greet with boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao.
They carried bags of memorabilia and cameras, patiently waiting for a chance to get a glimpse, photo or autograph from the Filipino fighter. Pacquiao, in town to promote his May 7 welterweight championship fight at the MGM against Shane Mosley, is a celebrity whose popularity — especially in his native Philippines — has skyrocketed to mass proportion.
“He fights for his nation,” said Rhoderick Mejares, who drove from San Diego with his wife and four children for the event. “He’s a hero to the Filipino people. He’s one of us.”
An estimated 1,500 fans attended the gathering, giving a small glimpse of the cult-like following for the 10-time world champion.
Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s trainer, said the excitement witnessed Saturday is nothing in comparison to when Pacquiao (53-3-2, 38 KOs) is home in the Philippines. In addition to his success in the ring, Pacquiao is also a congressman.
“He is bigger (in the Philippines) than Michael Jordan in America,” Roach said.
This is Pacquiao’s first fight in Las Vegas since November 2009, with his most two recent bouts at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. In a testament to his popularity, roughly 16,000 tickets were sold in three hours on the first day they went on sale.
Rooms at the MGM are priced at $239 on the night he is fighting. The financial effect the fight will have on the local economy will easily be worth millions.
“Manny has a great, big fan base,” Mosley said. “I’m on Twitter. I see a lot of the fans that are African-American, Mexican or white. There are just a lot of Manny Pacquiao fans out there. I think his fan base has grown. That is why this is such a big fight.”
The 39-year-old Mosley (46-6-1, 39 knockouts) is a three-division, five-time champion. He’s just no Pacquiao — in terms of celebrity or accomplishments in the ring.
Pacquiao, who has won titles in eight divisions, is riding a 13-fight winning streak dating back to 2005. He is listed as a -700 betting favorite, meaning you’d have to wager $7 on Pacquiao to win $1.
“Manny is a warrior,” Mosley said. “He wants to see what you’ve got. He wants to take your heart from you and beat you up. Those are the type of fights I want to be in.”
Pacquiao, whose black hair is growing longer and easily covering his ears, fielded questions from the media for about 10 minutes prior to meeting the fans. He was asked everything from whether he will receive a haircut before fighting Mosley to his thoughts on the legal trouble of boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. Pacquiao and Mayweather have tried unsuccessfully the past two years to agree on conditions for a fight.
Like dodging a punch in the ring, Pacquiao side-stepped directly answering questions about Mayweather, twice saying he’ll pray for him.
As for the hair, Pacquiao isn’t sure when he’ll trim it. “I like the Beatles look,” he said jokingly.
It’s a fitting reference for someone whose celebrity is arguably comparable to the legendary rock group in many circles. Roach was even swarmed by fans Saturday, stopping to take photos and talk about his prized fighter.
“The only time they leave me alone is when he comes,” Roach said. “I’m happy to be part of this. He has changed my life.”