Sometimes when we punch

Dan Hill on singing a duet singing a duet with Manny Pacquiao

Dan Hill
Sometimes when we punch

Tom Donoghue

Sometimes when we punch
Tom Donoghue

“Sugar Shane Mosley will be getting a personal rendition of Sometimes When We Touch from Manny on May 7–on his chin and ribs—all night!”—Manny Pacquiao’s trainer Freddie Roach

February 1964—47 years before the Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley fight in Vegas on May 7

“Daggum, Liston is going to chomp up that blabbermouth Cassius Clay, and then spit him out like a bad meal,” my dad is howling. Dad, who used to teach boxing in the U.S. Army, is out of his mind with excitement as the transistor radio blasts out the preamble to the Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston bout. Ducking and weaving as he shadowboxes with an imaginary opponent, his meaty fists are a blur of left jabs and right uppercuts. Bam! Carried away, he smacks the kitchen wall, the dishes on our kitchen table rattling as forks and spoons tumble to the floor. I’m transfixed.

As Cassius morphed into Ali and became the new Jack Johnson (the world’s first black boxing champion) of this most primal of sports, I worshipped him. When he first lost to Frazier in 1971—as my dad and I listened on the same transistor radio that had boomed out the Liston-Clay bout in our Don Mills kitchen—I wept.

But my love affair with boxing soured. To be sure, boxing has always been, at best, a shady and sometimes cutthroat business, buttressed by hype and tomfoolery rivalling, at times, that of carnival circuses. Nevertheless, something about the Mike Tyson era (and the press’s facile depiction of him as the archetypal black bogeyman) disgusted me. Frankly, the media’s hysterical and often racist response to Tyson’s self-destructive rampages sickened me as much as Tyson’s litany of stupefying transgressions. Any boxers who came and went throughout the following two decades were off my radar.

Three years before the Pacquiao-Mosley fight

Flipping through the Toronto Star one day in 2008, I noticed a piece about a phenomenal boxer from the Philippines who had won several different titles in several different weight divisions. Manny Pacquiao’s rise from heart-crushing poverty to the top ranks of his sport was astounding. Intrigued, I read on. Then something at the end of the article made me choke on my morning coffee and damn near fall off my chair. After every fight, the article said, the boxer went to sing at a local club; his song of choice was his all-time favourite, Sometimes When We Touch.

Manny and I, now friends, have re-recorded Sometimes When We Touch not once, but several times. There are pulsing dance versions where we swap vocals like boxers exchanging jabs; a hip-hop/dance version, produced by Toronto’s new Grammy-winning phenom Boi-1da; and a classic ’70s-style version, produced by Matthew McCauley and Fred Mollin, who produced the original hit record in 1977—one year before Manny was born. Manny and I have also made a video of that song, and filmed a 30-minute documentary tracing Manny’s astonishing rise from poverty to eventually become the greatest pound-for-pound boxer in the world. Throughout the filming of this documentary I switch roles, jumping from narrating Manny’s remarkable life story to playing the vocal coach, as the camera catches behind-the-scenes footage of Manny, my producers and me working (and playing) in Hollywood’s legendary Capitol Records studio. The doc quickly cuts between Manny singing a few lines of my song today and me at the age of 22—courtesy of my 1977 live-off-the-floor footage—answering him. Seeing myself in my hirsute splendour, as I flail my arms and shuffle about in a vague semblance of “dancing,” makes me wince, as does my impossibly earnest delivery.

May 4, 2011

Manny Pacquiao and Shane Mosley are holding a press conference in Vegas at the glitzy MGM Grand, three days before their big fight. Manny, his handlers and his trainers are on one side; Mosley and his team, perched with feigned detachment, are on the other. I’m in the audience, incredulous as to why Manny and his ingenious and highly personable publicist, Fred Sternburg, have invited me to sit in on this highly amusing spectacle.

Assuming my role is to simply offer quiet support, I sit in the back, fascinated by the interaction and body language of Manny, Mosley and their teams. Both sides strain to be courteous and diplomatic, but the tension between the two camps is impossible to miss. As I begin to plot out how to surreptitiously disappear (I’m late for a band rehearsal), Manny, a born mischief-maker, pulls a fast one. At the end of the press conference he leaps up to talk about how excited he is about his new recording with Dan Hill, and insists that I stand up and wave to the media. As I sheepishly oblige—not about to say “no” to the baddest dude in the world—Manny triumphantly croons: “Sometimes when we touch….,” slyly pauses, cocks a fist in my direction and throws me a stage wink. Caught totally off guard, I manage to counter with “the honesty’s too much.” Even Mosley’s chuckling, and I’m wishing at that moment that I really could “close my eyes and hide.”

Instead, I’m swarmed by dozens of journalists peppering me with so many overlapping questions my brain momentarily shuts down. As I start firing back answers I discover that, ironically, the boxing media and movers and shakers (promoter Bob Arum, famed Showtime boxing analyst Al Bernstein) are the biggest fans of my project with Manny. As for reporters like Peter Nelson from the New York Times, I’m as struck by how young these writers are as they appear amazed at how I keep managing, at my ancient, mummified age, to reinvent that song. Deciding that I am the go-to expert (I’m not) on all things Manny, I talk about Manny’s recent congressman status in his home country and his determination to eradicate poverty. I slip into shrink speak: venturing that since Manny has been supporting his family through boxing since the age of 14, the Philippines now have come to represent an extension of his family. All the reporters nod deferentially, but really I’m bluffing my ass off.

I wake up the next morning to thousands of articles—from the London Telegraph to hard-core boxing magazines to Internet postings—pontificating on the Manny Pacquiao-Dan Hill connection. The undercurrent of each story is always the same: how the heck did two such unlikely figures—a badass boxer and a ballad singer, born 25 years apart on opposite sides of the world—become friends and musical collaborators?

May 7, 2011

I’m sitting in the media room, 45 minutes before the Pacquiao-Mosley fight. Manny’s publicist has secured a spot for me amongst the throngs of predominantly male journalists, their laptops whirring, TV cameras cocked, earpieces and mikes bejewelling their clothes. Suddenly it hits me: I’m here to watch my friend fight for his life, his career, his dignity and his country. What if he gets hurt, or worse?

While I’d never said as much to Manny, I’d thus far avoided watching any of his fights. The Manny I know is gentle, humble, humane. Whenever he greets me, it’s always the same: “Hi Danny,” he whispers bashfully, throwing a diffident nod my way, lest I forget who he is. As if.

Though I’d been offered front-row seats for the night, I preferred the sanitization of the press room’s TV screens, knowing that witnessing a brawl of this magnitude within sweating distance of the boxers is an entirely different experience. Ringside seats mean you hear the breaking of ribs, the splattered cartilage of what was once the boxer’s nose, the dislocation of the jaw, the horrifying “ugggh” that the boxer utters milliseconds after receiving a crushing left hook to the solar plexus, or kidneys, or head.

With only 15 minutes before the fight, the screen cuts to Manny, then Mosley, in their dressing rooms—getting laced up, swinging their legs and arms around to loosen up their gladiator muscles. I’d heard that Manny and his wife had been in a minor car accident that morning, and I suspected that a lot of his frantic loosening up was due to whatever tightening he would have suffered from an unexpected collision. Then the screen flashes to Paris Hilton, smiling and waving as if attending a film debut at Cannes. Ahh, the disconnect. All the beautiful, über-monied people, dressed like they’re attending some royal gala, there as much to be seen as to bear witness to savagery. Celebrities lined up with their shades and their furs somehow add to the fight’s strange and visceral allure. A beaming, vacuous Hollywood wannabe sashays into the ring, holding up a “round 10” sign, her breasts so unrealistically huge they look like weapons.

Two minutes left in round 12 of the last undercard fight. The losing fighter’s dad throws in a towel, quickly followed by a water bottle, desperate for the beating to end. There’s a close-up of the losing fighter, his cut up face puffed up like a balloon, tears forming in his eyes as he reaches for his father. He looks like a boy pushing 17. There’s a flash of tenderness as Dad consoles his shamed son. A flicker of humanity in this jungle of celebrities screaming for blood.

As the announcer introduces Manny and Mosley, my body goes numb, defences kicking in so I don’t feel the blows, get too emotionally invested.

Mosley is being introduced as he nimbly jumps up and down, eyes half closed, slipping into combat zone. Then Manny fills the screen, still swinging around his legs (now I’m convinced he’s stiff, perhaps injured, from his car accident), trainer Roach hovering over him protectively. The clanging bell kicks off the fight. I resist a powerful urge to bolt.

Round one begins. After feeling each other out for the first 90 seconds, a few blows are exchanged, but nothing of real consequence. Nevertheless, Manny is an intense blur of motion, making him difficult to tag, all the while throwing and landing two punches for every one Mosley offers.

After dominating round two and the first 90 seconds of round three, it happens. The journalists roar and spring to their feet as Manny catches Mosley in the head with a thudding left hand. Mosley falls hard to the canvas, lying still for a few seconds, his eyes vacant, his face a muddle of confusion and pain. For a moment I wonder if he’s going to get up, can almost hear the broken wheels in Mosley’s rattled brain thinking, “Jesus, I had no clue this guy could hit so damned hard. Do I really wanna rise and take more of this?” Mosley eventually gets up, badly shaken but using every trick in his considerable defensive arsenal to hold on, barely, until the bell clangs the end of the round. For all intents and purposes, the fight was over when Mosley was knocked off his feet. Manny ended up winning all 12 rounds and the pattern never really varied: Manny the fierce pursuer and Mosley almost running backwards, not wishing to absorb any more punishment. Manny’s impossibly accurate punches, thrown at dazzling angles when he appeared almost unbalanced, nailed Mosley so many times I could almost feel his dazed pain and fatigue. But Mosley, despite being seriously thumped at least a few times a round, cleverly ran and ducked and backpedalled enough to avoid a knockout.

At a press conference after the fight, wearing sunglasses to cover his blackened eyes, his face badly bruised and puffy, Mosley faced a barrage of questions, many stupid and often variations on the same one: why didn’t you fight? Mosley admitted that he knew that if he threw a punch, he’d leave himself open for punishing counterpunches; he couldn’t risk throwing any jabs or crosses at Manny, as it would result in him getting demolished. (I was amazed by Mosley’s frankness and struck by how he could emerge an hour after suffering such a beating to face thinly veiled insults with such grace and dignity, even gallantly telling Manny, “You did a great job.”) Mosley wisely refused to predict whether Floyd Mayweather or Pacquiao would emerge victorious in the days ahead, and his closing statement seemed so sad, due to its awful truth: “Sometimes time creeps up on you.”

Following Mosley’s entrance by half an hour, Manny calmly strolled into the press conference looking more like a congressman than a boxer. Dressed magnificently in an impeccable blue suit and tie, he appeared relaxed, his face notably unmarked. He was unfailingly polite, as always, but hints of exasperation showed when reporters continued to ask why Mosley didn’t want to fight and why Manny didn’t knock him out. Clearly question one answers question two: it’s difficult to knock someone out who refuses to get caught within striking distance.

The weirdness factor spiked when, almost out of nowhere, Paris Hilton appeared and plunked herself down between Manny and his wife. (“I’d like to introduce you to my beautiful wife,” Manny whispered to Paris, positioning her so that she was facing Jinkee and not him, as the press corps cracked up.) While the journalists muttered nasty things under their breath, I saw the whole Paris Hilton thing as perfect theatre. What more unlikely people could be sitting side by side? After all, in America, Manny’s preternatural boxing gifts far exceed his fame, whereas with Ms. Hilton, her iconic fame eclipses whatever talent she may possess, and it does so to such an extent that it says more about mainstream America’s puerile fascination with super rich, naughty glam girls than the actual so-called celeb.

Post boxing match concert, 12:30 a.m.

While I’d been asked to attend Manny’s musical set and sing Sometimes When We Touch with him, I’m not surprised to find my name isn’t on the list to get into this most private of private parties at the super swank Mandalay Bay hotel. I am dead tired and I lean against the wall across from the entrance, spying the airport-like security scanners that greet anyone that actually gets through the first line of fierce questioning by the half-dozen security guards. As has happened to me dozens of other times when meeting Manny and his team, eventually some senior security figure will show up, apologize and lead me to Manny’s inner sanctum.

1 a.m.

The entertainment supervisor finally appears, praises me up and down, then slaps two plastic bands around my wrist: green is to get me backstage, brown is to get me on stage to perform, and leads me to just outside Manny’s dressing room, where a big, unruly line is forming.

2 a.m.

Someone emerges from Manny’s dressing room and ushers me in. Manny’s in the bathroom, with his band and Los Angeles-based vocal teacher, doing vocal warm-ups. Ohhhhhhh…wheeeeeee… ahhhhh...Curious sounds, given that these falsetto yodellings are coming from the same guy who bounced Mosley off the canvas just a few hours earlier. There are a fair number of people (media heavyweights, celebs like David Foster) in this small room, many of whom I know from previous press conferences. Tom Donoghue, who filmed my interview with Al Bernstein for Showtime, is escorted into the dressing room and asks if he can take photos of Manny and me. “Whatever Manny wants,” I answer, starting to fade.

2:30 a.m.

Manny strolls out of his bathroom, walks straight up to me, shakes my hand, and holds it, firmly yet gently as he sings, with remarkable purity, the first verse of Sometimes When We Touch. He’s beaming. After posing for photographs, including one in which Manny and I ham it up with fists cocked at each other as if we’re preparing for battle, I think of my late father, how thrilled he’d be by my improbable hobnobbing with the greatest boxer in the world. Manny, sensing something’s off with me, says, “Please, Danny, sit down next to my wife, Jinkee. Would you like some water, or a beer, or anything to eat?”

Manny sits beside me for a few minutes and talks about the fight. “I had bad cramping in my legs after round three,” he says, kicking about his feet as he talks, as though he’s still trying to work out his coiled-up muscles, “and I kept asking my trainer to massage my legs in between rounds. And my right foot hurt so it was hard to keep chasing Shane around the ring.” Earlier, Manny’s coach had told me that everyone had expected Mosley to come out swinging. There’d been so much talk about Mosley’s high and mighty dangerous right hand, Manny had been praying for Mosley to bring on his best, most aggressive fighting game, confident that if Mosley followed up on what he’d told the media about coming to fight toe to toe, he’d be knocked out within five rounds. There’s palpable frustration among everyone in the dressing room over Mosley’s refusal to engage in the battle, although Manny’s too diplomatic to dwell on this, at least to me. America loves nothing more than a spectacular knockout in boxing, and essentially, Manny feels, with each fight, that it’s his duty to make sure the audience walks away feeling as if they’ve received more than their money’s worth.

3:30 am

Manny’s been on stage belting out famous American pop ballads for almost an hour. I’m shocked by his exuberance, his vocal strength and endurance. Giving it all he’s got, he appears to be gaining more energy as he plows through the great American songbook. Manny has informed me that Sometimes… is No. 8 on his set list, but it occurs to me, only as he rounds into song five, that I have no idea what he wants me to sing. Just harmonies? Or a line-swapping duet? Realizing I’ve totally forgotten my low harmony part for the chorus, I panic, racing out of the arena clutching my laptop, my right ear jammed against the left speaker of my Mac. I click onto iTunes and pick off my harmony parts from one of our seven recorded renditions. I rush back toward the stage and hear Manny call my name. S–t. My black knit sweater looks faded and dusty and smells funky from 20 hours of wear. Incredibly, a stranger offers me a gorgeous suede jacket boasting embroidered patterns so delicate and complicated it makes me feel like, well, a star.

“Mr. Hill, it’s yours for only five grand,” the stranger barks, as I clamber up the steps and onto the stage. Manny begins singing the first verse and I’m watching him intently, waiting for his visual cue as to when I should jump in. Usually a perfectionist when it comes to performing, I find myself enjoying the suspense of not knowing what the hell Manny’s going to do next. Manny pauses at the beginning of the first b-verse and gives me a nod. Damn, the b-verse is the highest part of the song and my voice feels shredded from six hours of sound checks and performing with a rock band the night before.

Feeling like Joe Cocker on a bad night, I croak through the verse, our voices meeting in the chorus. I’m immediately taken by the beauty of our vocal blend, our notes phasing off each other as though we’re brothers.

We continue to trade off lines till the song ends. I feel deliriously happy, like I’m floating. After Manny winds up and nails the song’s final “subsides” with an accuracy and power that recalls how hard he punches, we clasp our hands together and raise them toward the screaming fans. This is bliss.

Dan Hill is an internationally renowned author and singer-songwriter. His upcoming release, Sometimes When We Touch: Manny Pacquiao Sings featuring Dan Hill (a two-disc set, CD plus bonus DVD), will be released May 31.