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Knocked out: How COVID-19 doomed my Pacquiao coverage in the US

Dino Maragay - Philstar.com
Knocked out: How COVID-19 doomed my Pacquiao coverage in the US
Manny Pacquiao kneels in a corner before a WBA welterweight title fight against Yordenis Ugas at T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 21, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ugas retained the title by unanimous decision.
Steve Marcus / Getty Images / AFP

LOS ANGELES, United States — When Sen. Manny Pacquiao announced he is fighting Errol Spence Jr. in his first bout in more than two years, I was struck with mixed emotions. 

It was a hell of a match-up of course, bringing an instant jolt of excitement to my boxing-addicted mind and body. At the same time, there was the inevitable feeling of apprehension, given the fact that it would be Pacquiao’s first fight under the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

But having covered Pacquiao’s fights overseas for Philstar.com since his megabuck showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2015 in Las Vegas, I told myself there is no way I’m going to miss the Filipino icon’s shot at further growing his legend against the dangerous Spence. 

It would be a crime for a boxing aficionado or a boxing writer to not even try to be ringside and either enjoy or chronicle it. I received full backing from the office and was bound for my eighth Pacquiao fight on foreign soil — the sixth in the United States.

The trip from Manila to Los Angeles on Aug. 10, 2021 was my first international journey in these pandemic times — also my first since I covered Pacquiao’s fight with Keith Thurman in 2019. 

A lot has changed in terms of air travel since the pandemic began; a standout of which is that every passenger must submit a negative RT-PCR COVID-19 test result before being allowed to board a flight to the US. I diligently did my homework, isolated myself a few days before my flight, and turned in a negative result on top of filling out a battery of online forms that were also mandatory. 

A colleague whom I traveled with out of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport remarked that we were like soldiers being deployed into the frontlines in a theatre of war — only this time the enemy’s bullets are invisible, and that there is no quick way to find out whether you’ve been hit until after a few days.

Stringent pre-flight health measures aside, the trip itself was smooth, although to our surprise and dismay, it was a full flight and there was no way I wouldn’t be sitting next to another passenger. But I was barely worried since I was fully vaccinated — having my second Sinovac dose at the end of June — and always masked up (with the mandatory face shield, too).

In perhaps a major foreshadowing of my upcoming ordeal, Spence went down with an eye injury that put him out of commission with the fight just 10 days away. The disappointing news happened while our plane was still in the air, and we didn’t find out about it until we landed at the Tom Bradley International Airport (LAX) in the City of Angels. 

I initially thought the event had been totally scrapped and that my 13-hour journey was for nothing, but thankfully, undercard fighter Yordenis Ugas — interestingly the new holder of Pacquiao’s WBA “super” welterweight championship — had been bumped up to the main event as Spence’s last-minute replacement. I heaved a huge sigh of relief. The show must and will go on.

Upon exiting the arrival gates at LAX, I was again filled with excitement as I am about to kick off my first Pacquiao coverage in two years and under unprecedented circumstances. I immediately buckled down to work that evening when we settled down at our hotel room just beside the famed Wild Card Gym in Hollywood — our office for the next few days — and wrote about Ugas stepping in for Spence and Pacquiao and his team’s reaction to it, among other topics.

WBA welterweight champion Yordenis Ugas poses during his official weigh-in at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Aug. 20, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ugas will defend his title against Manny Pacquiao at T-Mobile on August 21 in Las Vegas.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images/AFP

The following day, it was time to check out Pacquiao himself during his afternoon training session at the Wild Card. I wrote an article about the mandatory daily rapid testing a gym visitor must submit himself to before being allowed entry into Freddie Roach’s famous sweatshop, just to give our readers an idea of what it’s like to cover a Pacquiao fight in the new normal.

The healthcare company that had been subcontracted to conduct testing also happened to provide free COVID-19 vaccines — yes, the US has a surplus of coronavirus jabs; one only needs to walk in at any pharmaceutical store like CVS and Walgreens and present an ID to get a free shot. I decided it would be a huge waste not to take advantage of this golden chance to have another jab — or a booster — when it is the polar opposite back home in terms of vaccine accessibility and convenience. So I sleeved-up to get a shot of Pfizer-BioNTech and instantly felt invincible to the invisible and deadly enemy.

My colleagues and I even decided to skip the weigh-in and fight night of the John Riel Casimero-Guillermo Rigondeaux bantamweight title fight at nearby Carson City that weekend to avoid the crowds and further exposure. We just covered it from the comforts of our hotel room so as not to jeopardize our main mission — the bigger fight set in Las Vegas seven days later.

It was the night when I received my Pfizer shot that I started to feel feverish and had chills. The following day came the clogged nose and the sore throat. Still, I worried not, dismissing these as just side effects of my latest jab. Never did I imagine that they were already symptoms of COVID-19, something I did not think would happen to me while in a relatively safer country.

Additionally, I had been testing negative for three straight days at the Wild Card and was overall in good shape, so I still had peace of mind. Sunday, August 15, was a rest day for Pacquiao and for us who have been covering him in the days since we arrived, so there was no need for a test.

The next day, I spent the five-hour road trip to Las Vegas for fight week still nursing a clogged nose — which frankly isn’t new to me as I have had usual bouts with allergic rhinitis back home. Again, I never had an inkling that the laid-back journey to the Sin City — on board a comfortable coaster-type van; yes, no “Team Pacquiao Bus” this time for obvious safety reasons — would perhaps be my last happy memory of the coverage.

After arriving and settling down at our rooms at the MGM Grand where Pacquiao and the rest of his team, family, well-wishers and media are billeted, we headed to Pacquiao’s suite where he hosts a traditional dinner for the team’s arrival at the world’s “Boxing Meccah.” Again, those who would like to enter the suite and partake in a sumptuous dinner featuring Filipino food must be tested. I remember gorging on half a tray of kaldereta, my appetite still on full attack mode, before receiving the horrible news.

That was Monday night, August 16 in Las Vegas, when my attention was called and I was informed that I tested positive for COVID-19 after two rapid antigen tests. The instinct of disbelief naturally kicked in as I sat in one corner of the suite and braced for my isolation. 

My colleagues wished me well from about a few meters before they went ahead to their rooms. One colleague whom I was supposed to share a room with also went ahead to move to a different place. By then, I was still dismissive of the situation and was just happy to have an entire room for myself — until my ordeal the following days took its toll.

I was told to subject myself to the more accurate RT-PCR test, which gave me some measure of hope thinking the test I had at Pacquiao’s suite yielded just a false positive result. Thankfully, I was given an online registration link to the Southern Nevada Health District’s free COVID-19 RT-PCR testing. I haven’t left my room at the MGM Grand until I headed to the testing center. My colleagues — who thankfully tested negative throughout the coverage despite being close contacts — took good care of me by leaving food and water at my door.

Upon having my specimen collected and being told that the test results would be available after a long three to five days, I felt my world collapse. I didn’t have the luxury of time and needed to confirm my status immediately. 

I had already missed Pacquiao and Ugas’ grand arrival in front of the T-Mobile Arena — the venue of the fight — and was expected to miss more pre-fight events due to the uncertainty of my status. Besides the clogged nose, I barely had any other symptoms. But I had been sleepless the past two nights since arriving in Las Vegas, battling stress, anxiety and even depression brought by the fear of not knowing what to do next.

Sen. Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines (L) faces WBA welterweight champion Yordenis Ugas of Cuba (R) after their weigh-in on Aug. 20, 2021 at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Pacquiao and Ugas will fight Saturday August 21 at T-Mobile Arena.
AFP/Patrick T. Fallon

Will I miss the fight — my main mission — or worse, my flight home? What will I do if I indeed am positive? How and where will I recover? Will I ever get home? These were the burning questions that seeped through my skin.

The same day I took the RT-PCR test, I was told that the fight promoters are also set to conduct tests on all media members. Rumors of my positive test must have already circulated, and that the powers-that-be must have decided to put matters in their hands for fear of jeopardizing the fight. A COVID-19 outbreak just days before the fight would be catastrophic, and I would be the last person on earth to have wanted to be the cause of it.

I immediately headed to the testing center as instructed, and was then told that my result would be emailed 30 minutes later. It was also a rapid test, and another positive result would by then be already a definite answer. I went back to my room to rest my weary sleepless eyes and anxiously waited for that 30 minutes, which eventually turned into an hour, and which eventually turned into forever. No email hit my inbox.

What instead came was a knock at the door.

One quick glance at the peephole and I knew my fate was already sealed.

“You tested positive. You have to leave the premises immediately,” were the words I recall being said by a burly man who’s either part of the hotel’s or the promoter’s security team. With him were three similarly built men.

I was given a few minutes to gather my stuff, with the man at times asking if I’m okay. Everything was a blur for me that I realized I was still in my beach shorts when I left the room.

To put it plainly, I was kicked out of my room and eventually out of the MGM — many times the venue of Pacquiao’s biggest fights — for being a COVID-19 carrier.

The four-man team surrounded me as I walked down the hall to the elevators and then to the exits, like a detainee being escorted by the US Marshals to be extradited to another country that wants me tried for whatever crime.

“Once we escort you out, you cannot come back,” were the last words I remember being told. It was 8 o'clock in the evening, and I was stranded outside a hotel in a city where I knew no one else and with nowhere to go.

I informed family members back home and my bosses about my latest brush with bad luck. Like Spence, I was out of commission. Only no one would care to replace me, no Ugas to step in to salvage the show.

Luckily, I have an aunt living in West Covina (about an hour’s drive from Los Angeles) who, along with my equally concerned folks back home, strategized a way to safely quarantine me and where I could begin my recovery. That same night, my aunt booked me a room at a nearby hotel to spend the night before I took a specially arranged road trip back to LA. By the time I reached my temporary haven in Vegas, I was huffing and puffing from dragging my heavy pieces of luggage — which I’ve now accepted as another symptom of the virus.

I spent the next days of my isolation at a quarantine hotel in LA, where I ended up just ordering the fight on pay-per-view — thanks to our Big Boss who also covered my extended accommodation and other expenses — so I could still write about it for the website. I now find it funny that I had to make the US trip, only to watch and cover the bout on PPV from my laptop.

Throughout my quarantine period, I am fortunate to have only mild symptoms — the lack of smell and taste inevitably kicked in but were luckily almost fully rectified in just three to four days; the so-called COVID-19 “brain fog” or confusion; the minor dry cough that can be fixed with lozenges; and low-grade fever for about two days. I could still do at least 50 push-ups inside my room and only suffer minor huffing and puffing. I regained my appetite, which I lost in Las Vegas during my bout with emotional stress and anxiety. I can say the mental and emotional aspects of my situation got me more than the symptoms themselves.

By then, I have declared myself a walking, [normally] breathing proof that vaccines work. I could have ended up worse otherwise; my aunt, a retired nurse, told me that 90% of those getting hospitalized here for COVID-19 were unvaccinated.

Pacquiao eventually lost to Ugas, which was a bittersweet moment for me. While I was sad not to have covered it ringside, there was relief that I personally did not have to see his legs betray him and the once-vaunted speed and high work rate disappear from his arsenal.

In this file photo taken on Aug. 22, 2021, Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines (L) looks at Yordenis Ugas of Cuba after a slip during the WBA Welterweight Championship boxing match in Las Vegas, Nevada. 
AFP/Patrick T. Fallon

As the days went by, I pondered where I could’ve gotten the virus. My guess would be either at NAIA before I left for LA or during one crowded day at the Wild Card. There was a day when actress KC Concepcion dropped by to check out Manny and there was an influx of visitors suddenly entering. Good thing the video I took of KC and Pacquiao garnered nearly half a million views — hilarious that my best-received output of this ill-fated coverage hardly had anything to do with boxing.

I scored a round for myself when I successfully and miraculously rebooked my plane ticket home after I managed to get in touch with the travel agency that handled our flights. Ms. Amber Costa of Life In Motion Group was among those who have provided me actual help by rebooking my flight with no questions asked. It’s hard to get hit by COVID-19, but even harder to get hit overseas with barely anyone to turn to.

I have been badly trailing the scorecards when my aunt, Tita Tricia, and her equally caring mom and my grandmother Mrs. Cecille Hilado-Espinosa, came in and gave me a much-needed second wind to pull off an emphatic knockout victory — the same way Mark Magsayo dramatically stormed back against Julio Ceja. I was the Magsayo to COVID-19’s Ceja. 

From booking my quarantine hotels to driving to the parking lot to drop off hot meals and supplies that lasted me my entire stay, I owe so much to them. Same goes to my family and colleagues back home for tending to my cuts and massaging my thighs in-between rounds.

I have written this piece about my life-changing experience while waiting for my flight home here at LAX. As of writing, I have spent a total of 14 days in isolation, practically with zero symptoms and safe to fly home. Another 10 days of isolation await me in Manila before I can get home to my family.

Looking back, I just consider this assignment as an expensive sick leave. This is still nothing compared to those who have suffered worse under this dreaded disease, whose punches we cannot see and which often goes the full 12 rounds. It is now up to our government to make vaccines easily accessible and for our countrymen to take them without hesitation once they get the chance.

In the end, my vaccination and winning corner helped me throw the scorecards away and knock COVID-19 out.

Here’s to hoping everyone can, too.

MANNY PACQUIAO

YORDENIS UGAS

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