June 23, 2001 – The MGM Grand in Las Vegas. On this day 19 years ago, a total unknown by the name of Manny Pacquiao had his very first fight in America. Challenging the classy, some felt star in the making, IBF super-bantamweight champ Lehlo Ledwaba of South Africa, the young Filipino southpaw who gave HBO commentators Jim Lampley and George Foreman such a tough time when it came to pronouncing his name correctly, arrived with one impressive bang.
Having relocated to L.A to work with trainer Freddie Roach, 22-year-old Pacquiao was a pretty big underdog going into the fight with Ledwaba; a man who had not lost a fight in eight years and who was making the sixth defence of the title he had won by beating John Michael Johnson in May of 1999. Some gambling establishments refused to take bets on the fight, so unknown a quantity was Pacquiao.
Pacquiao, still to get his “Pac Man” nickname, had ruled as WBC flyweight champion but he had been stopped by Medgoen Singsurat via 3rd round TKO. For those fans who had researched Pacquiao, this was a big red flag. How good could Pacquiao possibly be? And how would the young fighter handle the big Vegas stage? Ledwaba was no fan of Vegas himself, saying how the heat was too much. The champion, aged 29, was having just his second fight in the U.S.
Pacquiao was a revelation from the opneing bell. Coming out fast, aggressive and landing heavy, painful shots, the southpaw was soon beating Ledwaba up. Bloodying Ledwaba’s nose in the opener, decking him with a short left hand in the 2nd round, Pacquiao was dazzling both the crowd (those who had actually settled into their seats ahead of headliner Oscar De La Hoya) and the HBO team calling the fight.
Ledwaba was facing a man who had taken the fight on just two weeks’ notice and he was as shocked and surprised as everyone else. Ledwaba showed heart staying in there, sometimes managing to catch Pacquiao with a shot to the head or the body, but there was no doubt – Pacquiaio was dominating the fight in a massive way. It was a joy to watch, and as Merchant said on air, the thought of seeing Pacquiao again was a most welcome one.
Pacquiao hurt Ledwaba at the end of the fifth and then closed the show in the sixth. A straight left hand decked Ledwaba, his nose pouring with blood. A second knockdown from the left hand of Pacquiao saw the champion laid out on his back, referee Joe Cortez dispensing with the count. A new star, soon to be a superstar, had arrived.
Looking back all these years, it’s amazing how special Pacquiao was. Still to fully develop under Roach, the young, raw and wickedly fast and powerful Pacquiao was an absolute beast at 122 pounds. The accomplished Ledwaba did not know what hit him. In time, Vegas would become Pacquiao’s second home.