But I digress. This story is about the former pound for pound King and the only fighter to win world titles in 8 different weight classes: Manny Pacquiao.
The superstar fighter has a history of leg and calf cramps. The issue was always downplayed by his training partners and trainer, Freddy Roach, and for good reason. The last thing that a boxer needs is for his opponent to realize that he is having mobility issues during a fight. However, we do know that it has been a problem for the better part of a decade.
In his article for Grantland, Gary Andrew Poole wrote, “Pacquiao rarely communicates his inner feelings and no one in his camp seems to know when Pacquiao’s calves started ailing him. He told associates that they had troubled him in his second fight against Marquez, in March 2008. Later that year, as he prepared to fight David Diaz, he told confidantes (who would later tell me) that it felt like his muscles were being ripped from his shin bone.”
Most people who suffer from cramps don’t know why they occur. This was no different for Manny and his camp, who were left guessing at causes and potential treatments. After the 3rd Marquez fight, Freddie Roach insisted that Pacquiao was playing too much basketball, which was causing extra fatigue and tightness in his legs. Although Manny stopped, his leg cramps didn’t.
Before the Bradley fight, Roach changed Manny’s running regimen, switching him from long runs, 6-days per week, to shorter, high-intensity interval workouts on two of those days. They also employed a steady regimen of leg massages. The camp even went so far as to pay $1,800 dollars per month for a prescription anti-inflammatory cream leading up to the Mayweather fight.
Ultimately, Pacquiao lost the Bradley and Mayweather fights. However, he did win fights in between, so it’s impossible to say how the new training techniques may have hurt or helped. The cramps seemed to be unaffected by the changes. They continued throughout the preparation for both fights, despite the altered routine.
So, what can we learn from Pacquiao’s experience? 3 important things:
1. Cramps Do Not Occur Because Someone is "Out of Shape"
There seems to be a persistent mindset that cramping indicates poor conditioning. Sure enough, every time a professional athlete experiences cramps, there’s a comment below the news story from someone questioning their work ethic and cardio shape. If you’ve ever endured a boxing workout, you know that these fighters are among the best-conditioned athletes in the world. There are also examples of other athletes cramping who are known for their world-class conditioning, including Rafael Nadal, Caroline Wozniacki, and dozens of World Champion Ironman participants.
2. "Traditional" Treatments Do Not Work
Pacquiao and his team used every traditional remedy in the book, including regular leg massages, a dedicated stretching regimen, less-strenuous training methods, hydration techniques, and prescription anti-inflammatory creams. Even with an essentially endless supply of funds, the cramps of this world-class athlete could not be prevented. This is because the science behind the problem was not well enough understood. The only way to effectively treat muscle cramps to target the nerves that control the muscles.
3. Just the Thought of Cramping Can Seriously Affect an Athlete's Performance
There is no doubt that muscle cramps effected Pacquiao's training. He was forced to alter the routine that he had used throughout his career, which may have had a negative impact on his preparation. But more importantly, it may have effected his mindset. It is entirely possible that the fear of cramping caused Pacquiao to fight more slowly and hesitantly than he otherwise would have. If he went all-out and induced calf cramps early in the fight, it could have been disastrous. For those of us who experience cramps, we understand how scary it is to feel that muscle start to tighten, knowing there may be nothing we can do to stop it. Many athletes are forced to “pull back” during competition, out of fear that a cramp will end their day.