By Kieran Mulvaney
And so, perhaps, it ends. And while career retrospectives may very well prove premature – any boxer who prevaricates about retiring is rarely committed to the act – if last Saturday’s win over Tim Bradley was indeed his last, it was a fitting finale for Emanuel Pacquiao, Congressman from Sarangani Province, aspiring member of the Philippines Senate, and, of course, professional prizefighter of some considerable repute.
What may prove to be the end came 15 years, pretty much to the day, after the diminutive southpaw, then fighting at 122 pounds, walked into the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, California, in search of a trainer.
“He walked in; I had no idea who he was, I had never heard of him before,” recalled the Wild Card’s owner-proprietor, Freddie Roach, some time later. “His manager asked if I could work the mitts with him; they had heard I caught punches well. After one round, I went over to my people and said, ‘Wow. This kid can fight.’ And then he went over to his manager and said, ‘We have a new trainer.’”
Pacquiao had already won and lost a world title, at 112 pounds, when he arrived in Los Angeles; he would win championships at seven more weights under Roach’s tutelage, as the two men embarked on a whirlwind journey that brought each of them fame and fortune and an indelible role in the other’s life history.
The whirlwind first touched down just a few weeks later, when Pacquiao got the call to step in for scheduled challenger Enrique Sanchez against junior featherweight belt-holder LehloLedwaba, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas – which would be the site of many of his future victories. Watching the broadcast of that fight a decade and a half later, several things stand out: color analyst George Foreman’s struggles with the Filipino’s name; the patent and understandable lack of familiarity with the fighter on the part of Foreman’s fellow HBO commentators Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant; and the one-handed nature of Pacquiao’s assault. His was the crudest of styles: his lead right hand as ineffective as the vestigial forelimb of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, he inflicted damage almost entirely with a left fist that he flung repeatedly at his foe. But he flung it with such frequency and force that Ledwaba – at the time, a highly-regarded champion – had been battered to a one-sided, broken-noseddefeat by the end of the sixth round.
Two years later, Pacquiao had moved up in weight again,overwhelming the legendary Marco Antonio Barrera with a viscerally shocking display of violence. In his next outing, he appeared on the verge of doing the same to Barrera’s countryman, Juan Manuel Marquez, blasting him to the canvas three times in the first three minutes; had referee Joe Cortez done what many others in his position might have done and halted the contest after the third knockdown, we would likely have been denied perhaps the greatest in-ring rivalry of the early twenty-first century. As it was, Marquez was able to stage a comeback and earn a draw that was the first bump in Pacquiao’s road; the second came in 2005 when Erik Morales exposed his technical deficiencies en route to scoring a unanimous decision win.
That defeat, however, would prove to be transformative: it prompted Roach to focus on finally forcing Pacquiao to become a two-fisted fighter, a development the Filipino rolled out to full effect when knocking out Morales in a rematch that was the start of a stretch without precedent in modern boxing. From 2006 through 2010, Pacquiao was unstoppable, punching his way through the weight divisions, winning titles at 130, 135, 140, 147 and 154 pounds. In a remarkable stretch from June 2008 through November 2009, he overwhelmed David Diaz, blasted Oscar De La Hoya into retirement, flattened Ricky Hatton with a devastating one-punch knockout, and halted Miguel Cotto at the end of a breathtaking contest that caused Merchant to exult that, “We thought Manny Pacquiao was great; he’s better than we thought.”
That Morales defeat was significant also in that it marked Pacquiao’s last outing under the aegis of Murad Muhammad Promotions; by the time of his next bout, he had signed with Top Rank, and his partnership with Top Rank boss Bob Arum and publicist Fred Sternburg provided the rocket fuel that launched him into superstardom. Sternburg, in particular, was masterful in cultivating the image of a Manila street waif turned Filipino hero, an image that took reality and turned it all the way up to 11.
In much the same way as the menace of Mike Tyson merged improbably with his high-pitched lisp and love of pigeons, Pacquiao the destroyer inside the ropes appeared to be a perpetually serene, childlike beacon of hope outside them. He would smile and wave at his fans as he walked to the ring, as if heading to a red carpet event rather than a fistfight; when thebattle was over, the lover of karaoke would perform at concerts that his acolytes appeared to take seriously even as others wondered if the less-than-stellar singer was in on his own joke. His regular prefight appearances on Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show, which also always culminated in a song, were not so much a choice between laughing at Pacquiao or with him as a combination of both.
But there was no doubting the genuine reverence with which he was held in his homeland. It appeared to be truly the case, and not just a Sternburg creation, that crime in metro Manila dropped to zero when Pacquiao fights were broadcast on the country’s television. Arum may have chuckled when he said that the Philippines’ social security system was called Manny Pacquiao, but he wasn’t entirely joking. And there could have been no greater illustration of what he meant to a nation than the sight of thousands of survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the country in November 2013, gathering in public squares to watch on big screens as Pacquiao soundly defeated Brandon Rios just days later.
Of course, when anyone or anything seems too good to be true, he or it likely is, and the Pacquiao phenomenon was not untainted. There were suspicions raised – not least by certain other boxers – about how he was able to carry his power through the weight divisions, and why it deserted him at approximately the same time strength and conditioning coach Alex Ariza left his team. (Defenders argued that the answer to the first question was that he was simply becoming a better fighter, and that the answer to the second was that, while he may have been irresistible all the way through 140 pounds, he had less impact at 147 and above, particularly after taking sapping blows in his otherwise-dominant junior middleweight win over Antonio Margarito.)
In addition, he was a central figure in the so-called Cold War between Top Rank and rival Golden Boy Promotions, the Gavrilo Princip moment being when, while under contract to the former, he reportedly accepted a briefcase of cash from Golden Boy’s Oscar De La Hoya. That conflict ossified over the rival camps’ stances on a possible clash between Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, a will-they-won’t-they saga that suffocated the sport for five years. When battle between the two boxers was finally joined last May, Pacquiao ultimately acquiesced in a tepid affair that may have soured casual fans on the sweet science for years to come. And then came Pacquiao’s deeply hurtful and offensive comments toward homosexuals, projected through the newly-devout lens with which he now viewed the world, which put an end to the Kimmel appearances and cast a pall of indifference over the build-up to last Saturday’s bout with Bradley.
But we are somewhat hypocritical in our condemnation of sports heroes, tending to be more forgiving of those who perform to a high level and yearning for any kind of redemption narrative. Which makes what happened on Saturday night the perfect note on which to bow out.
It was not, as some offered, the Pacquiao of old; it was, rather, an older Pacquiao, who showed more hesitation, fewer angles and less explosiveness than at his peak. By way of illustration, consider the CompuBox punch stats: on Saturday, he landed an average of just 10 punches per round, out of 37 thrown, compared to 17 of 47 in their last meeting and 21 of 63 when first they fought, back in 2012. It is a measure of just how brilliant a boxer he remains that, even in this diminished state, he could dominate an opponent widely regarded, at least when he went to bed on Friday night, as one of the top ten pound-for-pound in the world; it speaks even more to just how great Pacquiao was at his peak.
At the post-fight press conference, a smiling Pacquiao equivocated slightly about his future, stating that “my heart is 50-50” but that “right now, my decision is to retire.” He said only nice things about his vanquished foe, saying that there was no need for boxers to hate each other outside the ring, that he hoped he and Bradley were friends, and that he had even invited him to Bible study the following morning. Asked about the best and worst moments in his boxing career, he serenely offered that “there is no worst moment; sometimes when you lose, you want to grow, you want to learn more about your job.” It was vintage Pacquiao: violent in the ring, peaceful and humble afterward.
He thanked everyone assembled, and offered “God bless us all.” He stepped down from the dais and – smiling, naturally – made his way around to the back of the room, slipped out the exit, and was gone.
Watch a replay of what may have been Manny Pacquiao’s final fight, his unanimous decision win over Tim Bradley, Saturday April 16 at 10PM ET/PT, on HBO.