By Oliver Goldstein
After Manny Pacquiao’s loss to Floyd Mayweather last year, I suggested that there was a sense of an ending lingering throughout the affair.
You could argue that a feeling of finality features always in the nature of organized prizefighting, which stakes itself on the possibility that a fight unfolding normally before you can be ended in an instant: the fighter moving serenely one minute can be collapsed to the canvas the next. This is boxing’s high-wire act, its protagonists teetering on the edge of fully conscious and not. And yet boxing’s tension is greater than the high-wire because its precipices remain hidden: the spectator sees the high-wire artist’s fall, the gap between sky and ground marking the gap between life and death, but in boxing that gap is never so neatly visualized. It is hard to imagine how a fighter on his feet one minute—moving, thinking, acting in a room with other people—could end up imminently unconscious. But this does happen, and so all seasoned viewers must watch a fight with the uneasy sense of a possible ending from one moment to the next.
And yet this was not the sense of an ending I had felt through the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight. Elite fighters like those two, after all, rarely seem capable of being ended like that (indeed it was this that made Juan Manuel Marquez’s December 2012 knockout of Pacquiao so acutely shocking). For most of the past decade Mayweather and Pacquiao’s fights have stacked the odds against their opponents, and the high-wire act they’ve played, at least in Mayweather’s case, has been much more the simulation of one: with his hands down and jaw out, Mayweather looks far more in danger than he actually is. Against him, the knockout has never really been possible.
But their fight last May felt like one long ending all the same. Mayweather didn’t hit hard enough and Pacquiao simply didn’t hit enough for either to suggest a knockout, and yet this is precisely the point: Pacquiao a few years ago always had you feeling like even the most improbable knockout could be yet to come. Pacquiao was a guy who ended fighters, who read them their last rites: Barrera, Morales, de la Hoya, Hatton, Margarito. And yet there was Pacquiao against Mayweather, the same Pacquiao who made mince of Hatton in two rounds, diligently moving about the ring, capably getting off shots, and never once looking likely to change things. Both Pacquiao and Mayweather had irreparably changed (yes, Mayweather too, who by this point had closeted himself so firmly in a set of essentially defensive skills as to neuter completely the possibility of his ending a fight), and so their fight, which should for so many reasons have marked the high point of their careers, really signaled for both the end.
Who, then, ends Pacquiao’s career? Taste dictates that we hope he ends it, on his own terms and all that, but boxing’s never cared much for taste, and besides in prizefighting there’s always much more at stake, whether money, manhood, or else. This has been talked up as Pacquiao’s last fight, and yet it will only feel that way if Tim Bradley wins it: when old fighters are winning, there’s always one more night ahead, no matter what common sense states. And how does Pacquiao’s career end? The endings he dealt out were always a particular sort, Margarito’s eye-joint twisted into shapelessness, de la Hoya’s “beautiful face,” as Jim Lampley so memorably called it, beaten to a pulp. Might Pacquiao face something similar?
A postscript: I remembered Pacquiao’s stoppage of Hatton for HBO’s 1000 Fights series, but my memory of Hatton’s final loss, to Vyacheslav Senchenko, is equally strong. I’d missed the fight live, and so returned home weary and a little drunk that night to catch a repeat, not knowing the result. After three and a half years out, Hatton still looked like Hatton, though a new, darker swirl of ink tattooed one of his arms. Bouncing around at the start, rearing in with his head up and hands elsewhere, this Hatton even fought like Hatton. And yet aged 34, at the end of a career punctuated by two knockouts and irregular alcohol and substance abuse, Hatton’s resemblance could prove no more than that: he was like the Ricky Hatton of old, but no more. Senchenko’s win still tastes bad to this day. It came in the ninth, by a knockout to the body, with none of the drama of the Pacquiao loss and a quite different pain.
Boxing's endings never go the way you want them.