The well had to run dry sooner or later. Finally, for Manny Pacquiao, it did. The Filipino great made all the right noises and looked the part in the gym in the lead up to his latest pay-per-view event, but under the lights, where it mattered, the body could no longer go where the mind willed it to be.
Pacquiao was rightly lauded when he signed to take on arguably the most dangerous opponent available, undefeated titlist Errol Spence Jr., but Spence’s withdrawal due to a torn retina made way for Yordenis Ugas to step in, still a tremendous challenge for the 42-year-old legend. Ugas had been scheduled to fight on the same card and he and Manny had a minor score to settle thanks to the World Boxing Association’s absurd rules which somehow left them holding versions of the same title, a tempest in a teapot for certain and one only die-hard fans paid any attention to. For everyone else Pacquiao vs Ugas was a chance to see if a certifiable all-time great, not to mention a living legend, could once again defy Father Time and keep his amazing career, now in its 26th year, viable at the elite level.
Rumours swirled during fight week that Ugas had sustained an injury to his left bicep. Indeed, swelling to Ugas’s arm seen in earlier photos was still apparent at the weigh-in, leading to speculation he could be seriously handicapped going into his biggest ever fight. If there was ever a genuine problem with the arm though, it played absolutely no part in the contest itself, as the Cuban made the most of his huge opportunity and boxed beautifully to take a clear and unanimous points win.
The fight actually started well for Pacquiao, who had a strong round in the opening session, seizing the tempo, moving forward, and letting go with some of his trademark flurries. Even so, it was already clear that Ugas, far from being compromised by injury, had come to win and would at least pose some serious problems.
In the second, looking cool and composed, Ugas established an effective jab that hit the target cleanly and often, while Manny’s fell short or hit gloves. The Filipino upped his punch rate in the third, his most successful round of the fight according to the CompuBox punch numbers, apparently out-landing Ugas by ten punches, but while “The Pacman” fought aggressively these stats seemed suspiciously generous to him, as Ugas did the cleaner work. Still, Pacquiao was rewarded with a 10-9 round on all three scorecards; it was the last round he would win unanimously.
The fifth was another good, busy round for Pacquiao, with flashes of the old rapid-fire bursts, but from the sixth onwards it was really all Ugas. The Cuban stuck to a solid game plan, jabbing behind a tight defence, landing a looping right hand around the guard, and whipping in occasional hooks to the body. When Pacquiao did attempt to flurry he was mostly hitting arms and air, while Ugas’s less flamboyant but steady boxing was doing the real damage. The Cuban swept rounds six to eight on all three official cards.
In the final third of the match there was a brief resurgence in Pacquiao’s effort, but he never landed his vaunted left hand with any consistency or to notable effect. Time and again, Ugas would anticipate the incoming attacks, block the punches, and come back with a quick counter jab or a right hand before the Pacman could move out of range. Halfway through the tenth, as Pacquaio chased and appeared to be gathering some steam, chants of Manny! Manny! echoed in the arena, momentarily evoking great victories of the past. But Ugas responded by whacking “The Pacman” with yet another clean right hand and dashing the crowd’s wave of enthusiasm.
The proud old gladiator needed a miracle going into the final three minutes, but the round proved to be one of Ugas’s most dominant, as he out-landed and out-fought the eight-division champ. Both raised their arms aloft at the final bell, but for Pacquiao it was a hollow gesture, more out of hope and habit than a serious claim to victory. If there was an element of suspense before the decision was announced, it was only because boxing fans are hardened cynics when it comes to trusting the judges to do their jobs properly. Thankfully, Pacquiao’s reputation did not secure him any sympathy votes and boxing was spared another potential controversy.
Two judges awarded the fight to Ugas by margins of eight rounds to four, while the third gave it by seven rounds to five. Even these scores felt slightly generous to the Filipino as the punch stats showed Ugas out-landed Manny in ten of the twelve rounds, while in every single round he connected with a higher percentage of his punches, more than doubling Pacquiao’s accuracy rate in ten of twelve rounds. Simply put, Pacquaio was nowhere near accurate enough to earn a decision here.
But while he was soundly beaten, Manny was by no means humiliated and he was spared the kind of beating that is so often meted out to faded greats at the end of their careers, for example, the kind that Pacquiao himself dished out to an aging Oscar De La Hoya back in 2008. In that fight, De La Hoya was beaten to a standstill and forced to quit on his stool, and we recall that Oscar had done the same to the great Julio Cesar Chavez the decade previous. For Pacquiao and his fans it was no doubt fortuitous that Errol Spence had been forced to withdraw, as it is easy to envisage a similar outcome had Manny been faced with a younger fighter and more vicious puncher.
It is tempting to define Pacquiao’s showing in terms of a once great performer unable to ‘hit the notes’ or ‘remember the lines,’ but the most apt comparison is not with an artist from outside his own discipline, but from within it. The 42-year-old simply fought the way old fighters do: legs slightly laden, reactions slowed, timing off, spark gone. At times he appeared weary, out of ideas, and easy to hit. Pacquaio admitted afterwards that he suffered from leg cramps and was unable to “adjust” to Ugas’s style, an honest assessment. He simply lacked the tactical nous and physical tools to impose himself and stop the Cuban from doing what he was doing.
But credit be given to Ugas. He boxed a disciplined, smart fight, digging his heels in when needed to battle back and derail any momentum the Pacman tried to gain. Even then, and at his advanced age, Pacquiao was still competitive, fighting hard to the final bell. Cut on both sides, his visage splashed with crimson, he was a warrior to the end.
What happens now? Well, for Ugas, after losing a narrow decision to Shawn Porter in 2019, he has rightly earned himself a place at the top table amongst the best welterweights in the world. A unification fight with either Errol Spence, when he returns from eye surgery, or the winner of a mooted fight between Porter and Terence Crawford, has surely been earned.
As for Pacquiao, if the Thurman victory was the Filipino legend’s last great win, that is still a remarkable final chapter in a career littered with great moments. His achievements are, without hyperbole, unparalleled in the modern era. If he never fights again, it will not be the last time we enjoy seeing him in the ring: there are simply too many great nights to revisit. They are the ones that will define his legacy, and they will be replayed again and again by those lucky enough to have witnessed a truly momentous career. — Matt O’Brien