In 2009, Manny Pacquiao was a global superstar, a legend, a hero and, according to Time Magazine, “The Great Hope,” something larger than boxing. He had upset Oscar De La Hoya, battering “The Golden Boy” into submission in a manner few thought possible. He then produced an electrifying second round win over otherwise sturdy-chinned Ricky Hatton, the outcome so dominant and violent that the defeat finished Hatton as an elite-level fighter. In both instances, Pacquiao exceeded all expectations, demolishing opponents who were thought to be major challenges. There was no doubt as to who, in terms of global appeal and interest, was the biggest name in boxing, inspiring hope among the Filipino people and excitement among sports fans around the world. And since then, every time Manny Pacquiao entered a boxing ring, it was a major event.
Until now. On Saturday night, just seven months after he announced his retirement, Manny Pacquiao returns to challenge WBO welterweight champion Jessie Vargas, and for the first time in almost a decade a Manny Pacquiao fight will not be a pay-per-view attraction on HBO. Instead, Bob Arum’s Top Rank will distribute the pay-per-view broadcast after the people at HBO judged Pacquiao vs Vargas not attractive or competitive enough.
And indeed, there is a palpable lack of electricity for this match. Setting aside whatever the people at HBO may think, Manny Pacquiao as a major, mainstream draw is pretty much done. His stature in a global context remains lofty; after all, how many athletes have an entire nation of almost 100 million people following their every move? But in terms of the zeitgeist and the casual sports fan, “The Pacman” is yesterday’s news, something promoter Bob Arum himself acknowledged when he termed the pay-per-view numbers for Manny’s supposed farewell fight as “terrible.” That third meeting with Timothy Bradley last April demonstrated that, even at 37 years of age, Pacquiao remains one of the best boxers in the sport, but it also showed that he was no longer a great attraction.
And now the general malaise regarding Pacquiao appears greater than ever. Even boxing fans are shrugging their shoulders at Pacquiao vs Vargas and wondering why Manny doesn’t call it a career already. This leaves some die-hard fight fans puzzled; if you love boxing, how can you not want to see an all-time great talent in action? The only man to win eight divisional world titles is nearing the end of his amazing career, so why wouldn’t you cherish any remaining chances to see him exhibit his rare talents before he finally retires?
The simple answer, which belies the complicated reality, is that Manny Pacquiao no longer matters because his career will forever after be defined to a great degree by the huge disappointment that was his performance against Floyd Mayweather Jr. Is this simplistic? Unfair? Perhaps, but it’s also inarguable. The key thing to understand, is that this has less to do with Manny Pacquiao having lost a boxing match, than with the nature of his performance, both in and out of the ring.
Prior to the long-awaited showdown, Pacquiao was the picture of confidence. He told everyone that he knew, without any doubt whatsoever, he would be the first man to solve and defeat Floyd Mayweather Jr. He even went so far as to assert that Floyd did not represent the biggest challenge of his career, his most talented and formidable opponent. And Pacquiao did not say this just once or twice in the spirit of pre-fight puffery. This was clearly his sincere belief; after all, Manny’s renewed Christian faith forbade him from engaging in any intentional exaggerations.
When he told Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith that he had felt more anxious before his fights with Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito than he did in the days leading up to his encounter with Floyd, and that he had “a very good plan” to counteract Mayweather’s vaunted defense, we knew he meant what he said. And thus we had little choice but to conclude he either possessed some specific and highly valuable insight into how the fight would unfold, or that he was painfully deluded.
For those (including me) who leaned to the former and saw how Pacquiao might score a monumental victory, part of what was uppermost in one’s mind was Floyd’s two bouts with Marcos Maidana. Surely part of The Pacman’s “blueprint” entailed the relative success Maidana enjoyed in his first meeting with Floyd when he attacked with fury and threw a constant stream of heavy shots, a strategy that resulted in a highly competitive battle.
No one doubted that Manny Pacquiao was faster and more talented than Marcos Maidana. If the task of defeating Mayweather necessitated aggressiveness and high volume punching, surely Pacquiao knew as much or more about those requirements than “El Chino.” On one level at least, the formula seemed simple enough: be first, be often and understand the law of averages. Of course Manny was going to miss a high percentage of punches, but if he fired off enough, the percentage that did land might do damage.
But then Manny answered the bell for the richest prizefight in human history and threw a paltry 29 punches in the opening round, landing only three, and right then and there, many of us knew Manny Pacquiao had been hopelessly deluded. Again, he didn’t have to win. But to talk in such terms about the match and then come out so flat and offer nothing in the way of fire and ferocity, to give fans who had waited so long for that confrontation so little in terms of desire and effort, amounts to an unforgivable failure.
The one thing that virtually everyone took for granted was that Pacquiao would make the fight; indeed, any chance of his success rested on that prerequisite. Many anticipated he would pursue Floyd in a manner similar to his most recent battle with Juan Manuel Marquez. Prior to that match, Manny said he would do everything in his power to ensure a fourth confrontation with Marquez did not end with another close decision, and indeed he followed through on his public pledge, setting a wicked pace, taking more offensive risks and catching “Dinamita” with enough vicious shots to turn his nose into bloody mush. The fact that Manny instead of Marquez ended up face down on the canvas did not detract from the simple truth that Pacquiao proved he was a man of his word, or from the fact that he had demonstrated, after having failed to stop an opponent in years, that he remained a potent offensive force.
That was the Manny Pacquiao who many expected to show up against Mayweather, but he was nowhere to be found. Instead, a pale imitation of the real thing did little more than meekly follow Floyd about the ring that night, the match itself a wearisome 12 rounds of tepid jousting which will forever be remembered as a colossal disappointment. And after such a performance and such a dud of a fight, the only thing Manny could and should have said was that Floyd Mayweather was the better boxer, that he had been mistaken, and that he had been defeated, fairly and squarely. Instead, he divulged that he had suffered a serious shoulder injury during training and could not perform at his best.
If Pacquiao’s pre-fight talk was strike one, and his anemic performance strike two, then this was, for many, strike three. The legitimacy of the shoulder injury is not the issue. Instead it’s the fact that almost no injury can excuse the feebleness of Manny’s effort that night, and his proffering one only made him more pathetic. For those who had thrilled to his victories over warriors such as Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto, this was extremely difficult to swallow. Further, if the injury was the main factor in Pacquiao’s failure to compete, than he is guilty of a form of fraud. Yes, boxers often fight injured; it happens. But if one is seriously handicapped, then the match must be postponed.
Is Manny Pacquiao still a great boxer? Clearly he remains among the very best. The only reason you won’t find his name near the top of many “pound-for-pound” rankings or the ratings for the welterweight division is because he repeatedly stated that he was retired. Most expect him to defeat Jessie Vargas in much the same way he dominated Brandon Rios and Chris Algieri. As he showed in last spring’s win over Bradley, he remains, despite his advanced age, quick, powerful and dangerous, though there is no doubt that the 2009 version of The Pacman was significantly sharper. The Manny Pacquiao who annihilated Oscar, Hatton and Cotto is one of the best offensive boxers anyone has seen in recent decades.
But ring prowess alone was not what created the Manny Pacquiao mystique. His ability to throw crippling punches from unorthodox angles and dominate boxers with a unique blend of speed, movement and power was not enough by itself to put him on the cover of Time or inspire such ardent support from millions around the world. His popularity and marketability had as much or more to do with his image as a game and dedicated competitor, the kind of fighter who would never give up, who would attack and attack again until he had either overwhelmed his opponent, or he himself was overwhelmed.
That essential part of Pacquiao’s image and public persona was dealt a mortal blow on the night of May 2, 2015. And because that fight was so long awaited, and attracted so much attention, virtually nothing can make up for what transpired. Fair or not, the blame for the huge letdown that was Mayweather vs Pacquiao was not distributed equally between the two boxers; instead it fell squarely on Manny Pacquiao’s injured shoulders.
For it was Manny who said he knew how to solve Floyd and defeat him. It was Manny who pursued the match for years. But when he finally had Floyd Mayweather in the ring, he gave perhaps the most listless performance of his entire career, a performance which, unfairly or not, undermines everything he had accomplished and has reduced his once massive profile and persona to something disappointingly human and mortal.
Just imagine for a moment if Mayweather vs Pacquiao had been an exciting and dramatic struggle which saw Manny triumph by hard-earned decision or a shocking late round stoppage. Reflect on what that would have meant for boxing, not to mention the millions of Manny Pacquiao fans around the world. Talk about great hopes.
Instead, literally overnight, the legend of Manny Pacquiao as a star, as something bigger than boxing, as a “great hope,” faded away and died. For many, he has been reduced to just another boxer, one of so many champions, and even for his fans there is no longer much joy in watching him fight, especially when he is expected to win. Any lofty great hopes have long since faded away and all that is left to play out is the final chapter, the battering that awaits him when his reflexes have eroded enough and he is fed to a rising new star hungry for fame. Only then will Manny Pacquiao again inspire in us something poignant and stirring, but it won’t be hope or excitement, but instead pathos and wistful regret for what might have been. — Michael Carbert