The Last Action Hero: On Manny Pacquiao
“Only one thing is certain: No champion is a champion forever. It happens to all of them. I know. It happened to me.” – Jose Torres
As far as swan songs go – the inevitable boxing coda – Manny Pacquiao, a pro since 1995, has done better than most. Yes, his upcoming donnybrook against Lucas Matthysse has been downgraded to an ESPN app, which triggered the usual heckling from the irreverent and irrelevant alike. Yes, Pacquiao, 39 and out of the ring for over a year, will be plying what is left of his once-magnificent skill in the prizefighting hotbed of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where, to be fair, Muhammad Ali did stir up a ruckus once – back in 1975. (A potential promotional debacle, Matthysse-Pacquiao finally got the green light to proceed mere weeks before the opening bell.)
There were other instances of diminishment over the years. Pacquiao was the centerpiece of a boxing revolution in China that never came to pass. His pay-per-view numbers sank like a stool pigeon wearing a concrete suit heaved off a pier, as he went through the motions in Macau and the Thomas & Mack Center in Sin City. The KO loss he suffered against Juan Manuel Marquez – when Pacquiao met the Black Lights before millions of viewers – was a bloodcurdling reminder of age and fallibility. At some point, a merciful outlook replaced his killer instinct and affable bloodlust. A Brisbane schoolteacher named Jeff Horn bullyragged a bloody decision against him in Sydney. There is still some mystery as to whether “Pac-Man,” after hundreds of millions of dollars in purses, remains in the black. And of course, his role in the biggest moneymaking fight of all time – against Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in 2015 – spurred well-earned derision in its ugly aftermath.
But this is not a bloated Muhammad Ali in the Bahamas, waiting for a cowbell to sound the final round on his future; it is not Joe Louis, whose brutal sayonara forced Rocky Marciano to weep in the locker room. It is not Sugar Ray Robinson, middle-aged and stripped of his raucous entourage, whipped by second-raters in boxing hinterlands; it is not Leon Spinks, missing half of his teeth, already an EKG nightmare, and taking beating after beating, mostly for the 33 1/3 percent his flesh-peddling handlers coveted with the naked greed so common in boxing.
Until Danny Garcia outpointed him in 2014, Matthysse had never been clearly beaten. Then after being stopped by Viktor Postol, Matthysse vanished, ostensibly to convalesce, and returned to flail at a mediocrity specially imported for the occasion. If his KO of Tewa Kiram earlier this year proved anything (other than the fact that mismatches involving unknown fall guys from far-flung countries remain a boxing staple), it is that Matthysse can still crack. Even as the blognoscenti furiously thumbed out, with varying degrees of accurate spelling, “Fix!,” and “GTFOH!,” Kiram was being carted off to an awaiting ambulance. With nearly 25 hectic years as a pro under his belt, more than 60 fights and a full-time job as a congressman, Pacquiao nevertheless has chosen to imperil himself once more, when he is at his most vulnerable. In some ways, this is typical Manny Pacquiao, one of the most remarkable boxers of the last 50 years.
That an Asian fighter, with a negligible command of English, was the second-biggest box-office draw in America, for four or five years, is nothing short of astonishing. And the reason for this is simple (even if HBO never learned the lesson): Pacquiao took on the best professionals of his era and did so with uncommon fighting spirit. His slashing, sharpshooting, southpaw style suggested genuine exuberance; his willingness to trade punches with just about anyone made him the prizefighting embodiment of menefreghista.
For years, Pacquiao entered the ring as an underdog (against LehloLedwaba, Marco Antonio Barrera, Marquez, Erik Morales and Oscar De La Hoya), something most headliners have never done throughout their stage-managed careers. The fear of losing – a perpetual Sword of Damocles to most contemporary fighters – never seemed to enter his mind. And since Pacquiao predated the social media age, he never found himself on Twitter or Instagram mock-challenging rivals he knew he was never going to face.
Another seemingly anachronistic point about Pacquiao: He was not manufactured on HBO or Showtime. Within a span of four fights, Pacquiao faced off against Barrera, Marquez and Morales – all first-ballot Hall-of-Famers. That fact leads us to one of the truly startling things about Pacquiao. He presaged nothing; he was not a sign of things to come. Instead he seems to suggest the end of something – the self-aware fighter who created his own pay scale through traditional means: quickening the pulse of spectators across the globe. During his exhilarating run from 2002 to 2009, Pacquiao routinely sparked the sporting equivalent of Stendhal Syndrome. At times, however, his accomplishments only serve to underscore how apathetic his successors are.
Despite their incessant posturing, contemporary pros already know, if only intuitively, that there is no metric by which they will be judged. Not ratings, not gates, not pay-per-view sales, certainly not aesthetics. All that matters is that a fighter plugs a content gap for a network with multiplex channels to program, or props up a start-up app, or remains undefeated so that pound-for-pound fetishists can do their pro bono part in marketing and branding an average professional to a limited audience of fellow devotees. More and more in boxing, the performance is not the thing. And while there are plenty of aggressive fighters gloving up today, they do their demolition work against largely undistinguished opposition. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Pacquiao did not have years of squash matches ostensibly designed to build a profile. This cynical process, now a default setting in boxing, likely has the opposite and unintended consequence of quelling – not selling – a fighter.
Compared to Pacquiao at his peak, current luminaries such as Gennady Golovkin, Terence Crawford and Keith Thurman resemble understudies: not bad, maybe, but nothing like the real thing. Golovkin may have earned both decisions against Danny Jacobs and Saul Alvarez in the biggest fights of his career but he nevertheless failed to distinguish himself from either competitor in the ring. Crawford belies his P4P standing by having only two significant wins: decisions over Ricky Burns and Viktor Postol. And Keith Thurman seems unlikely to notch anything but a split decision against an opponent whose name is not conjured up via a Ouija board. Today the kind of hunger and boldness Pacquiao showed for most of a shocking decade is essentially passé, replaced by the raucous blasé of talk, talk, talk.
In the end, Pacquiao earned his unprecedented status, for lack of a better term, organically. From The Cruelest Sport, in 2009:
“In fact, one of the main reasons Pacquiao is so popular is that he stands as a symbolic counterpoint to all the wooden nickels currently weighing down a pursuit that threatens to sink alongside Jai Alai as a spectator sport in America. Where other fighters, many of them beneficiaries of the HBO “Clash for Clunkers” program, seek the easiest fights possible and are somehow illogically lauded for it, Pacquiao has earned his fame by taking on one challenge after another. Pacquiao takes the dusty cliche of “I will fight anyone, anyplace, anytime,” and concretizes it. Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez, Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton are only some of the names Pacquiao stepped through the ropes against. Instead of entering the ring routinely as a 7-1 favorite the way so many fighters do, Pacquiao has consistently fought only the biggest names possible.”
So 2002 or 2003 might as well be 1954 or 1955, in gritty black and white or Cinemascope, a Las Vegas arena transformed into the Polo Grounds or Yankee Stadium, Charles Hoff at ringside with a Big Bertha camera angled beneath the bottom rope, click-bait headlines now the stark back page of the New York Daily News, Marlon Brando on the screen instead of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, your Spotify list now a Hi-Fi stereo with Charlie Mingus, Duke Ellington or Sonny Rollins under the stylus, 15 years ago virtually another lifetime. Goodbye, then, to Manny Pacquiao, whatever happens against Matthysse, and hello to the ceaseless memories of a fresh new ruinous nostalgia.
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing News magazine, Remezcla, Boxing Digest magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World magazine, and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to HBO Boxing and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization. His stories “A Darkness Made to Order” and “A Ghost Orbiting Forever” both won first place awards from the BWAA.