The wrong kind of predictable: On Manny Pacquiao
In the chapter of his book “The Hardest Game” titled “The Alpha,” Hugh McIlvanney writes almost apologetically, “The book begins with (Muhammad) Ali and it ends with him. That seems appropriate.” Ali, nicknamed “The Alpha and the Omega” by his aunt, Coretta, not only opens and closes “The Hardest Game”; he is the light by which McIlvanney sketches the rest of his characters.
If there is one fighter deserving of the distinction as this generation’s Alpha and Omega, it is WBO welterweight titlist Manny Pacquiao, who slapped around handpicked opponent Jessie Vargas for a unanimous decision victory at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Saturday night.
What’s this? Not Floyd Mayweather Jr., who so soundly defused him before a record audience and under a cloud of asterisks? No, because Mayweather’s lasting legacy includes, among other things of varying merit, the mass exodus of so many of his supporters (his Acronym Army) upon his first retirement. Of the two, Mayweather and Pacquiao, Pacquiao has given more to boxing and who, when he, after however many half-steps, leaves it for good, should leave it for the better.
At the moment, however, with pay-per-view fees getting affixed to dwindling fare and boxing’s Great Swindle still too recent to forget, criticism of Pacquiao is as rampant as it has ever been. And that is significant, considering his most vociferous critics went a-tilting at other windmills when his greatest rival retired.
Pacquiao, of course, is hardly insulated from criticism. Perhaps none of that criticism, however, not the heat he takes for his knowingly compromised performance in the Mayweather fight, nor the outrage his political and religious views elicit, not even the complaint that he holds boxing hostage is as damning as this: Pacquiao has become the wrong kind of predictable.
No, the feints and footwork that once spun heads before his fists removed them are no longer the nightmare proposition they were before age and too many rounds against world-class opposition took their toll. Pacquiao has not scored a stoppage since he brutalized Miguel Cotto in 2009 in a display of precision and ferocity so unrelenting, it drove Cotto’s family from ringside. Mind you, the only opponent Pacquiao has fought since then who had been stopped prior to facing “Pac-Man” is Antonio Margarito, a man who outweighed him by 17 pounds in the ring and whose preternatural capacity to absorb punishment is deservingly legendary. Those who witnessed what bloody mischief Pacquiao accomplished that night, though, even those who have only seen a recent picture of Margarito, know what price the Tijuana fighter paid to preserve his machismo and his countrymen’s reputation.
But while the speed of hand and foot and the surprising power still persist, Pacquiao can muster little more than 30 seconds of his dynamism per round. The fighter who, round after round, stormed out of his corner and through Miguel Cotto, even the one who bounded out of his corner and into a fading Juan Manuel Marquez’s end-of-days right hand, is gone.
What is left is a fighter still so formidable, he need fight but a sixth of each round to pocket it and then coast the rest. And that sounds very much like the approach Mayweather used. It was one that earned Mayweather, the greatest defensive fighter of his generation, the slings and arrows of most everyone looking for drama and daring in a prizefight. For the greatest offensive fighter of his generation to employ a tempered assault, however, regardless of its explanation, is doubly disappointing and requires we look no further than to Pacquiao’s idiomatic violence to celebrate his performances. Yet Pacquiao’s violence endeared him even to the Mexicans whose native sons were left in his wake. Violence is what made him.
So Pacquiao apologists rightly look to his level of competition to defend him. There are a number of welterweights who could trouble – even beat – Pacquiao were they to fight. None of them fought better competition than Pacquiao this year. He is 37-years-old and still facing a level of competition to where his would-be usurpers have just now advanced. Ask yourself what credit Errol Spence Jr. or IBF welterweight titlist Kell Brook – two fighters who could very well beat Pacquiao – would receive for sweeping the cards and scoring two knockdowns against Tim Bradley as Pacquiao did earlier this year. Bradley’s reputation may now exceed his ability but he remains better than Leonard Bundu and Kevin Bizier. It is a testament to how good Pacquiao was and how good he remains that no other welterweight – perhaps no other fighter – is held to the same standard.
It is this higher standard that dogs him. Because, right or wrong, fans who have not yet dismissed Pacquiao still look to him to give something more of himself, which is why his streak of decisions is so often leveled against him. They want more than the counter left hand that dropped Vargas in the second round, more than the quickness that allows him to punch with authority without setting his feet – and they want it against one of only a few of the realistic opponents who could defeat him.
And there perhaps lies the source of the patina of ennui that has settled on Pacquiao’s career: the once unique fighter has become typical. Like too many of his contemporaries, Pacquiao has an obvious fight to make against WBC/WBO junior welterweight champion Terence Crawford and yet, that fight, like so many of boxing’s best matchups, is in limbo – added to the list of unmade events defended by those who, for some incomprehensible reason, now derive their enjoyment from defending fighters who delay – even in perpetuity – good fights while making pathetic ones. Instead, Pacquiao, on what McIlvanney called “the slow route to the last exit” is preserving his marketability with the hopes of getting the public to coax themselves into accepting “The Fight to Rectify the Fight of the Century.”
Perhaps were his contemporaries, these preordained stars, a bit more stellar, Pacquiao would be given a pass, even in the form of disregard. But they are not and certainly not with the level of consistency that would see them fight a nemesis three times in 20 months, as Pacquiao did Erik Morales, or face fighters of the quality of Juan Manuel Marquez and Bradley twice each in a three-year span, as Pacquiao did between 2011 and 2014. So with WBC junior bantamweight titlist Roman Gonzalez too small to be the face of a blood sport, Pacquiao remains, perhaps undeservedly – and unfairly – the standard bearer.
Pacquiao, because of his age and his and his promoter’s financial concerns, is more like the thumb-twiddlers of Premier Boxing Champions than he has ever been. And if that is reason to turn one’s back on him, there are further turns to make.
You can follow Jimmy Tobin on Twitter @jet79.