By Tris Dixon
THEY were heady days, when Manny Pacquiao scorched a terrifying path to the pinnacle of the pound-for-pound lists.
But they were also a long, long time ago. One-hundred-and-fifty rounds have passed since he stopped a man, something he used to find dazzlingly routine.
They were viciously glorious, champagne days that seemed never-ending.
When these forces of nature sweep through entire weight classes leaving wreckage and waste in their wakes it is easy to think that the bodies will be strewn for decades.
Together and individually Pacquiao and trainer Freddie Roach were examples of what boxing can do for people and the opportunities that can be gleaned from this ragged business.
Pacquiao, from the humblest of Filipino origins, travelled to the US in search of fame and fortune. After one Los Angeles session on the mitts with Roach, the trainer sensed that the fame and the fortune would come to them both.
It did. And then some. Roach, by the way, had not achieved what he had wanted as a rugged TV fighter in the eighties but armed with a wise fighting brain, an acute understanding of the business at all levels and exceptional people skills he built a Vine Street orphanage that was home to fighters from around the world, both long and short term. A trip to LA was not complete without a visit to the sweatbox above the strip mall Laundromat.
If you were lucky, Pacquiao was in town. If not, there was still a good chance of meeting a Hollywood A-lister or world class pro.
It was when the stars aligned and Roach and Pacquiao teamed up that they were at their strongest. It was like Hearns with Steward, Louis with Blackburn, Tyson with Rooney, Ali and Dundee, Hagler and Petronelli.
It was the perfect storm and their blistering padwork provided some of the most incredible training footage of the generation. It looked sped up but it was not.
It was just a lightning fast fighter in tune with a trainer who was scrabbling to get his mitts going four or five moves ahead. And succeeding.
But it was in the ring where their legend soared.
Pacquiao had been a world champion at flyweight, super-bantamweight, featherweight and super-featherweight but in 2008 when he moved up to lightweight and ironed out David Diaz that his storybook time at the top escalated. That was when his star shone brightest and when he started leaving men bloodied, broken and never the same again.
Diaz flat-lined after nine rounds. Then, in a terrific upset at the time, Manny bettered and battered Oscar De La Hoya into retirement. It was unbelievable to watch. Many felt the match was unsafe, a bad advert for boxing, because the bigger ‘Golden Boy’ would land one shot and turn the lights out on the Filipino’s unlikely dream.
Instead, a nation grew, empowered and emboldened by their sporting figurehead who was breaking new ground. Manchester hero Ricky Hatton, a man of the people like ‘Pacman’, was then crushed in one of the modern era’s most devastating knockouts before Puerto Rican great Miguel Cotto, down in rounds three and four and after an almighty shellacking, did not make it out of round 12.
The pluck and guile of Joshua Clottey allowed the incredibly tough Ghanaian to hear the final bell in Texas, and then controversial Mexican Antonio Margarito was bludgeoned but ultimately spared – whipped from pillar to post, and back.
But things were changing. Would the Pacquiao who crushed Cotto have allowed Margarito to stick around? In his next fight, the forgiving Filipino coasted past Shane Mosley, despite having the veteran in deep trouble in round three. Was the finishing instinct deserting him before our eyes? Was Manny now merciful?
Something seemed to be missing. Critics looked elsewhere for answers. Throughout those epic, sensational wins, there had been unsubtle and unproven allegations of performance enhancing drugs. As the light shone brighter upon the Filipino the emphatic displays became less, well, illuminating. He was still world class, but many thought the bigger Pacquiao would destroy old rival Juan Manuel Marquez up at 144lbs. Again it was tough and close, their third such encounter. Then, faced with Tim Bradley, Pacquiao still won – even though, on this occasion, he did not actually win (Duane Ford and CJ Ross scored for the American).
He fatefully met Marquez for a fourth time. Whether you thought Manny had deteriorated since those blistering routs of Diaz, De La Hoya, Cotto and Hatton, and whether you believed he was no longer the same man or not, we saw something we never believed would never happen.
Think back to seeing the mass hysteria of Filipinos celebrating his famous wins at home. Flashback to Roach and Pacquiao training in the gym and remember some of his brutal knockouts. And then, in the blink of an eye, while finally in some semblance of control against the brilliant Marquez, Manny walked forwards onto a right hand.
December 2012. Round six.
Down. Out. Lifeless.
The wheels of the Pacquiao express had been derailed in the most spectacular way imaginable, face first with Marquez wheeling away as surprised as everyone else in the MGM Grand.
If you had not noticed any kind of decay in those less maniacal displays, you could not deny it any longer. And even if you had, there was no way we were going to revisit Pacquiao circa 2008-2009 again. Not after that.
When he returned, almost a year later and this time in Macau, he had taken his first marked step down in opposition but still points were his only method of winning. Brandon Rios was a wide loser on the cards but he was never in trouble, a sign that Pacquiao’s cylinders were no longer firing fully. He avenged the Bradley loss, but people thought he’d won the first time anyway, then dominated Chris Algieri. He was six years removed from his last stoppage when Floyd Mayweather finally outpointed him in a contest of little incident. Pacquiao then outscored Bradley in a decider, dropped and outpointed Jesse Vargas and lost a controversial decision to Australian Jeff Horn. As with the first Bradley fight, a vast majority thought Pacquiao won, but the judges were inclined to disagree.
That was a year ago and Manny, who has not scored a win inside the distance in almost a decade, turns 40 in December.
The Filipino Peter Pan is growing old. We have been able to see it for years, the decline.
What remains today? Ahead of his July 15 fight with the heavy-punching but often one-dimensional Lucas Matthysse he is the betting favourite. Some favour speed and nostalgia over brute power. But there is a risk. A big risk. Frequently our boxing heroes from yesteryear are steered away from noted bangers rather than directly into their course. The Argentine has won 36 of 39 inside the distance, losing four times in the process. Three of those defeats, however, came to left-handers in Zab Judah, Devon Alexander and Viktor Postol.
Sometimes great fighters have one big night left in them, when they reach down into their memory banks, use all their dregs of muscle memory and somehow cause time to standstill without managing to fully wind the clock back.
But those are one-night-only deals. Roach has been discarded, left in the Wild Card while Pacquiao prepares under Buboy Fernandez for the Kuala Lumpur clash.
You can recognise a when a great fighter has gone on too long when you recognise fewer people in the team. The personnel changes. It is gradual at first.
Outside influences come to the fore. Voices of reason are replaced by cheerleaders. Boxing people are replaced by sycophants. Wisdom is replaced by Insta likes. Millions are replaced by thousands. Ultimately, where it counts the most, the performances no longer exhibit greatness. There maybe flashes of brilliance to remind us of what we used to witness but it can neither be maintained nor prolonged. It is faded. The goods are damaged. Boxing has claimed another scalp.
Father Time, undefeated, rolls on.
Those heady days… such a long time ago.