By Corey Erdman
A lot has changed in the world of boxing since Manny Pacquiao entered the public’s consciousness back in 1998 when he captured the WBC flyweight title from Chatchai Sasakul. Not a single one of The Ring Magazine’s Top 10 pound for pound fighters at the end of that year are still active.
Seven of those fighters have been retired long enough to have been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. HBO Championship Boxing, ESPN Friday Night Fights and USA Tuesday Night Fights no longer exist. Cell phones in 1998 had evolved just enough to not have antennae sticking out of the top of the device—these days they can be used to watch the sport’s biggest pay-per-views, like Pacquiao’s bout this Saturday night against Keith Thurman.
If you are 21 years old right now, a world has never existed for you in which Manny Pacquiao was not either a world champion, or a top contender for a world title. Pacquiao’s performance at an elite level—and for much of it, the most elite of levels—has spanned two full decades, and nearly two full boxing generations.
The eight-division world champion’s reign can perhaps best be compared to that of tennis great Roger Federer, who fell to Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s instant classic Wimbledon final. At 37 years old, Federer has been seemingly automatic in nearly every major semi-final and final since 2003. Like Pacquiao, he has been on top for long enough that the new, young stars in his sport grew up idolizing and imitating him.
Athletes in 2019 have the knowledge and resources to compete at a high level for longer than ever before, thanks to advances in technology, nutrition and medicine. But for sports like boxing and tennis, the constant rigor of maintaining the requisite fitness to compete, let alone the competitions themselves, are usually more than enough to break an athlete physically and mentally well before they approach the age of 40.
Federer may not be able to dictate his schedule in the way a boxer can—fighters don’t have to enter tournaments consistently matching them with the best possible opponents—but he also doesn’t have to worry about getting punched. For that reason alone, being an old man or woman in boxing may be harder than being one in any other sport.
There have of course been some legendary “old man” performances throughout boxing history. Perhaps the greatest is 42-year old Archie Moore’s victory over Yvon Durelle in 1959, a fight so dramatic and violent that it’s still generally agreed upon as one of the five or ten best boxing matches of all-time. The most memorable is likely George Foreman’s miracle heavyweight title upset over Michael Moorer at the age of 45.
In more recent years, Sam Soliman, Cornelius Bundrage and Vitali Klitschko all won or held world titles after the age of 40. Of course, there is Bernard Hopkins, the ultimate outlier and exception to every rule of athletic aging, who basically had a second Hall of Fame-worthy career from the age of 40 onwards.
In most cases, and in Hopkins’ especially, older fighters who have found success have done so with substantial adaptations to their previous style. It stands to reason that an aging fighter can’t fight the way they did when they were younger, both due to physical limitations and a vested interest in consciously preserving their body while in an older, more fragile state.
What makes Pacquiao’s late-career success so interesting is how little he has changed his approach. The Pacquiao today is certainly more refined than the one-handed bomber of the late 90s and early 2000s, but his meal tickets—speed and intricate, explosive footwork – are very much what’s still putting food on the table. His hairline might be a little farther back, and a little grey speckles his facial hair, but he very much looks like the same fighter.
“My style is still the same, but I'm more experienced than I was before. My strategy, my footwork, it's not changing, it's still the same, but I'm more experienced with timing,” said Pacquiao, who made his pro debut in 1995.
Rather than adapt into a hit and hold spoiler the way many fighters do as they advance in age, Pacquiao has effectively maintained the same style, but is a little more judicious with his attacks.
"During his heyday, from 2008-2010, Pacquiao was averaging 69 punches a round, landing a staggering 46% of his power and this was against elite competition. Fast forward to today, Manny is much more calculated, throwing 41 a round, and landing 38% of his power, right in line with the welterweight average. Most importantly he’s getting hit less, his last 6 opponents have landed only 27% of their power shots, compared to 35% over his previous 12 fights," said CompuBox and FOX Sports' Dan Canobbio. "Manny 2.0 is still aggressive but much more calculated and cautious. He topped out at 69 punches thrown in a round vs. (Adrien) Broner, so he can still ramp it up when needed."
The joy of watching Pacquiao operate the way he does at the age of 40 is that the viewer gets the sense that rather than watching a crafty veteran outsmart naïve youngsters, which is enjoyable in a different way, they are instead watching a physical marvel—something comparable to a present-day Tom Brady.
However, unlike Brady, who takes every precaution to halt the process of senescence, including avoiding nightshade vegetables, Pacquiao exercises like a man wholly unconcerned with breaking down.
“I really love exercise. I am addicted to exercise. Even when I don't have a fight scheduled, I'm still exercising, playing basketball four to five hours every day,” said Pacquiao on a recent media conference call. “Right now, I'm still hungry. I'm still enjoying and happy preparing for a fight. My coaches still have to watch me to get me to stop, and not to overtrain.”
Pacquiao’s longtime trainer Freddie Roach confirms that to be the case.
“His work ethic is unbelievable. He wants to work every minute of every say. He wants to spar 40 rounds a day. We do have to hold him back a bit. We're on a five running day a week schedule, rather than six, we give him a couple extra days off, trying to (keep him from) overworking,” said Roach.
If Pacquiao is to defeat Thurman on Saturday night, he would add another world title to a list that’s hard to keep up with at this point. But he would have also then turned in one of the sport’s most impressive performances by a fighter 40 or older.
The questions posed pertaining to Pacquiao in recent years have been “why does he continue fighting?” and “what does he have left to accomplish?” While his contemporaries are enjoying a relaxed diet and the spoils of the autograph circuit, he is still battling the toughest men on the planet at his weight. Some suggest that he is fighting purely for monetary reasons, because there is most certainly nothing he could do from here on out that could make him anything more or less than a generational talent and an all-time great fighter.
There may be underlying reasons that help push Pacquiao into the ring, but the short answer is that Pacquiao still fights because he can still fight, and because he can do it damn near better than everybody, 24 years later.