By Cliff Rold
Start with the obvious.
Manny Pacquiao isn’t really Manny Pacquiao anymore.
That’s not just a reflection of an athlete nearing forty. He’s not the same attraction, the same revenue generator, the same front-page megastar he was a decade ago.
That’s almost how long it’s been since he went supernova as a global sports star. The then-29 year old Pacquiao was already one of the sports biggest names before the Oscar De La Hoya win in December 2008. That moment, even with no title on the line, elevated him and he stayed in rare air for years afterward as a draw and talent.
The road to Oscar wasn’t a short one. The Oscar win at welterweight was almost a decade to the day from a then-19 year old Pacquiao winning the lineal world flyweight crown with a knockout of WBC titlist Chatchai Sasakul. His name wouldn’t matter in the US until a June 2001 victory over Lehlo Ledwaba for IBF title at Jr. featherweight but that was already his second major title.
Last July, Pacquiao lost the WBO welterweight belt to Jeff Horn in debated fashion. Even in this era of belts, belts, and more belts, very few fighters go nearly nineteen years between their first title win and last title loss. The first man in history to lay claim to four of history’s crowns (lineal at flyweight, featherweight, Jr. lightweight, and Jr. welterweight), with title claims in eight divisions overall, took time to accumulate it all.
Given the depth, youth, and quality of the welterweight field in 2018, and assuming Pacquiao will stay in the class he’s spent more of his career in than any other, it’s hard to imagine another title win.
Manny Pacquiao isn’t really Manny Pacquiao anymore. He hasn’t been for awhile.
At 39, Sugar Ray Robinson, Julio Cesar Chavez, and Roberto Duran were all still active fighters and they weren’t themselves anymore either. Eventually, all the great athletes we grow accustomed to get old and few get the late act afforded to a Bernard Hopkins, Archie Moore, or George Foreman.
It’s not like Pacquiao has been reduced to a bad fighter yet. Pacquiao, before Horn, was coming off consecutive, decisive wins over consensus top ten wins over Timothy Bradley and Jessie Vargas. If one thinks he deserved the nod over Horn, it’s fair to see him as still among the better welterweights in the world, if outside the elite circles he once commanded.
This Saturday (ESPN+, 9 PM EST), Pacquiao (59-7-2, 38 KO) enters the ring as a professional for the 69thtime. It’s a good match for this stage of his career. Opponent Lucas Matthysse (39-4, 36 KO) holds the WBA’s secondary ‘world’ title at welterweight, is 35 years old, and like Pacquiao no longer at the top of his form. It’s a dangerous fight for both guys and one with the potential to produce thrills.
While Pacquiao hasn’t scored a knockout since 2009, he has scored knockdowns in several bouts; he still retains better than average pop. Matthysse has always been able to crack. This might be the sort of fight where aging warriors are forced to find what’s left of their legs and their chances to cash one more big check.
For Pacquiao, it’s a chance to leave one more good memory for the public that has followed him all these years.
If he wins, it probably won’t be the final memory. The final memory is almost always the one people wish they could forget.
The last good memory is something else. For Duran, it was dropping Iran Barkley at age 37, winning a middleweight belt against the odds. For a 39-year old Robinson, it was bouncing back from a pair of decision losses to Paul Pender to hold NBA middleweight champion Gene Fullmer to a draw many thought he won in their third of four fights. Chavez, at age 36, held Miguel Angel Gonzalez to an entertaining draw in Mexico for a vacant WBC belt at 140 lbs. All three men fought on for years after those contests. That was the last time they truly competed near the top of their classes.
Pacquaio may fight on as well after the last good memory. The question is whether that memory has already occurred. Maybe it was the ninth round against Horn when he looked on the verge of stopping the Aussie. If not, we just might get it this weekend.
With a win, Pacquiao would be a big money proposition for welterweight titlist Terence Crawford or even moving down the scale somewhere to face lightweight leader Vasyl Lomachenko. Neither of those fights at this stage is likely to end well for Pacquiao. Stranger things have happened but they feel more like ritual torch passing in wait.
This is something different. This is a winnable, and losable, clash with a fighter we recognize. Matthysse is still young enough, strong enough, to be the bad memory. He’s also faded enough to be the guy who lands a big shot, gets Pacquiao’s attention, and prompts the future Hall of Famer to bang his gloves together and produce one last night where, even if Pacquiao isn’t himself anymore, the audience at home can get lost in the action and pretend he is.
That’s more than enough reason to tune in.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]