By Cliff Rold
Not many fighters are still considered viable contenders in any weight class twenty years after they win their first title. Even in this era, when it feels like big names are able to stretch their time near the top farther than was once the norm, twenty years is a long time.
Heading into this weekend (Saturday, Showtime PPV, 9 PM EST), 40-year old Manny Pacquiao remains rated in the top five at welterweight by TBRB, Ring, ESPN, and Boxing Monthly, a healthy sampling of the perception of the division as a whole. The latter two still place him in the top three. The twentieth anniversary of Pacquiao’s first title win, and the first time he cracked the Ring ratings, passed in December.
That was the month, in 1998, when Pacquiao knocked out Chatchai Sasakul in eight rounds to win the WBC and lineal flyweight championship. It’s been more than ten years since he debuted at welterweight, retiring Oscar De La Hoya in December 2008. Through the sum of two decades, he became the first man to claim the lineal crown in four weight classes and first to make any title claim in eight.
This weekend, Paquiao will defend the lesser version of the WBA belt against 29-year old former four-division titlist Adrien Broner. If Pacquiao wins, maybe it leads to a rematch with Floyd Mayweather.
Maybe it leads to a showdown with the winner of Errol Spence-Mikey Garcia.
Maybe it leads to a shot at the rightful WBA titlist, Keith Thurman.
Whatever happens after Saturday, it’s all predicated on something no one should take for granted for a 40-year old fighter.
If Pacquiao wins then…
First he has to win and this fight, like every Pacquiao fight in recent memory, raises a distinct question: is this the one?
Is Saturday against Adrien Broner the night when Pacquiao as a top-level fighter is finally done for good?
That might not be the same as the man who ends Pacquiao’s career. Pacquiao could always keep fighting. Roberto Duran’s last hurrah came against Iran Barkley. It was followed by a listless loss to Sugar Ray Leonard that signaled there wouldn’t be another night like Barkley. Duran was still around for over a decade, making old man fights with guys like Hector Camacho. Julio Cesar Chavez kept on for a bit after Kostya Tszyu worked him over.
Neither man was a real contender anymore, even if Duran was still there to be abused by a William Joppy along the way. It’s hard to imagine Pacquiao remaining a consensus contender much longer if he doesn’t win this weekend. Even in a climate where most fans and pundits wouldn’t expect Pacquiao to beat a Spence or Terence Crawford, he’s still only just behind them in public opinion.
There will be those who look at Broner’s failings in the past and see a win as improbable. Losses to Marcos Maidana, Shawn Porter, and Mikey Garcia are fresh in the mind’s eye. That said, fights in real time aren’t contested between the best version of a fighter we can conceive or the worst. Broner is over a decade younger, quick, and should be motivated. He can be a real danger.
If he isn’t, if Pacquiao extends his career one more night, the question will roll into his next contest. That he’s even still here is remarkable. Pacquiao is clearly past his prime but his highs were so high it’s meant a long way to fall. Since the loss to Mayweather in 2015, he is 3-1 and the one was highly controversial against Jeff Horn. Wins over Timothy Bradley, in their third fight, and Jessie Vargas came when both were consensus top ten welterweights.
Neither fight was even close.
Vargas ran Broner even last year; he barely won a round against Pacquiao in 2016 and had to get off the deck.
It’s not 2016 anymore, much less 2008. Every day, month, year, every fight for Pacquiao at this age is a test of the inevitable. Where the last big wall will erect itself is hard to predict. For Sugar Ray Leonard, it was Terry Norris. For Joe Louis, it was Rocky Marciano. For Oscar, it was Manny. In all of those cases, one future Hall of Famer escorted another off the stage.
It doesn’t always go that way. For Bernard Hopkins it was Joe Smith. George Foreman had Shannon Briggs, if with considerable debate. Those were good, solid fighters but they aren’t who you’d expect to be the nail in the coffin of a great one.
Sometimes, it’s just about being the right guy at the right time.
Broner is more accomplished than a Smith but unlikely to rebound even with a win Saturday to be seen later as one legend overtaking another. There would be ample work to do there. None of that matters once the bell rings. Broner is a good fighter with a great chance to be the man who says he closed a door on an era.
Eventually, someone is going to do it.
Someone is going to be the man who we remember as the one who shut the door on Pacquiao’s time near the top for good. Will it be this weekend?
For Pacquiao, that race against the inevitable is as poignant now as any individual fight.
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]