By Michael Rosenthal
Question: Is Manny Pacquiao the fighter he once was?
Answer: Of course he isn’t. How could he be at 40 years old?
The more important question going into his challenge of WBA welterweight titleholder Keith Thurman next Saturday is how MUCH has he declined and what role – if any – that decline will play in the fight.
A 2014 study of 3,305 people aged 16 to 44 conducted in Canada determined that cognitive speed declines by about 15 percent every 15 years after the age of 24. So let’s assume for the purposes of this article that Pacquiao has declined 15 percent from his peak a decade or more ago.
The Pacquiao who overwhelmed Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto in 2008 and 2009 probably would’ve beaten Thurman handily. The Filipino’s unusual hand and food speed and a high volume of punches for every conceivable angle at that time were something to behold.
One might argue that 85 percent of THAT Pacquiao is still better than Thurman at 100 percent. Pacman looked quick and was plenty busy enough to stop Lucas Matthysse and defeat Adrien Broner by a one-sided decision in his last two fights, meaning he looked much like the dynamo of old.
And we shouldn’t forget that Pacquiao – after 24 years as a professional boxer who has fought many times on the biggest stages – will have a wealth of knowledge from which to draw when he tries to match wits with Thurman. Bernard Hopkins remained an elite fighter well into his 40s because of his rare boxing acumen, which allowed him to compensate for any decline in physical tools with savvy and efficiency.
So maybe a Pacquiao with only slightly diminished speed and reflexes, combined with the experience of a veteran who has been tested repeatedly, will be enough for him to overcome a prime, young champion like Thurman.
And maybe not.
Maybe a 15-percent decline – or even 5 or 10 percent – reduces Pacquiao into a different fighter, one who can beat the likes of a faded Matthysse and small, reluctant Broner but struggle against a big, legitimate welterweight and terrific athlete like Thurman.
An all-star pitcher in baseball who loses even a few miles per hour on his fastball often becomes ordinary, although, like Hopkins in boxing, the smartest ones sometimes find ways to compensate. The same might be true of Pacquiao, who presumably has lost at least 1 or 2 mph on his fastball.
And Pacquiao and Hopkins are very different fighters. Hopkins was always a cerebral boxer who relied more on technique than athleticism. Thus, when his speed and reflexes began to decline somewhere around 40, he remained a championship-level fighter because his boxing acumen was as sharp as ever.
Pacquiao has always relied on his hand and food speed – as well as punch output – at least as much as his mind, which means he will no longer be Pacquiao when those physical tools fade away.
Is that time at hand? It’s difficult to say. There is no easy way to gauge hand and foot speed, which is generally judged by the eye.
There is one thing we can try to quantify – a decline in punch activity. Put simply, Pacquiao doesn’t throw as many punches as he once did, presumably because he can’t at his age. He has to pick his spots these days.
CompuBox statistics aren’t definitive but they give you an idea of patterns. Let’s compare CompuBox numbers from four 12-round Pacquiao fights that took place between 2010 and 2012 (Antonio Margarito, Shane Mosley, Juan Manuel Marquez and Tim Bradley) and his last four fights that went the distance (Bradley, Jessie Vargas, Jeff Horn and Broner). He threw an average of 781 punches in the first four fights, 528 in the latter four. And, for the record, his connection rate declined slightly.
That doesn’t mean that Pacquiao can’t win fights, including this one. It simply suggests that it might be more difficult for him to outwork his opponents because he can’t do as much work, which could be a problem against Thurman.
And, it should be noted, Pacquiao can’t rely on punching power. He has exactly one knockout in a full decade, over Matthysse, who arguably was shot at the time. It’s extremely difficult to imagine him taking out a full-fledged 147-pounder like Thurman, although Andy Ruiz reminded recently us that anything is possible.
Full disclosure: I’m not a scientist or statistician. I am just looking for clues as to how much Pacquiao has declined and whether that will matter when he steps into the ring to challenge Thurman.
Pacquiao might overwhelm Thurman with his speed, as trainer Freddie Roach said he will. We might see signs of the inevitable deterioration of the human body, which might not bode well for Pacquiao. Or we might see something in between.
We should learn a lot more on fight night.
Michael Rosenthal was the 2018 winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Nat Fleischer Award for excellence in boxing journalism. He has covered boxing in Los Angeles and beyond for almost three decades. Follow him at @mrosenthal_box.