By Corey Erdman
When Manny Pacquiao was in his prime, he was one of the most unstoppable offensive forces the sport had ever seen. The mid-to-late 2000s version of Pacquiao on his best nights could make fights look like a video game in which he was playing against an opponent with a disconnected controller—his foot speed, hand speed, volume and use of angles could frankly be mesmerizing.
On Saturday night, viewers got a glimpse of what that used to look like, as Pacquiao battered Lucas Matthysse and collected the WBA welterweight title. He wasn’t as fast or as explosive as he once was, his once nimble feet were glued to the canvas much more often, however everything he wanted to throw, he landed. All the trademark shots we hadn’t seen him use effectively in years were connecting on Matthysse: The lead left hand as he takes his head off the line to his right, the uppercuts on the inside that helped pummel Oscar De La Hoya into retirement, the right hook he developed under former trainer Freddie Roach.
“From the beginning of the first round I had it in the mind that I could control the fight. I said be patient, take your time, control the fight, don't get careless like we did before. Just focus on hard punches and counterpunching,” said Pacquiao at the post-fight press conference.
While Pacquiao looked like his old self to a degree, Matthysse looked nothing like he used to. Once a hard-nosed, up-tempo brawler, Matthysse looked frail and timid, hunched over, shuffling forward, offering only the occasional labored right hand. ESPN analyst Teddy Atlas characterized him as a “punching bag” in his post-fight diatribe, which was accurate in terms of his offensive output, but unfortunately it was clear he’d lost his leather-like durability after years of ring wars.
It was the perfect storm of circumstances that helped Pacquiao look good. After a year-long layoff, Pacquiao was probably feeling refreshed physically, and he was blessed with a shopworn opponent with little mobility.
“I'm not done. I'm still here. Sometimes you just have to rest to get it back, and that's what I did. I'm 39 years old, but I feel fine. This training camp was very special. My team wanted me to stop training, and what I did was keep pushing myself to the limit. You can't tell that I'm 39 years old. You'd think I was 28 years old,” said Pacquiao.
Nobody should be fooled into thinking this is anything close to the 28-year old version of the Pacman, but the reality is that some will. More than enough to help create the demand and excitement for the kinds of fights against the kinds of opponents who will make Pacquiao look closer to 58 than 28. A highlight reel featuring Pacquiao dropping Matthysse repeatedly is exactly what’s needed to help sell a fight against Terence Crawford, Vasyl Lomachenko, or any of the welterweights du jour on the Haymon side of the tracks.
“I’ve watched a couple of his fights. He’s fast. I like his style. Fighting him will be good and exciting,” Pacquiao said of Lomachenko to the Los Angeles Times last week.
Every legendary fighter the sport has ever seen has always had that one last night in which they turned back the clock and looked great. Muhammad Ali had the rematch against Leon Spinks, Joe Louis had his knockout win over Lee Savold, Ray Leonard had the stoppage over Donny Lalonde. In each instance, the fighter was heralded as being “back,” but in each instance, it simply opened the door for one last frightful beating, and a sad ending in the ring.
The Matthysse fight may turn out to be that moment for Pacquiao. His performance was good enough to not only convince himself that he can beat better fighters, but convince some of the general public that he could as well.
One might see that as a positive, because Pacquiao losing to Crawford, Lomachenko, Errol Spence or Keith Thurman could help greatly elevate the status and notoriety of any of them. A fight against Pacquiao would no doubt be the most-watched, most publicized fight any of them have taken part in. In pro wrestling parlance, it would be the ultimate “rub,” to “put over” the next generation of top stars.
Unfortunately, this isn’t pro wrestling. This is actual hand-to-hand combat, and the insistence that a fighter should take a beating on the way out for the betterment of the sport is more than a bit sadistic. Does anyone need to see a weathered Pacquiao face-first one the canvas once again?
The great tragedy when it comes to Pacquiao is that whether the public does want to see that or not may be of no consequence to him—he has to fight. Assuming the reports concerning his financial situation have been accurate, Pacquiao is under the kind of monetary duress that can’t be solved by one lump sum payday. Rather, each check serves only to keep his head above water temporarily. Thankfully, Pacquiao hasn’t yet entered the stage in which he is being exploited by the boxing game—his financial issues are seemingly self-inflicted, and he is only taking fights on his own terms—but we could be entering that territory very soon. It’s a horrible cruelty in the sport that the world’s ultimate have-nots like Pacquiao can reach the apex and enter the one percent, only to be abused on the way out anyway.
The tragic ending that’s approaching for Pacquiao may be as unstoppable as he once was inside the ring.