By Michael Rosenthal
Manny Pacquiao is no longer the juggernaut who commanded our attention a decade-plus ago. He’s still good at 40, just not what he was. The best welterweights are named Crawford, Spence, Thurman and Porter, not Pacquiao.
Yet many of us continue to root for him. Why?
The Filipino icon, who fights Adrien Broner on Saturday night in Las Vegas, worked his way into our hearts beginning with the day he upset Lehlo Ledwaba to win the IBF junior featherweight title in 2001. He went on to claim major titles in a record eight divisions, establishing a reputation as a dynamic fighter with a confounding style and the ability to lift fans out of their seats.
And when he was at his best, he seemed to be unbeatable. He went 15-0 between close losses to Erik Morales in 2005 and Tim Bradley in 2012, the period in which he transitioned from an outstanding fighter to the No. 1 figure in boxing during one of Floyd Mayweather’s hiatuses from the sport.
If one dazzling stretch of fights solidified his place among the legends, it was consecutive knockouts of David Diaz, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto in 2008 and 2009.
Pacquiao drew comparisons to the great Henry Armstrong as a result of that run – particularly after his breathtaking, one-punch knockout of the tough Hatton – which was at least somewhat overstated but a remarkable compliment nonetheless.
And his allure wasn’t just a result of what he did in the ring. Pacquiao also ingratiated himself with fans by the way he handled himself outside it, most notably his humility and endearing personality.
Who can forget his appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live!? Whether he was trying earnestly to sing (no comment) or engaging Kimmel in his quirky way or simply smiling his contagious smile, his understated charm earned our affection.
Those who felt fortunate to witness Pacquiao in his peak years will hold onto those feelings as long as they live.
Of course, those lingering sentiments play a role in how we feel about Pacquiao today even though he is in decline as a boxer. Many of us want him to succeed because of who he was as a fighter and who he is as a person.
And now there is another reason we root for him: Fans generally long for once-great fighters – those who gave us chills in the past – to reach into the glorious past and produce one more special performance before they’re finished.
Muhammad Ali had lost his heavyweight title to arch rival Joe Frazier 3½ years earlier and was the underdog against the imposing and then-unbeaten George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974. Ali won by eighth-round knockout. One more special moment.
Ali was 33 and beginning to decline when he met Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975, a war of attrition that Ali won when a badly beaten Frazier couldn’t come out for the 15th and final round. One last special moment, not to mention one of the greatest fights ever.
Sugar Ray Leonard hadn’t fought in three years because of a detached retina when he agreed to face seemingly untouchable middleweight champ Marvin Hagler, who hadn’t lost a fight in 11 years and was considered an all-time great.
Leonard’s decision to take the fight seemed to be folly. It wasn’t. He outboxed the champion to win a split decision and Hagler’s middleweight title. One last special moment.
Can Pacquiao follow the lead of his legendary predecessors? Can he give us one or two more special moments before he fades away?
Broner is nowhere near the level of Foreman and Hagler at the time they met Ali and Leonard but he’s good enough to pose a legitimate threat, which can’t be said of Pacquiao’s most-recent opponent. Pacquiao’s knockout of the shot Lucas Matthysse looked good but meant next to nothing.
If Pacquiao dominates Broner – particularly if scores a dramatic knockout – he will have given us the closest possible facsimile of the Pacquiao who bowled over one elite fighter after another in his prime, which is exactly what many fans are dying to see.
And, who knows, a victory imight lead to an encore against one of the elite 147-pounders mentioned earlier or Mayweather a second time if he can be lured out of retirement. It’s hard to imagine a 40-year-old, less-active, slower Pacquiao beating these fighters but one never knows.
He certainly would have a lot of people in his corner.
Michael Rosenthal is 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.