There will never be another Manny Pacquiao

LAS VEGAS, USA – With one minute left in the 12th round of the fight between Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley Jr, the crowd at the MGM Grand Garden Arena rose to its feet in appreciation of what they were watching. Pacquiao, the only boxer to win world titles in 8 divisions, was possibly fighting for the last 60 seconds of his historic career.

Throughout the fight Pacquiao smiled as only he can while in the heat of battle, beating his gloves and knocking down his durable opponent in rounds 7 and 9 of their third battle this past Saturday. In what he says is his last fight, Pacquiao rediscovered the enjoyment that had been missing in recent years.

“What I feel tonight, I feel fresh,” said Pacquiao, age 37. “I remember when I started boxing here in America in 2001. That’s my feel.”

There would be no controversy as there had been after Pacquiao lost a much maligned decision in his first fight with Bradley in 2012. There was no room for debate about the unanimous decision Pacquiao was awarded in his 66th trip between the ropes in 21 years. He stood on the apron and waved to the crowd afterwards as he had many times in the past. This time perhaps for the last.

If this is it, it’s been one hell of a run for Manny Pacquiao.

Three Fighter of the Year Awards. Fighter of the Decade for the 2000s. From fighting for a few pesos in his pro debut in the Philippines to headlining 20 HBO pay-per-view events and earning $500 million in purses and endorsements, according to Forbes.

Long before Saturday's fight, Pacquiao had cemented his legacy as the greatest athlete the Philippines has ever produced. It’ll be a long time before the words "This fighter reminds me of Manny Pacquiao" are credibly muttered.

Manny Pacquiao appeared to have fun in the ring for the first time in a long while. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images/AFP

Manny Pacquiao appeared to have fun in the ring for the first time in a long while.

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images/AFP

“Maybe after 40 years,” says Gabriel “Bebot” Elorde Jr, the son of legendary Filipino boxer Flash Elorde. “[Pacquiao] fought from flyweight up to junior middleweight. He was the only fighter that fought so many weights, and his size is like 5-foot-6.”

What made him special was a “perfect storm” of athleticism and willpower, stoked by a childhood of poverty in which he survived days without food, sleeping on the streets of General Santos City and selling donuts to get by. He made it through what would have killed many, and became stronger for it.

“It’s because of his attitude,” said Filipino boxing trainer Edito Villamor, when asked what made Pacquiao a great fighter. “When he trains, he wants to kill himself. The heart of a champion. His pain tolerance is perfect.”

From a debut in 1995 at 106 pounds, Pacquiao rose up the scales to claim victories over a who’s who of contemporary stars, including Miguel Cotto, Marco Antonio Barrera, Oscar de la Hoya, Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez and Ricky Hatton.

Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, who guided Pacquiao’s rise from boxing’s best kept secret to global sporting icon, recalls Pacquiao’s 8-round drubbing of de la Hoya, which made him a crossover star, as his favorite Pacquiao moment.

“They were passing legislation in the Philippines not to allow him to do the fight because it was a massacre, and I was called a murderer, a butcher for allowing that fight to happen. So obviously I was elated that the fight was such a mismatch, but the other way,” said Arum.

A farewell overshadowed

What should have been a nostalgia-filled farewell for Pacquiao was overshadowed by the fallout of his controversial statements about same-sex marriage. He became the first athlete to be dropped by Nike over an incident that didn’t involve criminal charges or doping violations, and his statements were condemned by both Arum and HBO. 

The third Bradley fight was met with apathy due to a mixture of Pacquiao’s dominance in the first 2 fights, the anti-climax of his previous fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr, and the ill-will generated by his comments on same-sex marriage. 

But as fight night approached, the buzz quickly picked up and the arena was filled with chants of "Manny! Manny!"

You can take away his endorsement deals but you can’t take away what he’s accomplished in the ring. 

The skepticism over Pacquiao’s retirement isn’t unfounded. Pacquiao, who says he wants to focus on his political career as he seeks a seat in the Philippine Senate in the general elections on May 9, wasn’t overly convincing that he could resist the temptation to return to the ring. 

"Let me enjoy first a retired life. I'm not there yet, so I don't know what it feels like," Pacquiao said after the fight. "But I made a commitment to my family. I made my decision."

For all the things that make Pacquiao different from other boxers, he is still a fighter. And fighters fight. This is the only life Pacquiao has known since he was 12 years old. Aside from the purses, which are still in the 8-figure range, there are the cheers and attention which can be addictive. 

It’s a difficult sport to quit,” said Pacquiao’s trainer Freddie Roach. “It’s really, really hard to retire. I think he hasn’t realized that yet but he will soon.” 

Already the temptation has begun, with fights against the next crop of pay-per-view stars including middleweight champion Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and junior welterweight champion Terence Crawford being speculated on. Both are about a decade younger and present challenging issues in terms of size or style. 

A fighter always has more good fights left in him until he doesn’t anymore, and to go out on your own terms is a rare privilege. Boxing is a sport which cannibalizes its greats, and very often a retirement gold watch comes in the form of one last punishing payday at the hands of a young champion on the rise.

—————

Pacquiao began his Sunday after fight night just as he has the others in the years since trading in his wildman ways for life as an Evangelical Christian: a prayer service for several hundred at the Michael Jackson Theater at Mandalay Bay. Ears perked as the conversation switched to his new status as a retired fighter. Would there be future post-fight prayer services in the desert?

“If I still continue fighting, I’m sure I’m gonna see you again,” Pacquiao said, making quotation marks with his fingers before finishing his thought. 

“If.” – Rappler.com

Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at ryan.songalia@rappler.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.