Writing about Manny Pacquiao, Bart Barry recently proclaimed, “There has been no one like him since his debut in 1995, and that phrase may hold-up still in the year 2050.”
On July 20, at age 40, Pacquiao added to his legend by outpointing previously undefeated Keith Thurman in a dramatic fast-paced fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Pacquiao has been a notable presence on the boxing scene since 2001 when he made his American television debut on HBO and obliterated Lehlo Ledwaba to claim the IBF 122-pound crown. Notable victories over Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, and Juan Manuel Marquez followed as Pacquiao became boxing’s most marketable feel-good story.
But Pacquiao is now 10 years removed from the glorious 12-month high point of his ring career when he pulverized Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto to become a global icon. The physical qualities that made him a great fighter have diminished. Although this assertion might appear to have been challenged by Pacquiao’s performance against Thurman on Saturday night, his reflexes, hand speed, footwork and work rate have slowed. His power isn’t what it once was. He has recorded one knockout victory in 16 fights dating back to 2009. And his burgeoning political career – Pacquiao is a senator in his native Philippines – has engendered mixed reviews. His embrace of Filipino strongman president Rodrigo Duterte coupled with several intemperate homophobic utterances have taken the luster off the Manny Pacquiao feel-good story.
Thurman was 6 years old when Pacquiao made his pro debut and 12 when Manny burst upon the scene against Ledwaba. Thurman has yet to establish himself as a great fighter, but he’s a good one. The signature wins on his resume are a 115-113, 115-113, 115-113 decision over Shawn Porter to claim the 147-pound WBA title in 2016 and a 116-112, 115-113, 113-115 triumph against Danny Garcia one year later.
When Thurman beat Garcia, he unified the WBA and WBC titles and thus was elevated from “world champion” to “super world champion” status by the WBA. That paved the way for Pacquiao to become the regular WBA world champion by beating Lucas Matthysse last year. The WBA would be well-advised to adopt the motto, “There can never be enough world champions.”
After Thurman beat Garcia, he was sidelined by injuries for 23 months. “As a puncher, you can always find ways to hurt your hands,” Thurman says. “Hands were not made to punch each other in the skull. Hands were designed for something a little different.”
Thurman also suffered an elbow injury that added to this period of inactivity.
“It’s human nature that not every day is going to be our best day,” Thurman acknowledged earlier this month. “And for me, my thought process started to get a little morbid. I started to ask myself the question, ‘Are you ever going to fight again? Is your career over at the age of 28, 29 years old? Are you done?’ It was quite depressing to start thinking like that. I had some depressing moments and some negative thought patterns at that time.”
Meanwhile, the measured pace of Thurman’s return and his talk of future fights (which pointedly brushed off Errol Spence as an opponent in the foreseeable future) led to questions regarding his commitment to boxing. Thurman’s only ring appearance since March 2017 had been a January 26, 2019, decision over Josesito Lopez. And the Lopez fight was problematic. Thurman won a decision. But Lopez is a relatively light puncher with eight defeats on his ring ledger. And he rocked Thurman in the seventh round.
Thurman chose to put a positive spin on things, saying, “In the seventh round, I showed that Keith Thurman is not a punk. If you want to fight me, fight me. You want to hurt me, hurt me. If you drop me, you drop me. But you better stop me. As long as you don’t stop me, I’m coming out the champion. I got caught. I was in danger. Then I got caught again. And then, after that, I got caught again. I got hit with three big shots that round. I said you better put your hands up. You better move your feet because only you know you’re OK right now. The whole world thinks you’re going to be knocked out. Just get out of this round and let’s show them what kind of champion you really are.”
“I tried to explain to you guys from the beginning of the year when the Josesito Lopez fight happened,” Thurman advised the media during a July 10 conference call. “All of 2019 is just Keith Thurman getting back. This is still a get-back year.”
Pacquiao-Thurman was viewed as part of that get-back process. The storyline to the fight was based in part on the presumption that neither man was the fighter he had once been – Pacquiao because he’s 40 years old and Thurman because he might have lost a bit of the desire that once motivated him – but that their downward curves were intersecting at just the right time to make for an exciting competitive contest.
Pacquiao admitted that he had fallen prey to “womanizing, gambling and drunkenness” in the past as his fame spread. But then, he said, God spoke to him in a dream. Properly counseled, Pacquiao cleaned up his act after which Juan Manuel Marquez planted him face first on the canvas and Floyd Mayweather embarrassed him over 12 lethargic rounds. But according to Pacquiao, “That was all part of God’s plan.”
“My time is not yet over,” Pacquiao cautioned Thurman. “It’s easy to say things, but it’s not easy to do it in the ring. Let’s see who’s tougher in the ring on July 20.”
Thurman was his usual engaging self during the build-up to the fight. He disputed the notion that his desire had diminished. He voiced respect for Pacquiao, saying, “He’s not the young Manny Pacquiao that he once was, but he still is a great world-class fighter.” And he confirmed the intriguing nature of his own personality with thoughts like:
– “Keith Thurman is not a 9-to-5 kind of guy. I was 10 years old when I said nobody is going to be the boss of me. I shocked a lot of people with that statement. I was rebellious, I was a dreamer. I was very passionate. I’m still very passionate. I live off of passion.”
– “I was not a boxing fan at a young age. I’m not a big fan of almost any sport because I’m not a spectator. I love participating in sports. I’m not one that sits down, watches games. I live too much of an active lifestyle. I want to be a part of the action. Put me in the game, coach. I started watching more professional boxing when I knew I was going to turn pro.”
– “I love the sport of boxing. I want to have fun. This is my job. When you go to work, you should enjoy yourself. If you don’t enjoy your job, you should get a new job. I love my job. This is my entertainment. I’m living a dream. I’m happy. We’re making money. We’re making history in a sport that I’ve always wanted to make history in.”
There were the usual pre-fight predictions.
Freddie Roach (who once again was Pacquiao’s trainer after a brief absence) declared, “Thurman is definitely a good fighter. But if you look at his last three fights, he’s faded a little bit. He’s not doing quite as well. You study tapes on him and you can see the gradual slowdown. Manny’s speed will overwhelm him. Manny is so unbelievably fast. He’s much faster with his footwork and his hand speed. Thurman is slower than Heinz ketchup.”
Thurman, of course, took a contrary view.
“He’s 40; I’m 30,” Keith said. “He’s the legend, but I have 10 years of youth on my side. I’m doing to Manny Pacquiao what he did to Oscar De La Hoya. The hourglass is almost finished. He doesn’t have much left. My prediction? Less than six rounds.”
And what would Thurman do if Pacquiao beat him?
“I would bow down in the middle of the ring,” Thurman answered. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, senator! Oh, senator! Great is ye, oh, senator.’
Would he retire if he lost?
“I’d think about it. I’d at least be like, ‘Can I do some more commentating or something?’ Momma said I look good in a suit.’ I don’t think she wants to see her boy punched on TV getting beat up by an old man.”
Bottom line … Pacquiao was unlikely to get better at this stage of his ring career. The open issue regarding Pacquiao was the slope of his decline. Not only is he 40 years old; his body had been subjected to the wear and tear of 68 professional fights, many of them against the best fighters of his era.
By contrast, Thurman had been plagued by injuries and the possible loss of motivation but was young enough to successfully rebound. The unanswered question regarding Thurman was how far had he come back. His one fight in the preceding 28 months (against Josesito Lopez) had left doubters.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to destroy a legend and to create my own legacy,” Thurman declared. “Manny Pacquiao has had an amazing career. It feels as if I’m facing Sugar Ray Robinson, as if I’m facing Roberto Duran.”
But at age 40, Robinson had lost his magic (and twice to Paul Pender). Duran ushered in his 40th birthday by losing to Pat Lawlor. Neither Robinson or Duran beat a world class fighter at age 40 or after.
“Manny believes this is fate,” Roach told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. But then Roach added a cautionary note: “I don’t believe in fate. I don’t think God is a good matchmaker.”
Thurman had opened as a 7-to-5 betting favorite. By fight night, a flood of money from Pacquiao fans had moved the odds to 4-to-3 in Pacquiao’s favor.
Prior to the bout, Michael Rosenthal wrote, “I hope Pacquiao performs more like Bernard Hopkins than Roy Jones Jr. at this stage of their careers.”
In truth, Pacquiao’s performance was likely to lie somewhere in between. Jones’ technique was flawed. He was great when he was young because of preternatural physical gifts. But once his physical decline began, he was a dangerously vulnerable fighter. Hopkins, on the other hand, was a precision textbook boxer whose conditioning and technique compensated for advancing age. Pacquiao had extraordinary physical gifts and was better technically than Jones. But there were holes in his ring modus operandi. And 40 is 40.
Pacquiao-Thurman was a fast-paced entertaining fight. After a period of physical decline culminating in his loss to Jeff Horn in 2017, Pacquiao appears to have grown faster and stronger again. Cynics will read into that what they will.
Two punches were crucial to outcome of Pacquiao-Thurman.
Late in Round 1, a straight left to the body followed by a right hook up top dropped Thurman to the canvas. That brought back memories of Pacquiao’s first fight against Juan Manuel Marquez, when Marquez was dropped three times in the opening stanza after being caught off-guard by Manny’s speed and the ferocity of his attack. Unlike Marquez, Thurman rose quickly and wasn’t seriously hurt. But the knockdown changed what likely would have been a 10-9 round in Thurman’s favor to 10-8 for Pacquiao. Ultimately, that three-point swing was the difference between Pacquiao-Thurman being adjudicated a draw and a victory for Pacquiao. And the knockdown took the edge off Thurman’s confidence.
Rounds 2 through 5 were vintage Pacquiao. He controlled the fight, bloodied Thurman’s nose and forced him into uncharted waters. Thoughts of Pacquiao-Marquez IV lingered in the mind. One wondered if Pacquiao might get reckless and run into something unfortunate as happened in his final outing against Marquez when, seemingly on the verge of victory, he regained consciousness while lying face first on the canvas.
That didn’t happen here. But in Round 6 against Thurman, Pacquiao’s age began to show. He seemed to tire. The spring left his legs, which took away his ability to move into position and punch with the angles in his favor.
Rounds 6 through 9 belonged to Thurman. Then, in Round 10, Pacquiao landed his second fight-altering blow. A straight left to the body at the 1:40 mark hurt Thurman badly, put him on his bike, and changed the momentum of the bout back in Pacquiao’s favor.
The judges were in agreement on nine of the 12 rounds. Each of them scored Rounds 1, 2, 4, 5 and 10 for Pacquiao while giving the nod to Thurman in 6, 7 and 11. Dave Moretti and Tim Cheatham were on the mark, favoring Pacquiao by a 115-112 margin. Glenn Feldman (114-113 Thurman) has had better nights as a judge.
Thurman was gracious in defeat.
“Manny Pacquiao is a truly great, great legendary champion,” Thurman said in an in-the-ring post-fight interview. “Oh, senator! Oh, senator! Great is ye, oh, senator. I promised I’d say that if he won tonight.” The defeated fighter then added, “My conditioning, my output, was just behind Manny Pacquiao. Tonight was a blessing and a lesson. Thank you everybody. And thank you, Manny Pacquiao.”
The widespread assumption going into Pacquiao-Thurman was that Pacquiao’s primary value as a fighter had trended toward his being a victim on someone else’s ring ledger; that things in the ring will not end well for him because he’ll keep fighting until he has suffered at least one bad beating too many, maybe more.
“It just a matter of time,” people said.
Maybe so. But on Saturday night, Manny Pacquiao said, “Not this time.”
Thomas Hauser’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His next book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing – will be published this autumn by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.