Boxing is the cruelest sport. It demands near constant mental discipline and blissful – if not completely driven by superstition – ignorance of fear. And when your jig is up, you can't resort to being a role player on a team, instead you get beaten violently in front of millions.
Even champions face the blues.
Four years after the champ had surrendered his belt to Sonny Liston, and right after he had failed to regain it for a second time from Muhammad Ali, Floyd Patterson wrote that “the losing fighter loses more than just his pride and the fight; he loses part of his future, [and] is one step closer to the slum he came from.”
In this case the slum is Sarangani Province in the Phillipines.
There's a lot more on the line on April 12 when Manny Pacquiao rematches Timothy Bradley Jr. than his own career, the business of boxing as we know it hangs in the balance. Sometimes a hotly contested loss doesn't hurt a fighter's future (see Ali-Frazier 1, or Bradley-Provodnikov just a year ago), but with the Filipino's age and his considerable ring mileage, a loss could very well mean the end to his imaginable possibilities as a top draw.
The Sweet Science has not yet recovered from the loss of the line of great American heavyweight champions from John L. Sullivan through Mike Tyson who transcended the boundaries of sport into the epic arena of life and death bearing millions of gaping witnesses. Perhaps as boxing's phoenix is slowly shaking off the ashes, the dark period between Tyson's very public self-destruction and now will be defined by television gridlock and the Filipino fist of Manny Pacquiao. Pacquiao's career carries the potential of bridging the sport over its self-inflicted pitfalls into another era, as long as his career can survive another year or two.
Fans have gravitated to Pacquiao like dense satellites to the largest sun; attracted by his high-wattage smile, his lethal exuberance in and out of the ring, and his incredible story. If it could be said of the fictional Rocky, that “his whole life was a million-to-one shot,” let's pit Manny's odds against the population of his homeland and say his whole life was 100 million-to-one shot. Pacman's rise from GenSan street urchin peddling cigarettes and doughnuts and eating one meal a day when lucky to champion boxer across eight weight classes has allowed boxing to sell its most compelling story. It's through personalities like Pacquiao that the often illusory American dream has become globalized and gives boxing a lead foot into every slum in the world.
By maintaining his presence as a top ten pound-for-pound fighter, his narrative survives to spur the growth of boxing worldwide. When Pacquiao leaves the ring for the last time, his example will continue to live on for future boxers but the attention he brings to the sport will fade until another man is able to claim that spotlight.
As it stands now, Floyd Mayweather is boxing's money ring king, but Pacquiao represents the sport's heart and soul, the Hollywood narrative of a fighter from nothing achieving the infinite. Coverage of the Congressman attracts more internet traffic than any other fighter by a wide margin, and this interest and capital drives attention broadly to all participants of the Sweet Science. Given his worldwide fame and rising political career in the Philippines, boxing needs Manny Pacquiao more than Pacquiao needs boxing.
The controversy surrounding the judging the first time Bradley and Pacquiao can't be held against the American, who has since acquitted himself expertly in two radically different wins over Provodnikov and Manny’s nemesis Márquez. It's not a knock on Bradley's person to suggest that he's incapable of assuming the Filipino's stature, while the number of young stars in boxing has increased in the last few years, not one will be able to pick up Pacquiao's torch if it falls now. By winning now, he would bide the sport a little more time to generate new interest.
At 35 years old and without a knockout victory since 2009, many observers have credible doubt whether the home run hitter's erstwhile pop will ever go yard again. Pacman's trainer Freddie Roach has taken on his usual prefight mantra of knocking the other man out, but this time around there's an underlying desperation. It's a tall order against a champion with a proven chin like Bradley's, but Pacquiao needs a signature win if he wants to again lay claim to being the top fighter in the world and set up another two or three fights.
This Bradley fight has shades of 2008's “Dream Match” between Pacquiao and Oscar De La Hoya. The age differential is strikingly similar but Pacquiao has switched places. In 2008, Pacquiao was younger, smaller, and hungrier man and De La Hoya was already more comfortable wearing a suit and fronting Golden Boy Promotions. Like De La Hoya then, the Congressman has a full life outside of boxing that includes possible presidential aspirations, while Timothy Bradley is only a boxer.
That night almost six years ago, Pacquiao cemented his legacy by ending the career of one of the very best. Bradley looks to accomplish the same. In retrospect, it was good for the business of boxing for De La Hoya to fall then to Manny, but it’s much harder to make the argument now in Bradley’s favor. Chances are even that whatever purse Bradley earns for the rematch, win or lose, it will represent his career’s high water mark. Giving Pacquiao the exit stage left will spell the end of big money Manny fight cards and would adversely affect the sport’s attraction in real dollars.
With his own career at something of a tipping point, it should follow that the sport Manny Pacquiao has carried on his back for the past ten years arrives at the same uncertain place. Whether Manny’s career ends this month or not, boxing needs to capitalize on its current momentum by making great fights or it will slide further out of mind.