In some respects, future Hall of Fame boxers on a career downturn are like leading ladies who are obliged to make the transition to character roles once the aging process inevitably detracts from their drop-dead-gorgeous looks.
Probably no one has thought to compare the Manny Pacquiao of 2017 to the late Elizabeth Taylor, but upon further examination there might be certain parallels. The Taylor who starred in Giant (1956) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), with her violet eyes, creamy complexion and hour-glass figure, was arguably the most stunningly attractive woman ever to appear on the silver screen. She was, respectively, 24 and 26 when those films were released. By 1966, when she was still just 34, La Liz was noticeably plumper and played the role of a frowsy, tart-tongued professor’s wife so well that she won her second Academy Award as Best Actress for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Taylor was still a marvelous, mesmerizing performer, but it had to come as a shock to audiences that even her ravishing beauty could not endure indefinitely.
The then-22-year-old Pacquiao first burst into wide prominence on June 23, 2001, when, in his U.S. debut, the little Filipino southpaw was spectacular in dethroning IBF super bantamweight champion Lehlo Ledwaba of South Africa via sixth-round stoppage at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand, on the undercard of a show headlined by Oscar De La Hoya’s 12-round unanimous decision over WBC super welterweight titlist Javier Castillejo. Everyone who saw the previously unknown (well, at least in America) Pacquiao take apart Ledwaba that night had an idea that they had witnessed the launch of something truly special. In that instance, initial impressions proved correct; Pacquiao evolved into a global icon who over the next 16 years would accumulate 11 world championships in a record eight weight classes, capturing Fighter of the Year honors from the Boxing Writers Association of America three times (2006, 2008 and 2009), a hat trick only accomplished by such other indisputably great fighters as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Well, the Pacquiao (59-6-2, 38 KOs) who defends his WBO welterweight belt against Jeff “The Hornet” Horn (16-0-1, 11 KOs) Saturday night (U.S. time, on ESPN) and Sunday afternoon (local time) in Horn’s hometown of Brisbane, Australia, will be fighting for much more than the retention of his most recent world title. Now 38, with at least a couple of laugh lines crinkling his once-unmarked face and flecks of gray in his formerly jet-black hair, “Pac Man” will give evidence, one way or another, as to his status in the here and now. Is he still a giant of his demanding profession, a quick-twitch, lovely to behold cat on a hot tin roof? Or is he continuing his slow but steady slide into Virginia Woolf territory, the onetime superstar who must soon, if not this weekend, acknowledge the fight game’s natural laws of diminishing returns?
It speaks well of Pacquiao’s reputation as a legend of the ring that a crowd of 55,000-plus is expected to jam Suncorp Stadium and see if he has held on to enough of his onetime brilliance to merit his 6½-1 favorite’s position over the relatively inexperienced Horn, who no doubt would be a much longer longshot were he going against the Pacquiao who battered De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton into submission during his glorious prime. But that Pacquiao has been on lengthy hiatus, not scoring a knockout or victory inside the distance since he stopped Miguel Cotto in the 12th and final round of their fight on Nov. 14, 2009. The KO drought has now extended to 12 bouts over seven years, 5½ months, during which time the elected Senator in his homeland of the Philippines has posted a 9-3 record, one of the defeats on an emphatic, one-punch takeout in the sixth round of his fourth matchup with Juan Manuel Marquez on Dec. 8, 2012.
Pacquiao also was handily outpointed by Mayweather in their May 2, 2015, megafight, which generated record-shattering financial returns (4.4 million pay-per-view subscriptions and nearly $600 million in gross revenues), a bout which earned Mayweather a staggering $220 million and Pacquiao a slightly smaller sultan’s ransom of $100 million-plus.
If the purses for the shindig in Brisbane are any indication, Pacquiao is still an upper-tier talent with a payday of $10 million to Horn’s $500,000. But it’s nonetheless a major markdown from what he received for swapping punches with Mayweather. Unless he looks not only good but more or less fully returned to his past luminescence, Pacquiao might have to engage on the sort of world tour that Roy Jones Jr. and other faded standouts have resorted to in an effort to wring maximum benefit from what remained of their careers before groups of foreign fans anxious to get up-close-and-personal glimpses of pugilistic heroes they previous had only been able to see on TV. Rumors are already spreading that Pacquiao, who has twice fought in Macao, China, will follow his anticipated victory over Horn with a homecoming bout in the Philippines, where he has not fought since he scored a fourth-round TKO of Fahsan 3K Battery on Dec. 11, 2004.
“We’re looking to fight Manny Pacquiao at his very best,” said Horn’s trainer, Glenn Rushton. “We’re not going in there thinking we’re going to fight someone who’s past his best, an old man. That would be a foolish mistake to make. We want him to bring his `A’ game because we’re going to bring our `A’ game.”
Still, Rushton – who said he’s “80 percent sure” his fighter will take out Pacquiao in the late rounds – admitted there are signs that Manny’s best is somewhere in his rear-view mirror, becoming even more distant as the Fab Filipino trudges forward into a future that can’t possibly be as electric as his hypercharged past.
“That KO against Marquez, that stone-cold KO, that takes something out of a fighter,” Rushton offered. “That’s got to be haunting him. That’s got to be there in the back of his mind. He’s fighting a young, hungry lion here, a bigger man, a guy that’s technically very good. And, really, at the end of the day, as great as he is, Manny Pacquiao’s just a man.”
Horn’s most significant victory to date probably was against former WBO super lightweight and IBF welterweight champ Randall Bailey, who did not come out for the eighth round of their scheduled 10-rounder on April 27, 2016, in Brisbane. But the big-punching Bailey was 42 at the time, perhaps giving challenger Horn reason for optimism as he seeks to take down the celebrated likes of Pacquiao.
“I think Manny’s looked good in his last couple of fights (points nods over Timothy Bradley Jr. and Jessie Vargas), but he probably doesn’t pull the trigger a little bit when he’s had the chance,” Horn said. “I don’t know if he’s lost that knockout (power), but who knows? I’ll find out.”
Pacquiao is at a critical stage where opponent selection is paramount if he is to maintain the level of credibility to which he has so long been justifiably accustomed. There is probably no way that Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, who has done very well for Pacquiao and for himself in their long and profitable association, would risk putting his prized cash cow in with, say, 27-year-old IBF welterweight ruler Errol Spence Jr. (22-0, 19 KOs), who announced himself as a superstar-in-the-making with his 11th-round stoppage of then-champ Kell Brook on May 27 in Brook’s hometown of Sheffield, England. Another 147-pound champ in his prime, 28-year-old Keith Thurman (28-0, 22 KOs), likely also is on the steer-clear list. That has opened the door for Horn, who is ranked No. 1 by the WBO but is not of the same caliber as Spence or Thurman, and other ranked opponents who are just good enough to create the illusion of being legitimate threats to however much of Pacquiao that still remains in reasonable working order.
Yet there are no guarantees once a boxing equivalent of Elizabeth Taylor enters that nebulous Virginia Woolf zone. A thing of beauty might be a joy forever, according to the poet John Keats, but the stark reality is that beauty is only skin deep and flesh can be torn, splotched and wrinkled. The seemingly ageless Bernard Hopkins figured he had enough gas in the tank to get past a much-younger construction worker named Joe Smith Jr., and we all know how that turned out.
There is nothing Jeff Horn can ever do to put himself in Manny Pacquiao’s rareified class. But he has a chance to play Joe Smith Jr. to Pacquiao’s B-Hop, and that is reason enough to tune in this weekend and see just how much of glamour the charismatic leading man has relinquished to the relentless march of time.
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