At the end of the first installment of NBA great Steve Nash's fascinating film project to document the end of his career, the 40-year old two-time NBA MVP says something truly special: “Every athlete, when they lose their skill, they lose a big part of themselves. A part they've built their life around and that's been a huge part of their purpose, self-esteem, identity; so when the skill or ability goes, it's like there's been a death.”
As a boxing fan, it's impossible to follow the Nash story and not think of the similar struggle facing aging boxers, who in most cases have more concerning adverse health effects to deal with a basketball player. Although stars like Mayweather, Sergio Martinez, and Bernard Hopkins are all older than Manny Pacquiao, because of the attrition from his long and violent career, he's the first boxer I put in the Nash category.
I'm not here to announce that Manny Pacquiao is done or that he should retire. But you have to wonder, what else does he have to prove?
He's beaten everyone he's been matched against (ahem, C.J. Ross) from flyweight through welterweight, he’s a surefire Hall of Famer and a former number one pound-for-pound, he's launched a successful political career in his homeland of the Philippines, and most importantly, on the strength of his high-beam smile, he's achieved the impossible of becoming an Asian superstar that has crossed over into worldwide celebrity. Even if recent reports about Pacquiao's financial troubles are true, he has the profile and brand to always make a robust living without getting punched in the brain by naturally bigger men.
After Juan Manuel Marquez finally bested his long-time rival with a perfect, hidden right to the advancing Pacquiao’s chin in December 2012, there was instant speculation that he may soon retire. Lying nearly motionless in a heap on the canvas for several minutes will do that to any boxer, let alone a champion just handed his second consecutive loss. His wife Jinkee joined the chorus of cautious observers and urged him to retire, telling reporters “there is nothing to prove, he already has eight belts.” More concerning was the credible medical speculation (http://www.badlefthook.com/2013/1/3/3831828/manny-pacquiao-early-signs-parkinsons-alzheimers-filipino-doctors-worry-boxing-news) coming in after the knockout, that Pacquiao was showing early signs of Parkinsons and serious brain injury.
So why in the world is he still here? The easiest answer lies within the Steven Nash quote above, the bit about identity. Absorbing punishment and punching the other man in the nose has brought attention and fame beyond what any malnourished child in Sarangani province could have possibly dreamed. There has to be a fear, even if a subconscious one, that if he walks away from boxing the changes he’s marked in his own life would crumble back into the dust of home. It’s amazing to ponder that a boxer might have more fear over leaving the ring than entering it, but that’s where Pacquiao has to find himself these days.
Let’s not forget we’re talking about the thirteen year old kid who tattooed himself a boxing glove over his heart after becoming hooked on the sport in General Santos City. Boxing defines him as much as he has defined boxing as the most electrifying performer of his generation. Perhaps he’s become more motivated since the knockout, that he looks at himself in the mirror and sees a fit and strong 35 year old dude who wants to prove that he’s not done. He sees an opportunity to augment and deepen his legacy.
Another possibility is that he is, in fact, readying himself for retirement and wants to gain some fairy tale-like closure and go out as ring king. There’s only one way for him to really achieve that kind of closure and that would be to beat Tim Bradley definitively next month, and then finish his contract with Top Rank with one more fight in 2014 so that he could free himself from Bob Arum and better position himself for a showdown with You-Know-Who in May 2015. They won’t be as old as Stallone and DeNiro, but the grudge match between the aging Mayweather and Pacquiao would smash any Hollywood box office and give fight fans their own sense of closure after the five years of bullshit that have prevented the sport from its best potential showcase.
If that’s the goal, his work is cut out for him. Sure he looked good against Rios (for whom else is Brandon Rios just a tune-up fight?), but he was supposed to look good against Rios. An early kayo would have done wonders. There’s a reason why Coach Roach has been beating the knockout drum around Manny so loudly.
Knocking out the man who remained upright amidst the hell-fire from Ruslan Provodnikov will go a long way in restoring the Pacman’s luster. It’s a tall order, but why would he duck a tough assignment now? After all, that's been the abiding joy in following Pacquiao's career, his ability to consistently step up and face bigger and badder opposition from 112 all the way to 147 and find different and brilliant ways to win.
No one has ever doubted his courage and heart in the ring, but courage and heart won’t make his feet and hands any faster. How long will it be until we see him run on fumes? There’s nothing sadder than a boxer fighting past his prime, milking the sport for every drop of money and attention it can provide.
Underneath the smile and resiliency that have made him great, Pacquiao, like Steve Nash and Beowulf before him, has to be facing his own mortality.
Steve Nash is lucky in this regard. Boxing is a far more cruel sport to get old in, it only takes one punch for the years to instantly show, for a career to irrevocably end in a beating where years of fighter’s life are mercilessly excised. I’m still not convinced we haven’t already seen Pacquiao take that punch.