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In Search of a Happy Ending to His Boxing Career, Manny Pacquiao Is Following a Familiar, Sad Trajectory Instead

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 12/07/2018 Greg Bishop
WBO welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao listens during a  news conference at the KA Theatre at MGM Grand Hotel & Casino on April 29, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Pacquiao will face WBC/WBA welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a unification bout on May 2, 2015 in Las Vegas. © JOHN GURZINSKI/AFP/Getty Images WBO welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao listens during a news conference at the KA Theatre at MGM Grand Hotel & Casino on April 29, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Pacquiao will face WBC/WBA welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a unification bout on May 2, 2015 in Las Vegas.

When people ask me for my favorite athlete I’ve ever covered, I sometimes answer Manny Pacquiao. I’ve said that less in recent years, because it’s harder to embrace this version of Pacquiao, with his homophobic rants and his political alignment with Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines and a perpetual abuser of human rights.

But Pacquiao, before he became a full-time politician, was something else. Magic, mostly. Unlike anything I’ve seen in almost two decades writing about sports. That Pacquiao climbed divisions the way most people climb stairs, winning titles at featherweight and lightweight and welterweight, collecting belts in eight weight classes. That Pacquiao bloodied Oscar De La Hoya, savaged Ricky Hatton and all but reconfigured Miguel Cotto’s face. He won fighter of the decade in the 2000s as much for how he fought—his style bloody, unorthodox and unrelenting—and who he fought (everybody), rather than his record, which now stands at 59-7-2.

Pacquiao will add to that mark on Sunday in Malaysia, when he faces another past-his-prime power puncher in Lucas Matthysse. The fight could be exciting. Pacquiao might win. But all that misses the larger, more important point, which is that Pacquiao doesn’t need this fight and shouldn’t have taken it. There’s nothing more for him to win in boxing and so much more, exponentially more, that he could still lose. Like his long-term health, for starters.

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In 2009, I spent six hours in Pacquiao’s apartment in Los Angeles with his publicist Fred Sternburg. We waited that long for Pacquiao to come downstairs. He never did. His acolytes cooked food and did laundry and cut his meat and competed for the most coveted space in Pacquiao’s orbit—the foot of his bed, where the person most in Pacquiao’s good graces slept each night.

I had just started to cover boxing for The New York Times, and yet it was obvious, even then, that the people closest to Pacquiao were worried about him. They were worried about the bouts he had fought and the punches he had taken—and that was before Juan Manuel Marquez knocked him out cold in 2012—and the people who used him and the money he gave away. At the height of his career, one of his closest advisors, Michael Koncz, told me that Pacquiao’s downfall, if there was one, “will be his kindness and generosity.”

“At some point, it’s going to catch up to him,” Koncz said then.

Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn face off after the weigh in ahead of the title fight between Jeff Horn and Manny Pacquiao at Suncorp Stadium on July 1, 2017 in Brisbane, Australia. © Chris Hyde/Getty Images Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn face off after the weigh in ahead of the title fight between Jeff Horn and Manny Pacquiao at Suncorp Stadium on July 1, 2017 in Brisbane, Australia.

And it has. Right about … now. It has been nine years since Pacquiao won a bout by stoppage. It has been almost a decade since he won fighter of the decade. It has been a year since he stepped into a ring in Australia to fight Jeff Horn, losing a horrendous decision that only masked the real takeaway from that night: Pacquiao was no longer an elite fighter, regardless of how many rounds he took off Horn. He’s back because he needs the money, meaning that Koncz was right.

Every step that led Pacquiao from his prime to here was predictable. It’s boxing, more or less. We see it all the time, often at the end, as we lament the events that lead fighters into desperate circumstances, ill-advised comebacks, lopsided beatings, one last fight. It’s always one last fight.

This was Pacquiao this decade: Fewer fights. Worse opposition. Upset losses. The long-anticipated but six-years-delayed meeting with Floyd Mayweather Jr. in which Pacquiao hurt his shoulder while in training and hype triumphed over skill. Then, the rumors that Pacquiao needed money. His split with longtime trainer Freddie Roach. His supposed resurgence under new management.

Philippine boxing icon Manny Pacquiao during a training session at a gym in Manila, ahead of his world welterweight boxing championship bout against Argentina's Lucas Matthysse in July. © TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images Philippine boxing icon Manny Pacquiao during a training session at a gym in Manila, ahead of his world welterweight boxing championship bout against Argentina's Lucas Matthysse in July.

This is Fallen Fighters 101, and the next steps are the worst and most impactful, the most long lasting. Imagine if Pacquiao tops Matthysse and decides to step in the ring with Terence Crawford. That won’t end well, not for Pacquiao, not against any of the top welterweights, not versus Errol Spence Jr. or Keith Thurman or even Danny Garcia. Best case: Pacquiao finishes those bouts on his feet. Worst case: he further damages his brain.

Pacquiao will turn 40 this December. He already has a second career, as a politician in the Philippines, and he has long stated his desire to become his country’s president. He has fought in 455 rounds and 68 bouts and more than one bloody trilogy. And he did so coming forward, seeking action, absorbing blows in order to land the hardest punches. He has won belts and millions and the adoration of fans around the world. That should be enough. But it never is.

In recent bouts, Pacquiao’s legs have failed him. Against Horn, the judges failed him. Mostly, though, it’s his advisors and confidants who have failed him, refusing to acknowledge what Roach told Pacquiao in the dressing room in Australia. That he might want to consider boxing or politics, but that he seemed stretched thin by both. He hasn’t spoken with Pacquiao since and will not be in Pacquiao’s corner for the first time since 2001.

Manny Pacquiao trains at Elorde boxing Gym on May 19, 2017 in Manila, Philippines. © Chris Hyde/Getty Images Manny Pacquiao trains at Elorde boxing Gym on May 19, 2017 in Manila, Philippines.

If those same confidants are being honest, if they cared about Pacquiao as much as they have long insisted they do, they’d tell him what now seems obvious. That he’s one of the greatest boxers ever, one of the most exciting fighters ever and one of the most successful athletes of his generation. He doesn’t need this fight. He doesn’t need to fight again. The real shame would be if he’s remembered more for the sad, painful end that seems inevitable, rather than the magic that marked his rise.

Instead, it appears that Pacquiao will continue to fight for the one thing that eludes most boxers, even the best ones: the ability to walk away from the sport, happy and secure, with money in the bank and faculties intact. But that won’t happen, because this is boxing and this is Pacquiao and this is an ending that anyone who watches boxing long enough has seen before.

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