They always have one great performance left in them. Follow boxing long enough, and you’ll hear how some great fighter or another at his career’s end conjured enough of his exhausted excellence to snatch one last improbable victory. Perhaps this boomeranging of time’s arrow best explains how an old fighter can delay being subsumed by boxing’s natural order. At any rate, it’s nice to have quick, easy, romantic explanations for things. But if you’re looking to understand how Manny Pacquiao handed Keith Thurman the first loss of his career, there’s a simpler explanation.
Pacquiao, who won a split decision over Thurman at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, is undoubtedly great; and at forty, is well past the age when he should be competitive with the best fighters in his division. In that sense, he is a smiling, punching improbability. But what he did to Thurman Saturday night wasn’t improbable. Instead, it was what he has always done to merely good fighters. Once more Pacquiao confronted his opponent with greatness you cannot intimate from beyond the ropes and administered ample punishment for that lack of understanding. Pacquiao didn’t have to rejuvenate himself against Thurman because the current version of him remains a conundrum for every welterweight save for Errol Spence and Terence Crawford, and even they would know greatness when it punched them square in the mouth.
When Al Haymon launched Premier Boxing Champions in 2015, he had much of the welterweight division under his banner. At the time, the division seemed stacked, and yet almost five years later that notion seems, if not risible, at least in need of qualification. The parity of the division—and Haymon’s high-profile branch in particular—exceeded its talent; and that point has been proven, albeit too infrequently, since Haymon finally started asking the real names in his 147-pound stable to swap leather instead of opponents. Never has that point been made more forcefully, though, than when Pacquiao was taking strips out of Thurman, something he did with striking ease.
In the first round, Thurman backed out with his hands down and didn’t stop that retreat until the canvas broke his fall. Dropped by a surprise jab, Thurman expressed more disbelief than pain, but it was a humbling reminder that, on this night, his opponent couldn’t be encouraged to cooperate. In the tenth, there was the shank Pacquiao broke off in Thurman’s body that, like many a body shot landed on him since his competition improved, turned Thurman once more into “Run Time.” While the commentary team missed the punch, there was no mistaking Thurman’s reaction. Longing for the canvas, he shuffled desperately away, mouthguard in hand, struggling to breathe. And his face fared no better, crime scene that it was from the early rounds on.
To these telling moments, Thurman added a few of his own—it was, after all, the fight of the year in the eyes of people paid to convince you as much. Thurman added a half-inch to Pacquiao’s face (imagine had “One Time” the power his early matchmaking misled us to believe was his), and Pacquiao encouraged Thurman’s efforts enough—banging his gloves together, nodding approval—to tell us there were times when Thurman needed no encouraging. Mid-fight, removed enough from being dropped, not yet in the grips of evisceration, Thurman forced an extra ten or fifteen seconds a round of activity out of Pacquiao that, in concert with the ever-present punch-stat numbers, preserved for the commentary team some hint of drama. Thurman showed some grit, working his way back into the fight after the early knockdown, staying on his feet when Pacquiao made a Carrick bend of his intestines. His supporters will mix all of this into a palliative elixir for stomaching Thurman’s first loss.
If Thurman somehow vaulted the bar for praise in a blood sport, and the rush to refurbish him is proof that he has, we do both praise and blood sport a disservice. It took thirty fights for Thurman, 29-1 (22), to have his defining one—and he lost it to a former nothing-weight ten years his senior. His sportsmanship, the decorum and class he showed in defeat, was reminiscent of Pacquiao after his tiny death at the hands of Juan Manuel Marquez, his disputed loss to Tim Bradley, and the bogus decision to Jeff Horn. The difference being that Pacquiao, 62-7-2 (39), could be sanguine because of what he’d already accomplished: a loss, decisive or dubious, wasn’t going to define him.
Conversely, Thurman’s philosophical acceptance of his hiding seems indicative of a man enamored with boxing as a discipline and vocation, but less so with the more primal act of fighting. His self-worth doesn’t hinge on his ability to ruin the man across from him; and while this may be an admirable quality, one that allows Thurman to finish with boxing before boxing finishes him, it’s a sign that he’s reached his ceiling. Saul Alvarez looked crushed in the aftermath of his loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr.—another fight where the loser was gifted one scorecard—and that bitterness boded well for his return. A bitter man might commit himself to vengeance, or at least improvement. But one imagines Thurman thinking of other pursuits when the subject of improvement is brought up. Unquestionably a top-five talent at welterweight, Thurman is also second-tier; the division, despite being promised him, will never be his. His next fight won’t tell us much—this was supposed to be a “get back” not a “set back” year for Thurman—but whom he faces after his inevitable sabbatical and soft touch will. There are good fights to be made for Thurman, fights improved by an honest assessment of their yield.
Pacquiao, meanwhile, will fight on, facing men who could beat him though not so brutally as to cripple his earning potential. Unless of course, the numbers somehow justify that risk. When that happens, and it could around the time Errol Spence runs out of opponents not named Terence Crawford, that adage about great fighters having one last breathtaking performance in them will be put to the test.