Perhaps politics is all that remains for the Senator. A different public service, one less exacting, less dangerous. The crowds, they will always be there—ever devoted, ever grateful, many of them looking to him for more than a spectacle, more than a symbol of pride. That kind of responsibility is difficult to ignore. So maybe it is time for a life of shaking hands instead of wrapping them. Perhaps Manny Pacquiao is finished as a prizefighter.
If he is, Yordenis Ugas helped him decide as much. At the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas this past Saturday, Ugas, a replacement opponent who knew he could never replace the opportunity before him, showed Pacquiao the future. Ugas was younger than Pacquiao, larger, fresher. And unawed. Not enough can be made of that. After the first Pacquiao combination or three fell short or careened harmlessly off his guard, Ugas settled into a game plan that accentuated his advantages and exposed Pacquiao’s decline. It was a performance neither entertaining nor memorable, but few fighters get to hang a loss on a legend when it still means something. Ugas can add his name to that proud ledger.
Few if any others will get their chance. The opponents that justify Pacquiao torturing himself once or twice a year, men who could help him generate the kind of income he’s been accustomed to for nearly two decades—there is no mystery to how he might fare against them, or not enough to preserve any intrigue. And watching Pacquiao lose to a merely good fighter—where is the sport in that? At least his decision loss to Jeff Horn in 2017 was bogus, a joke Pacquiao and everyone else soon put behind them.
When Al Haymon secured Pacquiao’s services in 2018, planning as he surely did, to have one of his inner circle scalp the aged dynamo, did he ever consider Ugas for the job? Errol Spence might have tacked Pacquiao to the mat had he not withdrawn from their fight with an eye injury. But there is no selling Spence–Pacquiao now. Terence Crawford would be pilloried for suggesting a Pacquiao fight. And what would be the reception to Vergil Ortiz or Jaron Ennis, the future of the welterweight division, pursuing a forty-two-year-old who has fought once in two years and just lost a decision to Ugas?
Had Ugas been willing to exchange his consciousness for Pacquiao’s, had he been emphatic instead of only convincing, the aftermath might not be so uninspiring. There would be no refurbishing Pacquiao were he once more left still and silent as a lake at dawn. But then there is no rehabbing Pacquiao from this defeat, either; age has outlasted him, he seemed to concede as much, and, perhaps unfairly, that concession tempers expectations of how Ugas might capitalize on his victory. Still, upsets are the lifeblood of the sport, and so Ugas, who was his best when it most mattered, deserves his moment. There is a parallel here with Horn, a transitory champion who transferred Pacquiao’s title to Crawford in a fight that reminded us of what should have been. Ugas’s WBA title awaits Spence’s return—may he resist those machinations violently.
What remains to say of Pacquiao has been said before both in celebration and in eulogy (and each time he has rendered those eulogies shamefully premature). So we can be brief. His charm lay in his simplicity.
Pacquiao became great by trying to become rich. That seems almost a foreign concept now, with fighters compensated so handsomely. This is not to criticize current trends: people who bleed for their bread should seek more per drop. That self-interest is frustrating, obstructionist, but there are other things to devote your attention to (and if your preferred form of entertainment leaves you white-knuckled, gnashing your teeth, thumbing vitriol into the cyber-void, well, you too are entertaining). Pacquiao, though, rarely gave you a reason to feel that way. He wanted to make as much money as possible and he tore through some bad motherfuckers to do it.
He made his name at the expense of a triumvirate of Mexican legends, becoming the nemesis of an entire country, and, impossibly, the symbol of boxing’s last great era in the process. That Pacquiao lost the first of his three fights with Eric Morales, that Juan Manuel Marquez, after forty-two rounds of measuring his right hand and dusting himself off the canvas, finally landed his iconic kill shot, only adds to Pacquiao’s greatness. He wasn’t significantly better than Morales, than Barrera or Marquez, but we know that because he was willing to fight them repeatedly. That’s where the money was. And when the bell rang he earned every penny of it. An immolating ultraviolence—that too was his simplicity.
Yes, Pacquiao owes much to his timeliness: conduct a charitable search of the years since, and you won’t see another hydra as ferocious as the Hall of Fame one Pacquiao charged headlong for. But he fought for years after he’d settled accounts with Mexico. Remove his three fights with Morales, the two with Barrera, the four with Marquez. Take Pacquiao’s 6-2-1 (3) record along with it. What remains is a career that eclipses the achievements of all his contemporaries except perhaps those of Floyd Mayweather Jr. And where you fall on that debate is a matter of taste. Until Pacquiao found his cruising altitude, there was always one more threat, one more would-be conqueror to terrorize.
You probably rooted against him a time or two, cursed him as he melted a favorite fighter. It is just as likely you slipped helplessly into an appreciation for the smiling marauder who, whether driving people into a frothing rage or bringing them to devoted tears, always looked as if he considered the entire incredible spectacle of his life as little more than sport. “That’s boxing,” he repeated as he rationalized his defeat to Ugas, sanguine as ever. That too is his simplicity; a novel ending with the protagonist shrugging his shoulders.
Perhaps politics is all that remains for the Senator. For what else could he possibly do?