In a fight that some will lament mistakenly as coming years too late, Manny “Pac Man” Pacquiao faces Lucas “The Machine” Matthysse on Saturday, at the Axiata Arena in Kuala Lumpur. Because it is only now, in his thirty-ninth year, his sixty-ninth professional fight, in one of the last stops on an eleven-division ascent, that Pacquiao should concede Matthysse more than a puncher’s chance and the beating that is its usual price. Such is the abyss between good and great; an abyss that when finally traversed along the bridge left by the outlay of a historic career, can make for desperate action. Or so one hopes.
There is a little gloss on that paragraph isn’t there? A cosmetic dabbling intended to draw attention to what is appealing about Pacquiao-Matthysse—it’s potential for violence, for something chilling and definitive—and to cover up what is less so. This is, after all, a fight between a fighter whose even diminished best is now padlocked in his past and one who slipped precipitously to opponent status because that slide, in hindsight, was anything but long. One need only consider what highlights of the fighters ESPN+ should show Saturday to recognize how many days from their heydays Pacquiao and Matthysse are. They may be fighting for their futures on Saturday, but boxing is unlikely to include either man in its future much longer.
There is some justice in that, considering how disinterested Pacquiao was in ratifying the future at his own expense against Terence Crawford. Even little Vasyl Lomachenko would torment Pacquiao if he were encouraged to pick larger cherries from the higher branches. Rare, however, are the fighters who hold sanctioning power today and rarer still are those willing to exercise it. Besides, what fighter with options, especially an aged one, goes willingly to a beating made lucrative by his scalp?
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With his retirement looming it is no wonder that so much of the coverage of Pacquiao accentuates his historic achievements, though even that historical treatment has a touch of the cosmetic about it. Pacquiao could have retired after he incinerated Miguel Cotto in 2009, or after he was bolted to the canvas by Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012 and even then his greatness would have been unassailable. Sure, his wins over Tim Bradley are impressive and the question of just how good he was remained intriguing until his big reveal in a loss to Jeff Horn last July, but fights with Brandon Rios, Chris Algieri, Jesse Vargas, even his gaudy swindle with Floyd Mayweather Jr. proved mostly uninspiring.
Could it be that this pruning of Pacquiao’s career is simply a matter of taste? Those who wondered what heights Pacquiao might achieve in boxing were sated by the time he stopped chasing glory. Some look at his age and at the accolades other fighters receive for beating even his victims and, perhaps rightly, conclude that Pacquiao has remained special. In this sense, it is difficult to know what to make of Pacquiao at present (and there is no guarantee that Matthysse will provide any insight here).
What can be said about Pacquiao is that he is as much a fighter of moments as a fighter of narrative. There was the charming absurdity of his ring walk: with pop music blaring, an irrepressible smile on his face; he connected with a crowd that began chanting his name hours earlier as the cameras first caught him entering the arena. That adoration was real, real enough that the same chant broke out when a crowd of people saw Mayweather in a jewelry store. No expletives, no disparaging remarks, really; no effort to diminish or insult their fighter’s nemesis. Instead, that crowd taunted Mayweather with what he could not instill in his own fans: genuine devotion.
And what of the dissonance between his walk to the ring and what he produced upon stepping into it? That goofiness was shed with the opening bell but the joy remained. It was impossible to not recognize the joy in his performances. This was more than the satisfaction of tattering his opponent, of frenziedly applying his destructive idiom: there was also the satisfaction found in the demands and rewards of competition. This is why Pacquiao was typically at his best, his most endearing, against his best opponents.
Or maybe these recollections of Pacquiao also have a gloss on them, manipulated like so many of our best and worst memories in a way that allows us to better preserve or endure? Perhaps the farther from Pacquiao’s prime we go the greater we appreciate it, and the more we fictionalize and romanticize it as a result?
“If you start with a flawed ideal,” writes Yuval Noah Harari, “you often appreciate its defects only when the ideal is close to realization.” We see this borne out in boxing time and again. It happened with Matthysse, who seemed indestructible until Danny Garcia dared him to prove as much. It happened with Gennady Golovkin, who was only good when even a tenuous claim to greatness was at long last within grasp. And if you are to believe his detractors, it is happening with Anthony Joshua, who has turned in consecutive flawed performances since looking every bit the ideal in retiring Wladimir Klitschko. But Pacquiao? He accomplished more against the Mexican triumvirate of Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, and Juan Manuel Marquez than most fighters do in an entire career. In doing so he became what other fighters should aspire to. He is also—a little unfairly because you will look in vain for a Barrera or Morales or Marquez today—the man they are measured against.
This isn’t fiction. It isn’t romance. It’s the realization of an ideal.