LAS VEGAS – You've heard the flight attendant say it on every airplane trip you've been on: "We've started our gradual descent. …"
And, some might say, so, too, did Manny Pacquiao's career begin its gradual descent in 2007. The Filipino superstar is a solid No. 2 in the Yahoo! Sports poll of the world's finest boxers, but 2007 certainly wasn't his best year.
Oh, Pacquiao was unbeaten in both of his fights in 2007, knocking out Jorge Solis in the eighth round in April and then scoring a unanimous decision over Marco Antonio Barrera in October. But he was hardly the destructive force he had been in 2006, when he went 3-0, knocked out Erik Morales twice and was named the Fighter of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America.
For the previous five years, he'd seemed super human, but in 2007, he seemed like just another good fighter.
Was 2007 simply the start of the gradual descent of a superstar's career, perhaps? It usually happens earlier to fighters who share his aggressive, attacking style.
The question will be answered, Pacquiao says, on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center after his bout with Juan Manuel Marquez for the WBC super featherweight title.
"This fight, I'm ready for this one like I haven't been for a long time," Pacquiao said. "I want to give a good fight."
He thinks for a second, beams and then corrects himself.
"I want to give a great fight," Pacquiao said. "I'm going to give the people a great show."
Pacquiao and Marquez put on a spectacular show when they fought in 2004. Pacquiao knocked Marquez down three times in the first round and seemed on the verge of an unbelievably quick stoppage.
Marquez managed to survive and, in the eyes of many, deserved to win what was a split draw. Looking at the score total cumulatively, Marquez actually won more rounds than Pacquiao, 22 to 14.
Pacquiao has been one of the game's elite performers since and has won his last six outings. Cynics, though, would say he's been matched favorably.
He has gone 6-1 since drawing with Marquez, losing only to Morales in 2005 in a high-paced bout that drew some consideration for Fight of the Year. That bout, though, represented the last quality performance of Morales' career and so Pacquiao's two subsequent victories over him don't look as good in retrospect.
Nor does the October win over Barrera, who was coming off a loss to Marquez and clearly was down to a handful of remaining fights. Pacquiao's other wins since drawing with Marquez were against Hector Velasquez, Oscar Larios and Solis, none of whom has ever been considered an upper echelon fighter.
Pacquiao's wonderful trainer, Freddie Roach, doesn't see a decline. He sees a guy still on top of his game whose desire waned a bit last year.
"They weren't fights that really challenged him," Roach said of the bouts with Solis and Barrera. "Manny's the kind of guy who needs a challenge. He just sort of went through the motions. It's not like he didn't train, but he didn't have that motivation to do all the little extras like he has this time."
Roach was of a belief shared by many that Pacquiao could have stopped Barrera when they met in October. But while Pacquiao did enough to win by a comfortable margin on the scorecards, he didn't come close to putting Barrera away.
The trainer couldn't understand it, because Pacquiao has always had a great killer instinct, so he approached him about it.
"He said to me, 'Coach, he's a legend and he's getting old and I didn't want to embarrass him,' " Roach said.
But Pacquiao will have to prove that he's not getting long in the tooth boxing-wise by the way he performs against Marquez. And that's why Pacquiao spent his entire training camp in Hollywood, Calif., in Roach's cramped gym instead of splitting time between Hollywood and The Philippines.
Pacquiao, a national icon in his homeland, is never able to focus 100 percent on his work while at home because of the enormous demands placed upon him by his countrymen.
He was running for a seat in Congress last year while preparing for the fight with Solis, which undoubtedly forced compromises.
But promoter Bob Arum, who has become something of a celebrity himself in The Philippines because of his association with Pacquiao, is convinced Pacquiao recognizes what went wrong in 2007.
There has been no misplaced focus in 2008, Arum insists.
"I've heard Juan Manuel is in great shape, but I have witnessed with my own eyes how Manny Pacquiao has trained for this fight," Arum said. "If I could get a blueprint for how he trained and get all other fighters to use it, we would have great fights night after night. The conditioning is so important as his stamina and ability to withstand punishment is at its highest peak.
"I don't know another fighter — and we have (WBC-WBO middleweight champion Kelly) Pavlik and (WBA welterweight champion Miguel) Cotto who work extremely hard — but I have never seen anyone prepare like Manny Pacquiao has for this fight."
The table is essentially set for Pacquiao to look great. He insists he's totally healthy. Everyone who has seen him says he's in his best shape in many years, which is quite a compliment considering Pacquiao is one of the game's most well-conditioned fighters.
He's fighting an opponent he wants to beat very badly – an opponent who is ranked fifth in the Yahoo! Sports poll of the best fighters.
If Pacquiao doesn't look as sensational as he promises, it's just another affirmation that the gradual descent has indeed begun.
- Manny Pacquiao