Manny Pacquiao wins first fight back from 'retirement' in one-sided victory over Jessie Vargas

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Manny Pacquiao (R) throws a punch at Jessie Vargas during their fight Saturday. (AP)
Manny Pacquiao (R) throws a punch at Jessie Vargas during their fight Saturday. (AP)

LAS VEGAS – A younger Manny Pacquiao probably would have taken Jessie Vargas out sometime in the first half of their fight for the WBO welterweight title. But even at only a few weeks before his 38th birthday, Pacquiao was far more precise than the defending American champion.

For all the criticism that could be leveled at Pacquiao for scoring yet another decision, what he did on Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center in lifting the WBO welterweight title from the 27-year-old Vargas is still a remarkable feat.

Fighting as a sitting, nationally elected senator from the Philippines, Pacquiao scored a clear-cut decision victory over Vargas, who simply didn’t have the physical skills he needed to handle a fighter of Pacquiao’s ilk.

The judges scored it 118-109 twice and, bizarrely, 114-113 for Pacquiao, who ended a brief retirement and regained the WBO welterweight belt he once held. Yahoo Sports also had it 118-109 for Pacquiao.

He won despite a training camp in which his days frequently began before dawn, ended as the clock neared midnight and included precious little time for either rest or family.

“I feel happy,” he said. “I’m trying every round to knock him down, but not get careless.”

To win a world championship at any time, at any age, is a feat. To do so at nearly 38 is remarkable. But to do it at nearly 38 while serving as a full-time politician is almost mind-blowing.

Promoter Bob Arum has been around boxing for more than 50 years, and he was almost awed throughout the promotion imagining Pacquiao preparing for a world championship fight while also dealing with being a senator.

The fact that he is a full-time senator and was only able to train around his day job, which is as a senator, not this, and where he chairs committees, etc., that is absolutely remarkable to have been in the shape he was.”

It’s hard to underestimate what he did.

He knocked Vargas down with a sharp, straight left in the second. He pushed the pace and opened a cut on Vargas’ right eyeline and swelled up the right side of his face. He consistently beat Vargas to the punch and had little difficulty in controlling the action.

“Fighting Manny Pacquiao is like playing a very fast game of chess,” Vargas said. “You have to be alert at all times because there were a lot of punches coming in. He was very fast. He was very sharp.”

Pacquiao’s long-time rival, Floyd Mayweather, who beat Pacquiao in a hugely hyped fight down the street a year-and-a-half ago, was unexpectedly seated at ringside. When Pacquiao saw Mayweather as he was awaiting the first bell, he raised his hand, smiled and nodded.

It doesn’t necessarily mean a fight between them is imminent. Arum mentioned super lightweight champion Terence Crawford, super featherweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko and welterweights Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia as potential opponents, though he stressed he needed to discuss things with Pacquiao.

Pacquiao said he invited Mayweather, but when asked if he was looking for a fight with him, he said, “We’ll see.”

A crowd of 16,132 filled the large arena on the UNLV campus to pay tribute to one of the era’s greats, who had won so many dramatic victories in this city before. A 28-, or 30- or even 34-year-old Pacquiao might have been quicker and stronger and finished the fight long before the final bell, but what Pacquiao did in defeating Vargas, winning 10 of the 12 rounds on two scorecards, can’t be overstated.

He’s no longer the best fighter in the world, and he’s probably not even in the top 10 pound-for-pound, if the truth be told. But he remains an elite talent and would be hard for all but the best of the best to defeat.

A solid, talented but not elite fighter like Vargas simply didn’t have the tools to pull that off. He tried, and occasionally caught Pacquiao with a right hand, but Pacquiao was quicker, was firing a lot and was moving his head when he was in punching range.

Mayweather shrugged his shoulders when asked about Pacquiao.

“Not bad,” he said.

But Pacquiao landed 147 of 409 shots according to CompuBox, compared to 104 of 562 for Vargas. Nearly all of the hard, decisive shots came from Pacquiao.

Pacquiao climbed the ropes in a neutral corner after the decision was announced and pounded his chest. He turned to his right and saw Mayweather, smiled and mouthed, “Thank you.”

Boxing fans owe Pacquiao a debt of gratitude for a career in which he always made it a point to try to put on a show. Even as he slowed down as his moved inexorably close to 40, he was always aggressive and always tried for the knockout.

On this night, he fought smart and used the tricks he’d learned in a more than 20-year career that began when he put heavy objects in his pockets to try to get up to the limit of 105 pounds.

He did it after not missing a day in the senate after he was criticized for absenteeism during his two terms in the Filipino congress.

He became an ally of President Rodrigo Duterte, introduced a number of bills and participated fully in the political process after having treated his previous role as something of a lark. He did his road work early, tended to his senatorial duties until the evening and would then show up to train at night, on occasion as late as 10 p.m.

Judged in the context of what he had to deal with, his bout Saturday was a smashing success. It’s not fair to judge him against the younger, faster stronger guy he once was who had nothing else to do but fight.

“I’ll fight whoever the people want me to fight,” Pacquiao said. “I am not picking an opponent. I’ll fight whoever my promoter gives me. I will fight.”

It’s likely to be super lightweight champion Terence Crawford next, which is also remarkable given that Crawford is unbeaten and among the world’s most talented fighters. It’s quite an accomplishment for a nearly 38-year-old.

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