No longer at his peak, Manny Pacquiao is surprisingly not that far off

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS — There was a five-bout stretch in his career, from Dec. 6, 2008 until Nov. 13, 2010, in which Manny Pacquiao had never been better: Never faster, never quicker, never more powerful, never more dominant.

It was a span that began with a stoppage after eight brutally one-sided rounds against Oscar De La Hoya, which boosted Pacquiao’s stardom into the stratosphere.

It included a stunning one-punch second-round knockout of Ricky Hatton on May 2, 2009, and the most thorough and complete beating Miguel Cotto ever absorbed, on Nov. 14, 2009.

The hope was that compelling victory over Cotto, who is likely to be elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2023 on the first day he’s eligible, would lead to a 2010 showdown with Floyd Mayweather. It would, sadly, take more than five years for that mega-bout to be put together. Neither man was nearly the same in 2015, when they fought, as they were in late 2009 when their camps seriously engaged in discussions about a fight.

With Mayweather going elsewhere, Pacquiao continued his onslaught, rolling through Joshua Clottey on March 13, 2010. He finished the five-fight skein by battering Antonio Margarito in an even more brutal beating than he’d given De La Hoya.

He was 5-0 with three knockouts and moved up to compete in three weight classes.

It was without question Pacquiao’s greatest stretch and one of the most dominant stretches any fighter ever had. It was a period of one year, 11 months and eight days that has been unmatched in the last 25 years. Rarely has any fighter come remotely close to being as good or as dominant as Pacquiao was in that stretch.

De La Hoya is already in the Hall of Fame and Cotto will soon join him. Hatton has a shot to make it, and while Margarito and Clottey won’t, both were among the toughest competitors of their day.

That win over Margarito was nearly nine years ago, and Pacquiao paid a brutal price for that victory and the title he earned with it.

Margarito was far bigger — the bout was a physical mismatch, in Margarito’s favor — and he did his share of damage.

“Never again,” Pacquiao said to his team after that bout about fighting opponents that much bigger than he was.

This is a guy whose reputation has been built on his ability to leapfrog weight classes and appear as if he’d been in them all of his life.

Manny Pacquiao earned an easy unanimous decision over Adrien Broner on Jan. 19, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Manny Pacquiao earned an easy unanimous decision over Adrien Broner on Jan. 19, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

He began his pro career at 17 years old on Jan. 22, 1995, in Sablayan in his native Philippines, with a four-round decision over Edmund Enting Ignacio.

Keith Thurman, the unbeaten WBA champion whom Pacquiao will face on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, PPV) at the MGM Grand Garden, was 6 years old that night.

“I don’t think he’s anywhere near the end,” his trainer, Freddie Roach, said. “I think he has three or four more good fights left in him.”

Roach had famously urged Pacquiao to retire after a controversial 2017 loss to Jeff Horn in Australia. Pacquiao is famously kind-hearted and thick-skinned, but Roach’s words irritated him. When he returned to the ring a year later, Roach wasn’t in his corner for the first time since they’d met in early 2001. The last fight Pacquiao had fought without Roach in his corner before the 2018 match in Malaysia against Lucas Matthysse was a super bantamweight bout against Foijan Prawet in Kidapawan City, Philippines.

The world had not yet heard of Manny Pacquiao.

On vacation after that fight, he stopped at Roach’s gym and asked to train, and the two hit it off like best friends. They were together for 34 fights, which included 27 wins, two draws and world titles at 122, 130, 135, 147 and 154. He also became the lineal title holder at 126, 130, 140 and 147 while working with Roach.

Pacquiao shunned Roach — they didn’t speak for nearly 17 months after the Horn loss and until before the Adrien Broner fight earlier this year — and hired his long-time friend, Buboy Fernandez, to train him for Matthysse.

Entering that bout, Pacquiao hadn’t scored a knockout in 13 fights over a span of nine years. The first time Roach was out of his corner, Pacquiao finished Matthysse in seven.

Though he insists even now that he was never angry at Roach and just wanted to give Fernandez a shot, Roach laughs.

“He sent a message,” Roach said, chuckling heartily.

The message to Roach and well beyond was a simple one, which he’s repeated almost daily since defeating Matthysse: Age is just a number and at 40 years, seven months and four days old on fight night, he still has plenty left to give the fight game.

Trying to explain his point, he asks a sports-related question of his own.

“If you were a coach of [an NFL] team and you had to win one game, who would you want to be the quarterback?” he says, grinning.

He doesn’t wait for the answer. He knows you’re going to say Tom Brady, who is a year and four months older than Pacquiao.

“Why is Tom Brady still winning [the Super Bowl] if he’s so old?” Pacquiao asks with arched eyebrows.

It’s a checkmate.

Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman are scheduled to fight in a welterweight world championship boxing bout on Saturday, July 20, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman are scheduled to fight in a welterweight world championship boxing bout on Saturday, July 20, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

The bout against Thurman will be his 71st, and of those, 24 will have been for either the full IBF, WBA, WBC and/or WBO belts. That doesn’t include bouts like his 2003 match with Marco Antonio Barrera that was for the lineal championship, or his match with Cotto which was for the concocted WBC Diamond welterweight belt.

More than a third of his fights have been for a widely recognized world championship, and he’s not done yet.

A win over Thurman could push him into a unification bout later this year against the great Errol Spence, should things play out the right way. It would be yet another mega-event in a career filled with them.

“When you work hard in the gym, you can do what you want to do in the ring,” Pacquiao said. “It makes it easy and that’s our goal here in camp.”

It’s a lot more than just hard work. Genetics have plenty to do with it, as well. When De La Hoya lost to Pacquiao, he was only 18 months from a very competitive performance in a loss to Mayweather and a one-sided win over ex-world champion Stevie Forbes seven months earlier.

The Golden Boy had turned 36 a few weeks before he fought Pacquiao, but he looked like 56 when the bell sounded. His legs had left him, and he was a sitting duck for a peak Pacquiao.

Pacquiao has shown few signs of obvious decline, and he’s even talking about a knockout. He rarely predicts knockouts, usually because he doesn’t want to demean his opponent.

Thurman’s pre-fight banter has captured his attention, though, and Roach said has brought out the mean side of the Filipino senator.

“Whenever I hear something Thurman has said, I say, ‘Keep it up. Keep talking,’” Roach said.

Pacquiao is punching harder and moving with more of a purpose than he has in a while. He has a point to prove and he’s pushing himself to be in the best possible shape.

“It’s going to be another page of my story on Saturday,” he said. “There’s a big chance that this fight is not going the distance. I’ll be prepared, but I’m thinking it’s not going 12 rounds.

“I always try to push myself and punish myself in training. That’s the key to my career. It leads to everything I can do. My speed, power and footwork all come together from my hard work.”

He’s not the same guy he was in that five-bout stretch from 2008 through 2010, but he’s not all that far off.

Of everything in his remarkable career, that might be the most mind-blowing of all.

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