Retirements rarely stick in boxing. Independence is an intrinsic aspect of a boxer’s craft, and little other than medical approval technically stands in a fighter’s way of publicly displaying his unwavering self-belief.
Even greats like Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali fought past their best, and Oscar De La Hoya and Roy Jones Jr. provide further evidence that once the physical attributes that lead to greatness erode, they cannot be reclaimed.
Generally, elite boxers show signs of decline when they simply lose their ability to pull the trigger. But this loss of athleticism and reflexes often takes on a more dangerous meaning when a fighter is no longer able to properly defend himself.
Great fighters, unfortunately, are permitted to linger at the sport’s elite level well past their primes.
This has to do with reverence and respect, but it crosses into the realm of irresponsibility when a former champion starts to absorb frightening punishment or gets violently knocked out because their skills are no longer on par with their level of opposition.
So, given the way Manny Pacquiao was knocked out cold by Juan Manuel Marquez last December, is it fair to say that he’s definitively on the decline? Or even go so far to suggest that Pacquiao (54-5-2, 38 KO) can no longer compete at boxing’s elite level?
There are some stark realities to consider when it comes to Pacquiao’s potential decline.
He is 34 years old and has contested 61 career bouts. This adds up to 371 rounds boxed, and one must also note that Pacquiao, who turned professional in 1995 at 16, has been punching for pay for over half his life, per Boxrec.com.
Pacquiao has also contested multiple memorable wars against the likes of Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera and the aforementioned Marquez. It is entirely likely that the cumulative effect of these (and other) slugfests has finally caught up with Pacquiao. It is possible for a boxer—or any athlete—to age overnight, even if the notion is bandied around to the point of almost becoming meaningless.
After losing to Morales in 2005, Pacquiao went on an incredible 15-fight winning streak that included resounding victories over some of the sport’s top fighters, all of which helped propel Pacquiao to international stardom. In beating naturally bigger fighters like Miguel Cotto, De La Hoya and Antonio Margarito, Pacquiao slotted himself next to Floyd Mayweather as the sport’s best fighter.
For eons, a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight seemed to be the only relevant topic in boxing circles.
While this fight never materialized due to petty demands and insurmountable impasses, evidence of Pacquiao’s decline became evident in his controversial win over Marquez in their third encounter.
Now, Marquez is a master counterpuncher who seems to be Pacquiao’s kryptonite. And yet, it was shocking to see Pacquiao’s dominance stalled so dramatically as he ate right hand after right hand, consistently befuddled by Marquez’s subtle movement and precision.
Even if Pacquiao was robbed in his subsequent fight against Timothy Bradley, his performance wasn’t inspiring, especially given that Bradley busted his ankle and was unable to move with his characteristic agility.
Had Pacquiao defeated Marquez in their tetralogy bout, the possibility of a Mayweather fight would have remained on life support. But one Marquez right hand—a punch that travelled only a couple of inches—effectively destroyed both Pacquiao and the possibility of the century’s biggest fight.
To some, Pacquiao getting iced rendered him irrelevant as a pound-for-pound-caliber fighter, while others argued that Pacquiao was simply caught with a perfect punch, which can happen to any boxer. Emboldened by his success in Rounds 5 and 6 against Marquez—which included a clean knockdown—Pacquiao, it could be argued, simply lost focus.
Of course, Marquez deserves full marks for landing the fight-ending blow, and there’s also the reality that Marquez scored a knockdown with a booming overhand right in Round 3.
In fact, Marquez won his fair share of the fight’s brutal exchanges, which was a stark reminder of how Pacquiao, unlike Mayweather, is there to be hit.
The aftereffects of Pacquiao’s concussive loss to Marquez are still unclear.
Pacquiao’s relentless style isn’t necessarily conducive to sustained success into his late 30s, and the reality of a recent knockout loss could suggest weakened punch resistance. At this juncture, given the way Mayweather looked against Robert Guerrero, the hypothetical Mayweather-Pacquiao matchup, to put it mildly, is no longer even close to a tossup (if it ever was).
Pacquiao’s next fight against Brandon Rios will reveal a lot about his alleged decline. Rios’ bullish, straightforward style is ideal for Pacquiao, who should be able to use lateral movement and combination punching to pile up points. Rios is powerful and possesses a granite chin, but his speed is average, and he can be hit.
Rios will test Pacquiao’s movement, ability to handle pressure and whether he can survive toe-to-toe exchanges. In a sense, Pacquiao has the ideal platform to silence his detractors.
Floyd Mayweather’s decision to fight Saul Alvarez is almost a kick to a prone Pacquiao’s gut. Pacquiao has a one-fight audition to prove skeptics wrong, and the fact that he is auditioning for the kind of legitimacy that was once synonymous with his name says a lot.