Manny Pacquiao returned to form last weekend with a sensational one-sided thumping of former lightweight title-holder Brandon Rios in Macau, China.
Pacquiao won virtually every minute of every round in the welterweight bout, using vintage Pac-Man tactics such as intricate angles, superstar speed and unorthodox punching patterns, to look better than he has in years.
But this was not the Pacquiao of 2008-2010, the one who ran roughshod over naturally larger future Hall of Famers in shockingly easy fashion. That Pacquiao defeated men such as Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto using an absurd combination of speed and power that is usually both rare in appearance and fleeting in duration.
But Pacquiao, 34, is no longer at his peak as a fighter. Those days have passed and will likely never return.
The Ring’s Doug Fischer shared similar sentiments after the bout:
Yes, Pacquiao still has it, enough to outbox, outwork, outmaneuver and generally outclass Rios over 12 one-sided rounds. Yes, he can still take a shot...is far from shot. He’s still world class. ... However, he’s not the mini-monster who won 15 consecutive bouts against many of the sport’s top fighters from 2005 to 2011 while climbing from junior lightweight to welterweight.
One could argue Pacquiao’s decline first revealed itself in full during his 12-round whitewash of Shane Mosley back in 2011. Sure, Pacquiao dominated the fight, but after knocking down Mosley in Round 3, Pacquiao’s punches seemed to lose steam.
He just couldn’t put Mosley away.
In subsequent bouts, a 2011 controversial win over rival Juan Manuel Marquez in their third encounter and a robbery loss to Timothy Bradley in 2012, Pacquiao also seemed to tire as the fights progressed.
Where he was once a storm of movement and ferocity, Pac-Man seemed now only to fight in limited bursts. His power and speed were still there, but never together and not for three minutes of every round.
To his credit, Pacquiao and trainer Freddie Roach seemed to make changes in their approach against Rios.
By most accounts, it worked.
Boxing Scene’s David P. Greisman noted what Pacquiao did well in the bout that seemed to be missing before:
This was a spotlight show for Pacquiao, whose style and speed rendered Rios powerless. Rios couldn’t turn the tide and wouldn’t be put away. Instead, he took 12 rounds of jabs, crosses, hooks and uppercuts, all of which came in a variety of combinations and from a variety of angles, an unpredictable and blinding barrage.
Speed kills. And Pac-Man has it.
Sure, Pacquiao’s power is not what it once was. The man who battered Miguel Cotto around the ring like a rag doll in 2009 doesn’t quite move men with his punches in the same way now.
But while it seemed Pacquiao had refused to acknowledge this new reality during his previous few bouts, the Pacquiao who soundly whipped Rios this weekend wisely focused on speed and tempo in the bout, and the result was amazing.
He also varied how much power he put behind them. Some punches were meant to blind and distract and score, and to make Rios respect Pacquiao’s speed. Others had more pop. ... The question was how long Pacquiao could maintain this pace. By conserving power, though, he conserved energy. This allowed him a work rate in which he threw 790 punches in total, or an average of 65 per round. And that, in addition to his movement, limited Rios to 502 shots thrown, an average of about 42 per round.
The outcome, notes Greisman, is a Pacquiao who can age more gracefully now, one who uses his best asset in a manner consistent with a fighter approaching life beyond his mid-30s:
It wasn’t the version of Pacquiao who had broken down David Diaz and Oscar De La Hoya in 2008, who had knocked Ricky Hatton out with a single shot and then pummeled Miguel Cotto in 2009. ... And that was fine with Pacquiao and his team, because it also wasn’t the boxer who had been robbed by the judges against Timothy Bradley last year, nor was it the fighter who had been rendered unconscious by Marquez.
But Pacquiao still has work to do. The man who once vied for best fighter on the planet with Floyd Mayweather has slipped mightily in that regard.
While Mayweather’s skills have become vintage wine, improving with time, Pacquiao’s repertoire seems to be still in flux.
And while there are scientific reasons an aging man’s punching power diminishes, there is still something missing from Pacquiao’s toolkit that was in it before.
Pacquiao was always a man who seemed born to do it. He fought with such vigor and tenacity that trading punches didn’t seem like a test or a chore for him at all. Rather, it was as if he were playing music or writing poetry.
Pacquiao was an artist. He loved fighting.
But this was not the case against Rios. Sure, he looked good doing it, but it appeared to be drudgery nonetheless.
If Pacquiao is to continue his transformation into an older, wiser fighter, he must not forget what made him so special in the first place: joy.
Bart Barry of 15Rounds.com said Pacquiao needs to find it again, and he's right:
A sense of joy is what one now misses most during a Pacquiao fight; he is a very good and innovative Filipino southpaw, a Manny Pacquiao imitator still better at the act than those whom promoter Top Rank used to stage during Friday casting calls on Pacquiao weekends, but he shows nary the same enthusiasm or novelty. Today Pacquiao fights like taglines for others’ matches, “Revenge!” or “Something to Prove!” or “This Time It’s Personal!”; gone is the otherworldly quality he shone, the awe he felt others experiencing, the awe he too felt in rare moments of autobiographical reflection.
Maybe that Pacquiao is gone. Maybe he will never love boxing the way he used to. Maybe the focused and determined version of Pacquiao that destroyed Rios is the best he can be now.
It’s still good enough to beat guys like Rios, and probably the likes of Timothy Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez, too.
Pacquiao is that good.
But if that’s the case, it might be better to remember him as he once was: the most intriguing opponent for Mayweather there could ever be.
Barry is right. Pacquiao was otherworldly in the ring. And it wasn’t just because he was so fast, so strong and so fine at this craft.
It wasn’t just because his style was so hard to imitate.
Rather, it was because he had all that, and he seemed a ball of smiling energy while he did it.
Kelsey McCarson is a boxing writer for The Sweet Science and Bleacher Report. Follow him @KelseyMcCarson.