On Saturday night, Manny Pacquiao will return to action in Las Vegas, against Jessie Vargas. A little more than a month after the fight takes place, Pacquiao will turn 38. For a statesman, the Filipino Senator is still a relatively young man. But as prizefighters go, he is elderly.
Against Timothy Bradley last April, Pacquiao proved that he is still a top pound-for-pound talent. But it is unrealistic to believe that he is still the same fighter who electrified boxing fans during the previous decade.
In 2006, Pacquiao avenged a previous loss to Erik Morales by knocking him out twice. He battered Marco Antonio Barrera en route to a unanimous decision in 2007. He edged long-time rival Juan Manuel Marquez by split decision in 2008, in an all-time classic. Later that year, he savaged Oscar De La Hoya, forcing the future Hall of Famer to quit on his stool following Round 8.
In 2009, Pacquiao stopped Ricky Hatton in Round 2, in one of this century’s most iconic one-punch knockouts. He hammered Miguel Cotto in November of that year, stopping him in Round 12. He was the Fighter of the Decade and, temporarily, the pound-for-pound king.
Even more notable has been his decline in popularity. During the long years of “Will they/Won’t they?” surrounding a potential fight with Floyd Mayweather, Pacquiao was consistently cast as the good guy by the media. He was the cheerful, humble, salt-of-the-earth hero, in contrast to Mayweather’s arrogant, bling-bling villain.
But when the fight finally happened, the casual fans drawn to Pacquiao’s charisma discovered what most serious fans already knew–Mayweather’s length and talent made him a nearly impossible match up for Pacquiao. The fight was one-sided. Worse, it was boring.
Pacquiao’s inability to deliver what so many had naively expected of him had led to a decline in his once booming popularity. His assertion that he thought he won the fight has cast him as a ridiculous poor sport. Much of the boxing public (including myself) are frankly skeptical that his shoulder injury was truly significant. If you believe the shoulder injury was truly a factor, than you have to accept that Pacquiao kept it hidden and accepted tens of millions of dollars for fighting when he was not physically prepared to perform.
More recently, Pacquiao’s bigoted comments about homosexuals have lost him even more American fans. Pacquiao was long the darling of Hollywood casuals. But comparing happily married gay people to animals cannot have played well with that crowd.
If Pacquiao was heading into a truly meaningful fight, there would still be great interest for this fight among the diehards. But Vargas is not a meaningful fight. He is a guy who was thoroughly out-boxed by Bradley, who Pacquiao thoroughly out-boxed just last April.
So what we are left with is a strange circumstances. One of the biggest names in boxing is about to fight. But almost nobody cares.