To be clear: Manny Pacquiao beat Jeff Horn last night in Brisbane. Horn, a 29-year-old former schoolteacher with seventeen wins under his belt, came out swinging and, to his credit, gave Pacquiao hell in front of 55,000-strong Aussie crowd. Still, Pac beat him. In the days leading up to the fight, sports writers drummed up the Rocky-style aspects of the match-up, the undermatched local boy against the legend, confirming by denial that there was not much to this fight on paper. Manny is nine years Horn’s senior, and four inches shorter, but remained composed and on-point compared to the sometimes wild-swinging Horn, and landed three times as many of his shots. In Round Nine Horn seemed to wilt in front of our eyes as Pac bashed in the right side of his opponent’s face, to the point that referee Mark Nelson nearly stopped the fight between rounds. For all his energy and strong jaw, Horn’s preferred move seemed to be wrapping Pac in a headlock and leading him around the ring until Nelson would break them up. A couple of minor cuts above the hairline left Manny bleeding profusely for most of the fight, perhaps creating the illusion that he and Horn were equally injured. They were not, and for all of Horn’s obvious heart, he lost this fight. There’s no shame in that. Better fighters than he have lost to Manny Pacquiao.
So it was to the shock of just about everyone (including, I imagine, Horn himself) when the judges ruled unanimously that Jeff Horn was the new WBO welterweight champion. You could almost hear Bill Conti’s score swelling up around the sincere, baby-voiced Australian. And as writers and broadcasters and pundits like me sputtered in disbelief and cried theft and incompetency and corruption, the other word not cried, but whispered, was retirement.
To be clear, once again: This is not a call for Pac’s retirement, but an inquiry into why it hasn’t already happened. Or rather, why we won’t let him.
These are the facts: Manny Pacquiao has been a professional boxer for 22 years. That’s a remarkable career; frankly, a career half as long would still be pretty good. He was and still is a ferocious fighter, but has not won a fight by knockout or TKO since 2009 (Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto, respectively). Ever since he got Knocked the Fuck Out by Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012, fans have been waiting for the fight where he gets his groove back, but it has yet to happen. His five victories since Marquez have all been respectable, if not overwhelming, and his two losses (to Floyd Mayweather in 2015 and Jeff Horn last night) were not barnburners for either of his opponents.
And at the same time, he has been a musician, basketball coach, TV star, congressman, and now senator in his native Philippines. And aside from his recent homophobic comments, and support for his strongarm president Rodrigo Duterte, he seems genuinely dedicated to humanitarian causes and, in the parlance of our time, giving back to his community.
So why hasn’t he retired yet? He hasn’t been a knockout artist since 2009, and let’s face it, never will be again. There’s nothing wrong with that. He’s 38 years old. He’s already well into the type of post-fight career that most boxers can only dream of. This loss was controversial, but what about when he steps into the ring with Keith Thurman? Or Terrance Crawford? Or his always-a-bridesmaid Amir Khan? Or the inevitable Horn rematch? The next loss might not be so controversial, and the next one after that, even less so. Is that what we want from our Pacman? What did we ever want from him?
I’ll tell you: We wanted him to fight Floyd Mayweather. One of Mayweather’s canniest moves in a career full of them was to cast himself as the heel of professional boxing. And since every heel needs a face, that was Manny. Did Pac necessarily want his career ever-entwined with Mayweather, to the point that we cast upon their eventual bout nothing less than The Soul of Boxing Itself? I have no idea, but that’s what the market demanded. Pacquiao’s KO by Marquez seemingly put to rest any chance of a May-Pac fight, but after three (again, respectable but not overwhelming) victories from Pacquiao, the fight was on for real. In 2015, a good five years later than it should have happened. And it was a shrug of a fight that nonetheless will define the legacies of both men. Is that fair? Probably not, but that’s what we got. Was last night’s decision fair? Probably not, but that’s what we got. Is it fair to expect Pac to keep fighting, or for him to expect himself to keep fighting, as some sort of penance for May-Pac and/or denial of his own (our own) decline? Definitely not, and I hope that’s not what we get.