There is a certain reverence that we pay to the greats. It often lasts far beyond their usefulness. It ignores or exaggerates their faults and their inevitable decline because we need to believe in greatness for our own sake. People who are otherwise ordinary will have their every action and opinion somehow treated as important because they have excelled in one thing. Icons are subjected to hagiography and hatchet jobs while they are still alive. Where some can only see what existed at its zenith, others take the inevitable toll of time as proof that they were never much to begin with. Seldom do we have the compassion to treat them as the people they are in that moment.
At 39 years old, Manny Pacquiao (59-7-2, 38 KO) is a full time senator in the Philippines, and a part time fighter. And after an incomprehensibly long run as one of the very best fighters in the sport, he has become an ordinary welterweight. The fighter who lost an atrocious decision to Jeff Horn last year is pretty good, but nothing special. The fighter who enters the ring Saturday night (Sunday morning local) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia against Lucas Matthysse may be more faded still. As evidence of Pacquiao’s physical and financial decline, the bout is under his own promotional banner instead of Top Rank’s, and it’s being aired on the ESPN+ app. A far cry for a man who headlined the largest grossing fight in boxing history just three years ago. And to add insult to injury, Pacquiao’s star has dimmed enough that there has been a noted dearth of think pieces about his “problematic” political views and cozy relationship with batshit crazy Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte in the build up.
This week there has been no shortage of video compilations showing Pacquiao as he was: a grinning human pinball, if that pinball had been filled with high explosives. He was chaos personified, a speed demon of questionable balance that could hit you with either hand so fast that the opponent had no clue where he’d be next, and occasionally it appeared Pacquiao himself was unsure but thrilled to be on the ride.
He’s gone now. Where once was a smiling gunslinger now resides a tired body, playing the hands that have been dealt and hoping for a good run of luck to swell his pockets, trying to be something he knows he can’t, because his gift is gone and he has no others. What he has left is grit and his name. How much use they are in the ring remains to be seen.
Lucas Matthysse (39-4, 36 KO) never became quite what we hoped he would be. Despite a long run at the top of the junior welterweight division, the Argentine was always limited. His power is undeniable, but it is more of the sledgehammer than explosive variety. Throughout his career, he has battered anyone who was not world class, and engaged in some absurd slugfests. However, he has fallen short against the very best opponents he’s faced, including debatable split decision losses to Zab Judah and Devon Alexander, a hotly contested unanimous decision loss to Danny Garcia, and being stopped by Viktor Postol. Of those, only the Postol loss is recent, but it is the most telling. Matthysse’s kryptonite has always been speed and length, which Postol had plenty of, but in that fight, by the later rounds, Matthysse simply looked like he didn’t want to be in the ring anymore. It may have been a hangover from his barbaric war with Ruslan Provodnikov six months earlier, it may have been age, it may have been frustration at eating long-range counterpunches all night, or it may have been all of the above. Whatever the cause, when the moment came, Matthysse decided he’d had enough.
Following his loss to Postol, Matthysse did not fight again for a year and a half. His two bouts since returning have been at welterweight, beating up and then stopping journeyman Emmanuel Taylor and largely unknown Thai Tewa Kiram for the secondary strap of a secondary alphabet organization. It’s the belt he acquired from Kiram that has earned him this payday against Pacquiao.
For many years, this fight would’ve been a mismatch. Matthysse’s power was never enough to overcome his speed and technical deficiencies against a Pacquiao who was anywhere near peak. But Pacquiao isn’t anywhere near peak. Not even in the same region. The question is whether he is so much more faded than Matthysse that they find themselves on equal terms, and I think that is exactly what has happened.
Pacquiao did not retain trainer Freddie Roach for this fight, opting instead to work with long time foot warmer and friend Buboy Fernandez, who is not actually a trainer. It has been a bit of a running joke, and if you’ve watched the videos emanating from their camp, it’s easy to see why. There seems to be no coherent strategy, and Pacquiao has looked slow and flat-footed. Where once he would explode forward with a ballistic 1-2 before spinning to his right and ejecting himself out of range, there are steps and turns. The distances he could erase and create with his speed have halved, and the time necessary to do it has doubled. So too has the shock of his power. He’s not catching anyone off guard anymore, and he’s not too hard to hit. Matthysse is still largely himself. He’s older and slower, but he’s never relied on speed, and he can still punch.
Expect a now fully human Pacquiao to fight much as he did against Horn, circling and firing one punch at a time, with combinations thrown in for seasoning, especially if Matthysse takes a backward step. Matthysse will plod forward behind his jab, looking to land something hurtful, and turn up the heat when Pacquiao backs to the ropes. It’s those times Pacquiao allows himself to be backed against the ropes or into a corner that will decide the fight. That is Matthysse’s preferred offensive location, and his power is at its most damaging when he can come forward as he punches. Pacquiao no longer has the legs or speed to use these locations as a trap, so there won’t be ambushes. Instead, they will have to fight toe to toe, which is when things get fun. Manny Pacquiao may be human finally, but he is still all fighter, and these two should produce some brutal exchanges. The winner will be whoever can convince the other man he can’t win.
Prediction: Matthysse by hard fought decision, with at least one ridiculous card.
(KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYASIA— Manny Pacquiao (l) poses with Lucas Matthysse during a press conference for their fight at Axiata Arena on July 15; Photo by Yam G-Jun/AP)