Like many boxing writers, I became a fan of the sport before I started putting pen to paper. My first voluntary exposure to boxing came in 2008 when I decided to read Evander Holyfield’s biography, Becoming Holyfield, after my local newspaper recommended it. I was blown away by The Real Deal’s remarkable achievements as an undersized heavyweight, and from that moment, I was hooked on the sweet science.
Although Holyfield introduced me to the sport, the recently retired Manny Pacquiao ignited my passion. Given that I started to follow boxing just as Manny was entering his peak, I couldn’t have picked a better time to embrace the sport. Unlike the other staff members, the first Manny fight that I remember watching was his bludgeoning of Oscar De La Hoya. I remember being totally in awe of Manny’s speed, accuracy, and power. After Pacman gobbled up Oscar like a power pellet, I knew I had witnessed something special.
From there, Pacquaio continued his dominance by dispatching the likes of Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Joshua Clottey, Antonio Margarito, and Shane Mosley. His fights were always blockbuster events, and I looked forward to each of them with giddy anticipation. And even though I got to watch Manny during the most dominant stretch of his career, I still missed some of his virtuoso performances. I wasn’t yet a fan of the sport during seven of his nine battles with the Mexican triumvirate of Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barerra, and Juan Manuel Marquez. But even though I missed those fights live, they represent one of many reasons I loved Manny and why we will remember him as an all-time great; He consistently sought out the toughest competition. And he didn’t just fight that trio of Mexican legends once apiece; He continued to face them in an attempt to leave no doubt as to who was better. After demonstrating his superiority over Morales and Barrera, he also could have easily continued campaigning in the lighter-weight divisions, and he would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But he wasn’t satisfied with simply being memorable. And that’s what he did by stampeding through divisions from flyweight to junior middleweight in a historic feat that will likely never be replicated.
I looked up to Manny for the same reason I did Holyfield; he was an underdog who overcame the odds stacked against him. He triumphed over dire poverty in the Philippines to become the face of the country who was known to give back to the less fortunate. But as much I revered him as a fighter, I never cared for him as a politician. That’s because he made some abhorrent statements in the past, particularly in reference to same-sex relationships, that have no place in today’s society.
I also don’t think I would have admired Manny as much had he been a defensive-minded tactician. What I loved the most was his terrifying in-ring persona that belied his humble and soft-spoken nature. Whenever he stepped through the ropes, you were guaranteed entertainment because of his all-action style and intent to do damage. At his best, Pacquaio was a whirlwind, tornado, and tsunami all wrapped into one. He was an unabated storm that left undeniable wreckage in his wake, reminiscent of similar dynamos like Aaron Pryor and Henry Armstrong.
Manny’s significance to me extended beyond his skills and accomplishments. In particular, he helped strengthen my bond with my late boxing coach, Ron Di Cecco. We were both massive fans of the Filipino slugger and admired him immensely because of his relentless aggression and offensive arsenal. We loved how he was willing to risk getting hit to land one of his bombs. Whenever I trained at Ron’s gym, we would always find time to have lengthy discussions about Manny’s latest conquest and future opponents. Because of that, I will always associate Manny with my beloved coach, who taught me how to be a better boxer and a better man. Our mutual appreciation for Pacquiao brought us closer together, which I will remember fondly.
Both Ron and I, like most boxing fans, salivated at the potential mega-fight between Pacquiao and Mayweather when it was initially discussed in 2009. But unfortunately it took six years of maddening frustration before it finally got made. And after all that waiting, the fight itself was a colossal disappointment compared to what it could have been had both been in their primes. At that point, I was ready for Manny to retire. I knew his best days were behind him, and I didn’t want to see him get beat up like so many aging legends that don’t know when to hang up their gloves.
It was after the loss to Mayweather that the intensity of my obsession with Pacquiao waned. For the remainder of his career, I paid attention to his fights and caught the result, but I stopped watching them live like when I was younger. The main reason for that is because he wasn’t the same dynamite puncher that he was at his peak, evidenced by the fact that he only recorded one stoppage in his final 17 fights. Like every aging athlete, his explosiveness was diminishing and that was what initially drew me in. He was still an outstanding athlete with plenty of skills left to win fights, but he wasn’t the same storm. For me, he was no longer can’t miss.
However, I did make sure to catch his last appearance, a hard-fought unanimous decision loss to Yordenis Ugas. I knew it might be the last time I could see Manny in the ring, and I wasn’t going to miss my chance to say goodbye to the fighter that played a pivotal role in my journey as a boxing fan. He came into my life at a critical point in my relationship with the sport because had I started following it a few years later, I might not be as fervid a fan as I am today. Pacquaio propelled my passion to new heights, and for that, I will always owe him a debt of gratitude.
Hopefully, Pacquaio bucks the trend and stays retired. If he does that, in three years, his resounding legacy will be secured as a first-ballot Hall of Famer in Canastota.
(Photo by Steve Marcus/Reuters)