One of the best ever, Manny Pacquiao, retired this week. He ends his 26-year career with a record of 62-8-2. The TQBR gang examines him and his legacy.
What was the first time you saw Manny Pacquiao fight, and what was your impression of him?
Tim Starks: It was the Lehlo Ledwaba fight he took on two weeks’ notice in 2001, when the entire HBO broadcast team couldn’t pronounce his name correctly. My very first impression of him was that his hair was extremely stupid. He had those blonde highlights and wore a cheesy necklace with a look that screamed “sleazy hippie frat bro.” But I quickly came to love him when the fight began. He was bursting with pure energy. He felt more like an element, or some kind of surging force, than a boxer. The way he bounced and even ran at his opponent relentlessly, throwing punches from every angle, was compelling shit. I was at a nascent stage of becoming a big fan of boxing, and hadn’t at that point seen any fighter that size (122 lbs.!) hit that hard. And as a southpaw, I had a natural affinity for him being a lefty, too.
Brent Hedtke: Mine was the Ledwaba fight as well. I remember him coming out to “Eye of the Tiger” which, let’s be honest, should add two losses to your record before you even hit the ring. With his strip mall dye-job and unpronounceable name he had all the makings of your typical b-side opponent. And then the bell rang. This was back when Pacquaio was just a left hand and set of calves but even then it appeared as if he was floating. He would hover in and out like Orko from He-Man and drop hooks and uppercuts from angles those punches simply shouldn’t land from. It was punk rock boxing with some craftsmanship sprinkled in. I’d never seen anything like it and, frankly, I never have since.
Jason Langendorf: Truth? I can’t remember — although that says less about any first impression from Pacquiao and more about the ensuing years being unkind to my brain. Was it the Ledwaba fight? Did I tune into the Marco Antonio Barrera stoppage? Doesn’t matter. Somewhere along the way, Pacquiao was absorbed into the lineage of iconic attractions who feel like they’ve sort of always been there, giving the sport its shape and historic heft. One day his bouncing haircut and whirling dervish footwork and wind-sucking left hands weren’t there, and the next they simply were. Today, it’s hard to remember a time before Pacquaio made little fighters famous and brought crocodile tears to the eyes of certain HBO announcers.
Matthew Swain: The first time I saw Pacquiao was against Marco Antonio Barrera in 2003. I was almost sure at that moment that the first round “knockdown” was actually a KD and not a trip, and that Barrera was going to give him a painful boxing lesson. And that sort of didn’t happen. I didn’t think anyone could do that to Barrera. I wouldn’t say I became a fan, but the speed and power, and joy especially, were something new. The flame “No Fear” trunks and bowl cut really added to the total lack of self-consciousness. Like one of those agility trials labradors that’s just super fucking excited to be there.
What is your favorite Pacquiao fight, KO, era and memory?
Starks: I don’t think I could pick just one of his fights with Juan Manuel Marquez so I’ll just say, that whole series. It was about as perfect a style match-up as ever has existed in the boxing ring, between the tidal wave of offense Pacquiao represented and the counterpunching intelligence of Marquez. They were always sensational from start to finish, and you could see how each of them made each other grow from the last time they’d fought. They were a boxing version of the yin yang symbol incarnate.
As far as KO, yeah, it’s the Ricky Hatton one. It feels obvious, but c’mon.
The era one is a little harder to answer. It almost feels like his era began in 2003 and was uninterrupted until late 2012, but you can subdivide it further. The fighter who emerged from the second Erik Morales fight in 2006 was, at last, a complete fighter, someone who fought with both hands and a better mixture of offense and defense, so I’d pick 2006-2012.
Memory … the Marquez fights and Hatton knockout share headspace. On a more personal level, this website was just coming of age as Pacquiao was rising in popularity. I had a love-hate relationship with his maniacal fans, who would do things like (not making this up) call me a “baby-killer” for not thinking Pacquiao was the best thing that ever happened, basically. But their enthusiasm was a source of joy, sometimes. So the Pacquiao phenomenon at that time would maybe be my favorite personal memory.
Hedtke: The Miguel Cotto fight stands out to me, not because it was a particularly great fight — it was fine — but simply because of how dominant Pacquiao was. That night in November of 2009 was arguably the peak of Pacquiao’s career, at least from a talent standpoint, and the first third of that fight is as dominant as you’ll ever see one top tier fighter perform over another. It was a truly sublime display from Pacquiao and one that I’ve gone back to and revisited more than most. No one on earth could’ve beaten him that night.
In a career highlight reel that rivals the director’s cut of “The Irishman” in length, the Hatton KO stands out. Swift, precise and utterly devastating. It’s as aesthetically pleasing as knockouts get and to have it happen at that level just cements its place in history.
The 11 fight run that Pacquiao went on from November of 2006 to May of 2011 is truly shocking, and has become even more so over time. In that span of a half-decade Pacquaio fought six future Hall of Famers and went undefeated, recording six stoppages in the process. It’s an unprecedented run of competition, one of which we’ll never see the likes of again.
When Pacquiao fought Barrera for the first time in 2003, I was living with some friends who didn’t know much or give a shit about boxing. I forced them to watch the fight and as the rounds ticked by with Pacquiao laying waste to the Mexican legend, I repeatedly — and extremely drunkenly — informed them that they were witnessing history, the beginning of an era. My mood vacillated back and forth between excitement and rage that they weren’t basking in this life-altering moment with me. It’s just nice to look back and know that I was right about at least one god damn thing in my life.
Langendorf: The Antonio Margarito beatdown was my favorite Pacquiao fight. My sense of fairness and vengeance are maybe a tad intemperate — look, I’m working on it — but Tony got what was coming to him after L’Affaire Cotto. Stoppage: The blind left hook Manny pulled from his hip pocket to crumple Hatton. I don’t know that I have a preferred Pacquiao Era, but I’m a sucker for the aging-athlete-confronting-his-mortality trope, so give me the Manny who fought Jeff Horn and everything after. For the same reason, my favorite memory of Pacquiao was his decision over the undefeated and decade-younger Keith Thurman. It’ll slip through the cracks on his career highlight reel, but it was a fitting denouement for a fighter who just seemed to never … fucking … stop.
Swain: I’ll mirror Brent and say that the Cotto fight was about as perfect as any offensive fighter has ever looked. The first couple of rounds were competitive despite the knockdowns and then Manny turned on the jets and blew Miguel out of the water. Every single part of his arsenal was working. There’s a reason Floyd waited until 2015 to make the fight.
My favorite Manny stoppage is best summed up by Jim Lampley shrieking “Manny Pacquiao is rearranging Oscar De La Hoya’s beautiful face.” I had hated Oscar since the 90s, and even though I still had hard feelings towards Manny because I’m an incorrigible Marquez acolyte, the absolutely brutal trip to the woodshed he gave Oscar made me irrationally happy. Manny smiling while he progressively turned Oscar into a bewildered lump of humiliation and regret made it even better.
From the first Barrera fight until the second Marquez fight (’03-’08) is my favorite part of Manny’s career. Not just because of the opponents, and the competitiveness, but because boxing was such a huge part of my life back then. I had had some amateur fights, I trained constantly, and boxing was the thing that kept me more or less centered. I couldn’t afford HBO, but I had it anyway because I couldn’t stand to miss any of those fighters. Pacquiao wasn’t fully himself yet, so seeing him evolve as I really learned the sport was pretty fucking special. I’ve seen the Morales and Barrera fights at least a half dozen times each, and watch the first two Marquez fights annually.
My favorite memory of Pacquiao is and will always be Dec. 8, 2012. Marquez turning him into a puddle of yogurt is the happiest moment of my boxing fandom. I ran around the yard yelling, called my brother and woke him up, and couldn’t go to sleep until well after sunrise. Marquez is hands down my favorite fighter of this century, and the fact that it took him 42 rounds to land that punch is absolutely fucking insane.
When was the first time you thought he was done at the top?
Starks: Honestly it didn’t seem likely he’d ever be the same fighter after the 2012 Marquez knockout. And y’know, I suspect he wasn’t. But he didn’t drop off in the way I feared he might. If you had told me in 2012 that Pacquiao wouldn’t retire until 2021 and would beat a top-ranked welterweight in 2019, I definitely wouldn’t have believed you. He didn’t fight in an “easy” style that was built to last, as he was far more focused on hitting than not getting hit.
Hedtke: The night of the first Tim Bradley fight is when it felt like the bottom had begun to fall out. That night I had done a bunch of mushrooms and forgotten all about the fight. Just as I was speaking a friend of mine called and said she was outside of my building to pick me up. This came as a surprise to me since, in the state I was in, I had assumed the outside world no longer existed. I went outside and got into a waiting limo where I immediately proceeded to break my strict personal rule about combining alcohol and hallucinogens. I ended up in a hotel room in downtown Minneapolis where I continued to break the shit out of the aforementioned rule when just after midnight (Earth time) I got one of those old ESPN text alerts informing me that Pacquaio had lost to Bradley. Somehow this instantly sobered me up. It was like the spinning top in “Inception” and it had tipped completely over. I was back in reality and suddenly very sad. I took a cab home and read some recaps of the fight. Bradley wasn’t yet Tim FUCKING Bradley and it didn’t seem like the type of fight Pacquaio should lose, even with bunk scorecards. Felt like the end was near.
Langendorf: Four years ago, after the Jeff Horn fight. If Pacquiao didn’t quite appear shot, he came off as utterly disinterested — which is almost worse. Maybe it was the travel to Horn’s neck of the woods (Brisbane, Australia) or the nagging calf injury (those stems require constant maintenance!), but in the summer of 2017 Manny seemed to already have one foot in retirement. Amazing that the former junior flyweight, with almost 70 professional bouts behind him, had another micro-run in him at welterweight in his late 30s.
Swain: I’ll go slightly off-grid and say the Chris Algieri fight. Cage or no, Manny should’ve put that avocado eating basement dweller to sleep, and he just didn’t seem to have any interest in doing it. For a few years I picked against him for that reason, but I finally came to the conclusion that even a part-time Manny was still better than pretty much everyone else.
Where do you rank him all time in terms of greatness, and why?
Starks: He’s clearly in the top 20, for me. The top 10 or so in my book would be hard to crack, and I haven’t made a full list in my head or anywhere else in a few years, but I suspect he’s closer to 10 than 20. There’s always going to be a tension between his career and that of Floyd Mayweather’s, whom I also put in the top 20. Pacquiao has the longer, deeper and more impressive resume, but Mayweather has the best single win of them all — over Pacquiao, admittedly after Pacquiao was in his post-2012 decline. On the balance, I favor Pacquiao’s resume, even if I lean toward picking Mayweather were they have to fought closer to their primes (for one, he was the naturally bigger fighter, but he also showed more adaptability mid-fight than Pacquiao ever did). Pacquiao beat so many pound-for-pound great fighters, and he did it over a career that stretched through 12 divisions. He’s the record-holder for most lineal championships, five, and doesn’t just benefit there from weight class expansion, as his run stretches across five of the original classes. He’s the best left-handed fighter ever, and the greatest Asian fighter ever, and I’ll say the best to lace them up since Sugar Ray Leonard hung them up . At that pace, I might not see a fighter of Pacquiao’s caliber again in my lifetime.
Hedtke: Comparing fighters from multiple eras is so difficult simply due to the activity levels of old school guys. They would cram what modern fighters would call an entire career into a single October. That said, Pacquaio was considerably active for a modern fighter and has somewhat comparable numbers to the all time greats. Context and all that bullshit aside, I would say he’s definitely top 25, possibly 20. He’s a guy that could have competed in any era with his style and held his own. Rarely do you see his level of skill AND entertainment, though. Some of the best fighters of all time were an absolute chore to watch. Not Pacquaio. He combined passion, creativity, brutality and excitement in a way we honestly may never see again. He was a once in a lifetime fighter and I’m incredibly thankful I got to see him.
Langendorf: I think Tim summed it up best, so I’ll give you back another 30 seconds of your day and just say this: No matter where you rank him, Pacquiao is that rarest of boxers — those who made the impossible possible. Ali beat the unbeatable Liston. Foreman stopped Father Time. Pacquiao was boxing’s Alexander the Great, conquering unthinkable swaths of land across the sport and building a legend far, far grander than some fucking zero in a column of his career record.
Swain: It’s only fair to compare fighters against their own generation, but Pacquiao won a flyweight strap off Chatchai Sasakul (31-1-1) in 1998, and a welterweight strap from Keith Thurman (29-0) in 2019. That gap is 35 pounds apart and old enough to drink. Very few fighters in any era have done anything comparable. Greatness isn’t just about who would win if they fought, it’s about what they actually did, and no one in his generation did more than Pacquiao.
(Photo: Las Vegas, Nevada; Manny Pacquiao waves to fans after losing in a world welterweight championship bout in a decision to Yordenis Ugas at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)