The New York Times
LAS VEGAS — When Manny Pacquiao climbs inside the ring Saturday to face his longtime nemesis Juan Manuel Marquez for the fourth time, his every movement will be scrutinized, analyzed, picked apart for signs of decline. His legs. His reflexes. His willingness to attack.
Even those closest to Pacquiao admit he is not the same fighter who rearranged Miguel Cotto’s face at the same MGM Grand three years ago. He is more consumed with politics, less aggressive, less menacing, still highly skilled but also different. This is relative, of course.
Pacquiao is also indicative of the state of modern boxing, of an era far closer to the end than to the beginning. He will turn 34 this month. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is 35; Sergio Martinez is 37. Ricky Hatton recently retired again. Erik Morales should. Cotto could.
Collectively, they provide a window into boxing’s aging process, among the saddest and most pronounced in sports. Rare is the boxer who ages gracefully, who retires with brain, soul and body parts intact. Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s trainer, knows this as well as anyone.
“Show me a fighter,” Roach’s brother Pepper once told him, “and I’ll tell you who beat him.”
Roach spends most days inside his Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, surrounded by walls covered in pictures, misleading, all. The photos show boxers, hands raised in triumph, young and strong and indestructible. They remain that way only in the photographs. Roach sat underneath the pictures last month. He said, “If he doesn’t go out there and do what he’s supposed to do in this fight, we’re one step closer to the Talk.”
He added: “We’re at a crossroads. That’s why in this fight we need a knockout badly. Not because it’s Pacquiao-Marquez 4. We need to prove that we can do it.”
See, every boxer has that moment, the moment that he knows. For some, it comes in training. For others, from a punch, a round, a particular fight.
For Roach, that moment happened in his final bout, against David Rivello. Roach’s trainer, Eddie Futch, urged him to retire years earlier. Yet he hung on. He knew in the second round. He was not trying to win. He was trying to survive. He was debating which party to attend afterward.
Then he heard an unfamiliar sound, one that embarrassed him, one that shook Roach to his core. “You’re in there,” Roach said. “You’re thinking about something else. You’re not trying. Then they boo you for the first time in your life. It’s the worst feeling in the world. I never wanted to risk having to go through that again.”
As if on cue, while Roach spoke, an older gentleman approached. He said he was 89. He goes to Wild Card every Friday, a tradition he plans to continue until at least age 90. Boxing, in the blood.
The legs go first. Roach can see it, the unsteady steps, the way “they’re feeling for the floor but they’re not sure it’s there.” Sometimes, that shows up in conditioning; sometimes, in a fight.
The reflexes go next. A boxer can survive when the legs begin to slow, Roy Jones Jr. said, but not when the sharpness starts to erode.
The drive goes, too, somewhere along the line, often because of those two factors, combined with the tedium of too many early-morning workouts, or too many blows to the head. Boxers know this before anyone; they can sense what others cannot yet see.
“It’s a three-punch combination,” Bernard Hopkins said. “It’s a three-stage demise. Then comes the denial. And it happens to every fighter. Every fighter who ever lived.”
To the uninitiated, Hopkins said, it appears that age crept up on fighters, like “some sort of boogeyman.” That is not the truth. They all know. Hopkins saw it when Sugar Ray Leonard fought Terry Norris in 1991. That one hurt to watch. “It took this fight to show me this is no longer my time,” Leonard said then. He fought again six years later. Lost again.
“That’s boxing,” Hopkins said. “The older guy normally gets beat to a pulp. It becomes senseless. It becomes life and death.”
Roach always hated to tell a fighter to retire, a necessary occupational hazard. He waited a month to tell James Toney, who, Roach said, swore at him. Wayne McCullough, Roach said, did not speak to him for years. That beat the alternative, of course.
As chairman of Top Rank Boxing, Bob Arum watched this dance repeat for decades. He ticked off the names of fighters who stayed too long, the same as listing the name of most every fighter he promoted: Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley and right on down the line.
“They come back for the money, for the fame,” Arum said. “If they have a name, someone will wring the last bit of value from them. Invariably, they retire on a loss.”
Hatton boxed on Showtime in late November. The announcers praised his style, the way he continued to move forward. Then in the ninth round, a left from Vyacheslav Senchenko to the body dropped Hatton.
“I don’t want to make any hasty decisions,” he said after the fight, as tears welled in his eyes and the interviewer patted him on the back. “But I’m heartbroken. I’m just booted. I can’t.”
For Jones, the moment happened when he beat Antonio Tarver in 2003, although he did not realize it until years later. That is when he went to give an inspirational speech to business executives. As he talked about the importance of setting goals, it clicked. “When was the last time I ever set a goal in boxing?” Jones wondered.
Jones had fought 14 times since that first Tarver bout. He lost seven of those fights.
“Every boxer needs a purpose,” he said.
Among the pictures on the walls of Wild Card is one of Pacquiao in the immediate aftermath of his Cotto fight. Cotto’s blood streamed down his shoulder and covered his torso. In the background, the referee held both arms around Cotto, his face mangled and swollen, his trunks stained red. Pacquiao had both fists raised in victory, but his face was twisted into a grimace. As if it hurt to hurt someone else that badly.
There have been many Pacquiao incarnations since. He turned away from gambling and drinking and extramarital affairs, turned toward God and family and a political career. He said he became a more scientific fighter. He broke an orbital bone in Antonio Margarito’s face, but even in that fight, he backed off when a knockout loomed, same as against Mosley, same as in his last bout, against Timothy Bradley. Pacquiao lost that fight in a curious decision on the scorecards. Arum believed Pacquiao won, but said the way he let up late was “inexcusable.”
Asked if he preferred the aggressive style that once defined his rise to fighter of the decade, Pacquiao said: “It’s more fun for the fans. But it’s not easy for me, to always be on the attack.”
Pacquiao said he would continue to fight through next year, but those around him are not so sure. They see more politicians, less riffraff in the entourage, and the late-night Bible study sessions that conflict with his necessary rest. As this fight approached, Roach said Pacquiao looked as good as ever, fast and strong and ready. But he said that last time, too.
Asked if someone as reformed as Pacquiao could simply turn the aggression back on, could regain the so-called killer instinct, Roach said: “I’m not going to answer that. I’ll get in trouble.”
On the flip side, boxers do have longer careers now. They spar less and fight less, for fewer rounds. The inclined can eat better, can train better and, as a recent rash of positive tests shows, have greater access to the latest performance-enhancing drugs.
Hopkins is still fighting at 47. His secret, beyond an obsession with diet and training, is a tennis ball. Years ago, Hopkins visited a boxer named Harold Johnson in a nursing home, and everywhere Hopkins looked, residents used tennis balls to improve hand-eye coordination. He has carried one with him ever since, learned to juggle it while he walked forward and backward and jogged in place.
Pacquiao, too, can continue to reinvent himself, same as Hopkins did late in his career. Pacquiao could change the narrative with one punch here, in a fight that Arum, who turns 81 on Saturday, said “he wasn’t anxious to take.”
Pacquiao is running unopposed for another term in Congress in the Philippines. By the end of that term, he will be eligible to run for Senate. By 2022, Arum said, Pacquiao can become president of the Philippines. But first, another fight against Marquez, another year or three in boxing, the Talk shelved, for now, but always in the background.
“It’s getting closer,” Roach said. “If he doesn’t perform in this fight, we might have to. It might be over. He might knock him out. We won’t know until the fight’s on.”
Pacquiao, though, will know, same as every boxer who came before. He will know when the end is near. He will know in training, or in sparring, or inside the ring against Marquez.
That truth is as cruel and stark and inevitable as anything in boxing. Every fighter has that moment.