If we see any signs of him slipping in training we will address his future
THE sports bar near London Bridge was surprisingly busy for 5am on a Sunday morning. Alcohol had lured some to the sticky-floored establishment, but those sober enough to see focused intently on boxing superhero Manny Pacquiao. On the big screens at the back of the room he was taking on old enemy, Juan Manuel Marquez, for the fourth time.
Thousands of miles away in Las Vegas - deep inside the MGM Grand - the two fighters battled hard, oblivious to the endless screens around the world relaying their every move.
Pacquiao was pressing his advantage and followed his rival into a corner as the sixth round came to a close. Marquez watched carefully as Pacquiao scampered towards him. The veteran stepped back before punishing the intrusion. Frustration from not winning any of their three previous encounters slammed into Manny’s face. The Filipino’s neck took the strain of the punch – a short brutal right – but his legs and mind could not. He collapsed to the canvas, face-first and unconscious.
Ringsiders froze in astonishment. Broadcasters and commentators scrambled for the right words. Pacquiao’s wife screamed in horror. Filipino fans fell silent. But no one could take their eyes off one of the finest sportsmen of the century, motionless and beaten.
Even the drunks in London realised something big had just happened. A ripple of sobriety washed over the bar.
“Jesus,” one reveller gasped from beneath his pint of lukewarm lager. “Is that Pacquiao who’s down?”
It was. He was out. Cold.
For those in Pacquiao’s team, the fall was terrifying.
“I’ve been with Manny for nine years and we’ve formed a tremendous friendship,” said his advisor Michael Koncz. “I was very, very concerned at the time [of the knockout]. It wasn’t the knockdown that concerned me the most, it was his lack of movement. He didn’t move for several moments. It felt like a lifetime and I was very concerned about the safety of his health.”
His trainer, Freddie Roach, watched nervously as the doctors rolled Pacquiao on to his back.
“It was scary the way he went down,” he remembered. “He lay there for a long time and it didn’t look good. I was worried for a while.”
For so long Manny had been his Boy Wonder, chewing through all-comers, winning titles in an astonishing eight weight divisions. After losing his WBC flyweight title to Medgoen Singsurat via knockout in 1999, the future that opened up in front of him would have seemed like the most preposterous of fairy tales. Even as it developed, we rubbed our eyes and shook our heads in disbelief. His rise to the top was that incredible. By the time he knocked out light-welterweight leader Ricky Hatton in 2009, Pac Man had grown into a fearsome piranha-fisted monster. The two-round savaging Pacquaio dished out scarred Hatton for years. That finish was eerily similar to the Filipino’s demise at the hands of Marquez. Like the millions who watched all over the world, Hatton was stunned by the manner of his tormentor’s collapse.
“I was in Hong Kong at the time doing a boxing promotion and I watched it over there,” Hatton explains. “There was no enjoyment watching it whatsoever because it brought back a lot of horrifying memories. It made me think of how my family and friends must have felt seeing me get knocked out like that. All I could see was Pacquiao’s missus trying to get in the ring to see if her husband was okay. It was a bad knockout. It was horrendous. It was just like mine.”
The immediate fears were eased when Pacquiao regained his senses. He accepted the defeat and vowed to return. But his wife didn’t want him to fight again and, weeks after the shattering reverse, stories began to appear that Manny might be suffering from the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. The sensationalist reporting was lambasted by both Koncz and Roach – who battles Parkinson’s himself.
“Physically and mentally everything is fine,” Roach declared about his charge. “We’ve been checked out by many neurologists along the way, from America to the Philippines, and there were no problems whatsoever, not for the foreseeable at least. He’s been knocked out before and he understands there’s a winner and a loser in every fight and if you don’t think you’re going to get knocked out at some point, you’ve picked the wrong sport.”
Koncz confirmed that boxing is still right for Pacquiao.
“He has not thought about walking away. In regard to comments from doctors, how can a doctor make an assessment of Manny without examining him? He underwent some extensive medical exams to make sure that his health was okay. The night of the fight we rushed him to hospital, did an MRI, and then we got back to the Philippines and we did a subsequent CAT scan. I was with him, and observing him, for the next month. But he was immediately playing chess and games where you have to utilise the mind substantially and there were no issues.
"Manny is his own boss. He loves his family, but Manny is going to retire when Manny wants to retire.”
The comeback will take place on November 23 against Brandon Rios. It will have been a year since Marquez turned the lights out. Ricky Hatton was inactive for three-and-a-half years following his loss to Pacquiao. The Mancunian would advise the Filipino to stay away for good. Before the Marquez scrap, Pacquiao lost an exceptionally contentious decision to Timothy Bradley. Ninety per cent of observers had Manny a comfortable winner, but Hatton believes that performance was confirmation of the 34-year-old’s slide.
“I thought he won that fight, but he looked like he’d lost a bit of something,” reckoned Hatton.
“When you’ve had the amount of fights that Manny has had, and going through the weights like he has, it can leave you all at once and that might be what happened with him. Can he come back from that knockout? No. Well, he might do. People have been knocked out like that before and they’ve come back. Just look at Amir Khan; he’s suffered two bad stoppages and come back. But Manny’s got a lot more miles on the clock, and he’s had a lot more fights at the highest level.”
The British legend is not alone in thinking the best of Pacquaio has gone forever. It would be fair to say that Manny has not displayed his characteristic ferocity since 2009. He followed the Hatton demolition with a barnstorming beatdown of Miguel Cotto. Back then, he looked as close to invincible as a human being can.
Slowly, things started to change. He grew tired of beating up a reluctant Joshua Clottey while winning a wide decision. Antonio Margarito was on the brink of being stopped before Pacquiao dropped down a notch and settled for victory on the cards. He went the full route again in May 2011, labouring to victory over a faded Shane Mosley before struggling to an unconvincing points win over Marquez in their third encounter that November. Considering those performances were such a contrast to how he finished the career of Oscar De La Hoya, flattened Hatton, and smashed Cotto, it is not unreasonable to believe Pacquiao is done.
However, his advisor does not think those outings provide such evidence.
“Fighters all go through stages, especially when you’re one of the greater fighters,” Koncz reasoned.
“He was a very aggressive fighter in his early years. I noticed in the De La Hoya fight he had become more technical by analysing what De La Hoya was going to do and countering it before De La Hoya did it. If you watch the replays you’ll see a lot of times Manny anticipated the punch coming his way and he’d be long gone.
“But that didn’t always work. In the third fight with Marquez he tried to be a counterpuncher with a counterpuncher. It was a boring fight. With Bradley he could have been more aggressive and put him away but I think the contributing factor was his switch from catholic to Christianity. He dived right into that, he was doing bible studies every day and that may have tamed the animal instinct that made him the great fighter that he is.”
Roach agrees that Pacquiao’s hectic existence is far from ideal. After all, when the fighter began to morph into the world title machine he became, boxing was his full-time job. Since then, he has not only embraced religion, but embarked on a political career, started a family, and become an international superstar. Even the most gifted among us can only rule one world at a time.
“It’s always hard to get Manny to give 100 per cent to boxing because he spreads himself so thin,” says Roach. “He’s got his life in politics, his wife and kids, he now has bible study, he has as many things going on as anyone possibly could. But when he comes to the gym and starts training for the fight, that’s when he gives 100 per cent. His work ethic is still great, I haven’t seen any signs of him slipping whatsoever, so I don’t expect any at this point, but if there are, we will address it.
“Once I see him in camp, if I see signs of him slowing down I will bring it to his attention and we’ll make a decision. But he’s anxious to get back into camp, he’s hungry for it, he’s been running every day and he’s ready for it. I can’t tell you the future but if this training camp is anything like his last training camp [vs Marquez], which was one of the best training camps of all time, there won’t be a problem.”
It’s true that prior to walking onto the Marquez slug Pacquiao was bossing matters and looking good while doing so. Those calling for Manny to retire might be missing the point. The majority of great boxers proved their worth after high profile defeats. Despite some early career mishaps, Manny is yet to show he can rebound at this level. He is desperate for the chance to prove himself and actively sought a fifth fight with Marquez to set the record straight. Such determination is the mark the mark of a winner. The difficult year he experienced in 2012 might only be a dark chapter, and not the beginning of the end. We could be about to witness something special.
“One of the reasons I believe he will recover from this knockout is because of the amount of extraordinary things that shouldn’t be humanly possible that he’s already done in his career,” said Koncz. “He knows he got careless, he knows there was no need to be near to that punch with five seconds remaining in the round.
“Manny wanted to fight Marquez again and that’s why we offered him 13million dollars but he refused it. When a lot of fighters get knocked out there’s an element of fear to face that opponent again but that wasn’t the case with Manny. He’s been in the business 16 years, he knows how to deal with this and I strongly believe he will recover.”
Whatever happens, the world will be watching.
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