AS Manny Pacquiao prepares to meet Australian schoolteacher Jeff Horn, I’ve been remembering the good times: the nights when Pacquiao’s star blazed brightly in the boxing firmament. The nights when the tireless tornado cut legends down to size.
Pacquiao diehards will argue over the little guy’s best performances. Boiling a Hall of Fame career, with titles won in seven weight classes, down to a handful of wins is no mean feat. Nevertheless, this is my rundown of Pacquiao’s greatest moments as I see them.
Chatchai Sasakul (1998)
In boxing terms, Pacquiao was just a kid when he challenged WBC flyweight boss Chatchai Sasakul. The 28-year-old Thai champ had the distinction of having beaten every man he’d ever faced: he’d claimed the belt a year earlier, revenging a ’95 defeat to Yuri Arbachakov: so it was a big ask for the 20-year-old in his first crack at a world title. After all, only two years had passed since his crushing KO defeat to unheralded jobber Rustico Torrecampo.
This, however, was a golden opportunity – and Pacquiao seized it with both hands. The action in the early going was cagey though, the challenger stalking, the champ circling and landing a few clever counter jabs. Before Freddie Roach got his hands on him, Pacquiao was raw and guileless and a little flat-footed; he also threw far fewer punches. The action heated up in round two, Sasakul belting Pac with a hard right hook, the underdog continuing to pursue while firing wayward straight lefts.
Sasakul may have won the first three but he was being forced to stay on the move by the enterprising young gunslinger, who landed a quick one-two in the fourth that knocked him on his heels. Now the champ could be in no doubt: he was in a fight.
Pacquiao’s unrelenting style meant he walked onto some clever shots in the fifth, but it was obvious Sasakul didn’t possess the power needed to dent him. To win, he would have to rack up points by making his man miss and countering the incoming whirlwind attacks. It was a strategy that required ridiculous reserves of energy. In the seventh Pacquiao actively went for the knockout, bobbing and weaving into range before launching wild haymakers, chasing Sasakul from one quadrant of the ring to the other. Although the Thai was still effective on the counter – picking neat little shots and laying a blueprint for Juan Manuel Marquez to follow years later – the momentum of Pacquiao carried into the eighth. The creeping sense was that the champion, wily though he was, would soon wilt. Sasakul lost his shape in this round, his punches becoming ragged, his game plan unravelling like a ball of yarn. When Pacquiao crashed a booming left into his jaw he fell face-first onto the canvas, gloves either side of his head. In a way, it must have been a kind of relief.