“Fame is a fickle food upon a shifting plate.” — Emily Dickinson
If you hold your breath and listen closely you might be able to discern the faint heartbeat of a new beginning for boxing. It’s probably a false alarm, but let’s enjoy the uptick while we can.
There’s no denying the matchups that fans want to see are getting made more frequently. They don’t always turn out the way we hoped, but you can’t complain when you get what you asked for.
Most encouraging is the modest but growing trend of promoters backing away from premium cable networks and their affiliated pay-per-view arms. Such will be the case Saturday when Manny Pacquiao faces Jeff Horn on ESPN (9 pm ET).
It will be Pacquiao’s first non-pay-per-view fight since 2005 and maybe, just maybe, a renaissance for the sport in general and Pacquiao in particular.
If TV boxing is indeed tweaking its business model, Pacquiao-Horn is an excellent test case. Pacquiao is one of the most famous fighters in the world, a name familiar to even non-boxing fans, which is a big plus when making an event available on basic cable to tens of millions of potential viewers.
Put Terence Crawford, Vasyl Lomachenko or Errol Spence Jr. in the same spot, and, despite the great regard with which the boxing community holds them, they wouldn’t attract half as many viewers as Pacquiao. If there is indeed a future for major boxing matches on basic cable, this one has to be a success.
Pacquiao’s future is also tied to Saturday’s fight, which will take place at the 55,000-seat Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Australia. It could be a pivotal fight, one that sets the table for the last few fights of Pacquiao’s Hall of Fame career.
We must not forget, however, that Horn (16-0-1, 11 KOs) will have something to say about what happens. A 29-year-old former schoolteacher, he is green but has shown himself in sparring to be a quick, offensive-minded boxer who throws nice, straight punches. The odds are heavily against Horn, but Pacquiao (59-6-2, 38 KOs) is almost 10 years his senior and has been in numerous punishing fights.
Yes, Pacquiao’s getting older, he has lost some fights and his PPV numbers are down. His fans are unhappy about paying exorbitant PPV fees for ordinary fights, and the haters demand he fights the toughest possible opposition or retire.
Fighting on ESPN will at least be a temporarily reprieve from the justifiable grousing about the high cost of PPV. As far as fighting young studs such as Keith Thurman, Crawford and Spence Jr. is concerned, Pacquiao is not going to chance it until the risk-reward factor makes financial sense.
But guess what? That might not be a problem. When you toss out everything but the bare essentials, the reason Pacquiao is fighting Horn on ESPN in Australia is because he hasn’t scored a knockout since 2010.
Don’t let the sweet science proselytizers tell you different. The knockout, the most spectacular and visceral moment in all of sports, has always been boxing’s biggest attraction and always will be.
The knockout used to be Pacquiao’s specialty, the thing that made everybody sit up and pay attention. Now? Not so much.
He had plenty of other attributes going for him — a fanatical work ethic, eye-catching hand speed and a unique attacking style — but the way he punched holes in such great fighters as Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto was something very special.
“At his best, Pacquiao approaches each opponent as if he were running crazily around a fortress to find his way in,” wrote Don Stradley in the June 2006 issue of The Ring magazine. “His opponents probably think they’re OK because they survive the first few rounds, but Pacquiao is gradually getting through to his target. It’s fascinating to watch.”
It’s what Pacquiao did when he found an opening that took your breath away. The fearless aggression and raw punching power were evident from the start, even when he was a matchstick-thin teenager slugging it out for a handful pesos.
Pacquiao’s speed took opponents by surprise from the start and still does today. Same with is punches.
“With Pacquiao, he just touches you and you’re already wobbling,” said Shane Mosley, who was knocked down en route to a unanimous decision loss to Pacquiao in May 2011. “It’s the weirdest thing.”
Don’t fret Pacquiao’s chilling loss to Juan Manuel Marquez too much or the travesty with Floyd Mayweather. Manny has fought a lot of elite opposition, and when you do that, even the best will lose now and then.
Those defeats hurt all right, especially the Mayweather debacle, because it hurt boxing as well as Pacquiao. But they were contributory not causative.
The rip-off decision loss to Timothy Bradley in their first fight remains a mystery. It must have been a rogue attack of brain fever. If it was fixed, I don’t know why. I just know it’s the only time I remember the winner coming to the postfight news conference in a wheelchair.
Pacquiao’s power outage has been as familiar a refrain in the media as trainer Freddie Roach’s hollow promises of an early exit. But it remains the elephant in the room, a problem that has yet to be addressed, the seriousness of it perhaps not fully recognized.
If you think I’m placing too much emphasis on the knockout, consider this: What if instead of winning comfortable decisions over Joshua Clottey, Shane Mosley, Brandon Rios, Chris Algieri, Jessie Vargas and Bradley, Pacquiao would have stopped them all, or even three of the four?
Different picture, right? Knockouts solve problems, wash away disappointment, compensate for off-nights and send the folks home happy.
Despite earning hundreds of millions of dollars, Pacquiao is still hungry for the sort of money required to maintain his current lifestyle and fuel his political ambitions. But he’ll be fighting for more than financial security when he steps into the ring Saturday, something so embedded that has defined him since he was a teenager.
“While I believe that Manny is fighting mostly for the money, I think he also realizes that since he surely only has a few fights left, that he needs to enjoy what he is doing, and it looks like he is,” said Ted Lerner, an American writer who has lived in the Philippines since Pacquiao’s early years, when Pacquiao was hitting tires with a sledgehammer at the squalid L&M Gym.
“Being close to retiring has made Manny realize how much he likes the atmosphere around boxing, the training, build-up, the adulation, the money. He doesn’t want to give that up. Even though he’s a senator, there is nothing quite like the thrill of being a world-famous boxer fighting in front of millions of people for millions of dollars.”
Pacquiao still fights much the same way as always, making the same moves and throwing the same sequences of punches. He still ducks under punches, pivots away and counters. It’s pretty to watch, but lacks the reckless abandon of old and the ensuing knockouts, the very thing that made him must-watch TV in the first place.
When asked where fighters come from, the correct answer is always desperation. When asked where the best fighters come from, the correct answer is always desperation and talent. Pacquiao had a lot of both.
Now that Pacquiao has an opportunity to prove himself on a far more inclusive platform than ever before, it’s time to reach deep down and find some of the desperation that once propelled him from a Nipa hut in the boondocks of Mindanao to a seat in the Philippines senate.
Pacquiao has retained a loyal following at home and from all corners of the word, including Australia, where he is expected to have strong support inside Suncorp Stadium.
“Filipinos abroad are starved for a taste of home,” Lerner said. “Most work long, lonely hours at menial jobs for little pay. They have to leave their families behind for years. They miss home, and when a guy like Manny comes through town, they go wild.
“It’s a source of pride and a taste of home for Filipinos, most of who are sacrificing literally everything just to send a bit of money back home to their families.”
Pacquiao will always be a hero to the people of the Philippines for what he has done for the national psyche. Now it’s his opportunity to make America fall in love with him again. The road to redemption starts with a knockout.