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Manny Pacquiao Faces the Ghost of Muhammad Ali

Why are so many boxers struggling so long.
Muhammad Ali to boxing what William Shakespeare is to language, but just as it gave the “Louisville Lip” to the world stage, it made him almost unable to make a distinctive sentence by the end of his life.

Journalist Jimmy Cannon stated, “Time is a vandal.” He observed the retreat of his hero, Joe Louis, by Rocky Marciano in 1951. And in 1980, in his wheelchair, Louis went to Caesar’s Palace to see Ali brutalize, Larry Holmes until Angelo Dundee eventually stopped the beating. Louis was also Ali’s hero.

Tyson’s childhood hero Ali had to whisper in his ear, eight years later, in 1988, when Mike Tyson fought against Holmes. “Get it for me.” And Tyson accomplished it, in four rounds knocking Holmes out. Seventeen years later, at the age of 39, Tyson was facing an unknown traveler two years after he had filed for bankruptcy and he quit the stool in seven rounds.

When 42-four-year-old Pacquiao comes into the ring in Las Vegas against Yordenis Ugas at the T-Mobile Arena on Saturday 21 August, he will fight against the fantasies of his grands before him as much as anyone who wears gloves and trunks. Since Pacquiao suffered a defeat knockout at the end of 2012, he fought ten more fights, winning eight but not the customary knockout power.

The battle will take place at Fox PPV and will be provided with a guaranteed $5 million purse for Pacquiao (upside pay-per-view potentially adding $20 million to $25 million). Before a routine, before the fight, Pacquiao was scheduled against undefeated world champion Errol Spence Jr. Spence was found to have a ruptured retina in his left eye. Pacquiao was a 2.5-1 underdog against Spence and many observers considered the odds generous given the age and pedigree of 31. WBA champion Yordenis Ugás, 35, has entered one of the largest platforms of boxing to replace Spence – much as Pacquiao did two decades ago.

Pacquiao broke on the boxing scene in 2001, when he entered Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club incognito, atop a Hollywood strip mall in Calif. The 22-year-old, 5-foot-5 112-pound Filipino originally peddled doughnuts on the Philippine streets of General Santos, before he went to boxing.

He was an injury substitutor on the undercard of an HBO pay-per-view champion’s bout against Oscar De La Hoya with two weeks in advance. In the evening, Pacquiao won not just a global title, but also robbed one of the most popular athletes in its history. Seven years later, by removing Oscar De La Hoya in the exact same ring, Pacquiao electrifies the sport.

“I know what Ugás feels,” says Pacquiao. “I was Ugás 20 years ago. I take him as seriously as I have taken Errol Spence.”

Pacquiao has fought as a professional boxer 72 times over 27 years. The buzz among many fans and critics was that if Pacquiao were able to achieve the enormity necessary to defeat Spence at the dawn of his career, in addition to being bigger, stronger and younger, that summary may be unequaled in boxing annals.

Eight years ago, as Pacquiao recovered from Marquez’s horrific knockout loss, I asked the late Leon Gast, the award-winning director of When we were Kings, who was then working on a fighter documentary, if he noticed parallels with Pacquiao. “Déja saw everything over again,” remarked Gast, shaking his head. “It’s boxing, this is boxing. Muhammad Ali fought 14 times following Zaire [when Ali took one of the big stormy victory over George Foreman in boxing history]. 14 times. 14 times. Help us, God, we’re going again.”

“Is he ever able to stop?” I asked. I asked.

“Never,” laughed Gast. “Never.” “Never, never, never, never, never.”

The answer Gast offered was the cliché: he needed the money for Pacquiao. “The same old story,” remarked Gast. “Joe Louis, Robinson Sugar Ray, Ali, Tyson. All their careers ended with either breaks, bustles or both.”

Thomas Hauser, author of Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, agrees now with the assessment made by Gast: “A great fighter’s losses do not affect his legacy at the close of his career. A big triumph, albeit infrequently. A big win. Manny is battling for money, in my opinion. Period.”

Joe Louis, severely cocaine-addicted and in debts over rear taxes, spent his life as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace in the middle of a cowboy hat. Sonny Liston died alone, with newspapers worth a week and sour milk stacked up outside the door. Joe Frazier slept in his gym office his last days. After his days of struggle, Leon Spinks scrubbed toilets at the YMCA.

Mike Tyson, who earned $21 million for 91 seconds of work in 1988 while Michael Jordan made just over $2 million on a basketball court for an entire year, has earned over $430 million in professional boxing and failed before leaving the sport.

I ask Pacquiao whether he was concerned about the last chapter of his career which stained his legacy: “I’m not worried about it,” he responds simply. “Everything is about the sacrifices and dedication you are willing to do. You can avoid punching, and you can do what you want. He adds that “at this age, it’s a great struggle, because I need to prove I’m still here. I still can do what I’ve been able to do before.”

The last American man to win an Olympic gold medal in 2004, Andre Ward, retired in 2017 at the age of 33 as an unbeaten World Champion. Ward left the bank with millions and his health and mental abilities were intact. But if he decides to return tomorrow, the tentation of potentially tens of millions of cash remains.

Asked about his approach to the comparison with Ali-Pacquiao and how he sailed – and stayed loyal to his strategy of his own exit, Ward says: “People only recognize the day you are gone,” says Ward from Oakland, Californa, where he lives today. “This is the easy part, however. For years after you are asked about it, the hard part remains faithful to your convictions. If you’re pushed and pushed. People do not see the emails or telephone calls I receive. People don’t realize I can get the phone right now, and I’m going to be back in the spotlight, making tens of millions of dollars. The tough part says no to it every day.”

Ward thinks he knows why most people don’t walk away. “This isn’t something you ever want to think of,” he continues. “I don’t know the personal demons with which each person wrests. Where their self-esteem is, I don’t know. Guys don’t perceive this sport beyond life. The other part of it is people who say, ‘This is what I know. I might not be who I used to be, but I will convince myself that what I have is plenty.”

Pacquiao stated a will to fight the world’s greatest boxers, like Terence Crawford, or Errol Spence Jr., when he won Ugas on Saturday evening. “I’m still here,” he smiles, he says. “I’m going to fight anyone.”

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