Manny Pacquiao was unknown when he made his U.S. debut against 122-pound titleholder Lehlo Ledwaba on the undercard of the Oscar De La Hoya-Javier Castillejo card in June 2001. Heck, his new trainer, Freddie Roach, barely knew who the 22-year-old Filipino was.
Everyone knew afterward.
The speed, both in hand and foot. The high volume of punches from all sorts of impossible angles. The power in his shots, which produced so many knockouts in the first half of his career. And the mesmirizing dynamism, which few fighters could match.
All of it was evident in his knockout victory over Ledwaba, which opened the world’s eyes to his unusual talents. And he never slowed down over the next two decades, producing one of the most accomplished careers in the history of the sport.
Pacquiao (62-8-2, 39 KOs) was fortunate in that he had many worthy foils, starting with a decade-long rivalry with the great Mexican trio of Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez, against whom he finished with a record of 6-2-1.
He left no doubt about his greatness in his wars against the Mexicans, each of whom is in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
But that was only a start. He was arguably at his greatest during an unforgettable four-fight stretch in 2008 and 2009, when he knocked out in succession David Diaz, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto.
The eight-round demolition of De La Hoya was a passing-of-the torch fight, from the outgoing face of the sport to his successor. And the Hatton fight provided arguably the most dramatic moment of Pacquiao’s career, a chilling left hand that knocked the normally durable Englishman unconscious and left onlookers in awe.
It was at that time that knowledgeable people began to compare Pacquiao to the greatest fighters of all time, including Henry Armstrong, who held three of the eight championships simultaneously at his peak. Pacquiao ended up with major titles in a record eight divisions, if you count Ring Magazine belts.
It was also around this time that the American public got to know Pacquiao personally, as he made multiple appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Pacquiao had little to say – he’s quiet by nature – yet he managed to charm millions with his smile, humility and sense of humor. No one is more likeable than Manny Pacquiao.
And still he was far from finished.
He continued to win after the Cotto fight, including a near-shutout decision over the naturally bigger brute Antonio Margarito in front of about 40,000 at the Dallas Cowboys’ home stadium in 2010, which gave the one time 112-pound champ a title at 154.
Pacquiao seemed almost untouchable at that point. And then, in 2012, he proved to be human.
Timothy Bradley defeated him by a controversial split decision, his first setback in more than seven years. And it got worse. In his next fight, Marquez, who became his arch rival, capped their four-fight series by doing to Pacquiao what Pacquiao had done to Hatton: He knocked him out cold with a single right hand in the sixth round.
Even at his worst moment, however, Pacquiao won respect by offering no excuses and acknowledging, in so many words, that such disappointments are simply a part of boxing. Always classy.
And he didn’t allow the back-to-back disappointments to discourage him. He bounced back by beating Brandon Rios, avenging his loss to Bradley and outpointing Chris Algieri to set up a long-awaited showdown in 2015 with Floyd Mayweather, arguably the only fighter from the era who was better than he was.
Some complained that the fight happened beyond the peaks of both fighters – Mayweather was 38, Pacquiao 36 – but the fans certainly bought into the event. It generated a record 4.6 million pay-per-view buys in the U.S., which translated to nine-figure paydays for the fighters.
The fight didn’t live up to the hype – Mayweather won a wide decision – but its success was a testament to the star power of the fighters.
Pacquiao continued to fight after the super fight with Mayweather but, as he approached his 40th birthday, he seemed to have lost a step. He still had quick hands and could move well but he couldn’t fight at the pace he once did.
Still, he earned a shot at undefeated welterweight titleholder Keith Thurman in July 2019. The champion had to deal with nagging injuries and a long layoff but most experts picked the younger fighter to retain his belt against the grand, but overmatched old man even though oddsmakers saw the fight as roughly even.
Well, Pacquiao, 40, made the oddsmakers look like geniuses by giving the world one last special performance. He put Thurman down in the first round, controlled most of the fight and then withstood a late rally by the champion to add one more championship belt to his gaudy collection.
He also added one last bit of evidence to demonstrate his greatness, although it certainly wasn’t necessary.
Pacquiao fought once more, losing a decision to Yordenis Ugas in a bid to regain the belt that was stripped from him because of inactivity. The fight came after a two-year layoff, largely because of the pandemic, and amid Pacquiao’s growing political ambitions. The long-serving senator recently accepted his party’s nomination to run for president of the Philippines.
Still, he was competitive against a capable opponent, demonstrating that he could’ve continued to fight at a reasonably high level. And he considered it. A chance to avenge the setback was tempting. Instead, he chose this time to close the book on his beloved boxing and shift his focus 100% to serving his beloved people.
Pacquiao gave boxing fans more of himself than they could have expected from a single man. We should be grateful, not greedy. Thanks for everything, Manny.