If Manny Pacquiao sticks to his original instinct and opts to retire, it will signal the end of one of the strangest, least likely yet most intense rivalries in boxing history.
The rivalry between Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather defined the first 20 years of this century and set a standard that will be difficult to match.
Pacquiao lost on Saturday to Yordenis Ugas, at 42 no longer able to summon the magic in his legs that made him one of the greatest boxers who ever lived. He knew what to do, and he wanted to do it, but physically, he couldn’t. That’s the surest sign that it’s time for a fighter to walk away.
Don’t count on it, though, and not just because Pacquiao loves boxing so much. Boxing now is as much of a political tool for him as it is a means to earn a living or a way to indulge his passion. He wants to run for the presidency of the Philippines in May and a big win in a mega-fight in January would be the easiest lift-off into the campaign, which by Filipino law cannot begin until February.
Get it? Win a big fight in January, getting everyone proclaiming you a hero and slapping you on the back, and start the campaign in February with momentum that no other candidate can create.
Thus, it’s no given that Pacquiao retires, even though the eyes tell you he should.
This is where he should take a lesson from his long-time rival. Mayweather’s skills began to erode around the time he turned 40, though even when they did, he had lapped the field by such a margin that he was still better than just about anyone else.
When he recognized that, he bolted. It didn’t hurt that in two of the three previous years, he’d headlined fights that had sold in excess of 4 million on pay-per-view and paid him in the nine figures, but he still knew when to say when.
Mayweather hasn’t fought a real boxing match since defeating Andre Berto in 2015. For much of his career, he’d battle with fans and reporters who didn’t appreciate his defensive style, and he’d always point out that he didn’t want to suffer traumatic brain injury just to further someone else’s enjoyment.
Just three weeks into the 21st century, Mayweather fought the biggest fight he could take at the time when he met the then-unbeaten Diego Corrales in a super featherweight unification bout on Jan. 20, 2001, the day of the first inauguration of President George W. Bush
He knocked the power-punching Corrales down five times and stopped him in the 10th round. At the time, only the hardest of the hardcore fight fans in the U.S. had even heard of Pacquiao at that point. Pacquiao was a super bantamweight at the time, only two divisions below Mayweather, but Americans pay about as much attention to foreign super bantamweight contenders as they do to the backup long-snapper on their favorite NFL team.
But when Pacquiao made his U.S. debut in Las Vegas on June 23, 2001, it quickly became clear that he, like Mayweather, was a special talent. Mayweather, who had one of the sharpest eyes in boxing, recognized that quickly.
He realized long before others did that Pacquiao was a rival to him for the title of the greatest boxer in the world. And that, in part, is why Mayweather, then a welterweight preparing to fight Zab Judah, showed up at the Thomas & Mack Center on Jan. 21, 2006, cheering wildly for Erik Morales against Pacquiao when they met in a super featherweight bout.
For years, Mayweather had considered Oscar De La Hoya his primary rival. On April 12, 1997, he fought a guy named Bobby Giepert on the undercard of the De La Hoya-Pernell Whitaker pay-per-view. He was in his sixth pro fight and they were fighting for widespread recognition as the pound-for-pound best in the world.
Asked after stopping Giepert in 90 seconds who he wanted to fight next, Mayweather quickly said the winner. His questioner gave a puzzled look, and then he smiled. He meant the winner between De La Hoya and Whitaker which, by the narrowest of margins, would be De La Hoya.
It took a decade before Mayweather finally got the shot to fight De La Hoya, and he won a decision in 2007 in what became the first bout in history to exceed two million pay-per-view sales.
His motivation to continue waned, until a little more than a year later when a new rival emerged. When Pacquiao bludgeoned De La Hoya in 2008 and stopped him in the eighth, there was speculation that he’d exceeded Mayweather and was, at that point, the best in the world.
That speculation only intensified in 2009 when Pacquiao knocked Ricky Hatton cold in the second round on May 2, and then brutally beat Miguel Cotto before stopping him in the 12th round on Nov. 14.
Talks for a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight began just after the Pacquiao-Cotto fight, and just before Christmas 2009 it seemed the fight was done for March at the then-new Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington, Texas.
It would take an additional five years before they’d meet, but when they did on May 2, 2015, they were not only the top two welterweights in the world but also the top two pound-for-pound boxers in the world.
The fight sold 4.6 million pay-per-views, generated more than $600 million in gross revenues and earned each man nine-figure paychecks.
It’s only six years since that magical night but it seems a lifetime ago. A rivalry that began when no one was looking ended when Mayweather thoroughly outboxed Pacquiao to win a decision that didn’t excite the masses.
Would the outcome have been different had they fought in March 2010 like it seemed they would not long after Pacquiao bludgeoned Cotto? No one will ever know for sure, though Mayweather’s style was such that he probably always would have had the edge on Pacquiao.
That point will be debated endlessly and there will be no correct answer.
But what is undoubtedly correct is that these are the two men more than any other who breathed life into boxing in the 21st century when the powers that be in the sport were doing everything in their power to euthanize it.
They had different styles and conflicting personalities, but they were similar in their love for the sport and their ability to practice it at a higher level than just about anybody, ever.
If Manny does the right thing and walks away for good, it will close their rivalry forever.
But their greatness is such that the talk about them will never cease among those who love and follow this incredible sport.