Not even Pacquiao is forever

Ryan Songalia

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Not even Pacquiao is forever
The sight of Pacquiao’s vulnerability is a sobering shot of reality for the fans who have seen him rise from impoverished beginnings to international stardom

MANILA, Philippines – The crowds are lined on the streets of Manila on Wednesday morning, May 13, to greet Manny Pacquiao upon his return to the Philippines, just as they had after each of his fights for the past decade or so.

Pacquiao’s right arm is supported by a sling – he had surgery on his torn right rotator cuff last week in Los Angeles – that looks more like a front-facing baby carrier. His motorcade creeps slowly from Makati to Malate on the hottest day of the year.

He grins confidently as he throws t-shirts and posters to his supporters from the back of a pickup truck covered in a tarp that reads, “Mabuhay Ka, Manny (Long live Manny).” The windshield underneath is obscured to a small rectangle that is barely two feet wide.

At one point, the driver suddenly hits the breaks. Pacquiao jerks back slightly, and bangs his right arm against the railing, producing blood from a wound, revealing color that Mayweather’s fists could not produce.

The sight of Pacquiao’s vulnerability is a sobering shot of reality for the fans who have seen him rise from blighted poverty in General Santos City to becoming one of the world’s most popular athletes.

Manny Pacquiao clutches his right arm as he addresses reporters at NAIA Terminal II. Photo by Czeasar Dancel/Rappler

For many, Pacquiao was a super hero. He was Superman with a pair of boxing trunks and gloves instead of a cape. All who oppose him are inherently evil and must be booed vociferously.

But infallible super heroes are boring and unrelatable. We’d root against Clark Kent if not for kryptonite. Pacquiao bleeds red and cries saline tears; he rises and falls just like everyone.

Superman had to die because all good things come to an end. So too must Pacquiao’s boxing career end. That’s just the way it is.

The signs of Pacquiao’s decline has been there for years; we just refuse to see them. Fans ignored the many punches he absorbed from the much larger Antonio Margarito in 2010. The controversial third fight with Juan Manuel Marquez was chalked up to distractions from his marital problems. The knockout in the fourth fight? Lucky punch.

And the reason for this is simple: admitting that Pacquiao was getting old would be admitting that we ourselves are getting on in years as well.

The man Larry Merchant described him as “a mix between Peter Pan and Bruce Lee” represented the vitality of an underdog nation on the rise. He was the adrenaline in your weekend, a daredevil who fought hard in the ring and lived even harder outside of it.

He made peace with his demons and turned his life over to God. He’s a repentant man whose only sin was getting old.

(READ: Where does Manny Pacquiao go from here?)

When Michael Jordan’s legs could no longer lift him above defenders, he missed shots. When Ken Griffey Jr’s bat speed slowed a fraction of a second, he struck out. The fate that awaits aging fighters – Pacquiao included – has far greater consequences.

There is no senior tour for fighters the way there is for golfers. Their retirement gold watches are wrapped around the wrists of young champions building their names on faded resumés.

“Every fight now is dangerous,” says one source close to Pacquiao.

There are still winnable fights for Pacquiao, like Jessie Vargas or Jose Benavidez. But what’s to say that Top Rank wouldn’t try to feed Pacquiao to prop up their young champions in just the manner they had done to Erik Morales and Miguel Cotto to build up Pacquiao?

World titles in a record-setting 8 divisions. Over $400 million in career earnings. Victories over Oscar de la Hoya, Marco Antonio Barrera and many other champions. 

His body is subject to the limits of time; his accomplishments are not.

On Wednesday, Pacquiao teases retirement in one sentence, then says he has at least two more fights left in 2016 before hanging them up. Perhaps he himself doesn’t know what he’ll do next. Or maybe he knows and he just doesn’t want to say it.

“I’m not saying I am going to retire, but it’s near. I’m already 36, turning 37 this December.”

Those worries are reserved for another day. For today is about celebration, not just for his valiant effort against the best fighter in the world, but also a continued appreciation of two decades of thrills.

On this day at least, the good times continue to roll. –

Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.

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