BEVERLY HILLS, USA – Manny Pacquiao finds himself in a precarious position. Not since his fights against Floyd Mayweather Jr in 2015 and Oscar De La Hoya in 2008 have any of his opponents been the betting favorite to beat him.
Come July 20 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the Filipino senator is penciled to lose on paper when he takes on undefeated American champion Keith Thurman.
Such is the hand oddsmakers are dealing the 40-year-old boxer with 71 professional fights under his belt fighting a credible counterpart 10 years his junior. Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KOs) is relishing the unfamiliar role – and snub – against Thurman (29-0, 22 KOs).
“I like being the underdog for this fight because that gives me more focus in training,” said Pacquiao. "All my life I have confronted challenges – in life, in politics and inside the ring. I've been careless and overconfident in some fights, but this time around it's different.”
Both fighters took the dais on Wednesday, May 22 (Thursday, May 23, Philippine time) for a kickoff press conference at the swanky Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles to announce their FOX pay-per-view showdown with similar-looking championship belts. Pacquiao is the WBA's "regular" welterweight champion, while Thurman is the "super" champion.
Pacquiao, however, can proudly proclaim that he’s boxing’s only eight-division champion, an illustrious billing that’s not lost on Thurman.
"Pacquiao wants a challenge and I'm very grateful to be sharing a ring with a legend,” said Thurman, a favorite to win by only a slight margin against the generational fighter. “If you understand boxing history, you know that times change. Come July 20, Pacquiao will disappear. I'm excited to be the guy who shows Manny Pacquiao where the exit is.”
Thurman is promising to punish Pacquiao into retirement and end his legendary 24-year professional career, the same fate the Filipino delivered to De La Hoya 11 years ago in a one-sided, eight-round obliteration that forced the Golden Boy to quit on his stool. Pacquiao said he hasn’t felt this motivated for a fight since his date with De La Hoya. Like Thurman today, he was 30 at the time and in the prime of his career against the then 35-year-old De La Hoya.
“I know he likes to quote bible verses – he’s going to get crucified,” continued Thurman.
"It's easy for my opponents to talk before the fight, and I'm used to everything they say. But when we get to the ring, it changes,” said Pacquiao, who was already a champion in 3 divisions before Thurman turned pro in 2007. "I've never been scared of a challenge. He's the kind of fighter that you can't underestimate. His record and success gives me more motivation to work hard. I'm so excited for this fight.”
Sean Gibbons, Pacquiao’s right-hand man as well as the promoter and matchmaker for MP Promotions, said Thurman provides a true test for Pacquiao to determine if he can continue competing at an elite level, while also potentially setting himself up for a rematch with the retired Mayweather should he win.
“Thurman is motivating Pacquiao unlike anyone else, because people don’t talk smack to Manny,” said Gibbons. “He’s got Manny, who’s usually mellow, really fired up now, which wasn’t the smartest thing for Keith to do. I haven’t seen Manny like this, so excited and determined, in a very long time.”
Thurman returned to the ring in January after an elbow surgery and a hand injury forced a 22-month layoff from the sport. The 30-year-old from Clearwater, Florida beat Josesito Lopez but looked unimpressive doing so as he lost a handful of rounds en route to shaking off the rust in a majority decision victory. Thurman admitted he only did conditioning work by himself at an LA Fitness for the Lopez fight. For Pacquiao, he’s employing two new conditioning coaches to join his longtime trainer Dan Birmingham.
“You could see that I wasn't at my best in January,” said Thurman, who also has impressive wins against Danny Garcia and Shawn Porter. “Not everyone knows who Keith Thurman is today. We had our ups and downs, but Keith Thurman is back on the rise. I'm going to make a big statement. When he's on that mat and he's catching that night-night on the 20th, it's really gonna mean something.”
Slowing Manny down
Training under Buboy Fernandez, the newly elected vice mayor of Polangui, Albay, and reunited again for the second straight fight with longtime trainer Freddie Roach, Pacquiao said he’ll be training to avoid Thurman’s powerful offense by practicing better speed, footwork and side-to-side movements in order to dance around his opponent’s punches.
“Age is only a number, and Manny’s work ethic is unbelievable,” said Roach. “I know how to [train] Manny better than anyone in the world . . . I’m not too high on Thurman – who has he fought?”
Justin Fortune, Pacquiao’s strength and conditioning coach, said he’ll be compressing his fighter’s training regimen to silence any rumblings of deteriorating thread on his fighter’s feet.
“We’re slowing Manny down, and training smarter with more focus instead of doing everything,” said Fortune. “Thurman is a smart boxer, and we need to figure him out. He’s a dangerous guy and not to be taken lightly. He’s going to come back 10 times stronger than the Lopez fight.”
The three-time Fighter of the Year and the Boxing Writers Association of America's reigning Fighter of the Decade will be looking to build more momentum after a one-sided unanimous-decision victory against the overmatched Adrien Broner in January. He sustained a scratched cornea in the fight, but otherwise left unscathed after the impressive performance.
Pacquiao has no plans to retire – yet – especially with a series of palatable fights to be made at the supremely stacked 147-pound division. Pacquiao signed with Al Haymon’s promotional banner Premier Boxing Champions in October, and essentially gained access to a roster of potential welterweight opponents like Errol Spence Jr., Danny Garcia, Mikey Garcia and Porter.
The carrot known as Mayweather still dangles, but the shelf life on a potential rematch is getting more unlikelier by the minute. For now, Pacquiao will prepare for his most significant fight and toughest test since he met with Mayweather 4 years ago.
“I want to prove that at age 40, I can still beat a great fighter. My time is not yet over,” said Pacquiao. “I'm still having fun and enjoying the sport. My journey is continuing.”
Manouk Akopyan has been a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America since 2011 and has written for USA Today, Los Angeles Times and the Guardian.