To many people, Manny Pacquiao is becoming an ageless wonder. Others wonder why somebody his age is still boxing.
An argument can be made that watching an aging sports legend is more a treat than tribulation for fans. As a 2014 article in New Yorker magazine theorized, “In most sports, veterans who outlast their peers become sentimental favorites.”
Who outside of Carolina fans didn’t root for nearly-40 Peyton Manning to win the 2016 Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos? Even if you can’t stand the New England Patriots, how can you not admire Tom Brady, 42 next month? If you care even a tad about horse racing, don’t you recall with excitement 55-year-old Bill Shoemaker, riding the winner in the 1986 Kentucky Derby? Same with 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus and the Masters the same year?
Does this explain our historic affection for Nolan Ryan, who threw two no-hitters after he turned 40? Or for Ted Williams, who hit 29 homers at age 42? Or hockey’s Gordie Howe, who was still playing into his mid-50s?
Stewart Cink won the 2009 British Open and understands how unpopular that made him, because he deprived 59-year-old Tom Watson of one last hurrah. “I would have been rooting for him too,” Cink has often said.
So, when Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao once again enters the boxing ring at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas on Saturday night, he might not be a betting favorite, but he certainly will be a sentimental one. He will also be 40 years, 7 months, 3 days old.
To a stockbroker, schoolteacher or sportswriter, that is prime time. Continuance is not an issue. For a boxer, continuance is borderline suicidal.
To Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s longtime trainer and dedicated friend, the issue is simple: “People ask me how 80-year-olds can run marathons,” Roach says. “I answer, it is because they aren’t getting hit in the head all the time.”
The violence that Pacquiao faces every time he goes to work — this will be his 71st professional fight — adds a layer to the aging sports hero issue. That’s a layer Tiger Woods, 43, didn’t face when he won this year’s Masters. The golf ball doesn’t hit back. Nor did the tennis ball to about-to-be 38-year-olds Serena Williams and Roger Federer, both Wimbledon finalists a week ago.
They are all prime examples of 2019 being the age of age in sports.
Woods carried the banner exceptionally well. Williams and Federer acquitted themselves superbly in the grind that their sport necessitates. Pacquiao is next up.
His opponent is unbeaten Keith Thurman (29-0, 22 knockouts), a decade younger. Besides the usual boxing trash talk and carnival-barker ticket-selling, Thurman seems to be wrestling with the prospect of taking on somebody of who will forever be on a pedestal in the Philippines.
“He’s still reaching for greatness at age 40,” Thurman says during a designed-for-hype conference call. “And that’s admirable … Manny has 70 fights. It’s like I’m fighting Sugar Ray Robinson.”
Then Thurman seems to try and convince himself that punching out a soon-to-be statue is what he needs to do. “He’s the legend,” he says, “but I have 10 years of youth on my side.”
That brings to mind the old quip, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Or as Roach, a master needler and quote-maker, says, “In this fight, youth will be served a big slice of humble pie.”
The majority of boxing writers lean toward the younger Thurman. But a poll of current and former boxers and their trainers taken this week was intriguingly close, 24-19-3, favoring Pacquiao.
Former champion Roy Jones says, “I pick Pacquiao because he is older and more experienced.”
Ah, age and experience are good things.
Current champion Leo Santa Cruz says, “Thurman will win because he is younger.”
Oops, age is a bad thing.
During interviews, Pacquiao mostly shrugs off the subject of age, of potential health issues, of any fear at all that the three-tenths of a second of hand and eye speed you normally lose at 40 is something that bothers him at all.
“I’m not thinking about my age,” he says as he dutifully wraps his hands for a sparring session. “I’m just thinking about what I can do for the fans.”
He retired after his third fight with Tim Bradley in 2016, but says now he stepped away only to please his family. Boxing retirements are like tennis balls. They don’t last long. And sure enough, Pacquiao was soon back at it.
Roach is the designated guardian of Pacquiao’s health, and the pact they have — if the trainer says it’s time to quit, the fighter has promised to quit — allows Pacquiao not to have to think about the inevitable end; to let outside eyes make the call. There could be no better, more informed set of eyes.
Roach is a tough guy from Boston who fought 53 professional fights, lost 15 and admits now that, “I fought about five fights too many.” He says he especially remembers one newspaper headline: “Old Man Roach Makes Comeback.”
He laughs. “I was 24.”
He has the form of Parkinson‘s disease that many former boxers have but has stayed in good shape and says he has, through exercise, stopped the shaking in his hands.
He also says he has been around too many damaged boxers to not be concerned about Pacquiao.
Normal cynicism about boxing kicks in there, but Roach is adamant that if he sees any decline at all he will order Pacquiao to step away and stay away.
“I may not see it in training,” he says. “You can’t see as much there. But you will see it during a fight, and if I do, I’ll stop it right there.”
Even Saturday night?
“Even Saturday night.”
The next chapter of 2019’s long-in-the-tooth, sports-stars-on-parade will take place amid the usual glitz and glitter of Las Vegas. In the end, will the evening belong to youth? Or will another veteran continue the trend established by Woods, Williams and Federer?
Roach thinks he knows. He puts Pacquiao in the same category as George Foreman, who won the heavyweight title at age 45 and to this day shows no signs of any boxing damage.
“George was a treasure,” Roach says. “Manny is a big blessing from God.”