As storybook endings go, this one belonged on Broadway. Call the Hallmark Channel. Don’t be ashamed if you tear up.
When Manny Pacquiao, the boxing senator from the Philippines, emerged from the ring Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the fighting fireplug had conquered two formidable opponents — unbeaten welterweight champion Keith Thurman and seldom-beaten all-division champion Father Time.
Pacquiao is 40. Thurman is 30. This was Pacquiao’s 71st professional fight, Thurman’s 30th. Pacquiao, the only person to become an eight-division boxing champion, has fought almost as many fights in Las Vegas (21) as Thurman has fought anywhere.
Boxing gives us so many disappointments — mismatches, bad judging decisions, lackluster performances. But when it gives us something spectacular, as it did Saturday night, all is forgiven, at least for a while. Former champion Shane Mosley made his way through the crush of family, friends and wannabes clogging Pacquiao’s dressing room after the bout to congratulate the fighter who beat him in May 2011, in a unanimous decision in this same MGM Grand Garden ring.
“Manny was just phenomenal tonight,” Mosley said. “This was great for boxing.”
Only one thing could detract from all this: If Pacquiao decides this isn’t the end.
In our sports fantasies, we want Tiger Woods to retire after an eagle for the win at the 18th hole of the Masters; Roger Federer to serve his final ace on match point in the Wimbledon final; Albert Pujols to hit the winning grand slam homer in the seventh game of the World Series. Pete Sampras got it right. He won the 2002 U.S. Open, his 14th tennis Grand Slam title, and never played another pro match.
For Pacquiao, Saturday night’s stirring victory over Thurman was his hole-in-one, ace on match point and grand slam homer all in one.
Thurman, his highly able opponent, called the night one of “blessings and lessons.” Presumably, he meant Pacquiao had been the teacher. The match itself — high-quality boxing skills, fan frenzy (a sold-out 14,356 arena), and the class with which both fighters conducted themselves afterward — was the blessing.
Pacquiao retired in 2016 after his third fight with Tim Bradley, but he was back seven months later. That time, Pacquiao said his family wanted it. This time, in the immediate aftermath Saturday night, everybody in Pacquiao’s camp seemed to want it. In the scrum of his locker room, which became such an orgy of selfies and sycophants that officials had trouble marshaling Pacquiao to a place where he could provide a urine sample, the atmosphere seemed to be celebrating an ending. Of those retirement advocates, only Freddie Roach, boxing’s most open person, would talk on the record about it. He, like everybody else, had seen Pacquiao enter the ring moving and boxing like a 25-year-old and leave it, while victorious, looking like an exhausted 50-year-old.
“Me and Manny, we’re going to have a long talk,” said Roach, who has now been with Pacquiao for 18 years. “I want to let everything settle down. But then we will talk. One on one. Being honest, completely honest, with each other.”
Roach said that, even as Pacquiao was turning in perhaps the best, certainly the gutsiest, performance of his long career, he saw some hints that the time to step away is now. Pacquiao knocked Thurman down in the first round and Roach said, “Earlier in his career, he would have finished him right there.” In the 10th round, Pacquiao hit Thurman with a body shot that doubled him over in pain. “He normally would have finished a guy there,” Roach said.
The key element here is that, unlike many boxers who reach the golden age and have no other interests, Pacquiao has the ultimate second career. He is one of 24 senators in the Philippines. He talks more freely and enthusiastically about bills he is sponsoring than about fights he is training for. Because the Philippines state of the union address is Tuesday, his original plan was to get on a private plane a few hours after the fight, fly as far as Anchorage for refueling and continue on immediately to Manila. That would be a trip of nearly 9,000 miles, just hours after taking a bit of a beating against Thurman. Reportedly, cooler heads prevailed and a doctor delayed that trip until later Sunday.
Still, the very existence of the plan speaks to the serious nature of Pacquiao’s involvement in his country’s government.
Pacquiao might be well ahead of all of us on this. While he has said he thinks he will fight again next year, there is nothing set in stone. Nor had he gone through some thrashing from Thurman when he said that. When he was asked in the ring afterward what will come next for him, he quickly said he will wait on that until next year.
Between now and then, his political star may continue to rise. The next presidential election in the Philippines will be May 9, 2022. The current president, Rodrigo Duterte, who will term out in 2022, long ago stated publicly that he would support Pacquiao for the next presidency. When Pacquiao was elected to the Senate in 2016, he got 16 million votes, or seventh-most among the 12 who were elected that year. Pacquiao quickly told NBC News, in reaction to Duterte’s endorsement, that he wasn’t planning to run for president, that he was enjoying serving the Philippine people as a senator. Actually, his direct quote about him running for president: “It is not in my mind right now.”
How about that for sounding like a politician?
In the ring before the match started, the Philippine national anthem was sung beautifully by a men’s choir. Most of the time, the camera was on Pacquiao, reverently mouthing the words to his country’s most precious piece of music. Even though it probably wasn’t meant that way, it might have been the most effective political commercial of all time.
One of the dozens of Filipino reporters who cover Pacquiao’s fights said Saturday that Pacquiao would make a very good president because he actually cares about the people he would serve. The reporter tapped his heart and said, “He has this for the people.”
Saturday night’s fight was not only a moment of lasting legacy for Pacquiao, but perhaps an important moment in his country’s history.
It was an ultimate last hurrah. Now, all that’s left is for Pacquiao to see that.