By Ezra Salkin on October 16, 2013

Recently HBO premiered its newest original movie, “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” the behind-the-scenes story of the Supreme Court case, Clay versus the Unite States. The Court ultimately granted Ali conscientious objector status for his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War in 1967. Of course, the government had already taken three years of his prime, when they revoked his boxing license. Sadly, this particular moral aspect of Ali’s career might not be widely known by casual sports fans today, especially those under thirty years old. That’s why, with all the other stories continually re-circulating about Ali, there were sound grounds to make a movie.

Even if his triumph of conviction is overlooked in this case, Ali still enjoys the mainstream recognition as “The Greatest,” boxer, maybe sportsman, ever, (see: despite boxing’s tenuous place today. It’s interesting, while that’s the perception the world holds of him, naturally, he doesn’t fare quite as high on actual pound-for-pound boxing lists, those compiled by boxing historians; he’s never number one.

One reason Ali is still so highly regarded is unquestionably because of the ring opposition he faced, but it’s also because he told us he was, and we listened. Floyd “Money” Mayweather, the undisputed best, but not necessarily greatest, fighter in the world today, makes the same claim; some people are listening. Which has me thinking about Manny Pacquiao.

An Ongoing Human Saga of Hype…

It’s amazing. After being written off so quickly by so many following his knockout loss to in-the-ring nemesis Juan Manuel Marquez last December, Manny Pacquiao’s name is once again being thrown in the ring with that of Mayweather, his out-of-the-ring nemesis.

The public and media are so quick to heap hyperbole onto a fighter, yet inversely, just as quickly, they’ll throw that same fighter under the bus if he should lose. After a semi-questionable 2012, it seems the so recently revered Manny has been a recipient of this fickle treatment.

From A.J. Liebling’s 1951, New Yorker feature, “Sugar Ray and the Milling Cove”:

I told him, and added consolingly, “I never saw a gamer man than your fellow.”
“Oh, ‘im,” the seaman said. “ ‘E’s a good lad, sir, but no experience. No defense. No class, sir. Forget about ‘im.”
This, too, seemed hardly right.

—conversation between A.J. Liebling and a few sailors from Elizabeth, England, after the second 1951, “Sugar” Ray Robinson-Randy Turpin fight. Robinson, the consensus all-time, best ever pound-for-pound fighter, won via 10th round technical knockout, yet the British Turpin had upset Robinson in their previous fight, only two months earlier. The sailors were still wearing Turpin buttons in their lapels…

Sound familiar? It wasn’t all that long ago that a smiling, saintly Pacquiao, glided to the ring with a near nimbus hanging overhead. In the space of a few months, Pacquiao went from being spoken of as one of the greatest fighters ever, (“We thought Manny Pacquiao was great. He’s better than we thought…”—Larry Merchant, following Pacquiao’s TKO 2009 victory over Miguel Cotto) to just being more or less a “good fighter,” or “lad,” as the gentleman above avers, one who’s not only unfit for the super elite of past eras but also for the minor elite of now. The Henry Armstrong, Roberto Duran, and Aaron Pryor comparisons that had followed the Pac Man, until the moment he had his face planted into canvas, ceased abruptly. Suddenly, there were so many foibles in his game, readily apparent to fighters and non-fighters alike just because he lost to a sure-first-ballot-Hall-of-Famer, one who has only really lost to the super elite, himself—which include Pacquiao, and Mayweather!

If you’re only as good as your last fight, well, Pacquiao’s last fight was great, so what if he was devastatingly knocked out. The awe registering among boxing fans from the 2012 fight of the year—that knockout of the decade—lasted maybe a few days before the enterprise as a whole became an opportunity to deride the Pac Man and his fans, too. “Pactards” became the catchy malediction that rang across certain boxing message boards and YouTube channels. On the bright side, at least some people still care enough to comment about boxing.

It’s been a few weeks since Mayweather decisioned Canelo Alvarez and it’s a few days since the meeting of Juan Manuel Marquez and Tim Bradley, the two men to consecutively defeat Pacquiao last year. But somehow, amazingly, Manny’s name is being buzzed about again for a superfight.

Granted, this is partly because of a dearth of credible names available, now that Canelo’s been dispatched, but still. With as many times as I’ve read that the superfight is past its expiration date, you’d think the stench of that kitchen trashcan would be near-unbearable.

That said, now that the fight’s an apparent “mismatch,” my question is, what would it do for Pacquiao’s legacy should he actually beat Mayweather?

All-time pound-for-pound lists are more than subjective; they’re an exercise in demagoguery. While some names enjoy more de-facto status than others, everyone with interest has their own ideas where their favorites should fall. And everyone who cares also has an opinion on where Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather should fall, or if they should even register.

For traditionalists, or anti-modernists, whether the fight happens or not, if it does happen, who wins, none of that matters. All the different scenarios that could emerge from a fight or non-fight are simply a garden of forking paths leading to the same outcome—meaning their legacies, or non-legacies, were decided long before either man embarked on their professional careers.

However, for everyone else interested, modernists or sycophants, the legacy implications if the two men should fight are great; but only if Pacquiao wins.

Undoubtedly, Manny’s stock as a fighter dropped precipitously last year when it comes to who’s the best fighter of the era. Fighters are like politicians that way. This is despite the fact that Pacquiao already beat out Mayweather for the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Fighter of the Decade Award in 2010. Still, Pacquiao’s resume sheet is more robust.

While Floyd’s record remains blemish-free and Manny had two knockout losses and a draw before stateside fans were even cognizant of his existence, his record, under closer inspection, while more mottled on the exterior, is composed of firmer stuff.

This has nothing to do with the fact that Pacquiao has won more titles in more weight classes. What’s significant is that, at the time and weight he fought them, Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, and Juan Manuel Marquez were better than anyone Floyd fought at the weight and time that he beat them. Furthermore, Pacquiao fought each of these Hall-of-Famers, who together made up a golden era in the featherweight division, multiple times. In the case of the first two, he stopped them. Stopping or knocking out great fighters—not just beating them—has to count for something.

(One can only guess how the legendary status Pacquiao would entail today in the alternative history that would’ve developed if referee Joe Cortez had stopped the first fight with Marquez, after Pacquiao knocked Marquez down three times in the first round; preempting all future fights between them.)

Whom, of the top opposition that Floyd’s faced, has he stopped? Besides Diego Corrales—who, fun-to-watch though he was, was a one-dimensional puncher. And that was way back in 2001.

Also worth considering, when it comes to all common respective opponents, with the exception of Marquez—and granted, he’s a big exception—Manny won more impressively. And he did it as a naturally smaller man than Floyd.

Nevertheless, because Floyd is perceived now as being so much better than Manny, if he were to defeat Pacquiao, like most people expect, it’s not going to mean much. (It would’ve meant a lot if he beat him in 2009-2010, but Floyd choose not to go that route and that’s the way it is.) All that could be said—if the listener accepts the claim that certain fights simply can’t be made because of the political impasses—is that he beat virtually everyone available. However, that’s even a bit revisionist if we remember Kostya Tszyu and Antonio Margarito.

However, if the fight gets made and Manny can find a way to surprise everyone, especially if it’s Floyd’s plan to save the name of a diminished Pacquiao for a dramatic, swan song victory, the potential upside for Pacquiao’s legacy would be far greater than back when the fight was largely seen as 50-50 proposition, circa 2009-2010. Just as it didn’t matter for Sugar Ray Leonard when he defeated Marvelous Marvin Hagler, no one but Mayweather—who also in that case, like Hagler, might opt for ex-pat status—will care if the end-result is razor-thin or controversial.

For Floyd to even see the ceiling that Manny would by beating him, he’d probably have to move to 160 pounds and defeat boxing’s new boogey man, the “Kazakh KO King,” Gennady Golovkin. It doesn’t take a psychic to know that this very risky course is not even on the radar.

Sure, if Manny won, there’d be many who’d retort, “Well, Floyd was 37 (or however old he’d be if or when the two meet).” The only problem with that, especially in light of the Alvarez result, is Mayweather, as much as at any other point in his career, is seen as unbeatable—at least at the weight.

Public perception and, ironically, Floyd’s avaricious brain trust have backed him into a corner better than any actual opponent has been lucky enough to have done. The consistent current now is, “Floyd’s never looked better. There’s no one between 140 and 154 pounds that can even spook him, let alone defeat him.” Even a prominent boxing voice, such as Showtime analyst and boxer Paulie Malignaggi has said publicly that Mayweather beats anyone, ever.

On the other side of the equation, what’s being said about Manny? “It’s to the benefit of Pacquiao fans that this fight never happened.”

Looking back again, Joe Louis was a more dominant champion in his heavyweight rein overall than Muhammad Ali. He was the most dominant champion ever. But Louis never met and defeated a fighter the likes of George Foreman, an opponent who had destroyed Ali’s only previous conqueror, Smokin’ Joe Frazier. Many had believed Big George might actually kill Ali when they met in Zaire in 1974. Not only did Ali shock the world against Foreman, he did the same to the equally scary Sonny Liston not once, but twice, a full decade earlier. The upside for Ali winning fights that no one thought he could was immeasurable. His mythopoetic claim of being “The Greatest” certainly holds more weight than when Floyd says the same thing today.

While it’s debatable who’s greater, Ali or Louis, it seems to me Ali is generally given the nod on most all-time heavy lists. While Mayweather’s brash disposition in the fight lead-up might’ve been closer to “The Greatest,” the Pac Man’s career has been more reminiscent. (As far as fighting goes, all three of them at their peak were fast as hell. When it comes to aesthetic artistry, however, I think it’s easier to find Ali-Pacquiao corollaries than Ali-Mayweather ones.)

If we are to entertain career analogies, let’s allow Pacquiao to symbolize Ali for a minute. Barerra would be Sonny Liston; Morales, Joe Frazier; Marquez might’ve just been his nettling Ken Norton, possessing a style that would forever give Ali/Pacquiao fits. Tim Bradley could be Leon Spinks. That leaves the Foreman spot vacant… (I wonder who might pop up as Larry Holmes, here. Could it be Pacquiao’s former sparring partner, Amir Khan?)

This game of casting characters is near impossible to do when assessing Floyd’s career, largely because it’s been so devoid of drama.

Like Ali, Pacquiao’s boxing career can be broken into at least three chapters. Ali’s first chapter ended in 1967 when the government took his boxing license. When he returned for part two, his physical brilliance had appreciably dimmed, yet it was then he made his splash into sports immortality. The third act was when he got beat up, or at least beat up the most. Hopefully, that’s not the punitive zone Pacquiao’s entering, because that would be the other possibility here.

From the middle of Pacquiao’s career onward, he largely carried the sport of boxing on his back while Floyd tangoed with off-and-on retirement between unscintillating performances from the time he fought Oscar De La Hoya until roughly now. (To be fair, there were some good moments in that five-year period.)

If he were to retire now, Manny would boast a glittering Hall of Fame career, but in spite of having, in reality, done more in the sport, Floyd would outshine him. That’s just where the public is.

Like Ali when he was clearly past his prime, however, Pacquiao’s greatest win could still await him.

If it’s indeed possible to make the “Money” fight, judging by the way Manny fared last year, if Pacquiao gets past a dangerous Brandon Rios in November, Floyd might finally be inclined to take the fight. And while a Pacquiao victory seems unlikely, that’s the point. As far as Floyd’s concerned, the fight may be more dangerous than ever. Boxing, after all, has always had the propensity to rear up into the ultimate of drama-queens. Just look at Pacquiao-Marquez IV. Boxing is tragic; but it is also glorious.

If the Pac Man were to win, as in the case of the-larger-than-life Ali, public opinion would wreath him with a garland of unparalleled superlatives and veneration. He’s already a global icon, so the recognition he’d receive for such a feat would last a long, long time. He’d be like a mini-Filipino Schwarzenegger.

Of course, there’ll be those harried voices that, at least for a time, drown out the rest. They might say, “What’s the big deal, it was only Mayweather that Pacquiao beat. We always knew he was never all that.”

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