For over two decades, Manny Pacquiao has been the measuring stick for any fighter in his chosen weight class. By definition, having held world titles in the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s across eight weight classes, that has been the case. Even when he’s had true contemporaries, namely Floyd Mayweather, there was never certainty about their status until they beat Pacquiao. (photo by Ryan Hafey)

Even into the 2020s, the best welterweights du jour, Errol Spence and Terence Crawford, both wanted their chance to fight Pacquiao not just for the prestige it would afford them, but because even at 40 years of age, he was still just a little too much for Keith Thurman, who was at that time in the discussion for world’s best welterweight along with them. 

After Saturday night’s loss to Yordenis Ugas, a late replacement for Spence, who was originally scheduled to face Pacquiao before a retinal injury was discovered in a pre-fight checkup, that luster may finally be gone. 

Prior to the bout, Pacquiao’s trainer Freddie Roach described Ugas as “an ordinary fighter,” and expressed no concern about facing him on ten days’ notice. Ugas is of course not ordinary in the grand scheme of things, he’s one of the sport’s top welterweights, but when you’re handling a fighter as great as Pacquiao, it’s understandable for your perception to be a bit skewed. Relative to Pacquiao, most fighters in boxing history are “ordinary.”

Until this past Saturday, with the exception of a fluky and controversial loss to Jeff Horn, Pacquiao has only ever taken losses to the sport’s absolute best, fighters who like him were headed for Canastota. Pacquiao still firmly believed he could beat Errol Spence at 42 years of age, so he understandably felt Ugas would be no issue for him. 

In practice, Ugas presented all of the wrong problems for Pacquiao. Ugas was physically bigger, taller and longer. More importantly though, he was composed, judiciously throwing accurate shots and resisting the urge to bite on Pacquiao’s feints. 

Hand and foot feints were but empty threats on this night, because most problematic for Pacquiao was the noticeable lack of movement and foot speed. It’s an issue he acknowledged at the post-fight press conference.

“I’m not saying this is my excuse but my two legs were cramping. That’s why I (couldn't) move around," said Pacquiao. “In my early days, I (could) easily move and outbox him. This time around, it’s like my two legs were tight and hurting me in the second round until the 12th round. I’m not making excuses but that’s the reason why I can’t move.”

According to CompuBox’s Dan Canobbio, Ugas landed 59 per cent of his power shots, the most ever landed by a Pacquiao opponent. Pacquiao landed 16 per cent of his total punches, the lowest tally of his career, and for perspective, three per cent less accurate than he was against Mayweather (19%).

Although the boxing community will spend the week eulogizing Pacquiao, a few things should be made clear. Even being competitive with Ugas at the age of 42, as a man who started his career at 112 pounds, is still incredibly impressive. For him to have thrown over 800 punches in a bout at this age proves once again that he is an athletic marvel. And although his legs seemingly betrayed him, brought about as he speculated by overtraining, that shows that he is a marvel when it comes to determination too. For a sitting, influential politician who is also over a decade past cementing his Hall of Fame status to have the drive to over train in the first place confirms the assessment we all had watching Pacquiao in his prime, smiling as he engaged in legendary wars, that this is a man who has a burning love of boxing on a deeper level, and no amount of fame, power or money has ever extinguished that flame. 

The question will become whether Pacquiao is okay with either a) Becoming purely a name attraction who hand picks lesser opponents, or follow the trend of facing foes from other disciplines like Conor McGregor without concern about his ranking in the sport as a competitor, or b) Merely being a good to very good, but no longer great fighter who potentially loses to other very good welterweights, as he did on Saturday. 

Nothing in his past has suggested that either of those paths would be satisfactory for him. He did entertain the idea of a McGregor bout, but he did so while also hunting for bouts with actual elite boxers. Pacquiao’s intention in the sport has always been to be the very best, and up until a few days ago, he hadn’t encountered a satisfactory reason to convince him that was no longer possible.

Pacquiao has aged more gracefully than almost any fighter in history. In his later years, he might have been a touch slower, a tad less busy in certain fights, but even a weathered version of Pacquiao was better than other top welterweights into his 40s. That likely is no longer the case, and unlike in team sports, there is no way to mask or account for a steep decline in production in the ring. Aging legends in other sports, like Miguel Cabrera of the MLB’s Detroit Tigers, can still produce in his twilight years with lowered expectations and hitters in the lineup around him to pick up the slack. In boxing, a decline leads to losses to less and less talented fighters, and to further physical damage.

Neither of those things are what anyone wants to see for Pacquiao. As I wrote in 2019, for fans who are around 23 years of age, there has never been a time in their lifetime in which Pacquiao was not either a world champion or a top contender for one of the world titles. And for fans of any age who have been immersed in the sport during his reign, his bouts have been signpost events in their lives as fans or their careers as journalists. Media members save their Pacquiao fight credentials, several writers even tweeted their collections over the weekend. You remember where you were when Manny fought, because for a very long time, his have been among the biggest fights of the year, the mainstream appeal fights that your non-boxing fan friends ask you about and might even come over to watch with you.

Whether you cheered for him or against him on a given night, he brought us happiness, excitement and a feeling of pride about our sport a couple times every year. 

Those are the memories the boxing community should want to keep, untarnished by a sad, dangerous decline into mediocrity or worse.

Saturday’s loss to Ugas is nothing to be ashamed of. A competitive fight against a top contender he didn’t have to face, if anything, it was demonstrative of Pacquiao’s take on all challengers approach, even in the years of his career in which he could have been more selective. 

If Pacquiao chooses to walk away now, he can do so with dignity, one final thing he can accomplish that so many other fighters were never able to.