MANNY PACQUIAO’S long goodbye began Tuesday in a plush ballroom of a lush hotel in one of the richest cities in the world. Many would call this grand irony.
When the Congressman from the Sarangani province of the Philippines stood before a packed news conference in the Crystal Ballroom of The Beverly Hills Hotel, he was thousands of miles and millions of figurative light years away from where it all began. That was when he was a hungry child, trying to help his mother feed his siblings.
He was in a big city. He sold things on the street. He scrambled for enough food just to live. There was no future beyond tomorrow. He played his game of existence one day at a time. Manny Pacquiao was a tiny Filipino street urchin. Bright lights of fancy hotel ballrooms an ocean away weren’t on his radar. Survival, and helping his family, was.
He is 37 now, so that wasn’t exactly a lifetime ago.
But Tuesday, there he was, the center of attraction as always, as he told his world of fans, through the media, about yet another boxing match, this one on the horizon April 9 in Las Vegas.
That he would be fighting TIM BRADLEY for a third time was important. So was the controversy over his first Bradley fight and his loss in an apparent bad decision, as well as his second battle with Bradley two years later in 2014 that brought a solid victory. He said his surgically repaired right shoulder was O.K. He said he viewed Bradley now as a different, probably better, fighter.
But those are the normal promotional things.
This time, there was more, much more, that made the usual boxing hype and trial-balloon story lines seemed barely incidental. In fact, this may have been among the few boxing news conferences ever where hype, ticket-selling, name-calling and psychological rants took a back seat to an entirely different theme.
Boxing is normally about as subtle as a sledgehammer. In a sport built around the success of a punch in the mouth, there is little room or patience for such things as dwelling on the past and cherishing current greatness. Boxing has Halls of Fame, but the inductees all too often go to pick up their plaques in walkers and have trouble understanding what is being said about them from the podium.
Manny Pacquiao has said he is going to retire, that this fight, his 66th as a pro, will be his last.
In the world of boxing, that sort of declaration usually brings snickers and rolled eyes. It will bring some this time, too. Boxers bring it on themselves. They change their minds more often than new parents change diapers. Boxing retirements are usually not so much retirements as leverage plays for the next fight.
Bob Arum, chief executive of Top Rank Promotions, who has guided Pacquiao to his current stardom, is among the best at expressing the skepticism about retirements in his own sport.
“Brandon Rios retired after his last fight (with Bradley),” Arum said, “and unretired half an hour later. Some of these fighters, they retire when they have one wife, and when they get another one, they un-retire.”
That’s why Arum, as much as he trusts Pacquiao’s integrity, refuses to declare that this is Pacquiao’s last fight.
“Maybe he will retire,” Arum says, “but I’m not gonna lose sleep on it.”
He added that, the most appealing decision-changing siren in the future for Pacquiao would be a strong performance against Bradley and an un-retirement by Floyd Mayweather Jr., who dealt Pacquiao his most humbling setback.
But even with Arum, that seemed to be mostly hedging his bets. The nostalgia, and the sentences delivered in past tense, full of historic implications, spoke volumes.
“Think of where he came from,” Arum said. “He was as obscure as you can get, a little guy, coming from half-way around the world. It is a tribute to him, but it is almost a bigger tribute to this country, which accepted him, even embraced him. He couldn’t speak English. If he had been Hispanic, or African-American, he might have had a leg up. But he wasn’t.”
Teddy Atlas, Bradley’s well-spoken, veteran manager, as much a student of boxing as there is, carried the theme a step further in his remarks. He called Pacquiao the “most dynamic” fighter of the last decade and compared those who will want to watch his last fight with those who went to see Derek Jeter in his last go-around with the Yankees, and to those who are now scrambling for tickets to catch a last glimpse of Kobe Bryant as he closes out his Lakers’ career.
But it was Pacquiao himself who, in everything he said and even in his body language during a long day of media interviews and his speech at the press conference, furthered the concept that April 9 will be it.
“My greatest achievement in life is not what we have done for ourselves,” he said, “but what we have done for others.”
That quickly brought to mind one of the many stories of Pacquiao’s generosity. He once noticed how long and difficult it was for the fishing fleets in his home area of General Santos City to row out far enough to find the most fish and still get back home safely. So he bought them all outboard motors.
“I’m happy, happy to hang my gloves up,” Pacquiao told the audience. “I know I will feel sad. But that’s life.
“I fought, because I wanted to help my family. Now I will stop, because I want to help my country.”
Pacquiao will have about a month to campaign for a spot as a Philippine Senator after his April 9 fight. For most, that seems to solidify his desire, and need, to stop boxing. There are 250 congressmen in the Philippines, but only 24 senators. In this May election, half of those 24 will be elected to six-year terms. In the current polls, Pacquiao is ranked No. 8.
The skeptics remain, especially those who theorize that this fight is merely a grab for election-time headlines and exposure.
Arum is little more than a pinball in this game, but that didn’t stop him from summing up the general feeling for this onetime Filipino street urchin, who has risen to become the toast of the day in a place like Beverly Hills.
Arum said, “I can’t come to grips with the feeling that this is his last fight.”
Nor can boxing.