Manny Pacquiao: Alone on the mountaintop
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - January 12, 2019 - 12:00am

What do you get the man who has done everything? 

This is the question Manny Pacquiao faces. And how do you wind up a career as mythic and pock-marked as his? What else is there for someone whose peers have all retired, who stands alone facing numerous usurpers who don’t comprehend his stature? Everyone left wants to make a name at the expense of his.

The good senator has won world titles in eight modern weight classes, the only man who has conquered four of the original weight divisions. Paying for his own prodigious success, he had to keep moving up in weight, as he kept decimating every class he fought in. He peaked in weight at 147 pounds, fighting in a catchweight clash with bad boy Antonio Margarito for a 154-pound world title in Texas in 2011. 

Now, he is back home at Wild Card Gym, the little shrine to his wild success. Upstairs is always busy, even at 8 a.m. when it opens. The space feels cramped, but surprisingly has just enough space for patrons who regularly box or get fit to protect themselves. It is always a beehive of activity, and everyone is either working up a sweat or shouting encouragement to those who are. Photos of its most famous products wallpaper its insides, dominated by Pacquiao. The laundromat downstairs is now an exclusive club for two. It bears a large Philippine flag on the wall when Pacquiao is training, and the Puerto Rican flag when Miguel Cotto is working out. Otherwise, it remains locked, dark and quiet, like the cave if wonders waiting for Aladdin. These days, it is packed with journalists who know that this magnificent boxer’s career is in its final stages. 

In 2001, when the blonde Pacquiao first walked into Wild Card Gym, little did he know how much his life would change in so short a time. Lehlo Ledwaba was the enfant terrible of the IBF super bantamweight class. Ledwaba was so fearsome that the top five contenders would not get into the ring with him. They were afraid of being hurt and embarrassed. And the skinny Filipino kid with the then-unpronounceable name had less than a month to prepare. 

Freddie Roach not only took the fight, but brazenly predicted that his new ward would knock the South African out. On both counts, the American media screamed that he was crazy. Despite the propensity for leading with his face, Pacquiao scored a sensational sixth-round TKO victory. The broadcasters vowed they would learn to pronounce his name properly, and Roach was ordained a mad genius. This started one of the longest, most successful partnerships in boxing history.

In 2019, the much older, more chastened Pacquiao is vastly different. He has power in both fists, has slowed down just a tad, has a more politically correct hairstyle, and is measured in his speech. And he takes breaks, conceding that Father Time is master of us all. Rest was one of the issues that plagued his relationship with Roach in the past. Coach Freddie knows firsthand the effects of fighting too hard, too long. He lives with it 24 hours a day, and wants to see his boxing scion escape this vicious enterprise with all his faculties intact, if that is even possible. He’s been saying for years that he hopes Pacquiao will retire and run for president. Now the question is in what order those two will happen.

What else is there when you have ascended the summit more times than anyone else? Pacquiao won’t go up in weight, and his age gap with all his newer rivals widens by the day. More young pugs are coming up, smelling blood. But how many of them will really sate the appetite of his fans, who were spoiled with wins over titans like Dela Hoya, Marquez, Morales, Cotto, Margarito and even Mosley and Barrera? Matthysse was flawed, psychologically fractured along with his orbital socket in 2015. Broner, though formidable, has the distraction of running afoul of the law. Even if Pacquiao wins, fans want a stoppage, and an emphatic one. How many really understand the craft? Cotto, Clottey and Margarito went down in weight, a handicap most don’t understand, or conveniently ignore. Only the niggling hint of a rematch with Floyd Mayweather Jr. may keep their attention. Maybe.

But we will still watch, not in the wild, pulsing throngs which only the old Pacquiao and the Black Nazarene perhaps summoned. We maintain the flickering hope that the veil of age will be peeled back even for a moment, and the young wild lion emerges again. We got used to it. We crave it. We miss it.

We seek a fulfilling exclamation point for a man who has inspired a nation of underdogs, who has kept us going by taking blows we feel every day. But what denouement would be fitting for he who has given us hope when we were down since the economy tanked in 2005? What ending would be worthy?

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