As recently as last summer, the great Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao debate was still alive and well. But, by the end of the year, after C.J. Ross, Duane Ford and Juan Manuel Marquez's right fist chimed in, it was fair to wonder whether the Filipino star would ever enter a boxing ring again.
When his last two conquerers, Marquez and Timothy Bradley, face off for the WBO welterweight title Saturday night in Las Vegas, it will in many ways mark the arrival of the post-Pacquiao era.
Given the mythic aura that surrounded Pacquiao in recent years, his sudden decline is jarring. And it serves to highlight the downside of media-driven celebrity, the brutal verdicts rendered in a boxing ring, as well as the sport's frequent unfairness.
The latter was on display last June when Pacquiao lost a highly controversial split decision to Bradley. Though Pacquiao was far from dominant, and Bradley was more competitive than many, including the HBO announcing crew, gave him credit for, the aforementioned Ford and Ross' scorecards bordered on criminal. Fair or not, however, the loss delivered a hit to the Pacquiao legend.
But the Pacquiao decline really began seven months before, amidst the boos of the MGM Grand crowd after a controversial majority-decision win over Marquez. Going in, many expected the still-dominant Pacquiao to knock out the aging Mexican star and end their rivalry with a finality that had eluded him in their previous two bouts. But, yet again, Marquez flummoxed his rival with sharp counterpunching. And last December, it was Marquez who emphatically finished the rivalry with a brutal right hand.
Pacquiao, who won world titles in a record eight divisions, became a bonafide mainstream sports icon with a beatdown of Oscar De La Hoya in 2008 and a vicious one-punch knockout of Ricky Hatton in 2009. A hero in the Philippines, he became an international superstar and fan favorite thanks to his ferocious power, lightning speed, entertaining style and charming persona.
During the height of Pacquiao mania, media hype turned him into an almost unstoppable force, whose speed and power would be too much for any fighter. But he was never able to completely conquer his kryptonite (Marquez) and never got a chance to fight the best fighter of this generation, Floyd Mayweather Jr. (The breakdown of their 2010 negotiations likely cost Pacquiao around $100 million).
Now, Mayweather is the clear-cut pound-for-pound king. And after being written off in advance of his 2011 fight with Pacquiao, the 40-year-old Marquez is climbing pound-for-pound lists and fighting for a world title Saturday. Meanwhile, Pacquiao will look to prolong his career in December in Macau against Brandon Rios, a fighter coming off a loss to Mike Alvarado.
None of this is meant to diminish Pacquiao's legacy. He will go down as one of the top fighters of this generation, and his eight-division title record may never be touched. He retains a huge fan base and will remain the valiant warrior he has always been. Barring an upset loss to Rios, he will continue to fight and may have several more glorious moments left in his boxing future.
But the past year has raised questions. Did he ever have a chance against Mayweather? Was he as good as we thought? Probably not, and in his defense, the media and fans probably built him into something he wasn't. Unrealistic expectations led to the rapid fall as much as any deficiencies in the ring.
When Bradley and Marquez face off Saturday (in a very compelling matchup, by the way), the rapidly changing fortunes of Pacquiao and his rivals will be on display. For Saturday's combatants, it will be sweet justice. For Pacquiao, it will be a reminder of a swift fall. Manny Pacquiao the fighter will press on, but the icon is gone.