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Aging Legend Manny Pacquiao Fighting Father Time as Much as Keith Thurman

Bernard Fernandez

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The great Sugar Ray Leonard, he of the five retirements from boxing that didn’t stick, was musing about the reasons why aging boxers of all levels of accomplishment find it so difficult to quit the ring. His thoughts on the subject might not be of particular interest to another legendary fighter, 40-year-old Manny Pacquiao, who takes on WBA welterweight champion Keith Thurman, 10 years his junior and still presumably at or near the top of his game, in the PBC on Fox Pay-Per View main event on July 20 at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand. But if history tells us anything about the natural laws of diminishing returns, “Pac Man” would be well-advised to take note of what Leonard said of his own personal experience.

“You always think of yourself as the best you ever were,” Leonard offered. “That’s human nature. And that’s not just how highly successful people think. Everybody thinks that way. Most fighters come back for the money. They need another payday and there are people around them feeding their egos, telling them how good they still are, because they want a piece of the action. Maybe they come back because they really don’t know anything but boxing and they’re apprehensive about entering the next phase of their lives that doesn’t include it.

“But even if money is not an issue, and you have other options, you never lose that belief in yourself as a fighter, particularly if you’ve been to the very top of the mountain. (Being retired) eats at you. It’s hard to find anything else that can give you that high.”

The Sugar Man, one of the finest fighters of his or any era, knows of whence he speaks. Everyone – well, almost everyone – thought he was off his rocker to try to come back after 35 months of inactivity to challenge seemingly invincible middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler on April 6, 1987. But Leonard, whose list of defeated opponents includes such stellar names as Wilfred Benitez, Thomas Hearns (against whom he was 1-0-1), Roberto Duran (2-1), and a significantly larger Donny Lalonde, reached back in time to dethrone Hagler via split decision, albeit a controversial one, in the process showing flashes of his electrifying former self.

No wonder Leonard allowed himself the luxury of believing that he was somehow immune to the bits and pieces of excellence that Father Time siphons from top-tier fighters who linger too long in a brutal profession. But then, why shouldn’t he have thought that? When he shocked Hagler, Leonard was still a month shy of his 31st birthday.

It should have gloriously ended there for one of the all-time greats, just as it should have ended on a similarly high note for Muhammad Ali after his epic conquest of George Foreman in Africa. But when you’ve been to the very top of the mountain and remained there long enough to savor the view, it’s easy to convince yourself you’re still as good as you ever were. After a nearly four-year hiatus, the 35-year-old Leonard came back again on March 1, 1997, and took a frightful beating from an updated version of himself, 23-year-old WBC super welterweight champion Terry Norris, who floored him twice en route to winning a lopsided unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden. It is a testament to how much fans continued to love and believe in Leonard that he actually went off as the betting favorite that night. As was the case when a depleted Ali was battered into submission by Larry Holmes in Las Vegas, some Leonard devotees were seen weeping as they left the Garden.

There was, of course, one final act that had to be played out before Sugar Ray could come to grips with the realization that there was no more magic for him to make inside the ropes. Then a nearly 41-year-old grandfather and coming off a six-year layoff, Leonard was stopped in five rounds by light-punching Hector “Macho” Camacho on March 1, 1997, in Atlantic City.

“This is indeed my last fight, my last venture into the boxing ring,” Leonard announced of the retirement that finally was written in fast-drying concrete instead of wet sand. He had been away so long that the five-year mandatory waiting period for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame had passed and he would be enshrined a little more than three months later in Canastota, N.Y.

Almost all truly special fighters – with the exception of Rocky Marciano, Hagler and Lennox Lewis, who stepped away while still at or near the top of their game and somehow were able to resist the urge to again lace up the gloves – yield to the temptation to try to relive past glories. Just as Napoleon had his Waterloo, a depleted Joe Louis was confronted with harsh reality in the form of the younger, powerful Marciano and Bernard Hopkins’ personal Fountain of Youth at long last dried up against construction worker Joe Smith Jr.

Which brings us back to Pacquiao, the Fab Filipino who is the only fighter ever to win world championships in eight weight classes. He is a mortal-lock first-ballot Hall of Famer and a source of wonderment to those who have followed his remarkable career. Nothing that happens going forward can detract from that gleaming legacy. But consider the mounting evidence that Manny the Magnificent has been a downgraded version of himself for quite a while. The whirling dervish and three-time Boxing Writers Association of America Fighter of the Year who pummeled, among others, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales and Miguel Cotto has won only one of his last 16 bouts inside the distance, a seventh-round stoppage of Lucas Matthysse on July 15 of last year, which snapped a nine-year, 15-fight KO-less streak in which he was defeated four times, including a one-punch knockout in his fourth meeting with Juan Manuel Marquez.

The Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KOs) who will swap punches with Keith “One Time” Thurman (29-0, 22 KOs) remains as imperious and defiant as ever, and he points to his most recent ring appearance, a wide decision over Adrien Broner on Jan. 19, as proof that any erosion is minimal, if at all.

“I’m never scared or intimidated by any opponent,” Pacquiao said of the rarity of going into a fight as an underdog. “My time is not yet over. My journey will continue. That’s what I will prove on July 20.

“The feeling that I have right now, I don’t feel this since the De La Hoya fight. I feel like I’m fighting with De La Hoya again. I’m excited and I like being the underdog for this fight. Sometimes in the past I became careless and overconfident because I am favored in nearly every fight. This time is different. I chose Keith Thurman because he’s undefeated and I want to prove that at the age of 40 I can still beat an undefeated fighter like Keith.”

Not unexpectedly, Thurman has a different vision of how his matchup with the living legend will end. “I’ve never lost to a fighter who’s lost seven times,” said Thurman, who obviously has yet to lose to anyone. “I have no intention of losing to Manny Pacquiao. I don’t see him winning in any way, shape or form. He’s 40, I’m 30. I want to show him I ain’t Adrien Broner.

“This most likely will be Manny Pacquiao’s last fight. In the welterweight division, the king was Floyd Mayweather. He is gone. The legend, Pacquiao, he’s here. Come July 20, he will be gone, too.”

Maybe so, and maybe not. It is difficult for any unabashed fan to acknowledge the rust spots on a favorite fighter, and particularly so if you feel as if that individual should forever remain as fresh and unsullied in our memory as when we first detected whatever qualities that so obviously set him apart. For me, that initial glimpse came on June 23, 2001, at the MGM Grand. A 22-year-old Pacquiao, whose 32 previous pro bouts had all been staged in his native Philippines or Japan, was making his United States debut as the virtually anonymous challenger to IBF super bantamweight champion Lehlo Ledwaba of South Africa. They met on the undercard of a show headlined by De La Hoya’s dethronement of WBC super welterweight titlist Javier Castillejo.

Although the announced attendance for the main event was 12,480, maybe only a third of that number were in their seats for the opening bell of Ledwaba-Pacquiao. Even the press section was mostly empty. But I nonetheless was moved to compliment the new champ, who stopped Ledwaba in six rounds, in my story for the Philadelphia Daily News. I wrote that Pacquiao had “electrified the crowd,” what little there was of it, while “flooring Ledwaba three times and beating him bloody.” I remember thinking, “Geez, this guy is really, really good. He could be something special.” As it turned out, he has been all that, and more.

In 1972’s Academy Award-winning film The Godfather, there is a scene in which temporarily exiled American Michael Corleone is walking the hills in Sicily with two bodyguards when he glimpses the lovely Apollonia and is instantly mesmerized. It might be the best example ever captured on celluloid of someone falling in love at first sight.

“I think you got hit by the thunderbolt,” one of the bodyguards tells the smitten Michael.

My “discovery” of Pacquiao was not the first time I was so immediately taken by an athlete that he would forever occupy a place in my heart and mind. It began when I was nine years old, in 1957, when I decided that St. Louis Cardinals superstar Stan Musial, then in his 15th major league season and on his way to winning his seventh and last National League batting championship, would be my personal hero. In Stan the Man’s final season, 1963, the Cardinals won 19 of 20 late in the season to close within a game of pennant-winning Los Angeles, but they were swept by the Dodgers in a three-game series, denying Musial, 42, a return to the World Series he had not appeared in since 1946, the year before I was born. I would have sold my soul, or at least rented it out, had it meant Stan would get to take his cuts in the Fall Classic against the New York Yankees.

There would be athletes in other sports who also would move me to such a degree: Billy Cannon, the All-America halfback of the national championship LSU Tigers in 1958, and the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner; quarterback Roger Staubach when he played at Navy; Walter Payton, whom I came across when he was a sophomore at Jackson State and I was a young sports writer in Jackson, Miss. I did a story for The Sporting News before the 1975 NFL draft in which I asserted that Payton would be much better in the pros than two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin of Ohio State, which prompted a deluge of hate mail from Buckeyes boosters. In time, I believed I would be proven correct, and I was.

No matter how much we might wish it weren’t so, the inexorable march of time serves as a diminisher of skills and reflexes. Those who make it to the pinnacle of their profession at some point are obliged to begin their descent. Three years ago I authored another story, perhaps a tad prematurely, the gist of which was that Manny Pacquiao no longer was the Manny Pacquiao he had been. He was 37 then, dropping the occasional hint that he was as human and thus as vulnerable as the rest of us. It gave me no pleasure to make the case that “Pac Man” had entered his exit stage. This is how I put it:

The encroachment of age is something no boxer can stave off indefinitely. At first, it approaches even the finest practitioners of the pugilistic arts almost imperceptibly, on little cat’s paws, but the sound eventually becomes noisy enough that it can no longer be disregarded.

One has to wonder if the sound of those little cat’s paws in the mind of 37-year-old Manny Pacquiao has been replaced by the clamor of a snarling, charging tiger. No fighter wants to entertain doubts about his athletic mortality, and that is especially so for those who know the giddy feeling of having been touched by greatness. The best of the best are almost always adherents to the message of resistance authored by British poet Dylan Thomas, who wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Pacquiao had enough gas in the tank then to outpoint Timothy Bradley Jr. in their rubber match, and the knockout of a faded Matthysse and the points nod over Broner (a gifted head case who increasingly is demonstrating that he might always have been at least somewhat overrated), could be enough to convince Manny’s most ardent supporters that there is more success to be wrung from the caboose of his lengthy train of once-dominant ring performances.

Trainer Freddie Roach, back in Pacquiao’s corner as his chief second, is convinced his guy can and will reveal himself as the goods, and he’s prepared to put his money where his mouth is.

“I haven’t made a bet in a long time, but the oddsmakers brought me back,” Roach said. “I’m going to make a huge score betting on Manny in this fight. Manny loves beating undefeated fighters, especially the younger ones. That makes it fun for Manny, and when Manny is having fun, his opponents had better watch out.”

Roach’s optimism is countered by Bob Arum, Pacquiao’s longtime former promoter, who is concerned that his onetime drawing card might find out that he is risking more than the mere outcome of a mere boxing match.

“I love Manny Pacquiao. I have a whole lot of history with Manny Pacquiao. I’m really rooting for Manny Pacquiao,” said Arum. “But you have to realize he’s 40 years of age. When a fighter passes his late 30s he’s not going to be as good as he was in his prime.”

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3 Punch Combo: Scoping Out Teofimo vs Nakatani, Ajagba vs Demirezen and More

Matt Andrzejewski

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THREE PUNCH COMBO — Boxing on ESPN+ returns this Friday with a card from the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, MD headlined by the fast-rising lightweight sensation Teofimo Lopez (13-0, 11 KO’s). Lopez will be facing the undefeated Masayoshi Nakatani (18-0, 12 KO’s) of Japan in a final IBF eliminator to become the mandatory challenger for champion Richard Commey (29-2, 26 KO’s). While Lopez is a known commodity to most boxing fans, the same cannot be said of Nakatani. So just who is this unheralded fighter from Japan and does he pose any threat to Lopez?

Nakatani, 30, turned pro in 2011 after an amateur career that by most accounts consisted of somewhere between 50 and 60 bouts. As a pro, he has never fought more than three times a year and never outside of Japan, but by managing to stay undefeated he has crept into the Top 15 rankings of three of the four major sanctioning bodies in the lightweight division.

Looking closer Nakatani’s resume, the overall level of his competition is highly questionable.  Probably his best win was in his eighth pro fight when he won a 12-round unanimous decision against Ricky Sismundo. Sismundo has sprung some surprises in the past and as a matter of fact gave undefeated rising contender Maxim Dadashev a scare earlier this year, but this is the same Ricky Sismundo who was defeated by Ruslan Madiyev last week in California, bringing his record to 35-14-3.

Other than Sismundo, the names on Nakatani’s resume are hardly recognizable.

Nakatani, an orthodox fighter, is tall for the lightweight division standing nearly six feet in height. As such, he likes to work behind the left jab. However, that jab is not very sharp or powerful, but used as more of a range finder and to set up his right hand. Sometimes he will follow the right with a left hook but his primary offense is the left jab followed by the right.

Nakatani is not that athletic or quick inside the ring. His hand speed is below average for the division. He is also not a powerful or heavy handed puncher. The knockouts are more from his level of competition than anything else.

Here are a few other notes on Nakatani based on my observations: He does not like to fight on the inside and will initiate clinches when his opponent closes the distance. And he has a habit of trying to avoid punches with his legs, often times pulling straight back with his hands down. He has gotten clipped quite a few times but fortunately for him those fighters that have done so have not possessed big punching power.

I actually do think Nakatani is the strongest opponent for Lopez to date. That being said, however, I do not think he will give Lopez much trouble. Teofimo may get frustrated some by Nakatani’s constant clinching on the inside, and he may get hit with a few range finding jabs, but expect another Lopez knockout here sometime in the first half of the fight.

Under The Radar Fight

The attention of the boxing world this week is going to be focused on the big welterweight pay-per-view title fight between Manny Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KO’s) and Keith Thurman (29-0, 22 KO’s). Also on the show is an intriguing heavyweight fight that is falling deep under the radar between a pair of 2016 Olympians in Efe Ajagba (10-0, 9 KO’s) and Ali Eren Demirezen (11-0, 10 KO’s).

Ajagba, 25, represented his native country of Nigeria in the Super Heavyweight division of the 2016 Olympics where he lost to Ivan Dychko in the quarterfinals. Since turning pro, he has really turned heads, building a reputation as a fearsome puncher.

Ajagba is a big imposing heavyweight. He stands 6’5” tall and possesses a massive 85-inch reach. Best described as an aggressive boxer puncher, he will press the action, often times behind a very stiff and powerful left jab from the orthodox stance. Very athletic for a man his size, he possesses above average hand speed for the heavyweight division. His best trait is his power; he possesses legitimate one punch knockout power in both fists. The natural tools are all there for Ajagba to potentially one day be a dominant force in the division.

But there are things Ajagba needs to work on, namely his defense. Right now, he lacks any sort of head movement and often poses in front of his opponents after punching them to admire his work. He hasn’t paid yet for his lack of attention to defense but that may change as his competition rises.

Demirezen, 29, represented Turkey in the Super Heavyweight division of the 2016 Olympics where he lost to Filip Hrgovic in his opening fight. Since turning pro he hasn’t had much fanfare, but has amassed quite an impressive early pro record while fighting mostly in Germany.

Though he may not have the imposing physique of Ajagba, Demirezen possesses some solid skills as well as some surprising athleticism. As a matter of fact, I’d go so far as to call him a poor man’s version of Andy Ruiz Jr.

Demirezen will look to apply pressure behind the left jab and work combinations with his quick hands behind that jab. He does not really possess one-punch power but is heavy handed and his punches can take a cumulative effect on his opponents. His best punch is a quick left hook to the body that he often lands with precision.

If physiques won a boxing match, this would be no contest. But as we saw with Joshua-Ruiz, physiques don’t always win. Ajagba will be favored and rightfully so, but Demirezen can fight. This is an interesting fight between two undefeated heavyweight prospects who were recent Olympians and one that I am very much looking forward to on Saturday.

Prospect Watch – Luis Arcon

 There is a lot that gets me excited about the future of the sport. Not only is the sport being broadcast like it never has before but we have many good prospects who are beaming with talent. So many good prospects, as a matter of fact, that some very talented young fighters are falling a bit under the radar. One such fighter is junior welterweight Luis Arcon who moved to 8-0 with 8 knockouts this past Friday with a third-round knockout of Mario Lozano.

Like many of today’s top prospects, Arcon has a strong amateur pedigree. His amateur background includes representing his native country of Venezuela in the 2016 Olympics.

Arcon, 27, turned pro in March of 2018 in Mexico. So far he has breezed through his competition though it must be noted that he hasn’t faced the toughest of challenges. But he has looked very good so far in his early pro career and has been flashing some incredible talent.

Fighting from the orthodox stance, Arcon likes to work behind a well-timed and very powerful left jab. His footwork is excellent and he often positions himself at the right angles to land combinations behind that jab. He possesses very fast hands and can often fire off a volley of power shots before his opponent can react.

And then there is the power. Perhaps this is what stands out most when watching Arcon on video. Granted, as noted earlier, the competition has not been the stiffest, but he has displayed devastating knockout power in both fists. His best punch is the left hook to the body which often has a paralyzing effect on his opposition.

With his amateur background, Arcon is ready to take the next step in his career. His game is polished and he possesses massive power in both of his hands. He belongs on all top prospect lists and has a bright future in this sport.

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R.I.P. Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker, One of the All-Time Greats

Arne K. Lang

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Tributes are pouring in for Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker who was killed last night (Sunday, July14) after being struck by a car while walking across a busy intersection in Virginia Beach, Virginia. An Olympic gold medalist who won six world titles in four weight classes,  Whitaker was a defensive wizard. At his peak he was considered the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. In 2002, The Ring magazine named him the 10th best boxer of the last 80 years.

Whitaker, who turned 55 in January, turned pro in 1984 at Madison Square Garden on a show that included five of his U.S. Olympic teammates – Evander Holyfield, Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor, Tyrell Biggs, and Virgil Hill.

As a pro, Whitaker was managed by Main Events, a Duva family company, and did most of his training in Philadelphia under the watchful eye of George Benton. In his 17th pro fight, Pernell ventured to Paris to challenge WBC lightweight champion Jose Luis Ramirez who was 100-6 going in. Whitaker came up short on the scorecards, losing a split decision.

This ranked among the worst decisions in boxing history. Whitaker’s chief second Lou Duva accused WBC president Jose Sulaiman of fixing the fight so as not to spoil an all-Mexico showdown between Ramirez and Julio Cesar Chavez.

Two fights later, Whitaker won his first title, taking the IBF lightweight belt from Greg Haugen. Pernell won all 12 rounds on two of the cards. He added the WBC belt in a rematch with Jose Luis Ramirez, winning a wide decision, and added the WBA belt with a first-round stoppage of Puerto Rico’s Juan Nazario in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Between his first fight with Ramirez and his April 4, 1997 encounter with Oscar De La Hoya in Las Vegas, Whitaker was undefeated, a span of almost 10 years consisting of 26 fights. During this run he won world titles at 140 and 154 pounds before dropping back to welterweight for four successful title defenses.

There was one “blemish” late in this 26-fight run, a draw at the San Antonio Alamodome with Julio Cesar Chavez. This was also controversial. The post-fight report by William Nack was the cover story in Sports Illustrated. The headline was “Robbed!”

Sweet Pea lost a unanimous decision to De La Hoya that most ringsiders thought was a lot closer than what was reflected by the scorecards (DLH won by margins of 4, 6, and 6 points). A poll of 26 ringside reporters by the Las Vegas Review Journal revealed that 14 scored it for Whitaker with one having it a draw.

Six months after his bout with De La Hoya, Whitaker opposed Andrey Pestryaev at Foxwood’s Resort in Connecticut. He won a unanimous decision but wasn’t himself. A post-fight urine test revealed the presence of cocaine. That dictated a six-month suspension during which he failed a random drug test. He wouldn’t step back into the ring until Feb. 20, 1999, when he opposed IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden.

This would the first fight in Whitaker’s remarkable career that he lost without controversy. Trinidad broke Pernell’s jaw during the bout and retained his title with a clear-cut unanimous decision.

Whitaker retired, but launched a comeback 26 months later with a fight in Lake Tahoe against Mexican journeyman Carlos Bojorquez. In this fight, Whitaker suffered a fractured clavicle in the second round. He soldiered on, but 27 seconds into the fourth, seeing that Whitaker was a one-armed fighter in considerable pain, referee Joe Cortez pulled the plug. This would be the final fight of his career. He left with a record of 40-4-1 and 1 “NC” (the Pestryaev contest).

Less than 48 hours later, back home in Norfolk, Virginia, Whitaker was rushed to the hospital with an apparent overdose. His girlfriend called 911 after finding him having a seizure on the floor of the bathroom, his body covered in sweat.

Sweet Pea, who worked as a boxing and personal trainer in retirement, appeared to have it all together back in June of 2007 when he was formally inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. His emotional speech was the highlight of the induction ceremony. But in 2014 he was back in the news again when he was forced to evict his 73-year-old mother from the home she had occupied for 30 years. He said that he could no longer afford to maintain the home which he had always kept in his name. The United Press wire story said that Whitaker had squandered millions on drugs and legal expenses.

The man that struck Whitaker with his vehicle remained on the scene. Preliminary reports indicate that the driver was not impaired in any way. We here at The Sweet Science extend our condolences to Whitaker’s family and loved ones.

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The Battle of Wits Between Roach and Birmingham May Decide PacMan vs. Thurman

Bernard Fernandez

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The Battle of Wits Between Roach and Birmingham May Decide PacMan vs. Thurman

It is the boxers who are the center of attention, of course, and that is how it always has been and always should be. But there are a select few high-visibility bouts in which the lead trainers play a more significant role than usual, so much so that their prefight and in-fight strategizing could make the difference between victory and defeat for their guy.

Although it isn’t an undercard attraction in its own right, a mental scrap worth monitoring pits Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao’s longtime strategist and a seven-time winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America Eddie Futch Award as Trainer of the Year, against Dan Birmingham, a two-time BWAA Futch winner whose status as one of the elite trainers has dimmed somewhat over the past decade and a half. But the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Birmingham’s reputation could be buffed and polished to its former sheen should Keith “One Time” Thurman win as spectacularly as he has vowed to do on July 20.

The matchup of Pacquiao vs. Thurman might turn out to be just such a fight in which a spotlight, for better or worse, is shone upon the handiwork of the trainers. Those in attendance in Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena won’t able to hear their spoken instructions between rounds, but subscribers to the PBC on Fox Sports Pay Per View telecast should pay close attention to what takes place in those vital one-minute interludes when all the preparation that went before is either working as planned, or is undergoing a hurried rewrite on the fly. Seemingly unlikely victories have been procured, more often than casual observers of the sweet science might realize, because the chief second offers just the right bit of tactical advice or just the right inspirational message at precisely the right moment.

The prevailing story lines before the first punch that counts is thrown have been fairly standard stuff: Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KOs), the living legend and only world champion in eight separate weight classes, attempting to extend the outer limits of his prime at the improbable age of 40, and Thurman (29-0, 22 KOs), the WBA welterweight champion and 10 years Pacquiao’s junior, out to demonstrate that injuries and two-plus years of near-total inactivity haven’t done to him what the natural laws of diminishing returns might or might not have done to the Fab Filipino.

If there were sports books odds dealing with the corner battle involving Roach and Birmingham, Roach, a disciple of the late, great Eddie Futch who has had Pacquiao’s ear for their 16 years together, with the exception of a one-bout absence, almost certainly would be as much a favorite as Mike Tyson was over Buster Douglas or Anthony Joshua over Andy Ruiz Jr. Roach, 59, doesn’t need to make a case for his future induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as he already has been enshrined, in 2012. Should Pacquiao demonstrate that he is still an elite fighter of the here and now instead of a cherished but faded icon of the past, Roach could take a step toward an almost-unimaginable eighth Futch Award.

And Birmingham?

Like Roach, a former lightweight who posted a 40-13 record with 15 knockouts in a professional career that spanned from 1978 to ’86, Birmingham is a life-long devotee to a sport that got under his skin at an early age and took permanent root. Unlike Roach, who at one point was 25-2 and world-rated under the tutelage of the sainted Futch, Birmingham, 68, never even sipped the proverbial cup of coffee as a pro. He began boxing at 15, weighing all of 112 pounds, in his gritty hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, until he decided that sun and surf were preferable to soot and rust, necessitating a relocation to more pleasant environs along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

There are other differences between Roach and Birmingham, both subtle and stark. As a devotee to Futch, Roach was always in relatively close proximity to the old master’s retinue of stars and hot prospects, laying the groundwork for Roach to begin his own career as a trainer, if not exactly at the top, then at least a ways removed from the bottom. Birmingham, whose other passion besides boxing is rock ’n’ roll – he describes himself as a “guitar-playing 1960s hippie who was at Woodstock” – also had a mentor in Ben Getty, Thurman’s original coach, who took the Ohio transplant on as an assistant trainer to Thurman, then a youthful prodigy.

And while Roach has long since established his bona fides apart from Futch, who was 90 when he passed away on Oct. 10, 2001, to some it might appear that Birmingham is still playing the role of understudy to Getty, who was 63 when he died unexpectedly in 2009.

Thurman was a seven-year-old kid with no discernible purpose in life when he came into contact with Getty, a former serviceman whose post-military life had been unceremoniously reduced to that of a janitor at a Clearwater elementary school. It was Getty who brought Thurman to his after-school YMCA boxing program, where he learned – and loved – to shadowbox, jump rope and spar. It was like the boxing version of Luke Skywalker mastering nuances of The Force under Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda.

“Ben Getty was a very special man,” Thurman said in 2015.  “He was the one who taught me to go for the KO. He used to say this line that pissed me off a lot. I don’t know if he said it to piss me off, or if he just said it because he never wanted me to forget. But he used to say, `You are nothing without your power.’ It took me a long time to understand what that really meant.

“To me at first it was real basic. I took it as telling me I can’t box. Maybe to a degree he did mean that, but throughout the years as I reflect, I think he just never wanted me to forget how important my power is, and how my power has the ability to change the outcome of a fight.”

Getty’s sudden death left a still-developing Thurman at a career crossroads. Shelly Finkel, manager of or adviser to some of boxing’s greatest champions and biggest draws, recommended that Thurman turn himself over to Roach, whose Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles had become a preferred destination for fighters such as himself, brimming with potential yet to be maximized. Thurman politely declined, choosing instead to remain on home turf and with Getty’s right-hand man, Birmingham, who might have been better known at that time than Getty thanks to those two Futch Awards. Thurman continues to publicly revere Getty, wearing trunks with “Ben” stitched across the waistband. You might think that Birmingham takes at least some umbrage to that, but he insists it isn’t so.

“It hasn’t been uncomfortable at all,” Birmingham said of his station as a sort of ersatz Getty, as far as Thurman is concerned. “Ben Getty and I were very close friends. I gave him the keys to my gym so he and Keith could come and go as they pleased. When Ben passed away, just a couple of days later Keith came to me and asked, `Would you take over?’ I said, `Absolutely.’

“Keith’s history with Ben makes my job a lot easier. I don’t have to teach him any basics, that’s for sure. We just analyze the opponent, see what we need to do on fight night to win, and I train him that way. Pacquiao is a diverse fighter. He’s got quick hands, quick feet and he’s a good boxer. He’s fairly unpredictable.”

Not so Thurman, who apparently is holding firm to Getty’s sacred mandate that punching power must remain his No. 1 priority. He has predicted that Pacquiao will go down inside of six rounds, which might be easier said than done even against a Manny who no longer is at peak form.

Make no mistake, though, Birmingham should not be considered a Getty clone that has slavishly adhered to every verse from the Gospel of Ben. In 2004 and 2005, the years he won his Futch Awards, Birmingham was boxing’s tastiest flavor of the moment. His charge Ronald “Winky” Wright, who was inducted into the IBHOF in 2018, outpointed Shane Mosley in a super welterweight unification showdown on March 13, 2004, and followed that up with another points nod over Mosley the same year. In 2005, Wright turned in a career-best performance, utterly dominating Felix Trinidad en route to a one-sided decision, to which he added another UD12 over veteran Sam Soliman.

While Birmingham primarily was recognized for his work with Wright, he augmented his rising profile by taking a lesser talent, 2000 U.S. Olympian, Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy, to the IBF super middleweight title in 2004. Lacy won four times in those two years, three coming inside the distance.

It should be noted that Wright, a clever southpaw who was never known for his ability to get opponents out of there with one shot or even a semi-fusillade of them, was far different stylistically than is Thurman. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that this updated version of Dan Birmingham is no more an exact duplicate of Ben Getty than Freddie Roach is of Eddie Futch.

There are different methods by which a trainer gets his fighter to rise to the occasion when the stage is most brightly lit. Angelo Dundee, Lou Duva and Richie Giachetti, all regrettably gone, embodied the motivational techniques favored by excitable men of Italian heritage. Who can forget Dundee, in maybe the signature moment of his remarkable career, forcefully telling Sugar Ray Leonard, “You’re blowing it, son!”  after the 12th round of his epic welterweight unification matchup with Thomas Hearns on Sept. 16, 1981. An energized Leonard, his eyes swollen and behind on the scorecards, responded by flooring the Hit Man in the 13th round and stopping him in the 14th.

Futch and George Benton, also regrettably gone, were more professorial in their demeanor, rarely raising their voices and disinclined to resort to rah-rah stuff. If Thurman, who has a Nepalese wife and has walked the Himalayas in a quest to find some measure of inner serenity, were to seek out some ancient and wise soothsayer he could do worse than to come across some Tibetan version of a Futch or Benton.

So pay keen attention to the 60-second breaks between rounds when Roach – who, it should be noted, is listed as Pacquiao’s co-trainer, in addition to Manny’s friend and associate Buboy Fernandez – and Birmingham dispense their abbreviated instructions. Whoever wins those small battles of the brain might determine who wins the larger conflict inside the ropes.

Photo credit: Andy Samuelson / Premier Boxing Champions

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