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Nothing Lasts Forever, Not Even Manny Pacquiao’s Exquisite Ring Career

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Nothing Lasts Forever, Not Even Manny Pacquiao’s Exquisite Ring Career

If there is one thing I’ve learned as a temporary passer-through during the millions and millions of years of mankind’s Earthly existence, it is that nothing really lasts forever. Something might stay relatively the same for years, maybe even decades, but if enough time goes by it either gets better, worse or vanishes altogether.

And while that is true for all of us, the span of athletic excellence would seem to be especially abbreviated. Oliver Wendell Holmes was mentally facile enough to have served as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court until his retirement, at 90, in 1932. Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg served until she was 87, when she finally was outpointed by the Grim Reaper. Physical prowess, however, almost always has a much-earlier expiration date. If that was not apparent before, it should have been after 58-year-old, four-time former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield didn’t make it through a single round of his recent sanctioned fight in Florida against former UFC star Vitor Belfort, 44, which never should have been allowed even as a grin-and-giggle exhibition.

The inevitable law of diminishing returns, at least as it pertains to boxing, was reaffirmed on Wednesday when Manny Pacquiao, increasingly a graybeard of boxing at 42 but relatively youthful as a politician, announced his retirement from the ring after 26 years, 72 professional bouts, world championships in a record eight separate weight classes and, for his global legion of fans and admirers, countless memories made. Perhaps Pacquiao was influenced by his most recent and likely final bout, a 12-round, unanimous-decision loss on Aug. 21 to Yordenis Ugas, who came away with “PacMan’s” WBA welterweight title. Then again, perhaps not. A sitting member of the Philippine Senate since 2016 and prior to that a Representative of the Sarangani Province to the Philippine Congress from 2010 to 2016, it has long been his desire to someday ascend to his country’s highest elected office. If he is truly done with boxing, he can now fully focus on his bid to succeed 76-year-old incumbent Rodrigo Duterte, whose six-year term expires in 2022.

In a Facebook post confirming what many had already expected, Pacquiao said, “It is difficult for me to accept that my time as a boxer is over. Today, I am announcing my retirement. I never thought that this day would come. As I hang up my boxing gloves, I would like to thank the whole world, especially the Filipino people, for supporting Manny Pacquiao.”

Still, you have to wonder which way Pacquiao might have turned had he reached back into his glorious past to summon enough of what had made him a living legend and defeat the very capable Ugas, thus again demonstrating that he is somehow immune to the ravages of age that make even the best of the best seem merely mortal. Would his retirement announcement, previously hinted at, again be put on hold? Even given his vast popularity, could he have reasonably asked Filipino voters to go to the polls next year and cast their ballots for a part-time fighter, part-time President?

Pacquiao as the possible leader of a nation of 90 million, or even as a fighter who would go on to achieve some of all that he eventually did, seemed unlikely at best and ridiculous at worst when he made his United States debut on June 23, 2001, at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand, as a challenger to IBF super bantamweight champ Lehlo Ledwaba of South Africa in early-undercard support of the main event that paired Oscar De La Hoya with WBC super welterweight titlist Javier Castillejo. The arena and press section were both less than half-full when Pacquiao, virtually anonymous in America despite the world flyweight and junior bantamweight belts he had won while fighting almost exclusively in his homeland (only two of his previous 34 pro bouts were outside the Phillippines), stepped inside the ropes to painfully introduce himself to Ledwaba and, in a sense, everyone else who cared to take notice.

At least one U.S. writer fortunate enough to have taken his ringside seat early – me – was mesmerized by what he had seen of the little southpaw whirling dervish, who stopped Ledwaba in six one-sided rounds. I made a mental note to keep tabs on a fighter I was convinced could become something special, and as time went by Pacquiao’s emergence as a force of nature was not unlike that of a gigantic avalanche rolling down the side of a snowy mountain.

In comparing notes with longtime Associated Press boxing writer Ed Schuyler Jr., we discovered that his first glimpse of a young Panamanian destroyer named Roberto Duran, a one-round demolition of solid journeyman Benny Huertas in Madison Square Garden on Sept. 13, 1971, was as indelible as mine was of the scrawny, 22-year-old Pacquiao. Later, for a story for this site that was posted on Dec. 5, 2012, I compared my initial impression of Pacquiao to how Michael Corleone, hiding out in Sicily, felt upon seeing the lovely Apollonia in the 1972 Academy Award-winning film The Godfather, which one of Michael’s bodyguards compared to “getting hit by the thunderbolt.”

For boxing buffs, the thunderbolt strikes whenever they first-catch sight of someone they hadn’t seen before, and maybe even hadn’t heard about, but whose style, charisma or power have the effect that Apollonia had on Michael Corleone. We immediately reserve a part of our heart for that fighter, and the likelihood is that he resides there for the remainder of his ring career, and possibly forever. For diehard loyalists, the thunderbolt came in the form of a mobile, fast-handed and mouthy heavyweight named Cassius Clay, for others it was a snarling, compact wrecking machine, Mike Tyson.

Objectivity is the name of the game for professional chroniclers of the sport, and emotional and/or personal feelings shouldn’t come into play when reporting on a particular fight or fighter. There are other practitioners of the pugilistic arts I have liked as much personally, or admired as much professionally, as I have Pacquiao. Other fighters stir less-positive feelings because, well, media members are as human as anyone else. But we are obliged to call ’em as we see ’em; it is a narrow path that does not allow for much if any deviation.

There have been occasions involving other sports when the thunderbolt has struck me. As a young sports columnist for the Jackson (Miss.) Daily News, I experienced a Pacquiao-like epiphany when a sophomore running back for Jackson State, Walter Payton, revealed himself as a generational talent. Same thing when Pete Maravich showed up at LSU as a gangly freshman wunderkind who could do things with a basketball nobody had ever seen before, or when then-rookies Albert Pujols and Ken Griffey Jr. swung their bats as if they were future tickets to enshrinement in Cooperstown branded into the wood. True greatness sometimes is delayed in its arrival, but when it arrives it is impossible to look away. So, we look, and look, and keep doing so until the Paytons, Maraviches and Pacquiaos no longer can or wish to try squeezing more magic out of their expiring primes.

Is Manny Pacquiao the greatest fighter ever? Maybe not, but the roll call of those who merit a higher place in history’s pecking order is short and distinguished. The Fab Filipino didn’t linger as long as Bernard Hopkins, who was still a world-rated light heavyweight as he entered his 50s, or Archie Moore or George Foreman, but he is the only man ever to hold world titles in eight separate weight classifications or in four decades (the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s). His 62-8-2 career record, with 39 knockouts, includes victories over a Who’s Who of boxing’s elite: Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Juan Manuel Marquez, Tim Bradley, Adrien Broner and Keith Thurman.

Additional testimonials to Pacquiao shouldn’t be necessary now that he seemingly has fought his last fight, but consider these culled from insiders I have spoken to during the Age of Manny.

Prior to his Nov. 14, 2009, clash with another future Hall of Famer, Miguel Cotto (Pacquiao won on a 12th-round stoppage to claim the seventh of his eight titles in different weight classes), “PacMan’s” longtime trainer Freddie Roach offered that “Manny is a throwback. He is like Henry Armstrong (the only fighter to simultaneously hold three world titles in different weight divisions). But the amazing thing is that he’s carrying his power with him along with his speed. He is passing people like Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns, who were six-division world champs.”

And this, from the late and great Philadelphia trainer, Naazim Richardson: “The last fighter I saw who fought like Pacquiao was Aaron Pryor. Pryor was an all-action fighter. His energy level was just extraordinary. Pacquiao brings the same level of energy into the ring. He’s so consistent. He’s fought bigger guys, but his fights have gotten easier because the high-energy guys are usually in the lower weight classes. When he’s fought bigger guys, he’s actually had an easier time.”

Enjoy your retirement from boxing, Manny, although you might find that possibly assuming the duties of your country’s presidency might make duking it out with another king of the ring seem like child’s play. Years ago you marveled at what you had accomplished inside the ropes, saying it was “more than my dreams. But then everything in my life has been so much more than my dreams.”

How many fighters – anyone, really – can say that?

Editor’s Note: Bernard Fernandez, named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category with the class of 2020, was the recipient of numerous awards for writing excellence during his 28-year career as a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News. Fernandez’s first book, “Championship Rounds,” a compendium of previously published material, was released in May of last year. The sequel, “Championship Rounds, Vol. 2,” with a foreword by Jim Lampley, arrives this fall. The book can be ordered through Amazon.com, in hard or soft cover, and other book-selling websites and outlets.

Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel

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This Week in Boxing History: Tyson Goes Bonkers, Sowing Mayhem Outside the Ropes

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This week marked the 25th anniversary of one of the most infamous fights in boxing history. On June 28, 1997, Mike Tyson was disqualified at the conclusion of the third round for “chomping” on both of Evander Holyfield’s ears. Iron Mike wasn’t the first boxer to go ballistic during a match and cause a riot, but no boxer ever imploded on such a big stage. Tyson-Holyfield II, contested before a full house at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, drew 1.95 million pay-per-view buys in the U.S. market alone, making it the largest audience in boxing history to that point in time.

The details of what happened inside the ring are well-documented; the aftermath less so. Before the night was over, portions of the MGM Grand were a battle zone. Fist fights erupted like brushfires. Two $100-minimum blackjack tables were overturned. $134,000 in casino chips disappeared and the gaming pit was shut down for two hours as a safety precaution.

It could have been a lot worse. Management had sealed off the escalator that would have taken people on the second level to the closest exit. Those leaving the arena were funneled into the corridor that led into the casino. They were wedged together like New York subway riders at rush hour and had there been anything that would have triggered a stampede, it would have been catastrophic. Later that evening, there was an incident in the casino where a champagne bottle exploded, simulating the sound of a gunshot, and several people were injured in the ensuing chaos.

This reporter was among those logjammed in that corridor. I’m told that there was bedlam back in the arena, but no one said a word as those of us anxious to leave progressed in baby steps toward a place that offered more breathing room.

Back in those days, I usually hung around the press room after a big fight, chewing the fat with those of my colleagues who weren’t busy filing their stories. But one could sense that bad things were going to happen before the night was over — a Tyson fight attracted a different element than, say, a De La Hoya fight — and I just wanted to get the hell out of there. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Eleven days after the fight, on Wednesday, July 9, the Nevada State Athletic Commission convened to determine what penalty to impose on Tyson. It was a public hearing in conformance with Nevada’s open meeting law and a meeting that would have normally been held in a boardroom was moved to a large auditorium in City Hall in an attempt to accommodate everyone that wanted to be there.

The press turned out in droves and that’s an understatement. The NSAC issued 175 media credentials. “This is a tougher ticket than the fight ticket,” quipped Athletic Commission Executive Director Marc Ratner. In his recently-published memoir, Ratner recalled that there were so many satellite trucks outside City Hall that it blocked the building.

Mike Tyson wasn’t obligated to be there and to the great dismay of the horde of reporters, he didn’t show up, nor did his charismatic promoter, Don King. Tyson was represented by the well-known mob attorney Oscar Goodman, the city’s future mayor, and Goodman’s law partner Marty Keach who did most of the talking. (Las Vegas was a lot smaller back then; Keach was my son’s Little League coach.)

The Commission slapped Tyson with the maximum fine that it could legally impose, $3 million (10 percent of his purse). That wasn’t merely the largest individual fine in boxing history, but the largest in any sport. (In Nevada, the previous record was the $35,000 fine assessed on Riddick Bowe’s manager Rock Newman for punching a photographer after the first Bowe-Holyfield fight.)

The Commission also suspended Tyson’s license for one year and mandated that he undergo a thorough psychiatric exam. This was performed at Massachusetts General Hospital. Predictably, the examiners concluded that Mike had psychological deficits including impulsivity exacerbated by low self-esteem.

The infamous “bite fight” had deep repercussions. The MGM Grand imposed an informal moratorium on boxing that lasted 566 days. Over at the Las Vegas Hilton, the bantamweight title unification fight between bitter Albuquerque rivals Johnny Tapia and Danny Romero, scheduled for July 18, was kicked out the door on the pretext that co-promoters Bob Arum and Cedric Kushner failed to provide evidence of insurance before the agreed-upon deadline. Arum, who went ballistic in his own way, calling upon fight fans to boycott all Hilton properties, was able to salvage the show by shifting it to the Thomas and Mack Center at UNLV where it played out before a well-mannered crowd.

It speaks reams about how larger-than-life Tyson was in 1997 that news gathering teams from around the world would turn up at a hearing where there was no guarantee that he would even be there. Mike Tyson on his best and on his worst days was front-page news in the print editions (there was no other kind) of the leading U.S. newspapers; not just the tabloids. Perhaps another boxer of his stripe will come along some day, but for now he represents the last of the breed.

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Jason Cunningham and Zolani Tete at the Crossroads This Weekend

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It is probable that one must go all the way back to the mighty Dick Tiger to find a fighter who courted the British public with the determination Zolani Tete has exhibited during the last decade.  Between the final days of 2015 and the final days – the disastrous final days – of 2019, he fought on this country’s soil on six occasions, dashing not the hopes of native sons but rather turning away Filipinos, Mexicans, Argentines and even a fellow South African. Slowly, surely, Tete was earning British trust, pounding out impressively one-sided decisions over the once dominant Omar Narvaez and Arthur Villanueva, dusting others with impressive punching power and a pleasing, aggressive style.

When Tete met John Riel Casimero in Birmingham, it was a fight he was favoured to win, despite their being ranked neck-and-neck by the TBRB. Tete, who had been scheduled to face Nonito Donaire for the right to meet Naoya Inoue earlier in 2019, had been forced to withdraw from that match with a shoulder injury. Donaire went on to lose to Inoue in the TSS Fight of the Year and Boxing News was far from alone in looking ahead to Tete’s seemingly inevitable showdown with Inoue in a preview of the Casimero fight. Tete was “granite tough” and Inoue’s “closest 118lb rival…he might also turn out to be his worst nightmare.”

BN was far from alone in taking the bait, but it’s certainly possible to see strains of the defence of a British pugilist in the legendary London publication’s enthusiasm.

Casimero, with what seems retrospectively to be a certain inevitability, stepped in to wreck both these plans and Tete himself. The Filipino, who had been active while Tete recovered from injury, fought low-handed and in small, clever increments, popping Tete out in three with short sharp shots in what looked an awful lot like an exposure. Tete’s technical acumen seemed brittle and tired in the face of Casimero’s quickness.  Silence followed.

While Tete was recovering from an injured shoulder, Yorkshireman Jason Cunningham was in a rehabilitation of his own, overcoming the most hurtful sporting injury of them all: a series of hidings in the boxing ring. He picked up the commonwealth featherweight title in 2017 by way of split decision over Ben Jones in a close fight in which Jones was the aggressor. Cunningham lost the title by way of a brutal stoppage sixth months later to Reece Bellotti in a fight where he was clearly the quality operator but was mowed down by a bigger man throwing bigger punches. He betrayed a certain fragility in finding himself on the canvas in five before the fight was waved off in the sixth.  When he lost a British featherweight elimination match to Jordan Gill in 2018 and then dropped a harrowing decision to Michael Conlan that December, Cunningham teetered on the most desperate of ledges and in the eyes of some had already slipped. Still in his twenties and with a paper record of 24-6 he was now little more than a journeyman.

So, while Tete nursed apparent tendonitis, Cunningham nursed a broken career, turning out at the Doncaster Dome for a series of short fights at a series of random weights coming in just over bantamweight one minute, over the lightweight limit the next. Then he got a call from Gamal Yafai’s people.

Gamal, younger brother of former world champion Kal, was on his own comeback trail after losing out to the excellent Gavin McDonnell. For Cunningham it looked like something of a last chance at the big time and the odds were not in his favour.

“This has been probably the quickest camp I’ve had,” he told Boxing Social. “I’ve had three weeks’ notice…but this time I’ve had to renew my medicals, sort out kit and everything else, so I’ve been flat out for this.”

He was flat out in the ring, too, using his southpaw range and footwork to out-punch and out-work the younger Gamal for a clear twelve-round decision. It was the best fight he had been involved in, one of the best domestic matches of 2021 and it was, in his own words, his best performance. He had dropped the favourite three times on the way to restoring twelve-round status and much more importantly, respect. It brought with it the EBU European Super Bantam Title and a fight with Brad Foster where the British, Commonwealth and European titles would all be at stake.

Once more, Cunningham defeated a favoured house fighter in a raucous, dirty fight I saw 114-113 to Cunningham, victorious by the single point referee Foster had deducted for a range of fouls from heeling to low blows to headbutts. Better was to follow – in April of 2022, Cunningham defeated Frenchman Terry Le Couviour via sixth round stoppage on body shots. Cunningham has always had a nice line in body attack, often opening up the midriff with feints off the jab, but in these two fights it matured to a weapon of real substance. These punches had dragged Cunningham from the bottom of the pile to the top of the domestic heap.

And then the ostensibly world-class Tete hovered into view.

While Cunningham had been motoring, Tete had found himself in the doldrums. COVID-19 controls in South Africa made travelling nearly impossible and there were even rumours of a car crash.  Finally, just before Christmas 2021, in a tiny ring in the Booysens Boxing Club in Johannesburg, Tete returned against 14-4-1 Tanzanian Iddi Kayumba. Tete blew him out in fifty-five seconds.

What all this means is that Tete has boxed just under a minute in the best part of three years.   When he steps back into a British ring this weekend on the undercard of the Joe Joyce-Christian Hammer match in the Wembley Arena, he will be fighting a tough, primed fighter who has boxed the thirty toughest and the thirty best rounds of his career in the past fourteen months, while Tete cooled his heels and blasted out a sparring partner. That this fight is being ignored in favour of a stay-busy contest being fought by a heavyweight contender is strange and Sweet Science readers should not count themselves among the number: Tete-Cunningham is the real main event in London on Saturday.

What will occur?

Tete, at thirty-four, two years older than Cunningham, is no longer ancient for the weight – but he is old to be stepping out of the garage. Cunningham, who is running on high quality experience now, is as good a manifestation of himself as is likely ever to be seen and Tete, it must be presumed, will be at or around his worst. Tete is still likely to hit as hard as anyone Cunningham has boxed, featherweights included, but does he still have the technical apparatus and speed to get those punches to where they need to be?

It is impossible to know, but therein lies the rub. Essentially this fight stacks a very good domestic fighter who is big at the weight against the remains of a world-class one. The question in these circumstances is always the same: how much does the world-class fighter have left? If it’s a lot, he will win (see Vitali Klitschko versus Samuel Peter); if it’s a little, he will lose (see Ricky Hatton versus Vyacheslav Senchenko). Then, of course, there is a sweet spot somewhere in between where the fight hangs in the balance. More, because the traditional strengths of Tete – power and technical competence on attack – line up so dramatically with Cunningham’s – grit, toughs, quick-footed, awkward persistence – we could be in line for a dual sweet spot.

But whether we see a sweet spot war, or Cunningham grinding out a decision, or even if Tete just marches in and bangs Cunningham out like he did Kayumba or Siboniso Gonya or the dozen others he’s dispatched in the first round, we will have seen something special.

Like so much of Jason Cunningham’s career this fight is dipping under the radar. Do not miss it.

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Bernard Fernandez, B-Hop’s ‘Boswell’, Was Showered With Accolades in June

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It’s been a month of accolades for longtime boxing scribe Bernard Fernandez, a regular contributor to these pages. On Sunday, June 12, he was formally inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Last week he learned that he was the recipient of yet another Bernie Award for outstanding writing. Open to members of the Boxing Writers Association of America, the Bernie Award is an annual competition with the winners determined by a panel of judges.

Bernard Fernandez has been a familiar face at IBHOF induction ceremonies. He has covered sixteen of these events. But he was not there for his own induction. His beloved Annie, his wife of nearly 54 years, had taken sick and was too ill to travel. He chose to remain by her side.

The pandemic stole Fernandez’s moment in the sun. He was actually named to the Hall with the class of 2020 but the four-day festival that conjoins the induction ceremony was cancelled that year and again in 2021. Three induction classes were bundled into this year’s event.

Fernandez wasn’t on the stage with the other inductees, but when he was summoned in absentia to the podium it was one of the highlights of the afternoon. Standing in for him were his Philadelphia homeys Bernard Hopkins and BWAA president Joe Santoliquito. They called him at his home in Pennsylvania so that he could hear the roar of the crowd when his name was called. Hopkins was in something of a familiar role. He had presented the symbolic championship belt to Fernandez when Fernandez was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of fame in 2013.

The two Bernards — Fernandez and fellow 2020 inductee Hopkins – are boxing’s version of James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, the former a famous 18th-century British diarist who chronicled his friend Johnson’s life in a landmark biography. Hopkins had a career that spanned four decades. Fernandez was there for B-Hop’s first fight and for his last fight and for almost all of his fights in-between. In the course of their respective journeys, they became fast friends.

Hopkins made his pro debut on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 1988, losing a four-round decision to fellow novice Clinton Mitchell at Resorts International in Atlantic City. The main event was a 10-rounder between 41-year-old Saoul Mamby and 23-year-old John Wesley Meekins. In his ringside report, Fernandez used the phrase “ancient marvel.” Needless to say, he was referencing Mamby, not Hopkins who would become more of a marvel.

Fernandez could have watched the Mamby-Meekins fight at home on the fledgling ESPN network, but he was there in the building when Hopkins made his inauspicious debut. He was also in the building when Hopkins scored the most spectacular knockout of his glorious career, flattening poor Richard Quiles with a picture-perfect left hook 30 seconds into their scheduled six-rounder at a Philadelphia National Guard armory. Perhaps 500 people were in attendance.

That bout was in 1991. Twenty-five years later, Fernandez covered B-Hop’s farewell fight in Los Angeles for this publication.

Bernie Awards

The Bernie Awards recognize exceptional writing in six categories:  Event Coverage, Column, News Story, Feature Story Over 1,500 Words, Feature Story Under 1,500 Words, and Investigative Reporting. Fernandez achieved a first-place finish for a RingTV story titled “Don King at 90: A Legend Nears the Finish Line.”

Thomas Hauser, a perennial Bernie Award honoree, explored the same subject matter in a story for this publication that ran on Jan. 30. Titled “Don King – 2 Samuel 1:19, 1:25, 1:27 ‘How are the Mighty Fallen,’” it was accorded an “Honorable Mention” in the Event Coverage category. Another TSS story by Hauser, “The Script for Lamar Odom vs. Aaron Carter,” finished third in the category of Investigative Reporting.

The complete list of Bernie Award winners for stories published in 2021 can be found at the BWAA web site: https://www.bwaa.org/single-post/the-bwaa-is-proud-to-announce-its-2021-bernie-award-winners

We here at The Sweet Science congratulate all of the prize winners. The recipients will be formally recognized by their peers at the 94th renewal of the Boxing Writers annual dinner tentatively set for mid-September at Las Vegas in conjunction with the third fight between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin.

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