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The falling stock of Manny Pacquiao

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Though they soldiered on as one of boxing's chief fighting cultures, there were several setbacks for the proud Filipino fighters in 2007. Past the emergence of young prospect A.J. Banal, veteran Gerry Penalosa's comeback knockout of Jhonny Gonzalez to win a bantamweight title, and Nonito Donaire's crushing conquering of Vic Darchinyan, the fanatical Filipino fans had to endure some tough losses this year.

Czar Amonsot was battered by Michael Katsidis in July, ending up in a hospital, and later in the year, a freak accident at home ended his career for good. Top prospect Rey Bautista was bombed out of the ring in less than a round by Daniel Ponce de Leon, who also beat Penalosa in March in a very competitive fight. Humberto Soto crushed the always-game, often-overmatched Bobby Pacquiao. Ulises Solis hammered both Rodel Mayol and Bert Batawang.

Most importantly, though, their top star, and one of boxing's biggest names, had his most lackluster year since emerging as a superstar in 2003.

Sure, Manny Pacquiao went 2-0 this year, but what did those two wins really tell us? Nothing, quite frankly. His first win, over unknown Jorge Solis (brother of Ulises), proved that Pacquiao could turn on the jets and paste a largely-untested featherweight any time he wanted to, which he did in the eighth round of a Top Rank pay-per-view main event in April.

Coming off of his three-round pounding of Erik Morales in November 2006, this was a bit of a letdown, to say the least. To be fair, there were issues at the time. Top Rank and Golden Boy had not yet called a truce, allowing their fighters to mingle in the squared circle, and the options were limited. But Humberto Soto was a Top Rank fighter. Knockout artist Edwin Valero had been clamoring to fight Pacquiao in Asia. Instead, Bob Arum and Pacquiao lined up an easy fight. It's not meant to disrespect Jorge Solis, but come on. Nobody thought he could win that fight.

You might say, "Well, Manny deserved an easy fight." Why? His latter two 2006 bouts weren't a whole lot more impressive than his 2007 was. Sure, he wailed on Morales, but Morales was on his last legs, and we knew that. Morales knew it. And his other win came against faded Mexican warrior Oscar Larios. The January 2006 win over Morales was something very special, but it was that fight where the wars finally caught up with "El Terrible," too.

Pacquiao's second offering in 2007 was a rematch against Marco Antonio Barrera in October, the first major Top Rank-Golden Boy co-promoted event. Pacquiao, having mashed a much fresher Barrera in 2003, came in the overwhelming favorite. Plus, Barrera had long since abandoned the all-out assaults that made him famous. He became a safety-first fighter -- not on the level of Zahir Raheem or someone like that, but we weren't going to see many bomb exchanges. And Barrera had made it clear that this was his last fight. He wanted to either beat Manny on his way out, or lose to the best man the division had to offer.

Fine, great. The fight stunk. Not only did Barrera play defense almost the entire way save for a few nostalgic fists-flying exchanges, but Pacquiao was not in shape. In fact, neither were. Barrera looked pudgy for 130 pounds, and Manny looked gaunt and tired.

Pacquiao's vaunted speed and power, the fury that made him who he is today, never showed itself. If it had been there, Barrera's night would have been over much earlier, and we wouldn't have had to endure 12 passionless rounds for $44.95.

In all candor, Pacquiao-Barrera II was a supreme letdown, maybe the biggest disappointment of the year. Though it wasn't Barrera-Morales I or III, his fight in March with Juan Manuel Marquez was a beautiful boxing match featuring two extremely skilled boxer-punchers pitting not only their fists, but their brains against the other man's. And Pacquiao would, hopefully, come out with fists flying, hoping to squash the legend of Marco Antonio Barrera as he got into the ring for the final time.

Instead, we got nothing much to write home about. The rematch was simply a gift for Barrera, anyway, because he hadn't been competitive against Pacquiao four years ago. Everyone on earth seemed to prefer seeing Pacquiao-Marquez II or Pacquiao-Soto (Top Rank's original October plan), knowing those would be superior fights. But we got what we got, and in my view, Pacquiao's standing was shaken a little bit.

Why? Because he should have knocked Barrera out. He dominated the fight, sure, but he did so without ever really endangering Barrera. Marco Antonio was able to stand tall for 12 rounds and leave with his head mostly up because Pacquiao was never able to press him.

The Manny Pacquiao we know and love to watch fight would have never let that happen against a guy playing it as safe as Barrera. I'm not even saying that Barrera isn't so good at playing defense and staying away that that didn't factor in. But where was the power? Where were the combinations? Where was the Pacquiao flame that had driven him into becoming the world's top action star?

When compiling my list of the top 20 fights of 2007, I had to take a moment to really reflect on the fact that Manny Pacquiao wasn't going to be there, and that is not because 2007 was so jam-packed with very good and great fights, though it was. It was because both of Pacquiao's fights were forgettable affairs, one a mismatch, the other a weak effort on behalf of two global stars.

It was somewhat off-putting. Where is Pacquiao's career going right now? There is talk and talk and talk all around -- first Marquez, then David Diaz, then Hatton or Oscar or some other major money fight.

Did anyone watch Pacquiao fight this year? Are we choosing to give him the benefit of the doubt? Look, if Mayweather is going to be called out on the carpet by half the boxing writers out there no matter what he does, then the Pacman's crap year deserves the same. If anyone thinks the Manny Pacquiao that beat Barrera can beat Juan Manuel Marquez in March, they're nuts. Marquez will eat him alive, and throw a wrench into a lot of Bob Arum's super plans.

Everyone has been saying all along that Pacquiao needs to remember he's a boxer -- not a pop star, not a movie star, not a politician, but a boxer. Yes, it's very demanding to be a star on Pacquiao's level in the Philippines. There is no American celebrity who can compare it. Not even close. In his homeland, Pacquiao is Muhammad Ali and The Beatles rolled into one.

And maybe it's selfish of us to demand that he focus more on his pugilistic career. But the truth is, I don't care about his movies, his albums, or his political aspirations. I care about his boxing. If he continues to ignore that, it's going to hurt him in the ring. Marquez could be just the guy, too.

I hope Manny trains as hard as ever. Freddie Roach and Bob Arum both know, and have publicly stated, that he has to. Roach has hinted repeatedly that he's grown more and more frustrated by Pacquiao in each camp, even seeming, at times, to be considering breaking off the relationship that made him arguably the world's hottest trainer.

The reason I say any of this, frankly, is that I want the old Manny Pacquiao back. The guy whose fights were can't miss, no matter what. Marquez-Pacquiao II is that type of fight, but I feel that, right now, that's more because of the fact that the wildly popular Pacquiao may be in serious trouble against a fighter for whom boxing is his life, the same guy that rebounded from three first round knockdowns to outbox Pacquiao for 11 rounds in their first meeting.

Bottom line, Pacquiao exits 2007 on a slightly lower rung than he opened the year. Is 2008 going to be a different story, or have we been treated to the beginning of the end for the Pacquiao phenomenon?