2012 has been some year for boxing. Upsets, great fights, emerging new stars, and a changing of the guard. Last night, arguably the year's biggest statement was made, when Juan Manuel Marquez knocked Manny Pacquiao out cold at the end of the sixth round, finally triumphing over his greatest rival, and possibly -- probably? -- putting an end to one of the most spectacular and hardest-fought rivalries in professional boxing's rich and colorful history.
Now, 39-year-old Marquez isn't really a big part of boxing's future. No matter his conditioning or change in training or dietary habits, Marquez's time in the sport is borrowed at this point. The supposed trend of fighters staying elite longer than they used to be has been greatly overstated. Marquez, yes, is still an elite fighter. Bernard Hopkins, who turns 48 in January, might be, and either way, he lasted longer as a top guy than anyone ever has before.
But mostly, fighters tail off as they always have. The decline sets in as their 30s take hold, and by the time they turn 40, if they make it that far while still in the public eye, it's over.
In recent years, we've seen some great fighters hit the wall. Oscar De La Hoya in 2008. Shane Mosley in 2010, really, though he's apparently still planning to fight again despite announcing a retirement after a one-sided loss to Canelo Alvarez. Roy Jones Jr in 2004, though the obsessed or foolish held on until 2009. In 2009, Ricky Hatton was finished off by Manny Pacquiao -- though he returned this year for a final, brave go at a boxing career, and retired again with his head hopefully (and rightfully) held high after a KO body shot loss. Miguel Cotto may have hit the wall last week, losing to Austin Trout in New York.
Of that lot, only De La Hoya's end really rivals Pacquiao's inevitable exit from the sport for significance, with no offense intended to those other terrific fighters, each of them stars. De La Hoya carried the sport through some tough times, and Pacquiao -- alongside press rival Floyd Mayweather -- has done the same since Oscar retired following his almost embarrassingly one-sided loss to Manny in '08.
When Oscar was sliced, diced, minced, chopped, and overall beaten to a pulp by Pacquiao, the prevailing thought was that years as a part-time fighter had finally taken their toll on the 35-year-old "Golden Boy." Before history starts being rewritten, recall that Oscar De La Hoya was a remarkable specimen in the boxing world. After the sport had faded from the mainstream, it was De La Hoya who carried the torch for a declining profession, using his charm, good looks, charisma, and yes, top-shelf boxing ability to become one of the few major names in a sport that was seeing fan interest drop at alarming rates.
In a way, Oscar helped (if you want to call it that) change the game. While promoters were ill-prepared to battle the fall of boxing's general mainstream appeal, De La Hoya proved that one big drawing card -- with a few lesser but reliable notable stars -- could make for a still-profitable business. When Floyd Mayweather beat Oscar in 2007, a new superstar was born. Mayweather's once-in-a-generation talent, combined with a new "Money" persona created on HBO's revolutionary "24/7" series, helped him snatch the torch from Oscar.
But it didn't come all at once. While Mayweather has become the biggest pay-per-view draw in the industry, much of his fame -- and this goes both ways -- has been aided by a fantasy rivalry with Pacquiao, who retired De La Hoya in 2008. Whether we as diehard fans believe that Oscar was clearly shot and out of shape isn't the point -- put yourself back on that date in December 2008, and remember what it was like to watch "little" Pacquiao thoroughly dominate De La Hoya, to the point that it was disheartening to watch a modern legend take such a beating, with nothing he could do about it.
Floyd and Manny carried this sport from 2008 ... until last night. That's when Juan Manuel Marquez connected on a sick right hand counter at the end of round six, in what may have been the most intense Pacquiao vs Marquez fight of them all.
Last week, following Cotto's loss to Trout and the previous weekend's Hatton result, I wrote a piece called, "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?" One week later, Manny Pacquiao's name enters that discussion.
Let's be very clear here: Manny Pacquiao is still a top fighter. It's still incredibly easy to argue he's still top five, pound-for-pound, behind -- in my estimation -- Mayweather, Andre Ward, Marquez, and Sergio Martinez, with Nonito Donaire nipping at that group's heels.
If we were to say the top five is that group, then look at the ages: Mayweather turns 36 and Martinez 37 in February, while Pacquiao is about to turn 34 on December 17. Marquez is 39. The times they are a-changin' and all that. Ward, 29 in February, isn't a superstar, and may not have the sort of personality to become one, though he has the skills to deserve the recognition. Donaire does, too, but he's at 122 pounds, and it's exceedingly difficult to become a major star below 147 (though hopefully, we will see that change).
Pacquiao can still fight. So can Cotto, particularly if it's possible for him to still comfortably make 147 pounds, which it may not be.
Then there's the case of Hatton. Honestly, Ricky Hatton could still be a top 15 welterweight with more time in the gym. If Hatton had faced Vyacheslav Senchenko after a tune-up fight and another training camp, I'm truly confident he could handle that challenge. But it's not just about what's there physically. What about the mental state?
Hatton went through a lot in the last three years, with drug scandals, personal shame and embarrassments, self-doubt, and self-professed suicidal thoughts. For Ricky Hatton, getting in shape and back into the ring was a victory in itself. Tears streamed down his face when he was interviewed on UK TV after the loss to Senchenko, and at the post-fight press conference, he seemed a man at peace. And so he decided that was enough.
Cotto says he'll fight again, which is fine. He doesn't seem to be mentally checked out of the game, saying he's "not finished" and still has boxing on his mind. We'll see if he has the heart for it.
But Pacquiao is a unique case. Like De La Hoya, but to a less obvious extent, Pacquiao has become a part-time fighter. Sure, he still fights twice a year, but it's no secret that his full attention has not been on boxing for a good while now. With a political career in the Philippines and a legitimate desire to make a difference there, Pacquiao isn't the same guy about whom Jim Lampley remarked in 2004, during the first Marquez fight, "Out of the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood come stories of sparring partners with broken ribs, sparring partners who went home after one day, knockouts day after day in sparring."
That's not who Manny Pacquiao is in 2012. He's a boxer, and a hell of a good one at that, but he's also a Congressman, devoted to his wife and children and Bible studies. Striving to make a great difference in this world.
And as admirable as that mission is for any man, it's a little tough to remain an elite professional boxer while spreading yourself thin like too little butter on too much bread.
Trainer Freddie Roach said last night that the end may be near:
"Possible retirement, possible rematch; I'm not sure which way we're going to go right now. It really depends upon how he feels and what he wants to do. We'll get back in the gym and if I see signs of decline, I'll tell him to retire. If I don't, I'll tell him to go on."
Roach has long said that he's promised Pacquiao he'll tell him when he thinks it's gone. And Pacquiao has said he'll heed that advice and retire. For now, Roach says he doesn't feel they're at that point. And maybe a fifth Marquez fight does make sense -- groan if you want to, but after last night, are you really not going to tune in?
What might make just as much if not more sense would be for Manny Pacquiao, a multi-millionaire, to look inward and ask himself if he still has as much focus as he keeps saying he does in training camp. If it's really worth the risk anymore. Or if it's time to just be an all-time great, Hall of Fame-bound fighter, who retired before it was too late, to spend the rest of his life with his lovely family and a post-boxing career that few fighters will have the luxury of enjoying.
Only Manny Pacquiao can answer that question. I sure as hell can't, and even the great Freddie Roach can't do that for him. Freddie can tell him if he's physically slipping, and suspect that the mental game isn't where it used to be, but only Manny really knows if, deep down, it's still in there. And if it is, if he's willing to sacrifice enough to bring that out again.
Manny Pacquiao looked sharp and strong last night. He also looked more vulnerable than he has since 1999 -- 13 years ago, a length of time that would be a healthy and successful career for most pro boxers, let alone someone who has gone through the wars with Marquez, Morales, Cotto, Margarito, Barrera, and so many others.
The same bad mistakes will keep happening if Manny Pacquiao believes he's got to come back mostly to prove himself to someone else. If he's going to continue, and stay at the level he's still at after last night, it has to be about himself. And it has to be about boxing -- 100%.