By Michael Rosenthal
When Manny Pacquiao was in his prime, the accolades landed at the same rate as his impossibly quick punches.
The years that stand out most are 2008 and 2009, when he sensationally knocked out in succession Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto to become a worldwide superstar and stake his claim as one of the best fighters in the world.
Some knowledgeable observers swept up in the Pac-mania – including myself – compared him to the great Henry Armstrong, who many believe is among the best two or three greatest boxers of all time.
Those years are long gone as Pacquiao, now 39, prepares to fight fellow geezer Lucas Matthysse on Saturday in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, but no one who witnessed that powerful, ball-of-energy version of Pacman will ever forget what they saw.
But was Pacquiao really that good? Was he an all-time great? Or was the perception of him clouded by the excitement he generated?
Reality falls somewhere in the middle. Pacquiao was no Henry Armstrong, who once held three of the eight undisputed championships at the same time and almost won a fourth, but he was without question a special fighter.
Pacquiao’s accomplishments are well documented. Here are just some of them:
• He’s 59-7-2, with 38 knockouts.
• He won major titles in six weight divisions, eight if you count The Ring Magazine/Lineal titles, from flyweight to junior middleweight – a weight difference of 42 pounds.
• He had a record of 6-2-1 against the great Mexico trio of Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez, each of whom is or will be in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
• He has a record of 20-4-2 in title fights, including The Ring / lineal versions. And remember: He fought one high-profile opponent after another.
• He won title fights in five divisions in a span of only 2 years and 8 months, the dizzying period in which he was compared to Armstrong.
• He took part in a remarkable 17 fights against opponents who are in or likely to enter the Hall of Fame, going 12-4-1 those bouts. They are Tim Bradley (2-1), Floyd Mayweather (0-1), Marquez (2-1-1), Mosley (1-0), Cotto (1-0), De La Hoya (1-0), Hatton (1-0), Barrera (2-0) and Morales (2-1).
• He fought at 106 pounds for his pro debut yet outpointed rugged Antonio Margarito to win a 154-pound title in 2010, although they fought at a 150-pound catch weight.
• And he was wildly popular because he also was one of the most entertaining fighters of his time, which in itself can lead a boxer into the Hall of Fame. That’s how Arturo Gatti got in.
No fighter of his era comes close to matching that sparkling resume except perhaps Mayweather, who never lost a fight but didn’t face as many elite opponents as Pacquiao did. For example, Mayweather faced eight opponents in or likely to enter the Hall of Fame (Pacquiao, Canelo Alvarez, Cotto, Mosley, Marquez, Hatton, De La Hoya and Gatti).
In an era when boxers fight less often, we might never see a list of accomplishments like Pacquiao’s again.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t quibble with some aspects of his resume. Here are examples:
• Pacquiao went 2-1-1 against his greatest rival, Marquez, but some believe the master counterpuncher from Mexico won all four fights or at least should’ve had a 3-0-1 advantage.
• The fight that launched Pacquiao into superstardom was his dominating eighth-round stoppage of De La Hoya, which at the time was stunning given De La Hoya’s accomplishments and natural size advantage. However, in retrospect, we know that De La Hoya was a shell of the fighter he had been.
• Between losses to Morales in 2005 and Bradley in 2012 – Pacquiao’s prime – he went 15-0 (with eight knockouts) against some of the best fighters in the world. However, one could argue that a number of them were flawed. Examples: Morales was in decline by their third fight, some believe Hatton was overrated, Cotto was forced to fight at a catch weight of 145 pounds and Mosley was well past his prime.
Notice I used the word “quibble,” which is what I did in the three examples above. I could go through Armstrong’s resume and do the same thing.
The fact is Pacquiao won his epic series against Marquez. He was a prohibitive underdog going into the De La Hoya fight yet scored a spectacular knockout. And Morales, Hatton, Cotto and Mosley were all legitimate threats in those fights.
And the fact is Pacquiao took the boxing world on an extraordinary ride inside the ring, one that included the stiffest opposition possible (who didn’t he fight?), an unusually long string of memorable victories and more thrills than all the roller coaster parks on the planet combined.
Was he as good or better than Armstrong? No. That would place Pacquiao among the handful of best fighters who ever lived.
I don’t believe he was even the best of his era; Mayweather was. Pacquiao overwhelmed most of his opponents with his speed (hand and foot), power and volume punching but he was vulnerable at times. The Marquez fights are the best examples. Mayweather, a defensive wizard, was more or less untouchable.
But there’s no shame in being second best to Mayweather or the likes of Armstrong, Joe Louis, Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Ray Leonard, who were as close to perfect as any boxer could be.
When all is said and done, Pacquiao can legitimately claim to be one of the greatest fighters in history. That’s saying something.