The thing that is great about history is the way that it invariably informs on the present. Eugene O’Neill once said, “There is no present or future, only the past happening over and over again, now” That has certainly been my experience. The now in boxing is most certainly Manny Pacquiao. The current pound for pound king is most certainly the face of boxing at present. So, what of O’Neill’s thought? Might there be a few ghosts from the history of boxing that might inform on the current day great? I have chosen three fighters that not only bare some similarity in some way to Pacquiao, but also perhaps say something about not just how he performed, but how he is in fact perceived. Let’s take a look at the past, present, and possible future of Manny Pacquiao through the lens of great fighters who have come before.
Mike Tyson: Visceral Awe vs. Critical Analysis:
Is Pacquiao great? Or, is he an All Time Great?
A friend of mine was once regaling we with his litany of reasons for placing Pacquiao at the very top of his list of all time greats. Naturally, there was the list of notable opponents who had been blitzed by Pacquiao. But, beyond the scientific arguments of name opponents, titles in multiple weight classes, and variety of skills, there was the final exclamation point; “just look at what he does to his opponents! He absolutely crushes them. I‘ve never seen anything like it.” It’s pretty difficult to try to argue with a point based primarily on a gut reaction, but it‘s not exactly completely out of left field either. The fact is, Pacquiao has looked virtually indestructible in his recent outings Nonetheless, his point underscores an interesting dynamic in the appraisal of fighters by fans. Sometimes, it is the style of a fighter itself that can overwhelm the senses and leave one with a distinct feeling that a fighter is invincible.
Mike Tyson captured the imagination of fight fans like very few if any fighters ever have. There are still many who believe that the prime Mike Tyson who ascended to the top was simply an unbeatable machine that no heavyweight; past, present, or future, could have ever dealt with. Forget Holyfield and Lewis as that was a shot Tyson whose skills and desire had eroded after losing those mentors closest to him. And forget anyone else as the speed, power, head movement, combination punching, and toughness would have simply overwhelmed any opponent. “Just look at what he does to his opponents!” Tyson inspired a sense of awe that could blind you to some interesting points that might have just been there all along.
Tyson was a somewhat small heavyweight. In addition, Tyson was fueled by intimidation and, like many such fighters, was always open to becoming intimidated himself by an opponent that stared him down and fired back. Tyson was as game and courageous as any fighter you will find and he often stood in and took shots like the champion that he most certainly was. But, he was never exactly a fighter who routinely came into the ring with a plan b, c, and d if the going got rough. Once again, if you could survive the onslaught early, you weren’t in too bad a shape after that. The fact is, most Tyson fans (and I am certainly one) are pretty well stymied if you ask them to name a great fighter that Tyson beat. And they are especially stymied if you query them to come up with a fight where Tyson had to dig down when he was in a real tough fight and turn the tide on a game opponent, in other words it‘s tough to find a truly great win on his ledger. It’s not hard to find impressive wins against solid opponents, but not a great win against a fellow all time great.
The only thing left for those who cling to the notion of Tyson as perhaps the greatest heavy ever is to return to the emotional component; for much of his career he was no longer the “real” Mike Tyson. certainly true to an extent and certainly convenient as it allows them to hold their visceral attachment to the true phenomenon that they witnessed years before. Tyson is the ultimate conundrum as he faced the toughest fights of his career only after he began to slide. We all want to see 1987 Mike Tyson fight the greats of his generation. But tantalizing as it might be, it will never happen and we will never know. How one sees those mythical fights going down often just depends on which part of their brain is doing the thinking.
Of course, this might seem like a pretty brutal judgment of Mike Tyson, but consider that we are talking about where fighters rank in terms of ALL TIME GREAT status; that’s a lot of great fighters in the discussion. Was Tyson great? Of course. Consider that for much of his career, it took exceptionally gifted fighters putting on magnificent performances just to beat an already somewhat diminished Mike Tyson. That should end the discussion of his viability as a tremendous fighter. Yet, it should also tell much of the story of his place as near the very top of all time great heavyweights. Yet, curiously it doesn’t. The images of him stalking opponents and obliterating them with a blend of speed, power, and technique that so perfectly encapsulated the savage beauty of boxing can be hard to forget. It’s hard not to wonder, who could have ever beaten that? It’s an emotional response, not an analytical one. It doesn’t mean it’s dead wrong mind you, only that it is fueled by the potent imagery of his utterly destructive capacity in the ring. The belief rests on that imagery trumping any evidence that suggests that a given style or skill set might have always presented a problem.
Tyson is perhaps the perfect example of the emotional versus analytical dynamic that underpins so many discussions about fighters. Pacquiao is another fine example. Truth be told, Pacquiao has a much better resume than Tyson. He holds wins over so many name opponents that I don’t even want to list them…here, look at this:
Pacquiao’s resume has grown to be so impressive that a direct comparison between him and Tyson is no longer really possible. Ultimately, Tyson’s tenure as a top fighter was too short to compare to Pacquiao. But, that is hardly the point. Even if the discussion is where does Tyson rank all time as a heavyweight and where does Pacquiao rank all time pound for pound the central dynamic remains the same. It all comes down to how one beholds the fighter in question. It is hard to shake the images in our minds of Pacquiao’s dominance in the ring of late; images of his utterly special blend of speed, power, and movement all wrapped in an awkward style that make him seemingly impossible to prepare for. The images have a way of making him seem nearly indestructible. But, there is a shadow side to the visceral response. A view borne from a different place in the mind.
In the eyes of many fans and writers, team Pacquiao has been doing a masterful job of picking name opponents that realistically had no shot at beating such an amazingly gifted fighter like Pacquiao. In addition, there have been issues surrounding timing and weight manipulation in some of the fights as well. Once again, none of it can even begin to impugn Pacquiao’s place as a legitimately great fighter. Much like Tyson, but even more so in the case of Pacquiao, the very suggestion is beyond laughable. But, when it comes to ALL TIME greatness, a great many fighters have to be considered. And, when it comes to rating Pacquiao, the visceral versus the analytical dichotomy is readily apparent. It is actually pretty funny as those who rate him near the very top write about him with a startling reverence. And, the reverence is not misplaced judging by what those who have shared the ring with him have said.
Oscar De La Hoya said that Pacquiao’s speed was incredible and that he felt like there were ten of him in the ring. Miguel Cotto said that Pacquiao was the best fighter he ever faced. Clottey readily indicated that Pacquiao was the better fighter and that he couldn’t beat him. And beyond the words of fallen oppoennts, the images of his destructive abilities certainly rival those of even Mike Tyson. Much like Tyson, Manny Pacquiao is a phenomenon that can make you just shut off your brain and gape. Indeed, even for the most coldly analytical mind, it can be hard to envision anything derailing his furious yet technically brilliant assault. The visuals and the language, it’s the stuff of legend. “Just look at what he does to his opponents!”
But, there are those out there writing articles that still detail the questions surrounding the choice of opponents and the terms of the negotiations. There are articles that outline the avoidance of certain styles; that wonder why gifted counter punchers and slick boxers who can move are no longer to be found sharing the ring with the pound for pound king. There are articles that outline the ways in which he might yet be beaten. That cling to the boxing maxims that surely can’t be bent by Pacquiao’s sheer will and fury; that a great big man will come along and beat even the greatest little man. There are those still holding out maintaining that Pacquiao is great, but his place among the legendary giants of the sport’s storied past is undoubtedly premature. The recent wins are nowhere close to being enough. And, none of it is completely without any merit whatsoever. Pacquiao has been hugely impressive, but then again so was Mike Tyson. The imagery of the wins contrasts a little with the analysis of their place in the pantheon of all time greats. A truly great win is perhaps still needed. In any event, the stark contrast in views mirrors a more fundamental duality in the human condition. We are all at once both visceral and analytical beings.
Of course, the truth, as always, lay somewhere in the middle. And, it gets worse, as the argument has no definitive answer. Where does a fighter rank on a list of the greatest fighters of all time? There is simply no way to know for sure. For every argument there is a counter argument that makes sense. In the end, most true boxing fans respect and admire the commitment and skill it takes to make it into the conversation at all; or at least they should. Beyond that, it’s just opinion; opinion shaped by one’s default approach to the question. Is it memories of sheer dominance? Or is it analysis of records? Is it the emotional response to the rarest images of utter supremacy? Or is it the timing and styles of the match ups? With most fighters it is pretty easy to calm down and talk about what happened; what was. But, some fighters are just so special, so captivating, that we don’t even want to think; the images in our minds are just too perfect.