That strength which in old days moved heaven and earth
Luke G. Williams
Manny Pacquiao's glorious career is entering its final stages and Luke G. Williams can't look away as he previews Saturday's welterweight showdown against Jessie Vargas.
"Though we are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Boxing history, hauntingly littered as it is with the regrets and recriminations of the many great fighters who fought on long past their physical peaks, looms large and forbiddingly over the slender frame of the legendary Manny Pacquiao as he prepares for Saturday night’s showdown with young gun Jessie Vargas at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.
At nearly 38 years of age and having fought 66 epic battles in the prize ring already, Pacquiao continues to rage against the dying of the sporting light by delaying his oft-promised retirement.
Romantic wordsmiths such as Dylan Thomas and Alfred, Lord Tennyson might approve of the Filipino’s bloody-minded refusal to retire and thus bow to the inevitability of time, as well as conventional and sensible sporting wisdom, but for Pacquiao’s many fans and admirers every time he steps into the ring there is an omnipresent worry that he is courting disaster or serious injury.
This is not, I stress, the hyperbole of an abolitionist, merely a cold, hard interpretation of the facts, namely that Pacquiao has lost three of his past seven fights at elite level (two if you disregard the absurd scorecards of his first contest against Tim Bradley), and has not recorded a stoppage victory since 2009.
Furthermore, surely no one who saw the Pac Man flattened senseless by Juan Manuel Marquez nearly four years ago can declare with any confidence that he is not risking his health by continuing to box?
The 'end of days' vibe that surrounds the Vargas promotion has been lent particular resonance by the refusal of HBO – whose executives once relished a Pacquiao PPV spectacular like no other commercial proposition – to screen the fight, leaving Top Rank promotions to plough their own somewhat lonely PPV furrow. In the UK, meanwhile, fans can fortunately watch the contest at no extra charge on top of a regular subscription to the invaluable Boxnation platform.
The tell-tale danger signs of delusion and pride have all been there in Pacquiao's pre-fight rhetoric in which he has declared: "I am fighting for history ... I want to prove that I am still one of the best pound-for-pound fighters. I feel I still have a lot to prove. I am not done with boxing. I will continue to keep fighting as long as I love boxing and boxing still loves me. I do not feel old - I feel like I am still 27."
And yet … and yet … despite his advanced age and reduced potency, power and ring activity, Pacquiao remains a phenomenon and, in this fight at least, it is hard to pick against him.
He may not be the force of yesteryear, he may, in the words of Tennyson, have been “made weak by time and fate”, and he may - mellowed by age and a renewed religious faith - lack the killer instinct that was once his raison d'etre, but he remains, even in this diminished capacity, an outstanding prize fighter.
Last time out, for example, he soundly defeated Tim Bradley, who is certainly no mug and is probably destined for the Hall of Fame one day.
Therefore even with the myriad political distractions in Pacquiao's life, the majority of the boxing cognoscenti still feel he should have too much gas left in the tank for Vargas. Every single one of Boxing Monthly's online pundits have, for example, tipped Pacquiao to prevail, while the bookmakers generally make Vargas a wide underdog, at around 5-1 or 11-2.
Of course, it sometimes happens that fighters grow old 'over night' and perhaps this will happen to Pacquiao on Saturday. Vargas, with his superior height and reach, certainly possesses the physical tools and advantages to capitalise if Pacquiao's characteristic rhythm proves irregular or intermittent.
Similarly, it should be noted that the 27-year-old Vargas is a prize fighter of more than average tenacity - as proved by his never-say-die attitude in his own tussle with Bradley. The Los Angeles born WBO champ also possesses a fast improving level of punching power, which an unimpressive ten stoppage victories out 28 contests (27 wins, one loss) does not immediately suggest.
I certainly do not agree with the common consensus that this is a poor match-up. Vargas is a solid top ten operator in the welterweight division, and I would say he has a greater chance of defeating Pacquiao than, say, Liam Smith had of beating Canelo Alvarez or Kell Brook had of halting Gennady Golovkin.
Ironically, given that HBO have passed on the fight, the overall excellence of the promotion - which also includes WBO title fights in the shape of Donaire vs Magdaleno, Valdez vs Osawa and Shiming vs Phaprom, as well as Rio gold medallist Robson Conceicao's professional debut - actually makes it one of the year's stronger PPV offerings.
Besides, Pacquiao's charisma and past brilliance, for me, make him 'much-watch' TV whenever he fights. Although I admit that, at this stage of his career, part of me is looking on out of a somewhat perverse desire to ensure that if the end of Pacquiao's career does arrive I am, at least, watching in real time when the final act unfolds.
For all Vargas's merits, though, unless Pacquiao's decline is far steeper than we have dared imagine, Saturday will most likely result in a Pacquiao win, with the Filipino my confident pick to triumph on points fairly comfortably.
Presuming Pacquiao does win, then, and advance his career record to 59-6-2, where will he go from here?
After the calamitous disappointment of his non-performance against Floyd Mayweather last year, he is ravenous for redemption, in the shape of another chance for the shadow of his greatness to lock horns with the remnants of Mayweather's brilliance.
Whether Mayweather is willing to engage with Pacquiao once again is, of course, another matter. I, for one, can't see it happening, even if many boxing insiders who I know and respect remain convinced that 'MayPac 2' is only a matter of months away.
Far easier to broker for Pacquiao and his promoter Bob Arum would be a contest against Top Rank stablemate, the richly gifted Terence Crawford, who is currently the undisputed divisional number one at super lightweight.
One thing seems certain: unless Vargas springs a huge upset, Pacquiao - stubborn warrior that he is - will continue to lace up the gloves after Saturday night.
I still nurse the hope that his career may yet end with a tableaux of victorious glory, befitting Pacquiao's heroic heart and his magnificent service to the sport of boxing.
However, I fear the opposite may be the case, namely that the remarkable Pac Man story will, sooner rather than later, be brought to a shuddering and anti-climactic halt, culminating in the well-worn boxing cliche common to so many great champions who refuse to bow to the passage of time - namely, a ruinous and humiliating defeat.