It's the ultimate boxing "What if?" question. Who would win if, in a parallel universe, Fighter A from the 1950s or '60s fought Fighter B from the 1990s or 2000s? For this particular "what if?" question, we know the answer: the fans. It is hard to conceive of a more fan-friendly fantasy matchup involving any two fighters from any era than Manny Pacquiao versus Aaron Pryor.
For these "Classic Matchups," we try to go prime versus prime whenever possible, and identifying Pryor's prime is rather straight-forward: his dominant reign as junior welterweight champion from 1980 until his first retirement in '83, which included his two famous victories over Alexis Arguello.
For Pacquiao, it's a little trickier, considering he's held belts all the way from 112 to 154 pounds and beat Hall of Fame-caliber opponents in many of those divisions.
But for the purposes of this comparison, we'll make Pacquiao a junior welterweight also. Yes, he technically fought only once in the division. But that one performance was the most devastating he ever delivered (KO 2 Ricky Hatton in 2009), and in his surrounding major fights that most observers identify as his absolute apex, against Oscar De La Hoya and Miguel Cotto, he was a 140-pounder shoveling carbs into his mouth nonstop to tip the scales at 142 or 143.
At their best, both Pacquiao and Pryor were offense-oriented machines, dazzling audiences with blurs of leather and sensational knockout finishes. Their primes came 25 years apart, making it a fight of pure fantasy, but it's one that is well worth dreaming about. Below, we provide scouting reports for both men, and our panel of ESPN experts picks a winner in this Classic Matchup.
The ultimate pressure fighter with power, accumulating a record of 34-0 with 32 knockouts -- including 26 early endings in a row -- as of his first retirement from boxing in 1983. Just missed making the '76 Olympic team and came up the hard way as a result, but eventually earned pro stardom with title win over Antonio Cervantes and legendary first bout with Arguello. Overwhelmed opponents with relentless volume (regularly threw more than 100 punches a round), and had a tremendous chin and enough technical skill to emerge as one of the mostly celebrated fighters of the talent-rich early '80s.
Arguably the greatest Asian fighter ever, arguably the greatest southpaw ever, arguably the greatest ever at climbing through a multitude of weight classes. Won titles at 112, 122, 126, 130, 135, 140, 147 and 154 pounds, including lineal championships in four of those divisions, while also claiming three Fighter of the Year awards. Hallmark in early days was an explosive straight left hand, but trainer Freddie Roach turned him into a two-handed fighter with improved footwork and defense, enabling "Pac-Man" to ascend to the No. 1 spot on many pound-for-pound lists for a couple of years.
Power: Yes, what Pacquiao did to Hatton was jaw-dropping. But he didn't produce that sort of power-punching display consistently. "The Hawk" did. Pryor's first nine title fights all ended in KOs. His career knockout percentage is 26 points higher than Pac-Man's, making this a fairly easy call. Advantage: Pryor
Speed: This is an easy call too, and it goes the other way. When Pacquiao did knock elite foes down or out, it was usually because they had no time to brace for the punch. The Filipino's straight left will go down as one of the fastest money punches in history. Advantage: Pacquiao
Defense: Neither fighter was a defensive master, and if either made it through a fight untouched, it was usually because his offense handcuffed the opponent. It's splitting hairs, but Pacquiao's balance and positioning have been just bad enough over the years to convince us he's the more flawed defensive fighter. Advantage: Pryor
Chin: Go to YouTube and watch the bombs Pryor walked through in the first Arguello fight. Whatever was in that special water bottle, it worked; The Hawk could not be grounded. Pacquiao's chin is well above average, but it's not on the Mount Rushmore of boxing beards. Pryor's might be. Advantage: Pryor
Ring IQ: We're going to cheat a little here, because this is a tough category to call, and penalize Pryor for his outside-the-ring IQ. Drug problems shortened his career, and getting shot by his wife spoiled a big fight he had planned with Saoul Mamby. Pacquiao had his distractions too, but never that bad. Toss in coach Roach's game plans too, and it becomes a little easier to give one fighter the edge. Advantage: Pacquiao
Dan Rafael: Pacquiao by knockout
Future Hall of Famer Manny Pacquiao and Aaron Pryor, already a HOFer, personify the term "action fighter," but they also are skillful. Had they met at their best at 140 pounds what a tremendous fight it would have been, one waged at the highest level.
Pryor was as relentless as they come and was undefeated (11-0 with nine knockouts) in world title fights, all at junior welterweight. Pacquiao, equally relentless, fought only once at junior welterweight during his race up the scales to become boxing's only eight-division titleholder, but what a memorable stop it was as he laid waste to lineal champion Ricky Hatton with a monstrous second-round knockout.
Pacquiao would have the speed edge over Pryor, but Pryor perhaps would have the slight power edge. One thing about Pryor was that he got knocked down, but he always came back to win until suffering his only defeat near the end of his career.
In my view, Pacquiao faced the better caliber of opponents overall. Pryor, of course, is best known for his epic 14th-round knockout of all-time great Alexis Arguello. But with Pacquiao's experience, speed, power and ability to finish, I can see him unleashing right hooks, dropping Pryor early and eventually stopping him late in a great fight.
Kieran Mulvaney: Pacquiao by decision
Of all the mythical matchups we've looked at so far, this is the one that, more than any other, I wish we could have seen.
What a fight this would be: two outstanding offensive fighters, renowned for their high punch output, their aggressiveness and their skill set.
Pryor was a true great, and probably my own personal all-time favorite boxer; but the Pacquiao who passed briefly through Pryor's 140-pound weight class was on one of the most spectacular runs of any modern fighter.
Neither man would give any quarter, and each man would relish the other's aggressive approach; if they fought 10 times, it would be easy to see each man winning five. But if pushed to make a pick, I think Pacquiao's angles, hard-to-time offense and slightly superior one-punch power would carry the day. He might drop Pryor en route to a points decision that Pryor would reverse in a rematch.
Nigel Collins: Pacquiao by decision
If only one dream fight could come true, this match would get my vote. In their primes, Pryor and Pacquiao were arguably the two most exciting fighters I've covered in more than four decades on the boxing beat -- two offensive whirlwinds who went for the gusto every time they fought.
One or the other might try to box on the outside for a while, but such a tactic goes against their natures, so a riotous punchfest would be virtually guaranteed. How wild would it be? Well, there's a good chance that CompuBox's punch-counters would eventually throw in the towel in favor of just watching slack-jawed as the pair tore into each other with feverish intensity.
Although Pryor's knockout percentage was higher, Pacquiao's punches had a bit more snap, and his chin was a tad more reliable. Yes, Manny was twice stopped early in his career (during his flyweight days) and was iced by Juan Manuel Marquez in his most recent bout, but at or around junior welterweight, his chin held up remarkably well against outstanding opponents.
Pryor, on the other hand, was knocked down in three of his junior welter title fights, before roaring back to stop his adversaries. Therefore, I think Pacquiao would score a knockdown at some point, which would be the difference in an extremely close and incredibly thrilling fight.
Eric Raskin: Pryor by knockout
I'm hesitant to pick Pryor because we didn't get to see him fight at this level much. He missed out on fighting Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, so we're left with Cervantes (who was almost 35 when they fought) and Arguello as his only Hall of Fame-level opponents. Meanwhile, Pacquiao fought De La Hoya, Cotto, Juan Manuel Marquez (four times), Marco Antonio Barrera (twice), Erik Morales (three times), etc. If you're picking Pryor, it's based on the eye test more than hard proof.
But I think the eye test is good enough. Pryor was sturdier than Pacquiao, wouldn't ease up on his punch output in the face of Pac-Man's storm, and had good enough speed to compete (unlike the slower welters Pacquiao feasted on for a few years). Pacquiao probably builds an early lead, and might even score a flash knockdown, but eventually, Pryor gets to him. Call it a TKO, with Roach running into the ring to save his brave fighter while he's still on his feet.
Brian Campbell: Pacquiao by knockout
You really couldn't conjure up a more eye-pleasing matchup than these two relentless, straight-ahead punchers with devastating power.
While it's debatable as to who would have the edge in most of the intangibles in question, the single trait that separates them is Pacquiao's sublime speed.
Pryor was no stranger to taking big shots and coming back, even if he needed to get up off the canvas first before finishing someone off. But his fearlessness would play against him in this fight, bringing out the absolute best of a prime Pacquiao who feasted on pressure fighters and separated them from their senses with punches they never saw coming.
Pryor, a true Hall of Fame legend in his own right, would certainly have his moments, but the Pacquiao of 2009 was a special force to be reckoned with. His ability to throw combinations from multiple angles would be the difference.
Salvador Rodriguez: Pryor by decision
I have no doubt that Pacquiao has been one of boxing's biggest stars over the past 10 years, but I also think that he has had trouble throughout his career with fighters who throw multiple combinations, and that, along with Pryor's power, could have put him in trouble more than once. While one of Pacquiao's most spectacular victories was at junior welterweight against Ricky Hatton, I also believe that Pryor's defense at 140 pounds would frustrate Pacquiao enough for Pryor to take a very close decision victory.
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