Manny Pacquiao walked through the curtains and onto the set of "Jimmy Kimmel Live," smiling and waving to the audience. Last week the fighter made his seventh appearance on the late-night talk show, an event that has become as much a part of Manny's prefight ritual as genuflecting in his corner before the opening bell. Despite his jovial manner, Kimmel had obviously done his homework.
The TV host noted that Pacquiao had given up drinking, gambling and cockfighting prior to the fighter's controversial loss to Timothy Bradley Jr. and asked him if he had returned to his former vices following the defeat. Manny laughed along with the audience but didn't answer the question. Although Kimmel was making a joke, he had cut very close to the bone.
If Pacquiao were a banker, bricklayer or schoolteacher -- anything but a boxer -- his born-again, goody two-shoes reformation would have been the feel-good story the media portrayed in countless cookie-cutter articles. But for a fighter, especially one as ferocious as Pacquiao at his best, such a transformation could be disastrous. Boxers' personalities are usually reflected in the way they fight, and the menacing attack that made Pacquiao so wildly popular isn't a fighting style derived from abstinence.
Fighters are by nature risk-takers who tempt fate every time they duck between the ropes. It is true that life in the fast lane has cut short or ruined many boxers' careers. But it's also true that the majority of great fighters were wild men who embraced a life filled with virtually every vice known to mankind. Even alleged paragons of virtue such as Oscar De La Hoya and Sugar Ray Leonard, who traded on their squeaky images, admitted they cheated on their wives, used cocaine and drank to excess.
That saints do not make the best prizefighters should come as no surprise, so it only stands to reason that good fighters have at least a dollop of the devil in them. There seems to be something akin to Newton's Third Law of Motion at work. The only difference is that instead of each action eliciting an equal and opposite reaction, it's a karmic tradeoff between the wild and tame side of a boxer's psyche.
John L. Sullivan, the first heavyweight champion of the gloved era, was a hopeless alcoholic. Jack Johnson spent most of his time in the company of prostitutes, and Kid McCoy went to prison for shooting his fiancée. Welterweight champion Dixie Kid (Aaron Lister Brown) was a morphine addict, and lightweight champion Lew Jenkins filled his water bottle with whiskey. Joe Louis, whose public image was sanitized throughout his career, had more lovers than fights, used drugs and gambled away a large chunk of his fortune playing golf. Stanley Ketchell, Harry Greb and Mickey Walker were all boozers and serial skirt chasers. Floyd Mayweather Jr. gambles huge amounts of money on sporting events and has served time for physically abusing the mother of two of his children. Even Bible-thumping Evander Holyfield fathered children out of wedlock and has been hauled into court numerous times for failing to pay child support. Then there's Mike Tyson, whose many misdeeds have been so well documented that there's no need to run down his rap sheet yet again.
It's worth noting that all of the fighters mentioned above are either enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame or shoo-ins for induction five years after the end of their careers. This is no accident. Of course, just being a hellraiser doesn't mean you've got what it takes to be a great boxer. The inverse, however, generally applies: Great fighters, more often than not, do more than their share of raising hell.
Fighters aren't created in a vacuum. The nature-nurture tandem plays a highly significant role in the development of their lives, the same way it does in all of us. The majority of prizefighters have emerged from the most deprived circumstances, where violence and hunger are everyday affairs. This survival-of-the-fittest environment is a Petri dish for outlaws of every stripe, including boxers. They come equipped with a what-have-I-got-to-lose mentality and an appetite for danger. They fight hard and party even harder, hungry for the good life as long as it lasts. Some gamble, hoping to duplicate the rush they experience in the ring. Others seek solace from pain both physical and psychological in the bottle or the needle. When you get right down to it, fighters' lives are lived at such a frantic pace and on such an exaggerated scale, is it any wonder that their transgressions are also excessive?
Pacquiao's ascension from a mud-floor nipa hut in the Philippine boondocks to one of the highest-paid athletes in the world is among the most amazing stories in sports history. But we should never forget that the root of his appeal has always been a breathtaking attack that overwhelmed opponents with concussive finality. By the time he stopped Miguel Cotto in 2009, Manny seemed more like an action figure come to life than a mere mortal. Then, with little sign or warning, the ferocity began to wane. Since he brutalized Cotto, all five of Pacquiao's bouts have gone the distance, leaving legions of fans disappointed and wondering what happened.
"I don't think the spark is there anymore," said Ted Lerner, an American writer who has lived in the Philippines for more than 18 years and has known Pacquiao since the start of his pro career. "He's found religion, politics and business, and now has many other interests away from the ring. Clearly that special edge that made Manny a once-in-a-generation phenomenon has faded considerably and will continue to fade if he continues to fight. Even so, Pacquiao still has immense pride and is also motivated by having to carry the hopes of 90 million Filipinos on his shoulders every time he fights. There's no doubt he takes all of this very seriously and wants to perform well. But I think he's fighting now more for the money than for the love of fighting. A lot more. Seven weeks of intense training and massive amounts of promotional hype are not going to change that."
And Lerner has no expectations that Pacquiao will eventually break free of his self-imposed constraints and allow the unbridled version of himself to make a comeback: "I believe the new, clean-living Pacquiao is sincere," Lerner said. "His actions alone -- selling off his bars and poker room, cutting out the late nights at the pool hall, no drinking -- are testament to how serious he is about living a clean life and being religious."
Memories of a poverty-stricken childhood and homeless nights on the streets of Manila were Pacquiao's motivation throughout the bulk of his career. True, he enjoyed his celebrity and everything that came with it, but he also retained the grim determination born of desperation. It served him well for a long time, but eventually the wild child became comfortable enough to move past the fears that had driven him to achieve unimaginable success.
Manny Pacquiao has finally grown up, and boxing is the poorer for it.