Time and tide wait for no man, but for a select few, they’re willing to look the other way. Cezanne didn’t put on his first art exhibit until turning 56. Diana Nyad swam the Gulf, from Havana to Key West — 110 miles — at age 64. (Shark cages, by the way, are for candy-asses.) Frank McCourt was 66 when he published and won a Pulitzer for “Angela’s Ashes.” Johnny Cash, at 71, breathed his final, fading baritones into a mesmerizing cover of “Hurt.” John Glenn went to space at 77. Fucking space!
Even at the highest levels of athletic competition, our geezers are capable of summoning indelible moments of greatness. In 1991, a 44-year-old Nolan Ryan fanned 16 and became the oldest man in Major League Baseball history to throw a no-hitter. A few months later, on his 39th birthday, a hobbled and calcifying Jimmy Connors conquered Aaron Krickstein and barreled into the US Open quarterfinals, in what he described as “the best 11 days of my tennis career.” Three years later, in one of sports’ crowning achievements, George Foreman would cut down Michael Moorer to become the oldest man, at age 45, to win a heavyweight title — more than 20 years after Foreman’s first reign as lineal heavyweight champion.
That last feat resonates after the events of the past few days, when the suddenly dire plight of Maxim Dadashev laid bare combat sports’ most gruesome realities. You don’t play boxing, as they say, which is why Foreman 2.0 — in all his cuddly, grinning, grill-shilling glory — merits special recognition as a badass of the highest order. Because fistfights with some of the world’s most dangerous humans is kind of a loopy activity for anyone to voluntarily enlist themselves. But taking it on in your 40s? There’s a word for it: masochism.
Unless, of course, you’re Big George, an alien, or an X-Man (we see you, Bernard Hopkins), or the esteemed southpaw senator from the Philippines. Manny Pacquiao has lived a multitude of lifetimes over his 40 years — singer, actor, game show host, ballplayer, Army colonel, politician — and several even within the scope of his nearly quarter-century as a professional boxer. From his teenage years as a sopping-wet 108-pounder taking on local island talent to winning belts at flyweight and, soon after, junior featherweight in his early 20s. From clashing with Mexican legends Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez and Erik Morales in his mid-20s to running it back with each inside of four years, snagging a lineal featherweight championship and junior lightweight belt along the way. From star-making turns against David Diaz, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, and Miguel Cotto as he eased into his 30s through his destruction of Antonio Margarito — a span over which Pacquiao won belts in four divisions. From the apparent beginning of the end at the hands of his old nemesis, Marquez, through the redemptive highs and relative lows of his late 30s. From becoming boxing’s first and only eight-division titleholder to being named the Boxing Writers of America Association’s Fighter of the 2000s. From falling to Rustico Torrecampo in Mandaluyong City to busting Adrien Broner’s ass at the MGM Grand. All of it, the sum of a career, led up to Saturday’s challenge of welterweight titlist Keith Thurman in Las Vegas.
Because it was Pacquiao, and because this was Sin City — the 15th fight in the Grand Garden Arena for Pacman — the event was ostentatiously hyped, and priced (The PBC On Fox pay per view was $74.99). With Floyd Mayweather out of rotation, there is no bigger show in no bigger boxing town than Pacquiao in Las Vegas. That was the face of it, anyway. The underlying truth? Much simpler: Come watch some old cat try to hang on a little longer against an unbeaten, 10-years-younger kid with a lot more to lose.
From the opening bell, though, Pacquiao (62-7-2, 39 KO) betrayed none of those years. After proclaiming to trainer Freddie Roach ahead of the fight that he felt 22 again, Pacquiao indeed bounced on his feet and let his hands go like a kid from the streets of General Santos City. He instantly brought the fight to Thurman (perhaps a bit tentative still after having only one fight since coming off a 22-month layoff, and having fought only twice in four years, due to injuries), who got caught backpedaling when Pacquiao pounced, touched him with a left to the body and floored him with a straight right hand to the jaw in Round 1.
Pacquiao’s energy astounded. He showboated a bit at the end of Round 2, breaking off an Ali shuffle, and he maintained the work rate of a much younger fighter, sidestepping and changing angles, through the first half of the fight. But Thurman (29-1, 22 KO), despite the knockdown and a bloodied nose, wasn’t helpless in there. The occasional power shot found its way through Pacquiao’s defenses, and Thurman seemed dialed into a long view with fairly steady bodywork. Whether it was that investment or the inexorable creep of 40-year-old fatigue, Pacquiao began to downshift somewhere around the sixth.
Thurman began to collect rounds with a busier approach, cleaner shots and combination punching that periodically stunned and gradually swelled Pacquiao, if never quite fazing him. Even in the ninth — a round awarded to the belt holder on all three judges’ scorecards — Thurman’s swarming attack with Pacquiao on the ropes was answered, almost as a symbolic gesture, just before the bell. Manny wasn’t quite finished.
In the 10th, Pacquiao landed a left hook to the body that briefly doubled over Thurman and sent him into escape mode. Pacquiao wasn’t able to track him down, though, and Thurman not only recovered but also landed a humming right hand that helped him take Round 11.
Whether Pacquiao had satisfied the judges often enough in those early rounds to coast and merely survive through the 12th wasn’t certain, but he didn’t leave the matter to chance. He willingly exchanged over the final three minutes, out landing Thurman, according to CompuBox, and taking the final frame on two of the official scorecards.
The round didn’t matter to the outcome — two judges scored the fight 115-112 for Pacquiao, the third 114-113 for Thurman, sealing a split decision win for Pacquiao. But in a way, that was exactly the point. With time still left to fight, Pacquiao, history’s only five-division lineal boxing champ, who has long since had a thing to prove to anyone, pushed forward until the final bell.
In the aftermath, among the talking heads and old heads, the refrain was gleeful: “Age ain’t nothing but a number!” But it is age, in fact, that teaches us this sentiment, however sweet, is horseshit. Pacquiao, no matter how he feels (or his methods to achieve youthful bliss), is not 22. And although he, and we, can enjoy this moment, the fact is, he is eons further from that number than he is to 50. Age isn’t a number, but something more sinister. It’s a fall from grace. It’s a bloodless thief, grifting our most precious gifts just as we begin to fully appreciate them. Age is a widening distance to the shoreline, and it’s a terrible knowledge that you’ll never make it back. But age is also wisdom, and that’s meaningful. With wisdom comes an understanding that the fight — that raging against your number, whether quietly or candidly — is all we have.
(Photo by Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)