Boxing: Back in the ring, Manny Pacquiao battles the ghost of Muhammad Ali

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Muhammad Ali is to boxing what William Shakespeare is to language, yet just as the sport delivered the “Louisville Lip” to the world stage, it also rendered him, by the end of his life, nearly unable to mumble a discernible sentence.

“Time is a vandal,” journalist Jimmy Cannon wrote. He watched his hero, Joe Louis, get beaten mercilessly into retirement by Rocky Marciano in 1951. Louis was Ali’s hero, too, and, in 1980, Louis went to Caesar’s Palace in his wheelchair and saw Larry Holmes brutalize Ali until Angelo Dundee finally stopped the beating.

Eight years later, in 1988, when Mike Tyson fought Holmes, Tyson’s childhood hero Ali was there to whisper in his ear: “Get him for me.” And Tyson did, knocking Holmes out in four rounds. Seventeen years later, at age 39, Tyson, two years after filing for bankruptcy, was fighting an unknown journeyman and quit on his stool after seven rounds.

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When Manny Pacquiao, 42 — four years older than Ali was in 1980—gets into the ring against Yordenis Ugas at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas today, he will be battling the ghosts of those greats before him as much as anyone wearing gloves and trunks. Since Pacquiao suffered a knockout loss against Juan Manuel Marquez at the end of 2012, he’s fought 10 more fights, winning eight, but not with his usual knockout power.

The fight will be aired on Fox PPV and features a guaranteed purse of $5 million for Pacquiao (with pay-per-view upside potentially adding $20 million to $25 million). It was slated to feature Pacquiao against undefeated world champion Errol Spence Jr. before a routine, pre-fight eye exam revealed Spence had a torn retina in his left eye. Pacquiao was a 2.5-1 underdog against Spence, and many experts viewed those odds as generous given the 31-year-old’s age and pedigree. WBA champion Yordenis Ugás, 35, has stepped in as a replacement for Spence on one of boxing’s largest stages—much as Pacquiao did two decades ago.

Pacquiao burst on the boxing scene in 2001, after he anonymously entered the front door of Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club, located above a strip mall in Hollywood, Calif. The 22-year-old, five-foot-five, 112-pound Filipino had once sold doughnuts on the streets of General Santos City in the Philippines to survive before he turned to boxing.

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With two weeks’ notice, he was an injury replacement on the undercard of an HBO pay-per-view championship fight against Oscar De La Hoya. That night, Pacquiao not only won a world title but also stole the show from one of the most marketable athletes in history.

Seven years later, Pacquiao would electrify the sport by retiring Oscar De La Hoya in the exact same ring. “I know what Ugás is feeling,” Pacquiao says. “Twenty years ago I was Ugás. I am taking him as seriously as I took Errol Spence.”

Pacquiao has fought 72 times across 27 years as a professional boxer. The talk among many fans and critics alike was that if Pacquiao were able, in the twilight of his career, to pull off a performance of the magnitude required to defeat Spence—in his prime, along with being bigger, stronger, younger—that résumé might well be unequalled in the annals of boxing.

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Eight years ago, while Pacquiao was recovering from his brutal knockout loss by Marquez, I asked the late Leon Gast, Academy Award-winning director of When We Were Kings, who was then working on a documentary about the fighter, if he saw parallels between Ali and Pacquiao. “Déja vu all over again,” Gast said, shaking his head.

“It’s boxing. Muhammad Ali fought 14 times after Zaire [where Ali pulled off one of the great upset victories in boxing history over George Foreman]. 14 times. God help us, here we go again.” “Can he ever stop?” I asked. “Never,” Gast said with a laugh. “Never, never, never.”

The answer Gast gave about why Pacquiao remained in the sport was the cliché: He needed the money. “Same old story,” Gast said. “Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Ali, Tyson. All their careers ended with them either broke, busted up, or both.”

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Thomas Hauser, author of Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, concurs with Gast’s assessment today, “The losses a great fighter suffers at the end of his career don’t hurt his legacy. A big win helps, but that rarely happens. In my view, Manny is fighting for the money. Period.”

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