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Vintage Manny Pacquiao turns back the clock in Fight of the Year frontrunner

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS — Manny Pacquiao is far from the first boxer to win a major fight after his 40th birthday.

But none of those who did so previously — Bernard Hopkins, George Foreman and Larry Holmes chief among them — fought at the pace and with the athleticism Pacquiao showed Saturday in a split decision victory over Keith Thurman before a sellout crowd of 14,356 at the MGM Grand Garden for the WBA welterweight title.

Pacquiao fought at a frenetic pace from start to finish. He dropped Thurman in the first with a right hook to the chin, and nearly doubled him over with a shot to the solar plexus in the 10th.

Thurman fought brilliantly in defense of both his WBA welterweight title and his perfect record, but being brilliant wasn’t enough on this night.

The result was a split decision because Glenn Feldman somehow had it 114-113 for Thurman, a result Thurman didn’t really believe. Both Dave Moretti and Tim Cheatham had it 115-112 for Pacquiao, which was far more representative of how the bout unfolded. Yahoo Sports had it 116-111 for Pacquiao.

“He has a lot still left in him,” Thurman said of Pacquiao.

That was obvious from the early moments of the fight, when Thurman came out of the gates hard and put pressure on Pacquiao. Thurman had bet on himself to win by knockout in the first, second and seventh rounds, and fought as if he was desperate to cash those tickets.

Throughout his training camp, Pacquiao said his age didn’t matter, and he proved that it did not. He took days off when he was worn out in camp and that made a massive difference in the way he performed.

He was energetic and aggressive throughout, and the only time he slowed even a bit was in the ninth, when he appeared to catch a breather.

Leonard Ellerbe, the fight’s co-promoter, said the way Pacquiao handled his camp was shrewd.

“They made some very, very smart decisions in training camp,” Ellerbe said. “He looked very fresh. I can speak to that with Floyd [Mayweather] being an older fighter coming down the stretch on the back end of his career. He made some strategic, smart decisions to pull back in camp and getting more rest is much more important to preserve your body so you can be at your peak performance.”

Pacquiao ranked Thurman as one of his best bouts, alongside his first fights with both Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, his second fight with Juan Manuel Marquez, his bout with Antonio Margarito in 2010 and his 2008 match with Oscar De La Hoya.

Pacquiao hasn’t been better since he fought Margarito at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, when he used his speed to put a frightful beating on the much bigger and stronger Mexican.

Thurman is a more talented boxer than Margarito, but Pacquiao handled him superbly.

“Every fight I have, my main concern is, I don’t want to disappoint my fans with my performance,” Pacquiao said. “That’s why every training camp, I always punish myself.”

Though Thurman said he sensed that Pacquiao was tiring down the stretch, whenever there was a big moment, young and fresh Manny would magically reappear and pepper Thurman with combinations.

Pacquiao mixed his attack, going to the head and body and punching in combination repeatedly. He made it clear he’s one of the finest pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

He also remains a huge star. The sellout crowd was overwhelmingly in his favor and Ellerbe said indications are that the pay-per-view will reach or perhaps exceed 750,000.

He said he was receiving calls at ringside from Portland Trailblazers star Damian Lillard.

“He was in Mexico and he’s calling me, ‘How can I see this fight? Where can I see this fight?’” Ellerbe said.

It’s testament to Pacquiao’s star power built over a legendary career that spans more than 24 full years.

He’s recovered from the lull he showed after his 2015 loss to Mayweather in the very ring in which he was so dominant on Saturday, fighting with the vigor of a hungry mid-20s star.

Thurman said, with some merit, that Pacquiao’s activity was a huge benefit to him. He said he probably won’t fight again until next year, but he’ll have a host of options.

This bout was good enough — it seems like a legitimate Fight of the Year frontrunner — that no one would complain about a rematch. He could fight the winner of the IBF-WBC unification bout between Errol Spence Jr. and Shawn Porter that will be Sept. 28 in Los Angeles.

Manny Pacquiao slams a right to the face of Keith Thurman during their welterweight title fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on July 20, 2019 in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)

One opponent he won’t face is Mayweather. Ellerbe said he’s convinced Mayweather is done boxing for good.

Mayweather told Ellerbe he wasn’t surprised by Pacquiao’s performance.

“He says the same thing all the time [about Pacquiao]: It’s different when you’re up in there with that dude,” Ellerbe said. “It looks like he’s little, but Manny Pacquiao is strong, he’s awkward, fast feet and fast hands. And again, he looked fresh. I know what that comes from: Great rest. They worked smarter instead of harder in camp. And that was the difference in my opinion.”

The truth is, this is one of those rare guys who comes along once every generation or two and who has been gifted to be able to do things mere mortals can’t.

The end will come sometime for Pacquiao, but it doesn’t appear to be anytime soon, unless he decides he’s tired of the grind.

But if he fights like he did on Saturday, there aren’t many in the world who will come close to him.

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