By Bill Dwyre
Las Vegas -- Saturday night, in a familiar boxing ring at a trendy bright-lights casino here, superstar Manny Pacquiao will do, in 36 minutes or less, what superstar Kobe Bryant has spent an entire NBA season doing.
He will attempt to finalize a legacy.
Both Bryant and Pacquiao can point to bodies of work beyond the remarkable. But the farewell tours, much like the sports each represent, are vastly different.
Pacquiao is 37. He has been boxing since he was barely a teenager. His record is 57-6-2, which translates to 65 wars in about 25 years. Once Oscar De La Hoya left the scene, somehow fittingly at the hands of Pacquiao in 2008, the mantle of most-popular and most-skilled boxer went to Pacquiao. He drove billions of dollars into the sport and his native Philippines into a more frequent international conversation.
He shared the top rung of boxing status in his generation with Floyd Mayweather Jr., who has never lost in 49 fights, who beat Pacquiao in his final one last year and who earned the reputation as the best defensive fighter and pure practitioner of the sweet science of his era. Few threatened to beat Mayweather. Few even hit him.
But Mayweather’s flashy lifestyle, general arrogance and braggadocio have been enough of a turn-off to the general sports fan to prompt millions to turn to Pacquiao for hero worship and inspiration. Mayweather won the fight, but he would not win the popularity contest.
That brings us to Saturday night, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, where Pacquiao has fought the bulk of his battles and generated the bulk of his popularity. He has said this will be his last fight. When boxers say this, we roll our eyes. A boxer’s retirement is like a politician’s campaign promise.
Pacquiao’s stance in this, however, sounds firm, less naively dishonest.
“I want to win, and I want to do so convincingly,” he has said here, over and over. “I want for this to be part of my legacy, for me, for my family, for the Philippines.”
He also has said, “I am happy with my career. What I have done is beyond my imagination.”
What he has done is gone from a scraggly 106-pounder -- working dozens of odd jobs, even as a 10 and 11-year-old street urchin, to scrape together food for his family --to a multi-millionaire boxing star, a 147-pound welterweight marvel, Filipino congressman and current candidate for a senate seat in his country. At Friday’s weigh-in, he was introduced as a “global icon.”
That pretty well covers it. A legacy? Who would need more?
But this is boxing, where your reputation and public perception lasts about as long as it takes to go 12 rounds. In Pacquiao’s case, his most-recent 12 rounds were his loss to Mayweather, one further stained by his admission afterward that he had torn a muscle in his right shoulder in the fourth round that he said rendered him ineffective the rest of the way. Mayweather got the decision and Pacquiao and his fans were left with bad tastes in their mouth.
Then, at the beginning of this promotion, the highly religious Pacquiao made a controversial and silly statement about gays and lesbians being “worse than animals.” But that has somehow blemished his reputation less than might be expected, partly because his home country appears less upset than the more knee-jerk, politically-correct USA. A reporter from a major Philippine newspaper said recently that, were they to hold a poll right now in his country that asks public opinion about gay and lesbian marriage, “as much as 75%” would vote no.
Pacquiao’s legacy seems to have survived both the Mayweather loss and his unfortunate statement. Now, the question of the moment is, can it survive Tim Bradley?
In a refreshing sort of way, having Bradley as the opponent is perfect for Pacquiao’s legacy grand finale. That was not the case when this fight was announced and the promotion began three months ago.
This is their third fight, and fans and media tend to yawn over boxing trilogies. The prevailing theory was that there was no buzz, that boxing had been there and done that twice before. There was even the theory that Promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank had committed financial suicide by putting a pay-per-view match on during The Masters golf weekend, when millions of sports fans will have already spent their manageable hours watching TV by fight time.
Lost in all this were the incredible match-up statistics that have Pacquiao as the only eight-division world champion in history -- “That’ll never happen again,” says his trainer, Freddie Roach -- and Bradley as a five-time world champion. Also lost is that Bradley, while the after-thought in this fight, is no kid at 32 and has just one loss on his record, to Pacquiao two years ago. That’s the case, even though his victory in their first fight, in 2012, was widely panned as a judging screw-up.
The wild card in all this is that, as the promotion has grown, so has the stature of Bradley.
Part of it is his addition of the fascinating Teddy Atlas as his trainer. The other part is that, with Atlas providing the thought-processes and articulate examples of free and colorful expression, Bradley has become more outgoing and media-attractive. He has picked up a new fan following and has, in so doing, stamped himself as much more than just another guy that Manny is fighting.
Now, a Pacquiao victory over Bradley is, indeed, a legacy builder; something you proudly tell your grandchildren, while pointing out who Tim Bradley was, what he stood for and how well he could fight.
Bradley, of course, has not come from Palm Springs, with his Desert Storm nickname and high heat punching style, to be merely a pawn in Pacquiao’s legacy night. After his weigh-in Friday, he said, “I think there will be lots of disappointed fans here Saturday night.” That showed not only a recognition of Pacquiao’s stature compared to his own, but a swagger that goes beyond normal fight hype.
Atlas calls Pacquiao, “One of the greatest fighters of our time,” and, “one with a freakish combination of speed and power.”
Pacquiao says, “I want to win, stay humble and be with my family.”
Bradley says, “This is my shot. If I don’t do it Saturday, I won’t do it.”
After a seven-month season, Kobe will play his last Lakers’ game next week and ride off into the sunset, leaving record-books and historians to tell the rest.
After 36 minutes or less Saturday night, Manny Pacquiao says he will do the same.
Bradley is not Steph Curry, nor Chris Paul or Tony Parker. But in this arena, in this sport, on this Saturday night, he will more than suffice.
Legacy building should not be easy. Pacquiao should be grateful that, this time, it will not be.
Bill Dwyre will be writing a series of weekly columns on the Pacquiao vs. Bradley world championship event. Bill was sports editor of The Los Angeles Times for 25 years, ending in 2006. He was a sports columnist for 9 1/2 years at The Times, ending Nov. 25 with his retirement. Boxing was among his most frequent column topics. Bill can be contacted at BillPatDwyre@gmail.com or via Twitter at @BillDwyre.