By John Wight: Superlatives in the sport of boxing are about as common as flies round a cow’s rear end in summertime. Fighters whose only claim to fame is either a promising start or stubborn longevity are commonly referred to as great or magnificent by commentators and sports writers whose stock of adjectives has obviously decayed with the ennui of too many nights spent ringside watching average fighters ply their trade.
Post-fight hours in hotel bars mingling with said fighters and their trainers have further impaired objectivity to the detriment of both reporters and the sport which they are paid handsomely to serve.
The effect of this easy attribution of superlatives has been to diminish their effect and meaning, so that when a genuinely great fighter does appear the true measure of his greatness is often lost in the sea of mediocrity in which by comparison he swims.
For one Joe Louis there were half a dozen Primo Carnera’s – champions in their own right but who by comparison were made to look decidedly average.
For one Sugar Ray Robinson there were a clutch of tough, indomitable contenders like Jake LaMotta and Randolph Turpin – warriors indeed but whose reputations were made by virtue of sharing the same ring and period in history as one of the all-time greats.
For every Muhammad Ali there was a Joe Frazier, George Foreman and a Ken Norton, men rightly lauded as superb fighters in their own right but whose reputations again were made largely as a consequence of sharing the stage with the legend that is Ali.
Today there is one fighter who can genuinely take his place among the aforementioned giants of the toughest game there is.
His achievement in being the first man to win eight world titles in eight different weight categories, all the way from flyweight to light middleweight, is only matched by a fighting style which utilises speed, power and sustained intensity in a combination never previously witnessed in the ring.
Standing at just over 5’6″, hailing from the Philippines, and starting out fighting at light flyweight, Manny Pacquiao could hardly have been a less likely prospect for greatness in the sport of boxing.
His latest victory, a unanimous decision against Mexico’s Antonio Margarito for the WBC light middleweight title, saw him display a stunning array of combinations and power punching against his much heavier and taller opponent over 12 rounds.
Fans and commentators alike, even though by now accustomed to the Filipino legend’s sheer artistry in the ring, were left speechless by this latest performance. Even the naysayers who believed, not unreasonably, that Margarito with his size and strength would constitute a challenge too far for Pacman, were finally forced to bow in deference.
Not only is Pacquiao a great boxer, he has proved himself a man of tremendous grace and humility both in and out of the squared circle.
This was demonstrated against Margarito when in the later rounds he repeatedly implored the referee to intervene and stop the fight to save his brave opponent from further punishment.
Out of the ring Pacquiao is known for acts of tremendous altruism when it comes to giving back to the impoverished people of his homeland.
Here is a champion who has never forgotten the poverty whence he came and rather than opt for a luxurious lifestyle in the Hollywood Hills has embarked on a second career as a congressman in the Philippines with the stated aim of serving his people.
The naive sentiments of an idealist maybe, but there can be no doubting the purity of motive involved when it comes to a country where survival is not the name of a reality TV show but instead a daily struggle which demands a level of fortitude which we in the West could not even begin to fathom.
After many a great and epic night of boxing involving the pride of the Philippines, which has seen him victorious against champions and future Hall of Famers of the calibre of Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez, Ricky Hatton, Oscar de la Hoya, Joshua Clottey, Miguel Cotto and now Margarito, the only truly worthwhile challenge left for Pacquaio in the ring is the by now much-coveted contest against the formidable Floyd Mayweather Jnr.
But even if this fight doesn’t take place Pacquiao’s place as one of, if not the, all-time greatest has surely been secured.
Comparisons between fighters of different eras can never be based on anything other than subjectivity. Perhaps therein lies their attraction for fans and commentators alike. But Pacquiao’s achievements in the ring over the past 10 years are so incredible they almost defy such comparisons in the first place.
What is certain is that due to advances in nutrition, training techniques and all-round knowledge of physiology, the average ring athlete of today’s era is faster, fitter and more powerful than his counterpart of years gone by.
What hasn’t change with time, though, is a fighter’s ability to transcend his sport. Of the parade of ring legends whose names trip from the tongue – the likes of Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, Floyd Mayweather Jnr and so on – only a couple stand out as having had not just an impact on the sport of boxing but also on society and culture as a whole.
In this regard, from the aforementioned list, we’re talking about Louis, Ali and Tyson, each of course for different reasons. Pacquiao is the latest to achieve this exalted status.
Though perhaps not in the same manner as the inimitable Ali, Pacquiao is a man who fights not only for himself but for the so-called little guy, the poor of his own country, the dollar-a-day labourers in the US, the valets, the cleaners, the army of domestic help, each carrying the same dark skin as he does, who live on the edge of existence and largely invisible in the richest nation on earth.
Allowing them to walk a little taller and experience the thrill of reflected glory is the fact that a man who looks like them, and who hails from similar inauspicious origins, is lauded by presidents, movie stars and celebrities alike.
German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s admonition that “unhappy the land that is in need of heroes” certainly explains the adulation and love that Pacquiao receives from the poor of his own and other lands.
But until the day arrives when the land is no longer in need of those heroes, who better to fill the role than a man of uncommon humility and humanity who also happens to be the greatest boxer of his and arguably any generation?