Filipino ring legend Manny Pacquiao returns to the ring this Saturday in Kuala Lumpur, tackling teak-tough Argentinean banger Lucas Matthysse for Matthysse’s WBA Regular World welterweight title.
The bout represents an interesting clash between two of the most exciting fighters in the division’s recent history. However, with both men now on the wrong side of 35 – Pacquiao, 39 and Matthysse, 35 – the match-up is perhaps not the meeting of two of boxing’s elite combatants as it once was.
Rewind to October 2015…
Matthysse, fresh off of his gruelling twelve round unanimous decision victory over ‘Siberian Rocky’ Ruslan Provodnikov, faced what many considered to be something of a routine mandatory defence of his WBC World super lightweight crown in the shape of Ukrainian boxer-puncher Viktor Postol. Following a series of blood-and-guts wars, the all-action Argentine had been earmarked for a potential super fight with one of the glitzy-names in the welterweight division above.
The considerable carrot dangling in Matthysse’s eye-line? A money-spinning showdown with this weekend’s opponent, the then-recently-deposed WBO World welterweight champion, Manny Pacquiao.
However, true to form in a sport of such variance, Matthysse would succumb to a tenth-round stoppage defeat at the hands of ‘The Iceman’ – relinquishing his World title and putting pay to a meeting with the eight-division World champion.
Citing an eye injury that would later see him retire briefly from the sport, Matthysse – a veteran of, at the time, 41 professional prizefights – would lay dormant in exile for some nineteen months, before returning against welterweight fringe-contender Emmanuel Taylor in May 2017.
Pacquiao, on the other hand, would go on to regain his WBO title (taken from him in somewhat underwhelming fashion by a certain Floyd Mayweather Jr. in May of 2015) in his next bout against Timothy Bradley Jr., in the third bout of their trilogy.
For many, a bout with Matthysse would have represented a far more intriguing contest for the ‘Pac-Man’. However, in suffering his only-stoppage loss to Postol, the aptly named ‘Machine’ – a nickname bestowed on him for his ruthlessly efficient knockout power – was perceived by many to be on the scrap heap, so to speak.
Nevertheless, carrying a well-maintained reputation as one of the sport’s most feared power-punchers, Matthysse found himself in position to contest the WBA Regular strap in January of this year against the unheralded Tewa Kiram of Thailand.
The bout would serve as a worrying contrast to the same Matthysse that bulldozed his way through a stacked 140lbs division in the previous decade. His trademark relentlessness and signature seek-and-destroy mentality had been replaced by a fighter that looked, to put it mildly, considerably past his sell-by-date.
However, as conventional wisdom would point to in boxing, the last facet to leave a world-class puncher was exactly that: his punch. Matthysse – after struggling badly to come to terms with his awkward, ungainly foe – found an equaliser in the eighth round, knocking Kiram out with virtually his first solid blow of the contest.
In a career that, for all of its highlight reel knockouts, was still yet to be capped by a crowning moment in the ring, Matthysse had captured his first version of a World title (with then-unified champion Keith Thurman holding the coveted WBA ‘Super’ title).
Meanwhile, Pacquiao, who had also began to show prevalent signs of slippage in the twilight of his ‘Hall of Fame’ worthy career, had surrendered his own WBO World title with a shocking upset-loss to Australian Jeff Horn in July of 2017.
Devoid of his patented, blistering speed of hand-and-foot – that saw him blaze a trail through the weight classes in one of the most exciting ascents in the history of the sport – Pacquiao looked cumbersome against the rugged challenger, dropping a contentious twelve round decision loss to Horn in-front of a packed Brisbane outdoor crowd.
With a subsequent rematch with Horn unable to be made, Pacquiao – who now holds office as a senator in his native land of the Philippines – faced calls from many to retire from the sport.
However, still blessed with one of the most vociferously loyal fanbases in boxing, Pacquiao’s drawing power has once again allowed him to manoeuvre into position for a shot at (an admittedly secondary) World championship.
The seemingly diminishing skill-set and physical capabilities of each man is not the only change of significance ahead of their meeting this weekend in Malaysia.
Pacquiao, who rose to prominence by crushing then-IBF World super bantamweight champion Lehlo Ledwaba as a late replacement in 2001, will enter the bout without the guidance of renowned trainer Freddie Roach by his side.
The Ledwaba victory was the first of thirty-three contests the two shared together, and the Matthysse fight will see Pacquiao enter the ring without Roach in his corner for the first time in over seventeen years.
Buoyed by the assistance of childhood-friend and long-time ‘Team Pacquiao’ stalwart Buboy Fernandez – who has assumed Roach’s role as head trainer – Pacquiao insists he is in the best shape possible. However, one can’t help but imagine that the absence of Roach from his former-star pupil’s corner is a direct positive for Matthysse.
The bout itself throws up many intriguing questions. Both men, while unquestionably no longer the forces they once were, still carry a wealth of experience and an ability to excite and entertain.
While the match-up would have been fought at an immeasurably higher level pre-Postol and Horn respectively, Matthysse and Pacquiao enter the ring on Saturday knowing that one more loss would undoubtedly spell the end of one-of-two glittering careers.
Pacquiao, for all of his protestations that he is in sufficient fighting shape, is now an openly part-time pugilist – affording more and more time to his demanding role in office as opposed to hours in the gym. While Matthysse, already once-retired and showing further signs of wear and tear with each passing contest, looked gun-shy in his previous outing against far-from-elite opposition in Kiram.
This Saturday Manny Pacquiao and Lucas Matthysse – two war-horses of the sport who are clearly on the decline – will contest a title that, despite the obvious negative connotations, is fitting for their current status in the sport.
The winner of the WBA ‘Regular’ World welterweight title will in no be able to make a case as the best welterweight in the division.
The loser, however, will be unlikely to make a case to continue in the sport altogether.
As the saying goes ‘two donkeys can still make a good race’ – and while it is foolhardy to label either man as a donkey, expect to see a dramatic last-stand between two fighters who have given more than their fair share of value to the sport… and will continue to do so – potentially for the last time – this Saturday in the Malaysian capital.
Fight preview by: Rob Tebbutt
You can follow Rob on Twitter at: @RobTebbutt