OUT on the sunbaked Las Vegas strip on Saturday afternoon, several passersby shared in the assumption that Manny Pacquiao had long retired from the pursuit of professional boxing, and really, who could blame them for thinking that?

In truth, the assumption made a lot of sense. The name of arguably the era’s most accomplished fighter had been flittering around the mainstream for nearly two decades, an eternity in the breakneck continuum of pop-culture relevancy. The mid-aughts triptych of Barrera-Morales-Marquez, fights so brutally honest that they beckoned belief in violence, was not so long ago, yet at the same time it appeared distant, faded, encrusted in amber. Manny Pacquiao…The name was a harbinger of yesteryear.

“Pacquiao is fighting tonight?” One perplexed Delta airline worker asked, when informed of the night’s central act. “Didn’t he retire? I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that he retired.”

Such thinking is understandable. If we didn’t exactly read about Pacquiao’s retirement in the news, we had at least thought about it at one point or another, especially as his career began to unravel along a predictable path. There was the frightening knockout in 2012, when Juan-Manuel Marquez, his greatest rival, rendered him motionless on the mat like the aftermath of a Prohibition-era hit job.

There was the snoozer in 2015, when Floyd Mayweather Jr. repeatedly snapped his head back with counters in the so-called fight of the Century; and in 2017, under the Australian sun, there was the disputed points loss to the roughneck Jeff Horn, whose ironclad skull left the eight-division world champion’s temples oozing blood. 

So if there was an expectation that the hard-hitting Keith Thurman, the 30-year-old WBA welterweight champion from Clearwater, Florida, would add another painful chapter to the growing body of evidence pointing to Pacquiao’s decline, it was a well-founded one, backed by countless instances in boxing history of young fighters mercilessly wresting the baton from their elders.

Never mind that Thurman had been out of the ring for close to two years on account of injuries or that when he finally reappeared in the spring, he was wobbled seriously by a shopworn Josesito Lopez; never mind all that, nature was on Thurman’s side.  

Well, only to an extent.

Over 12 tense and competitive rounds amid a rousing capacity crowd at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the southpaw Pacquiao staved off the physical reality of his 40-years of age to earn a split decision victory over Thurman, snatching the latter’s WBA welterweight title in the process. In the months leading up to the fight, Thurman talked up a storm, vowing that his combination of size, speed, and power would overwhelm Pacquiao and effectively force him into retirement. That was far from the case.

Judges Tim Cheatham and Dave Moretti both scored the bout 115-112 for Pacquiao, whileGlen Feldman dissented, scoring it 114-113 for Thurman. Boxing News scored it 116-111 for Pacquiao, who notched perhaps the most impressive late-career performance of any fighter in recent memory. “It was fun,” Pacquiao noted afterward with customary carefreeness.

Pacquiao rides again (Stephanie Trapp/TGB)

Moments before the bell rang, the two fighters were a study in deep contrasts. Thurman appeared jazzed up, almost fidgety; Pacquiao, who walked into the ring to the tune of Eye of the Tiger, a picture of tranquility.

Thurman took command early in the first round, landing the straight right a couple of times and countering with the left hook during an exchange. With less than 30 seconds to go, Pacquiao scored the lone knockdown of the fight when he caught Thurman carelessly pulling back with a straight left to the body followed by a ramrod right jab (executed with the force of a cross). The reported 14,356 in attendance erupted as Thurman landed on the mat.

“Obviously he caught me with my hands down in the first round,” Thurman recalled candidly postfight. “I was aware of Manny Pacquiao’s springiness. I was aware that I should have done my head movement, but being aware and doing what you have to do are two different things in the ring.”

Pacquiao made an impression early, dropping Thurman in the first (Stephanie Trapp/TGB)

Pacquiao would capitalise on the momentum, controlling the pace and firing powerful shotgun jabs that seemed to stagger Thurman at times. In the fifth, Thurman, cognisant of his size advantage, had success holding up a high guard and ripping body shots on the inside. Pacquiao answered with flurries, while pivoting away at odd angles.

In the last minute, Pacquiao would increase his output, showing flashes of his whirling brilliance, as he connected on a hard short right that burst open the capillaries in Thurman’s nose, unleashing a gush of blood.

But the damage to his face only seemed to embolden Thurman, who knew he was down on the cards midway through the fight. In round six, Thurman tried to bully Pacquiao on the ropes.

“The opening rounds didn’t start off the way that I wanted it to,” Thurman recalled. “Manny Pacquiao had a lot of momentum from the knockdown. I ended up paying attention to the rounds. By the time we hit the seventh I was like ‘Damn, we’re in the seventh already.’ The fight just really flew by.”

Pacquiao didn’t have it all his own way (Stephanie Trapp/TGB)

The momentum began to shift in the seventh round. Thurman started to land his jab with more regularity. At one point he countered beautifully with a slick straight right over Pacquiao’s wide left. He would follow it up with a straight right-left hook combination that elicited a smile from Pacquiao, who looked fatigued.

But in the eighth round, Pacquiao picked up his second wind and reopened the floodgates in Thurman’s nose with a fusillade of combinations. Thurman would battle back in the next round, keeping Pacquiao at bay with his jab and digging to the body, before unloading a flurry of punches at the end.

Then came the pivotal 10th round, which saw Pacquiao capitalise on one of Thurman’s most glaring weaknesses: the body. A thudding left to the liver sent Thurman in retreat, hopscotching for survival as the crowd bayed for the finishing blow. Somehow, Thurman had the presence of mind to take out of his mouthpiece while backpedalling so that he could breathe more easily.

Thurman would survive the round and go onto land his best punch of the fight in the 11th, drilling Pacquiao with the right cross, dazing him momentarily before recovering his wits. “I can say that he’s a heavy-handed man,” Pacquiao said of Thurman’s punching power in the postfight presser, “not like other opponent that I faced before. This guy, he can fight.”

After the fight, Thurman graciously owned up to his defeat. “I’ve got an 0, I’m not afraid to let it go,” he said. “If you can beat me, beat me. I was beaten tonight. And that’s the sport of boxing, baby. But your boy Keith ‘One Time’ Thurman is here and I’ll be back.”

Pacquiao, who declined to say who he wanted to fight next and insisted he will be focusing on his senatorial duties for the next few months, agreed. “Thurman’s journey does not end tonight. He has a lot of future to fight. Don’t be discouraged. Your journey is not finished here.” 

Manny Pacquiao
Pacquiao experiences that winning feeling once again (Stephanie Trapp/TGB)

On the TGB Promotions undercard, Cuba’s Yordenis Ugas pummelled Welasco, Texas’ Omar Figueroa Jr over 12 mostly monotonous rounds in a WBC welterweight eliminator. Incredibly, this was the first defeat for Figueroa in a career marked by footloose ambition, DUIs and slothfulness.

All three judges (Eric Cheek, Julie Lederman, Steve Weisfeld) scored the bout 119-107 for Ugas, who gains some sliver of satisfaction after losing a highly-disputed title fight against WBC-welterweight champion Shawn Porter in the spring.

The gulf in talent was evident from the get-go. Late in the first round, Ugas scored a knockdown with a straight right that forced Figueroa to stumble backwards into the ropes, causing Russell Mora to start the count. On the inside, Ugas outmuscled Figueroa, raking his body with hard left and rights while mixing in stinging overhand rights.

Figueroa responded, per usual, by absorbing punch after punch with his trademark granite chin. He was not much for creative on offence, in which he landed few significant punches, save for the dreary pitty-pat rabbit punches during clinches.

In a farcical matchup, Los Angeles-based Kazakh welterweight Sergey Lipinets wiped out late-replacement Jayar Inson from the Philippines in the second round (set for 10).

After missing with a left hook, straight right combination, Lipinets ducked an incoming right and countered flush with a left hook that caused Inson to topple over on his face, seemingly in slow motion. Though Inson was to upright himself, referee Jay Nady decided there was no point in prolonging the bout, waving it off at 0-57.

Originally, Lipinets was contracted to face bruiser John Molina in what was expected to be one of the better matchups on this undercard, but Molina pulled out a few days prior citing a sudden back injury.

A clash between bantamweight southpaws (set for 12) saw hard-hitting Mexican Luis Nery stop the typically rugged Dominican Juan Payano with a body shot in the ninth round.

Payano, a former champion who had comported himself well early on, took a moment to gather himself before keeling over on his back in obvious anguish as referee Vic Drakulich finished out the count at 1-43.

The question with Nery, as always, is not about his ability to win in the ring, but his willingness to do so on fair terms. Yet again, he came into this fight overweight — a 1/2 pound over the bantamweight limit — and though he was able to clear himself with another attempt at the scale, it illustrated once more the reprobate’s haughty attitude toward basic prizefighting regulation.

Nashville’s IBF-super-middleweight title-holder Caleb Plant promised all week that he would impart a painful shellacking to former university linebacker (and career light-heavyweight) Mike Lee in his first title defence, and he did just that, putting Lee to the canvas three pitiful times en route to a third-round stoppage.

In the opening stanza, Plant whipped a lead left hook that put the Chicagoan Lee on his rear for the first knockdown. In the next round, Plant worked assiduously behind the jab, mixing in straight rights, while circling away from any return fire.

In the third, Plant landed a straight right for his third knockdown, followed by another hook that referee Robert Byrd mistakenly deemed a push. It didn’t matter. Moments later, Lee was down again from another hair-trigger hook, as Byrd waved off the fight at 1-29. A unification fight with the winner of David Benavidez-Andre Dirrell should be next.

THE VERDICT: Pacquiao proves he’s one of the most amazing fighters in history, while Thurman still something to offer.

RESULTS: Manny Pacquiao (146 1/2lbs), 62-7-2 (39), w pts 12 Keith Thurman (146 1/2lbs), 29-1 (22); Yordenis Ugas (147lbs), 24-4 (11), w pts 12 Omar Figueroa Jr. (147lbs), 28-1-1 (19); Sergey Lipinets (147lbs), 16-1 (12), w rsf 2 Jayar Inson (147lbs), 18-3 (12); Luis Nery (118lbs), 30-0 (24), w ko 9 Juan Payano (117 1/2lbs), 21-3 (9); Austin Dulay (136lbs), 14-1 (11), w rsf 3Justin Pauldo (136lbs), 12-2 (6); Caleb Plant (168lbs), 19-0 (11), w rsf 3 Mike Lee (167lbs), 21-1 (11); Efe Ajagba (242lbs), 11-0 (9), w pts 10 Ali Demirezen (247 1/2lbs), 11-1 (10); Peter Dobson (146 1/2lbs), 11-0 (7), w rsf 5 Emmanuel Medina (147lbs), 16-1 (9); Abel Ramos(147lbs), 25-3-2 (19), w rsf 4 Jimmy Williams (146 1/2lbs), 16-3-1 (5); Genisis Libranza(113lbs), 19-1 (11), w rsf 4 Carlos Maldonado (113lbs), 11-4 (7); John Dato (127 1/2lbs), 12-0-1 (8), w ko 5 Juan Lopez (127 1/2lbs), 14-7 (6).