Will Saturday’s Fight Be Manny Pacquiao’s Last?

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Filipino boxing icon Manny Pacquiao could not have more questions hanging over his head as he enters the ring in Macau to face young American star Brandon Rios. He’s lost his last two bouts. His last fight ended with him being brutally knocked out by Juan Manuel Marquez. And his homeland was ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan two weeks ago just as he was entering the final phase of his preparation for Rios.

In fact, there are critics – in and out of the Philippines – who think Pacquiao should postpone the fight and help his countrymen both as a sports icon and a sitting congressman. But he has decided to rebuff their calls, and the fight is proceeding as scheduled.

“I really want to visit the area and personally do what I can to help our countrymen who have suffered so much in this terrible tragedy,” Pacquiao said in a statement. “But I’m in deep training for a crucial fight so I regret I cannot go. I will send help to those who need it the most and I enjoin all of you to pray for our country and people in these trying times.”

It’s clear that Pacquiao’s camp feels that his physical presence in the disaster areas would offer less in terms of lifting the Filipino spirits than a victory in the ring at a much-hyped bout. His trainer Freddy Roach said as much.

“He told me he wanted to go down on Sunday but it’s too close to the fight for him to take any time off,” Roach said during a conference call last Wednesday. “He is focused on the fight still but obviously it is a big distraction because it killed all of those people. … He knows it’s a must-win situation and it’s bigger than that because he has to win for the country also, not just his boxing career, he knows he has to win for the people and he told me that yesterday. They seem to be inspiring each other.”

Pacquiao, who had been training in the southern Philippines city of General Santos, left for Macau on Monday to begin his pre-fight preparation and fulfill his media obligations. It will be Pacquiao’s first fight outside of the U.S. since a unanimous decision over Mexico’s Oscar Larios in July 2006 in Manila.

In fact, it’ll be the first fight outside either the U.S., where he keeps a home in Los Angeles, or his native Philippines for Pacquiao since 1999. Just 21 years old at the time, Pacquiao fared disastrously in that fight in Thailand, getting knocked out in the third round by Medgoen Singsurat. He wouldn’t be KO’d again until the Marquez fight last December.

Saturday’s fight at The Venetian Macao is taking on even more meaning for the 34-year-old former champion for other reasons. It’s the first major boxing event to take place in China and “The Clash in Cotai” is a vehicle that promoter Bob Arum hopes to use in tapping into the emerging market of China.

Zou Shiming, 32, who won the light flyweight gold at both the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, will be on the undercard of the Pacquiao fight. Four other Chinese boxers will take part at the 15,000-seat Cotai Arena, inside the 40-story, $2.4 billion Venetian Macao resort that claims to have the largest casino in the world.

China had banned boxing in 1959 after Mao Tze-tung declared it a sport “with capitalist characteristics.” It was not reinstated until 1986, after Deng Xiaoping met Muhammad Ali and thought China could compete for Olympic medals in lighter weight divisions. Zou became the first Chinese boxer to win any medal when he took the bronze at the 2004 Athens Summer Games.

Zou’s amateur success also helped reignite interest in pro boxing in China. Last November, Xiong Chaozhong became the first Chinese boxer to win a world title when he defeated Mexico’s Javier Martinez Resendiz for the vacant WBC minimumweight championship. Xiong, however, will not be part of the Macau card as he’ll be defending his title a week later in his home province of Yunnan.

So in Macau, all eyes will be on Pacquiao. Will the aging fighter rediscover his golden touch that made him at one time the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world? Or will Father Time, conspiring with all the distractions, force him to realize that it’s a younger man’s game?

Rumored to be interested in making a run for the highest office in the Philippines when he retires, Pacquiao will have much more at stake than just a payday when he touches gloves with Rios. For reasons personal, professional and political, it’s becoming the fight of his life.

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