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The Return of Manny Pacquiao

It has been a quiet month here at Bellows' Lunchbox, as my normal routine has been interrupted by a move into a new house and an illness that kept me away from my computer and from most of the action in the ring. But I did catch Pacquiao's seven-round destruction of Lucas Matthysse last night, a beating that called to mind the exploits of Pacquiao during his prime, when he conquered a record-setting eight different weight divisions on his way to becoming a consensus all-time pound-for-pound legend.

I was never a big Pacquiao fan. To be sure, his fights were entertaining, as Pacquiao's all-action style produced countless historic moments. But I was always more of a Juan Manuel Marquez supporter, and feel that he was unjustly robbed of one and possibly two wins in their quartet of classic fights from 2004 to 2011. Nonetheless, the decline of Pacquiao in recent years has been difficult to watch at times, particularly his uninspiring loss to Mayweather in 2015 and his poor performance against Jeff Horn two years later in Australia.

Last night, however, Pacquiao seemed to have most of the tools from his prime, and dominated every round against Matthysse, who looked, to be honest, like a shot fighter whose time has come to hang up the gloves. Surely now bigger fights await the 39-year-old Pacquiao, perhaps against Lomachenko or Terence Crawford. I don't expect Pacquiao to beat another elite, prime fighter in his career, but I wouldn't count him out, either.

And yet, a shadow has always hung over Pacquiao's accomplishments in the ring. As Gabriel Montoya pointed out on Twitter last night, the Pacquiao-Matthysse affair was the first Pacquiao fight in years in which the Filipino fighter was not subjected to VADA testing for performance-enhancing drugs. Rumors about Pacquiao's steroid use have percolated through the industry for years, and I don't know if they are true. But I do know that in the 21st century, it is usually safest to assume that whoever is at the pinnacle of his sport is probably on some kind of performance-enhancing substance. And Pacquiao, who almost miraculously managed to carry his legendary punching power up the weight rankings, battering men much larger than him, would certainly be a likely candidate. In most sports, I regard this question as essentially irrelevant to understanding the greatness of particular athletes. Yes, Barry Bonds cheated to get to 762 home runs, but then, so did many other power hitters of his generation, and ultimately, in such instances I don't view the use of PEDs as disqualifying or even particularly problematic. Athletes are always going to be ready to risk their bodies to gain an edge. It's essential to the vocation.

But boxing is different, in that the added strength, speed, power, and endurance that performance enhancers provide is used to directly injure the body and head of an opponent, potentially exacerbating the damage that the sport inflicts on those who ply the trade. Yet ironically, the use of PEDs in boxing, as well as American football, provokes less scandal than it does in baseball. To date, no confirmed PED user has been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But already, multiple confirmed steroid users are in the boxing Hall of Fame. Why baseball seems to attact so many moralists, whereas boxing and football do not, is perhaps best explored in another column.

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