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Manny Pacquiao's twilight revival faces sternest test yet against Keith Thurman

The 40-year-old Filipino superstar climbs through the ropes for his 71st professional fight on Saturday against a bigger, younger opponent

Manny Pacquiao, left, and Keith Thurman at the final press conference in Las Vegas before their fight at MGM Grand. AFP
Manny Pacquiao, left, and Keith Thurman at the final press conference in Las Vegas before their fight at MGM Grand. AFP

In a career, in a life, that has routinely defied logic, Manny Pacquiao aims to add another notch to that narrative.

The boy from Mindanao returns to the glitz of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday night, competing for yet another world title, another handsome pay cheque already secure.

Pacquiao will be well past his 40th birthday when he climbs into the ring against Keith Thurman. It represents his third world title bout in a year. He is a senator in his homeland now, but still the pride of the Philippines plays out what he continually reminds is his passion.

That said, with every extra step in the ring, Pacquiao reaches closer to retirement. Thurman will be mark the 71st professional fight in a career long since set for boxing’s Hall of Fame, the second after Pacquiao’s life crept into its fifth decade.

In theory, Thurman constitutes his greatest test for some time. Undefeated in 29 pro fights, the American is 10 years Pacquiao’s junior. He is taller, more robust, a full-time welterweight. At 30, and although slowed by a 22-month layoff that ceased only in January, he should be poised to peak.

Pacquiao’s prime was sometime ago, that beautifully brutal span between retiring Oscar De La Hoya in 2008 and bludgeoning through Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Joshua Clottey and Antonio Margarita.

In less than two years, the former flyweight had scaled three divisions, bagged belts in each. To this day, it remains one of the most devastatingly dominant stretches in boxing history. Soon after, Pacquiao registered sweet victories against "Sugar" Shane Mosley and a second triumph from his then-three tussles with Juan Manual Marquez.

Yet boxing’s only eight-division champion will be a long way removed from that spell by the time he clambers through the ropes to face Thurman. The recent years have, for the most part, been pockmarked by prosaic performances. In 2017, Pacquiao’s controversial defeat to little-known Jeff Horn prompted long-time trainer Freddie Roach to urge his star pupil to call it a day. It seemed a reasonable shout.

Clearly stung by Roach’s advice, Pacquiao returned last year without the American in his corner and took out Lucas Matthysse in Malaysia, far from the bright lights of Las Vegas. The win arrived via a technical knockout in the seventh round. It granted Pacquiao a first stoppage in nine years, a period comprising 13 fights.

Then January’s unanimous points decision against 29-year-old Adrien Broner suggested Pacquiao’s extraordinary tale had a few more loops to run. He had just turned 40, was embarking on the first of a three-fight contract with Premier Boxing Champions, who steer a stockpiled welterweight division.

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Manny Pacquiao: Beyond the ropes series

Part 1: A man who gives hope to the Philippines

Part 2: Turning 40 and no signs of slowing

Part 3: Broner, Mayweather and the fear of going on for too long

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The theory is that victory against Thurman could bring within view a unification bout with the hugely talented Errol Spence Jr. It is the sort of superstar match-up Pacquiao continues to crave, even deep into his 41st year, almost a quarter of a century since he launched a lightening bolt of a career. Back then, Thurman was six.

Pacquiao is right not to look beyond Saturday. Thurman talks a good game, and his remarks are said to have piqued his opponent, but he can back it up. The Clearwater native is slick, both in tongue and touch, superior in height, reach, and most probably, power. Perhaps crucially, he has youth on his side. His threat is obvious.

If Thurman looked far from full bloom in his January points-victory against Josesito Lopez, that can be put down to nearly two years out of competitive action, thrust upon him by injury. Ring-rust eroded, he will be much better as he seeks a 30th straight win. The promise to with it provoke Pacquiao’s retirement feels real.

Pacquiao, though, has built a reputation out of pushing back reality's boundaries. He has shaped them to carve out one of the most compelling careers the sport has witnessed. Yes, he is 40 now, but he maintains age is just a number, as well he might.

Saturday night will go some way to proving if time is finally catching up. Then again, in a career - in a life - defined by improbable triumphs and spent defying logic, who would go against Pacquiao persisting still?

Updated: July 19, 2019 08:31 AM

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