At 37, coming off a defeat and his longest absence from the ring, Manny Pacquiao says he's approaching Saturday's trilogy-capping fight against Timothy Bradley Jr. as if it will be his final boxing match.
The ongoing question is whether Pacquiao is serious about a full-time role as a senator in the Philippines should he, as expected, win in next month's election.
When Pacquiao broke camp Monday at his training home for 15 years, Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, he huddled in prayer afterward with trainer, Freddie Roach, and three other cornermen. Roach said the moment had "a finality to it."
Yet, scripting the perfect ending is a slippery pursuit for pro athletes, and particularly boxers, whose inability to walk away at the right time has reduced many greats to suffering sad moments in the ring.
Think of a bloody-faced Mike Tyson knocked out on his back by Lennox Lewis, of out-of-shape Muhammad Ali battered by Larry Holmes, of Sugar Ray Leonard beaten to the punch by faster, younger Terry Norris, and of Oscar De La Hoya staying on his stool after Pacquiao whipped him in 2008.
Boxing promoter Bob Arum has watched the tragedies play out like clockwork during his 50 years in the sport.
"It's a tough thing to give up because if you go into anything else, you're not going to be as good as you were in your chosen profession. Very, very hard psychologically to live with that," Arum said. "Even if [Pacquiao] goes from being a boxer to a legislator, he's not going to be the greatest senator in the history of the Philippines [after] being the greatest boxer."
Roach, who never won a world title in his eight-year boxing career, admits he had six too many fights, losing five and suffering repetitive head punishment he blames for the Parkinson's symptoms he's endured. There's a lot of reasons guys stay too long … but usually it's because there's always one more big pay day out there," he said.
When Ali was nearing the end of his career, someone asked why he still wanted to fight and he responded, "How come nobody asks Nelson Rockefeller why he wants to keep making money?"
Tyson earned hundreds of millions of dollars, but his extravagant spending, plus dozens of hangers-on, left him soon after his retirement living in a humble single-family home near Phoenix.
Former world lightweight champion Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini said while success elevates a champion fighter's lifestyle, it also raises the stakes as the realities of age and demands of social or family life lead to more fights.
"Expenses are a certain number. Fighting takes care of that," Mancini said. "But when you're not fighting, the expenses are still there. So the guy thinks, 'I need to maintain the lifestyle,' and nine times out of 10, he comes back or keeps fighting for the wrong reasons. Your mind starts playing with you — 'I'm still young enough, I still can fight.'"
Mancini ended a four-year absence to fight Hector "Macho" Camacho in a 1989 grudge match, losing a disputed split decision.
Three years later, while doing some off-Broadway acting, Mancini was swayed to fight again by "pure ego," agreeing to a bout he believed was a favorable matchup. He lost by seventh-round technical knockout to Greg Haugen.
"I had a good training camp, but training camps are dress rehearsals," Mancini said. "I wanted to see if I could train like an elite athlete. I could train like one. I couldn't fight like one. … I was so slow.
"I had a family at the time. My thoughts in the ring were so different – 'Please, God, don't let me get hurt, my kids need me' — from the way I used to think, 'One of us is getting carried out of here tonight.' I was beat in the dressing room. I told my trainer, 'I don't want to be here tonight.'"
The punishment Ali absorbed from his 1975 "Thrilla in Manila" victory over Joe Frazier, through his final losses to Holmes and Trevor Berbick, are often cited as reasons why he has Parkinson's disease.
Pacquiao goes into Saturday's fight with Bradley as a 2-1 betting favorite, though Pacquiao has lost three of his last six fights.
Roach struck an agreement with Pacquiao years ago that the boxer will retire if the trainer thinks it's time. Roach said he's not there yet, assessing Pacquiao could fight twice more if he wanted.
"I can't say if I'll want to come back," said Pacquiao, who dropped a disputed 2012 split-decision to Bradley, then beat him convincingly two years later. "My decision is to focus on this fight, then go back to the Philippines. I don't know the answer yet."
Pacquiao is believed to have settled his tax debts, after collecting $150 million from his loss to Floyd Mayweather, Jr. last year.
After a 21-year boxing career, Pacquiao could make a clean break with faculties intact, something most fighters aren't afforded.
Arum said he's not certain this is Pacquiao's goodbye, with two fights remaining on his contract. "Reading his body language and everything, … if he wins this fight, he'll find a way to continue fighting," Arum said.
Larry Merchant, the retired, longtime HBO analyst, has seen enough to conclude, "Every great fighter thinks he has one great fight left in him."
That could include Mayweather, who, at 39, now promotes fighters. He appeared at a card Friday in Washington, where a broadcaster asked if his retirement was permanent and the night's winner, former world champion Adrien Broner, called him out to fight. Mayweather responded, "No one knows what the future holds … ."
Mayweather's father/trainer, Floyd Mayweather Sr., said Thursday the tugs of another major bout could "persuade" his son to fight again.
"When a fighter reaches the level of good money, why should he stop? Promoters are still going after them, we're all going after them," Merchant said. "Well, why he should stop is that what determines the outcome of his life is his own inevitable physical decline, running into a younger fighter who wants it a little bit more."
Arum recalled a boxers' reunion ceremony in the 1980s, more than a year after former middleweight champion Marvin Hagler's final bout, a split-decision loss to Leonard. Fight fans were clamoring for a rematch that would generate millions.
Leonard urged Arum to go speak to Hagler about a rematch, and Arum said he did.