Every blockbuster requires the viewer to disconnect their brain for a couple of hours.

You cannot question the events unfolding on the big screen: characters walking away from explosions that would kill hundreds in real life; car chases in which Lewis Hamilton would struggle to make the podium; fight scenes in which one hero takes out ten henchmen at once. To accept what we see, we must suspend our disbelief.

It isn’t easy to achieve. Personally, I cannot stand sci-fi films. Why? Because the genre is beyond my comprehension, and I find myself doubting every plot and subplot as the story guides itself through space, aliens or a dystopian future.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, as Manny Pacquaio earned a hard-fought points win over Keith Thurman, I experienced the same sense of disbelief.

The HOF career  

The Manny Pacquiao story is littered with such moments that cause the viewer to question the evidence of their own eyes. January 1995 was Pacquaio’s debut, a 16-year-old in a four round bout, weighing just 106 pounds on a show in the Philippines. There were no Olympic medals, no Vegas lights. He was one of many young fighters chasing an impossible dream. Pacquaio, however, defied the odds to become one of the few, one of the elites.

World-title belts have followed in multiple weight divisions; from flyweight at 110 pounds in 1998 all the way through to welterweight, some 37 pounds higher. Seventy-one fights in an outstanding professional career.

Pacquaio became a fan favourite thanks to a dynamic, ferocious attacking output married to his vulnerabilities. Whereas Floyd Mayweather in his latter career focused on mastering defence, Pacquaio has always been the antithesis. The wasp, constantly buzzing around an opponent from his southpaw stance, fast flurries dazzling foe and fans alike. Relentless aggression brings its own risk: alongside the 62 wins amassed, there have been seven losses, three of which saw Pacquaio unable to answer the count.

We know Pacquaio is one of the greatest southpaws of all time, but what made Manny Pacquaio? Adversity for one. In Mandaluyong City, 1996, Pacquaio was stopped in three rounds by fellow flyweight Rustico Torrecampo. At 17 years old, 110lbs, Pacquaio tasted his first defeat.

He grew from the experience. Not merely metaphorically, but physically. Next time he stepped into a ring, just three months later, he was fighting at 122lbs. Some 9% growth in 90 days. He stayed at that weight for three years.

From December 1999 to June 2009, Pacquaio was a wrecking ball. Ten years, 27 fights, 25 wins, 20 knockouts and just a single defeat. He went from a 122lbs fighter to a 147lbs destroyer, that lone loss coming on points to Eric Morales. Featherweight, super feather, lightweight, super light and welterweight. In four of these five weight categories, Pacquaio captured his first title by way of knockout. Despite piling on the pounds, quite literally, he only became stronger, snappier and even more effective as the weight category before.

But then his power suddenly diminished, the finishing instinct got lost. Between March 2010 to July 2018, Pacquio didn’t record a single knockout in 14 fights. Perhaps age had caught up with him, perhaps the toll of fighting up through the weights was starting to show. There were losses, too; a flattening by Juan Marquez, two controversial points losses and THAT superfight with Floyd Mayweather in which Pac Man seemed a shadow of his once-explosive self.

After the surprise loss to Jeff Horn in July 2017, aged 38, the sun surely set upon the glistening career of Manny Pacquaio. The final nail in the coffin of his career was his move into politics. A hero in the Philippines, he returned to focus upon his role as Senator, for which he was elected in 2016.

Yet he couldn’t stay away from the ring. In July 2018, Pacquaio fought Lucas Matthyse, a renowned Argentinian hardman who had mixed with the elite. Despite the 12-month layoff, Pacquaio stopped an opponent for the first time in nine years. The fight took place in the relative boxing backwater of Kuala Lumpur. 

He went on to outpoint Adrian Broner and of course Keith Thurman. Against all the odds, Manny Pacquaio is once again a world champion. 

Reasons to disbelieve? 

Stories have plagued the latter part of his career. Rumours that his meteoric growth might not solely be through strong genetics, hard work and dedication. Many boxers have voiced their concerns about whether Pacqauio has fought clean during his quite-literal rise through the sport. Paulie Malignaggi has spoken openly of how he believes Pacquaio to have used performance enhancing drugs, Floyd Mayweather Sr has given his opinion and most recently, Ricky Hatton has raised the possibility. All these people may have an axe to grind, or they may be ‘in the know’.

Envy over a career as successful as Pacquaio’s is only to be expected. Do the stories and rumours have credence? It is difficult to say for certain. Firstly, Pacquaio has never failed a drugs test, unlike many of his peers. Canelo, Tyson Fury, James Toney, Alexander Povetkin, Dillian Whyte. A significant number of high-profile boxers have had their own issues with the testing authorities. The punishments were minor in most cases, but the tests still raised the alarm. For Pacquaio, there are no failed tests, but there are plenty of alarms.

Take the power and the chin. A young man knocked out at flyweight, by a competitor who weighed the same as an average 14-year-old, somehow became able to take punches off elite-level welterweights. Of course, Pacquaio has developed his technique over time, learned to ride shots, impose himself on opponents to negate their output. Yet unlike the heavyweight Vladmir Klitschko, himself knocked out twice early in his career, Pacquiao didn’t alter his style to minimise punches taken; he just stopped being affected by them.

Then you have growth. There were no huge jumps in size over Pacquiao’s career, aside from that early 12lb jump in three months, but he was a young man then, likely squeezing into his flyweight frame. Yet we are looking at a professional athlete who once weighed 106lbs and went up to 147lbs. That’s a 28% difference, in a sport where such seismic weight shifts are near unheard of.

That long gap between stoppages. It is unclear under what testing conditions, if any, the Matthyse fight took place. All we know is a 39-year-old boxer, not so much over-the-hill but down the other side in his previous fight, fought like a man reborn in Kuala Lumpur.

Fast forward to the Thurman fight. VADA testing was only implemented within the last four weeks of training camp. Frankly, you might as well not bother at all. Should you wish to know the benefits of PEDs, even many months before a fight, listen to the ‘Science of Sport’ podcast – specifically the episode Drugs In Sport. It is an eye-opener to anyone who previously doubted how widespread this issue might be.

What about the Mayweather fight? Pacquaio was at one point happy to walk away from a guaranteed split of $200 million, all because he was scared of needles? (Despite his many tattoos.) For what it’s worth, blood testing over urine testing provides a far more in-depth picture of what performance enhancers may be lurking in the system. Pacquiao blamed his subsequent poor performance on an injured shoulder.

All these potential red flags prove nothing. They don’t show that Pacquaio is a drugs cheat, and, as stated, he has never failed a test. Nonetheless, it is a lot of flags. A lot. We can admire Pacquiao’s achievements - and make no mistake, he is one of the greatest to lace up the gloves - without closing our eyes to the discrepancies.

There are those that sail through their respective sports without failing drugs tests, only to confess years later that they had somehow cheated the system. We should all hope that Pacquaio has done it cleanly, and without putting his opponents at increased levels of risk. Sometimes in boxing, it is very difficult to keep suspending disbelief.

Follow Martin Theobald on Twitter @NewAgeBoxingUK