For a two-year period, we all thought that Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. would settle their long-standing beef on who the best boxer of this era was in the ring, together, and with a title on the line.
In 2013, those thoughts have faded, and now both fighters appear destined to hold the title of "The fight that should have been, but never was" until both one day speak on the matter on a prime-time TV special.
Mayweather's undefeated mark and legacy live on—Pacquiao's is now in question.
In fact, the next time Pacquiao exits the ring in front of a sell-out crowd, we could be singing a different tune about the man widely regarded as one of the greatest boxing stars to ever compete past the turn of the century.
Two-straight losses to top opponents will do that to a fighter.
Pacquiao's first stumble came in the summer of 2012, when he was the victim of a controversial decision that gave Timothy Bradley the World Boxing Organization Welterweight title. Although many felt Pacquiao won the fight outright, it was still a disappointing finish with Mayweather still on the horizon.
Disappointing, yet not so crushing that he could not overcome it.
Then, in December, the fourth installment of his battle with Juan Manuel Marquez took a turn for the worst, when a back-and-forth bout turned into a Marquez sixth-round knockout, putting Pacquiao out of contention for any world title and likely eliminating a potential bout with Mayweather in the process.
A third-straight loss could send Pacquiao into retirement. What's worse? It could forever change our interpretation of how important his career was to the boxing world.
It's why his next fight is the most important of his storied (54-5-2) career.
The Filipino Congressman and former champ has laid low since his latest loss, choosing to instead focus on the upcoming elections in the Philippines and deferring to Top Rank boss Bob Arum as the front for what's going on with his athletic career.
Arum spoke out on Tuesday, speaking to the Manila Standard (h/t BoxingNews24.com) that Pacquiao will have a choice between long-time potential opponents Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado in a bout that would be scheduled for October.
Per the speculation in the report, a Pacquiao win would likely mean he would catch the winner of the reported Marquez-Bradley fight in September, a bout that Top Rank has already reserved a venue for on September 14 (via Boxing Scene).
By the same token, a loss would put him farther down the Top Rank ladder and in a position where he would have to offer a ridiculous amount of money to either face Marquez a fifth time or Bradley in a rematch.
Both of those options would hinge on his choice to forgo retirement, an option that was reportedly discussed in-house with his wife and close confidants after the Marquez loss in December (h/t ESPN).
Needless to say, Pacquiao has a big four months ahead of him with preparation for his next fight.
With Mayweather, Canelo Alvarez and others scheduled to fight at least once—maybe twice—before he gets back in the ring in October, Pacquiao will keep a close eye on the top of the pound-for-pound rankings and his place in the pecking order in the Welterweight division.
Let's not mince words here—Pacquiao is one of the greatest fighters of his era. He's a beloved countryman who has used his boxing stardom to influence a struggling country, and he should be applauded for both his early coming of age and doing something more than just winning fights.
If he loses the next three fights he accepts, it won't change the fact that he's one of the best fighters we've seen over the past decade.
However, a loss to either Rios or Alvarado would dramatically change the career trajectory of the fading star.
At age 34, Pacquiao doesn't have time to bounce back from three-straight losses. Not enough time to climb back to the top, anyway, and that could make calls for him to hang up his gloves stronger than ever in October.
The funny thing is, there's still hope for a Pacquiao ascension.
If you consider the fact that the Bradley fight felt like a Pacquiao win until the final decision, that he owed Marquez one after a draw and an earlier win in their series and that the selling point to his brand is still high, a win against Rios or Alvarado would vault Pacquiao into consideration for winners—not fights against guys looking to stay afloat in their division.
While we wait for the upcoming Mayweather and Robert Guerrero fight and marvel at the Top Rank clash between the last two men to beat Pac-Man, the suspension will continue to grow for the Filipino hero.
As it should, Pacquiao's next fight will be a key moment in determining how we remember him after he's long gone from the boxing world.