Manny Pacquiao put on a dazzling display in his return to the ring after a brief retirement, scoring a unanimous decision over champion Jessie Vargas to claim the WBO welterweight title in Las Vegas.
Despite giving away 10 years to his opponent, the 37-year-old Pacquiao fought with more intensity and energy, and dominated the American in the final rounds to close out an emphatic victory on Saturday.
Pacquiao, 59-6 with two drawn and 38 knockouts, showed he still has a lot left in the tank but failed to get the knockout victory that has eluded him for the past seven years.
The judges scored the bout 114-113, 118-109 and 118-109 in favour of Pacquiao, the only fighter to hold titles in eight divisions, with the Filipino improving to 59-6-2, while Vargas fell to 27-2.
Pacquiao took time off to concentrate on his job as a newly-elected politician in the Philippine Senate before making a return to what he called his “passion”.
After serving his first stint as a rookie senator, he says the fire was rekindled and the stage set for a return to boxing.
It was a master class from the first sitting Senator to win a world boxing championship.
“I feel happy. I feel like I could do more but my aim in every round is not to knock him out,” said Pacquiao. “Next? I’m going back to the Philippines to work in the Senate.”
Pacquiao, whose last previous bout was a unanimous decision over Timothy Bradley in April, showed quickly that he had not lost his skills, knocking Vargas down in the second round with a straight left to the champion’s face.
Among the spectators were the currently retired Floyd Mayweather and light-welterweight champion Terence Crawford. Pacquiao lost the richest bout ever to Mayweather last May.
Meanwhile, Filipinos in cinemas, bars, restaurants, and basketball courts erupted into jubilation following Pacquiao’s victory.
The presidential palace led the nation in sending a congratulatory message to Pacquiao, though it did not say if President Rodrigo Duterte, Pacquiao’s political ally, watched the fight.
But it did say “the courage and grit displayed by our Filipino boxers in Las Vegas are the same qualities we must demonstrate as a nation to rid society of drugs, criminality and corruption”.
Pacquiao endorsed President Duterte’s war on drugs, which has left more than 3,700 people dead in four months and has been condemned by human rights groups and foreign countries.
The boxer admitted in September that he himself indulged in illegal drugs when he was an impoverished teenager.
During Pacquiao’s fight, streets in the Philippines were deserted as his legions of fans packed into cinemas, bars and restaurants, and basketball courts to watch on big screens, bringing the country to a virtual standstill.
Troops in army bases also watched how Pacquiao, an army reservist, beat the much younger Vargas.