(This is the second of a two part series looking at last Saturday’s big fighting events. In this article, I’ll discuss Pacquiao/Marquez fight. In the first article, I looked at the UFC’s debut on Fox TV.)
Manny Pacquiao’s most recent fights have had a vibe more befitting a ‘coronation’ than a competitive boxing match. The pattern for each has been similar—droves of passionate yet respectful Filipino boxing fans (Pacquiao fans are easily the friendliest and generally most pleasant I’ve encountered at any fight sport event) descend on Las Vegas for a week long celebration of their country and its most famous athlete turned statesman. On fight night, Manny responds with a workmanlike victory against an overmatched opponent. That was the script against ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosley, against Antonio Margarito and Joshua Clottey in Dallas, and against Miguel Cotto, Ricky Hatton, Oscar De La Hoya and David Diaz.
You had to go back to 2008 for Pacquiao’s last serious test against none other than Juan Manuel Marquez. Marquez entered Saturday’s fight 0-1-1 against ‘Pac Man’ but only a razor thin and controversial scoring margin in both bouts stood between him and a 2-0 record. Despite the fact that he had clearly been Pacquiao’s toughest opponent he was given little chance of being competitive—let alone winning—the third fight of the trilogy. Pacquiao’s fans were respectful of JMM but anticipated another ‘coronation’ while oddsmakers had installed their hero as a prohibitive favorite that was bet up as high as -1000 on fight night. Prop bet prices suggested that Pacquiao would knock out the double tough Marquez despite the fact that he’d never been stopped inside the distance—not even by Floyd Mayweather who beat him up so badly that his wife and son left the arena before the end of the bout so they wouldn’t have to witness the carnage.
By now everyone knows that Marquez-Pacquiao was anything but a ‘coronation’. Pacquiao looked slow and out of sync, complaining of cramping during the fight. He had trouble with Marquez’s right hand throughout the fight—not surprising since he repeatedly ignored Freddy Roach’s guidance to keep moving to the right. He couldn’t get inside to land punches against his opponent and eventually had a huge cut opened up by an accidental head butt. Before the fight gossip rags in the Philippines had suggested marital discord in the Pacquiao household. Pacquiao was lucky to escape with a majority decision win, and although no one will admit it his financial value to the state of Nevada and the sport of boxing may have been the actual ‘margin of victory’.
It wasn’t, however, the obscene miscarriage of justice that many casual fans and the mainstream sports media suggested. It was a fight in which the majority of rounds were very closely contested and could have been judged for either man. Pacquiao was the busier fighter, throwing more punches and landing with greater accuracy. Marquez was the more aggressive fighter, controlling the tempo and defending better. All of the judges scores were well with reason—Robert Hoyle scored it 114-114, Dave Moretti scored it 115-113 and Glenn Trowbridge scored it 116-112 for Pacquiao.
Everyone agreed on one thing—it was a hell of a fight. Unlike the UFC on Fox which left hardcore MMA fans scrambling to make excuses and newcomers scratching their heads wondering what the big deal was, Pacquiao/Marquez was boxing at its best. Reasonable people can disagree about who won the fight and by what margin, but there was unanimity regarding the heart, toughness and courage shown by both fighters.
The fight did completely mess up the dynamics for the long anticipated meeting between Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather. Even Pacquiao’s most rabid fans have started to realize what many hardcore boxing cognoscenti had already known—that Mayweather’s flawless tactical defense and insane counterpunching accuracy make him a nightmare matchup. ESPN and a few other mainstream sports outlets quietly moved Mayweather up to #1 on their mythical ‘pound for pound’ best list where he should have been all along and dropped Pacquiao down to #2. Pacquiao’s handlers have since sent out mixed signals about their next move with some suggestion that they may be looking for a fourth fight with Marquez and not an immediate date with Mayweather. They could be hoping that Pacquiao will rebound with a decisive win and re-establish his ‘heat’, or more likely know that Mayweather could further and perhaps irreparably tarnish their man as a legitimate ‘pound for pound’ threat.
It’s hard to understand what mainstream sports media types and casual fans want from fighters. If Pacquiao had overwhelmed a washed up Marquez he would have proven nothing to serious boxing observers, but the mainstream ‘drive by’ fans would still be geeked for a matchup against Mayweather. Instead, Pacquiao survived an epic battle on a night where he wasn’t at his best by summoning the heart, guts and grit of a true warrior. Pacquiao fought like a champion, yet for some reason the general public is less interested in him. Some have paradoxically called him a ‘fraud’–as if a guy with a nine figure bank account balance who could walk away at any time and live like a king could ‘fake’ the sacrifice and dedication necessary to be a high level prize fighter.
So where does Pacquiao go from here? Money long ago ceased being an issue for ‘PacMan’ and he’s already involved in Filipino politics with some suggesting that he has presidential aspirations. At the same time, his advisors insist he wants to keep fighting for the immediate future. A fight with Mayweather is likely the most lucrative option even if the ‘buzz’ has diminished somewhat. While boxing experts wouldn’t downgrade Pacquiao for losing to one of the most skilled boxers of this generation—and a naturally larger man—it could hurt his mainstream marketability. Another Marquez fight would bring in far less money and while it would likely provide another exciting fight would prove little. Another option is another ‘coronation’ fight against an overmatched opponent but that comes with a huge downside risk—if Pacquiao is past his prime an upset loss in this type of fight could take all of the other ‘big fight’ options off the table.
Juan Manuel Marquez has his own decisions to make. At age 38 time isn’t on his side but his battle against Pacquiao suggests that he may have something left in the tank. Marquez made $5 million for the third Pacquiao fight which isn’t ‘chump change’ but nowhere near the $22 million his opponent earned. Marquez’s people have made clear that he’d demand more money for a fourth fight—trainer Nacho Baristain has tossed around the $25 million figure—and this might be a perfect ‘cash out’ opportunity for him.
And so it goes in the world of boxing. Outsiders have been insisting the ‘sweet science’ is on its death bed since Jack Dempsey pummeled Jess Willard, allegedly aided by a railroad spike or other foreign object in his glove. After every unsatisfying decision or controversial outcome the refrain is renewed. Serious fight fans understand that controversy is interwoven into the fabric of the sport and provides as much color and excitement as anything negative. As long as championship level fighters demonstrate the same level of character, toughness and desire as Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez displayed in Las Vegas on a brisk mid November night, boxing will endure.
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