Fight of the Decade?

Allen Barra
The Daily Beast
Fight of the Decade?
Fight of the Decade?

When Manny Pacquiao steps into the ring at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas this Saturday night for a rematch with Timothy Bradley, there will be more on the line than the welterweight title of the World Boxing Organization. Thirty-five-year-old Pacquiao is fighting for his country, the Philippines, where he is worshipped; he devotes a substantial chunk of his purses to charities there, as he did two years ago to victims of the super typhoon and earthquake. And Manny’s purses may well represent one of the most substantial flows of cash going into the Philippine Islands.

Pacquiao is one of the great pay-per-view draws boxing has ever seen, ranking with Oscar De La Hoya, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather, Jr., who currently holds several titles, including the WBC welterweight championship belt. But Pacquiao is the only one in that group who is not an American.  By most estimates, after this fight he will trail only Mayweather in pay-per-view revenues.

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For Bradley, a defeat wouldn’t be disastrous; if he goes the distance he will remain an attractive opponent for other contenders and perhaps even for Mayweather.  But for Manny, every remaining fight will be for his professional life. Anything but a clear victory will probably mean the end of one of the most sensational boxing careers of this or even the previous century.

Up until June 8, 2012, there seemed no stopping him.  He was the WBO welterweight champion (a limit of 147 pounds) and regarded by many as the best—or at least one of the two best, along with Mayweather—fighters, pound-for-pound, in the world. Given the enormous box office appeal of both Pacquiao and Mayweather, it seemed inevitable that sooner or later the two would finally meet in what would certainly the most lucrative fight ever.

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On June 9, 2012, Pacquiao’s world got rocked.  He lost his welterweight belt to an unbeaten but undistinguished Bradley in a decision that left boxing analysts and hundreds of thousands of fans all over the world open-mouthed. HBO’s always astute judge, Harold Lederman, scored it for Pacquiao, 119-109, which meant he thought Manny won 11 of the 12 rounds. The CompuBox, which tallies the number of punches thrown and landed, had Pacquiao connecting on 253 of 751 punches thrown for 34 percent accuracy; Bradley landed just 111 of his 839 punches for an accuracy of just over 13 percent.

I gave Pacquiao 10 of the 12 rounds with one even, and, thinking the fight was so lopsided, turned it off before the decision was announced. I found out the next day that Bradley had been awarded the victory. Watching the fight a second time, I gave Pacquiao 11 of the 12 rounds. I’ve been scoring fights since my father took me to see Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali on closed circuit TV in 1971, and the Pacquiao-Bradley fight is the worst decision I have ever seen.  On a third viewing, I failed to see Bradley land one significant punch.

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The fight’s promoter, Bob Arum, decried the decision and demanded the Nevada attorney general’s office investigate. (Nothing came of it.) The WBO appointed their own panel to review the fight and the decision; the panel concluded that Pacquiao had won by a wide margin. But, what the heck.  That’s boxing.

Bradley’s life became a nightmare.  Boxing fans everywhere reviled him and sent him swarms of venomous hate mail.  They might have saved their invective for those responsible for the decision: shortly after the fight it was discovered that Arum had posters for a rematch printed up well before the fight. There would have been no rematch, of course, if Pacquiao had won.

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But that was just the beginning of Manny Pacquiao’s problems.

Some fighters, regardless of how good they are, have trouble with certain opponents because of their styles—in the words of my friend, the late, great trainer Eddie Futch, “Styles make for fights.” So it was in Pacquiao’s next match with Mexican fighter Juan Manuel Marquez.  Marquez is rugged, takes a good punch, and is a pretty defensive fighter. He is also extremely sneaky.  Their first fight in 2004 ended in a draw, their second in 2008 was a narrow decision in favor of Pacquiao. The third match in 2011 resulted in an even more contested decision for Manny, even though keen observers noted that Marquez repeatedly used one of his signature tricks, namely stepping on his opponent’s feet, which he did at least six  times during the fight.

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There was a fourth fight on December 12, 2012, and Marquez had a real surprise for Manny.  Pacquiao was well ahead in points going into the sixth round and had opened a cut over Marquez’s right eye. Suddenly, Pacquiao lunged towards Marquez and went to the canvas with a spectacular thud, having walked right into a Marquez counter right.

Not once in their three previous fights had Marquez displayed anything like that kind of punching power. Immediately there were suspicions concerning Marquez’s new trainer, Angel Hernandez, who had previously worked as a sports trainer under the name Angel Heredia. Back in 2008, Heredia, who had ties to the Balco lab, infamous for having juiced up Barry Bonds, testified in a San Francisco court that he had supplied performance enhancing drugs to track stars Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.  Many fight writers noticed that Marquez, at age 39, stepped into the ring looking younger and more muscular than ever before.

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Boxing’s drug testing policies are the slackest of any in sports, so there was no way to prove that Marquez’s new physique and newly acquired punching power had gotten a boost from PEDs. The bitter irony for Pacquiao was that for years Floyd Mayweather’s excuse for not fighting him was that the Filipino was too good not to be on some kind of drugs.

Mayweather stands as the only person to ever accuse Manny Pacquiao of PED use. In any event, if Pacquiao had been juicing, it certainly would have showed in his punching power—and it hasn’t. It’s now been nearly five years since his last knockout when he stopped.

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But there is no mystery to Pacquiao’s diminishing firepower:  he’s the first and only fighter to have won titles in eight different weight divisions, and each time he’s moved up he’s faced a man whose natural fighting weight is greater than his own.

Bradley has made some foolish statements in recent weeks. At a press conference Tuesday, he told reporters, “The guy is a great boxer. He has a lot of skills. But he’s not destroying guys like he was at one point. He's just happy to go the 12 rounds and box and get his [win] and go home. He’s not going out there trying to kill guys any more. He’s lost that killer instinct.”

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If I were Timothy Bradley, I would refrain from making any comments about Pacquiao’s lack of “killer instinct.” On Saturday night we can expect to see that killer instinct in all its fury.  This time I don’t think Manny Pacquaio will leave the outcome of a fight to the vagaries of fight judges who seem to score their first bout with the assistance of their Seeing Eye dogs.

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