LAS VEGAS – When the final bell rang, 12 rounds of furious fighting complete, Juan Manuel Marquez lifted his right fist high into the air, turned to the ringside crowd and offered a knowing wink through an eye nearly swollen shut.
Standing in front of him at that very moment, his opponent, Manny Pacquiao, let his head sag as he turned to walk to his corner. Seconds later Marquez was carried around the ring on the shoulders of two of his corner men. Pacquiao was on his knees in prayer.
Somehow, someway, Pacquiao wound up with the majority decision, 116-112, 115-113, 114-114, Saturday night at the MGM Grand, a result that will be doubted and debated forever.
What Pacquiao lost was clearer – his cloak of invincibility, his reputation for destruction, even, in some ways, a measure of his credibility.
Marquez was able to frustrate, counterpunch and deliver direct hits that Pacquiao hadn't felt in years. Pacquiao ended up with 28 post-fight stitches above one eye (inadvertent head butt). All courtesy of the 38-year-old Marquez, whom Floyd Mayweather Jr. had completely dominated in 2009.
Worse is that fans around the world immediately believed the decision came courtesy of the power of Pacquiao's promoter, Bob Arum, and the potential $100 million-plus superfight with Mayweather that would have been jeopardized by a Pacquiao loss.
No fighter, let alone one of Pacquiao's caliber, wants to be seen as needing political protection.
"All the Mexicans [were] booing me, 'You stole the fight, you stole the fight,' " Arum said afterward. "Like I had anything to do with it."
This is where everything changes for Pacquiao. Only Arum could claim surprise at fan outrage in a sport with a not-so-illustrious history of crooked deals and foul play. In his typically ridiculous fashion, Arum claimed the only people who saw it that way on Twitter have Spanish names.
"Everybody knows what happened," Marquez said. "I won this fight. Only three people there didn't see the same thing. … It was a robbery. They robbed me."
It isn't that simple, of course. Compubox stats favored Pacquiao. Most of the rounds weren't decisive. Many rounds were extremely close in a fight that was full of daring, thrilling, back-and-forth action. Still, how could one judge believe Marquez won only four rounds?
"This is part of the game," Pacquiao said. "The fight is close, but it is very clear I won the fight."
[Slideshow: Check out photos from Pacquiao-Marquez III]
It isn't very clear he won the fight. The frustrations and backlash aren't going away. Pacquiao had enjoyed, if not universal support, than at least respect during this recent stretch of success.
He controlled everything, including his future against Mayweather, who has taken considerable backlash for supposedly ducking the Filipino congressman.
Gone now are the visions of dominance, Pacquiao sending another overwhelmed opponent to the hospital.
Instead Manny dropped his head at fight's end, looking uncertain in the moments before the decision was announced.
There he stood, next to announcer Max Kellerman, unable to conduct his postfight interview because the boos from the pro-Marquez crowd were deafening. There he was, surrounded by security, being hustled out of the ring as insults and popcorn boxes rained down on him.
There was Manny, face bludgeoned afterward, trying to claim victory as Arum pushed him through an abbreviated news conference, a far cry from his usual marathon media sessions.
Arum offered up talk of another rematch – Pacquiao-Marquez IV – in May. Considering the hellacious battle that had taken place, he won't lack for pay-per-view buys. Debate over the decision aside, this was a brilliant night of fighting.
It is also, of course, a leverage play against Mayweather, who has already claimed May 5, 2012, as a night he will fight, preferably in the "biggest fight possible," i.e. Pacquiao.
If Mayweather ever hesitated to take on Pacquiao before, this performance may quickly change that. Marquez's counterpunching style and ability to match Pacquiao's hand speed made this fight. Two years ago though, Marquez was overwhelmed by Mayweather's speed, losing all 12 rounds on at least one scorecard.
"I think [Marquez] has Manny's number," said Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach. "He knows how to fight Manny. Mayweather is a bit of a counterpuncher also; he can give us trouble. We need to learn to deal with these counterpunchers better."
It all becomes so much more intriguing. This is Pacquiao in a new light. This is Pacquiao physically challenged. This is Pacquiao without that smiling, carefree attitude.
This is Pacquiao, surrounded by questions, dogged by doubt, heckled and running from cries of fixed judging. This is everything the proud fighter doesn't want.
There's only one way to change that, only one way to bring it all back. Go right back at Marquez – "It was a fight I kind of don't want to do again, but we have to," Roach said.
Or better yet go right at Mayweather, make the superfight happen even if it requires conceding to some of Mayweather's silly demands.
Next time it won't just be a belt or a pile of money on the line. It'll be something bigger: Manny Pacquiao's reputation.
More Pacquiao-Marquez III coverage:
• Promoter Bob Arum ready to set up Pacquiao-Marquez IV
• Y! Sports Radio: Chaotic scene after Manny Pacquiao's controversial win
• Foot cramps slowed Manny Pacquiao against Juan Manuel Marquez