Boxing critics are looking at the stars of each weight division and speculating about the next big attraction who could infuse the sport with the kind of excitement we expected from Mayweather-Pacquiao, which, based on last weekend’s contest between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, will probably never happen. As with all of boxing, hindsight is 20/20 or better looking back at the fourth Pacquiao-Marquez fight, and it seems now like it should have been obvious that a power shift was imminent. There had already been three very close fights and, Pacquiao, who usually takes more punishment, has always relied more on physical talent than technical ability.
We can’t discuss the future toward which we are rapidly progressing without explaining the events that have led to these circumstances. The fourth fight between Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao was expected to showcase Pacquiao’s speed and strength over an aging Marquez. Instead, it was a master-class in feinting and counter-punching, not just from Marquez, but from both men. Marquez looked better than he ever had against Pacquiao, at least in the effectiveness of his power shots. He also managed to stay off the canvas better than in previous fights, though he was unbalanced and wobbling through most of the final round. Pacquiao also adjusted his strategy for the fight, relying much more heavily on head movement than punch volume. While I had expected Marquez to look good as long as he maximized his technical skill, I didn’t expect him to knock Pacquiao unconscious. I also didn’t expect him to look so much physically bigger than he had in the past.
Fans have circulated rumors about Marquez and his involvement with a strength trainer who has connections with performance enhancing substances, but the same rumors were aimed at Manny Pacquiao not so long ago. Both fighters are at the elite level professionally and surround themselves with competent teams who, if anyone could, would be able to subvert the testing process. Is there really no coincidence in Marquez looking physically much stronger and then performing as he did against Pacquiao? And truly no connection between Pacquiao’s rapid increase in muscle mass (and maybe cranium circumference) and the wrath he unleashed on opponents like Hatton, Margarito and even Marquez? We may never know. According to Jim Lampley on his new show The Fight Game, Mexican boxing legend Erik Morales tweeted the comment “the Mexican pharmacy was better,” after the Pacquiao fight and then deleted his entry. Margaret Goodman, the doctor who writes articles for Ring Magazine, designed more effective drug testing for these athletes that resulted in the exposure of users such as Lamont Peterson and Andre Berto. It may be that those two athletes had been getting away with these practices for longer than Pacquiao or Marquez have, or that they just got unlucky, but either way, the fans can’t point to any one test or at any one performance and claim definitive evidence. We just have to be happy with the fights we get.
Now that the long-awaited superfight is off the radar, who will step up to fill the role of the next great opponent? There are already two established superpowers in the sport, the one in the more marketable division being far less talented than the other. For Vladimir Klitschko, or Vitali, for that matter, there are only a few potential candidates. Only a few fighters in the heavyweight division, in fact, would even draw the sport’s attention if they were to fight a Klitschko. For Mayweather, on the other hand, there is no shortage of options for tantalizing matchmaking. Potential opponents include the recently successful Robert Guerrero, the young Mexican sensation who comes closes to rivalling Mayweather’s popularity, Saul Alvarez, and the fighter who most closely resembles Mayweather himself, at least in technique, Adrien Broner. While any one of these fights would be exciting and competitive, I think the two most compelling of the group are the fight with Alvarez and the fight with Broner, even though Broner is much too far from Mayweather’s weight to make the challenge next year. Alvarez still needs to refine his skills, but he’s the best realistic match for Mayweather in my mind. While David Price, Robert Helenius and Tyson Fury will probably never get a fight signed with one of the Klitschkos, there’s a legitimate chance fans will see at least one of those three Mayweather fights next year. Even if they didn’t, there are other fighters who could at least make the contest interesting with Mayweather, whereas there are none for the Klitschkos.
Fans are well aware that Pacquiao may have aged much more quickly than Marquez given the punishment he’s taken during his recent fights. Most of them are also aware that Marquez concentrates on technique more than physical ability, which is affected less by age. The final result is that the meteoric rise of the fabled Manny Pacquiao ended as abruptly as it began. The speculation that he may never be the same after a knockout of such traumatic intensity is meaningless, since he may never have been the same after beginning his more rigorous drug testing regimen, or after the punishment he endured in his fight against Cotto, or the one against Margarito, or Bradley. The details of the fourth war the two fighters waged, however, are not meaningless. For example, while Marquez looked stronger and more effective in many ways than in any of their first 36 rounds together, he also lost every round other than those in which he earned knockdowns. Marquez seemed badly distracted by his damaged nose and winded by explosive exchanges in rounds five and six. In fact, even though Pacquiao put his hands down and did his best Ricky Hatton impression at the end of round six, he would have dominated the round if not for the last few milliseconds. Marquez was being driven backward and had trouble regaining his balance or landing any flush shots, until that last moment when Pacquiao lost his focus. As the bell rang and Roy Jones began his exuberant refrain “HE’S NOT GETTING UP!” Pacquiao was still on his way to the canvas. The fight did resemble Pacquiao’s fight with Hatton, but Hatton may well have been near the end of his professional range already. The recent knockout that more seems a more appropriate comparison was accomplished by underdog and new welterweight prospect Danny Garcia against overhyped Amir Khan. Though much more deserved, the only person whose reputation approached the inflation of Khan’s was Manny Pacquiao. In the same way Khan had a neglected the technical aspects of the sweet science and was conquered by a lesser athlete, Pacquiao lost his focus and took one overwhelming punch. The combination of accumulated knowledge each fighter had of the other contributed to an unparalleled masterclass in feinting. I would be excited to see the development of any further familiarity in subsequent matches. During the second airing of the fight on HBO the network conducted an online poll to gauge how much interest there was in Pacquiao-Marquez V. The reaction was almost unanimous with 75% of voters expressing a desire to see the fifth fight. Based on the circumstances of the fourth fight and the fact that Marquez is older than Pacquiao, I think they’re right, another fight should be made. Truly both fighters are still legitimate forces in the division, and they both seem to be learning each other’s habits better in each fight. Pacquiao managed Marquez’ counter-punching better than ever once he warmed up, and Marquez targeted Pacquiao’s body more effectively than ever. They don’t really have any other interesting challengers left. They’ve got my vote: let’s see Pacquiao-Marquez 5.
On a more solemn note, venerable commentator Larry Merchant bid farewell to the boxing world on the Nonito Donaire-Jorge Arce broadcast. Both fighters showed gracious recognition for the boxing analyst in spite of the conclusion to their own exciting and career-altering fight. Larry Merchant observed some of the greatest eras in boxing history. He interviewed Mike Tyson during his reign as heavyweight champion, he spoke with George Foreman on his comeback trail. Merchant criticized Shane Mosley for his “so what” opponents, he made inflammatory comments to Floyd Mayweather and even facetiously mentioned fighting him. His face is visible between Muhammad Ali’s ankles in the famous anchor punch photograph. His commentary and his observations were crafted in an art form all but unimaginable to any other boxing analyst. True boxing fans will always remember his contribution to the sport and to our lives, because he was always there. It’s impossible to forget. Thank you, Larry Merchant.