Pacquiao’s Left – Marquez’s Right

1. “You Either Die a Hero or Live Long Enough to See Yourself Become the Villain.”

To be honest, I’m not a devotee of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. I do like that quote, however, and it serves as a perfect starting point to discuss the trilogy of fights between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, who will do battle for the fourth time in December. Here, I look back on their first contest.

When the fourth fight was announced, the reaction on the web was overwhelmingly negative.  The negativity, to return to the opening quote, has been directed primarily toward Pacquiao, the singing congressman from the Philippines who also enjoys a reputation as the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, though this has come into hot dispute as of late. The negativity, it seems, stems from two sources.

First, though he is not solely to blame, Pacquiao is thought to shoulder a share of the culpability for the fact that fans are not getting what they have been wanting for years, which is to see Pacquaio battle Floyd Mayweather Jr. in one of the biggest fights of any era. Against the background of a constant lament that boxing is dying, fans are understandably sick of the politicking from promoters that has thus far failed to make that fight happen, particularly when it would have been most competitive.

Second, the narrative in the lead up to the fourth contest is that Juan Manuel Marquez is the victim of injustice. In three incredibly close fights with Pacquiao, particularly their third contest, there remains no shortage of fans who are willing to contend that Marquez was the victor in all three fights.

Given the subjective element that is often the deciding factor in judging a round of boxing, there is a large portion of the thirty-six rounds of the Marquez-Pacquiao trilogy that can justifiably be scored either way. If only one or two more rounds in each contest were scored oppositely on a single judge’s card, Juan Manuel Marquez, already regarded as a Mexican legend, would now sit upon an even higher summit, perhaps enjoying the same mythical status reserved for Julio Cesar Chavez. Certainly, he would undisputedly stand atop his two greatest contemporaries, Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales.

Manny Pacquiao cannot really be blamed for the supposed injustices visited upon Marquez. After all, it is the judges that decide a fight should it go the distance. The fighter can only do his job in the ring and barring a knockout, may have little bearing on the decision of the judges. Nonetheless, a series of notions have gained traction that have turned Manny Pacquiao into a villain. He won’t fight Floyd Mayweather. He’s past his prime, which has a grain of truth to it. Suddenly, we even dispute his record of achievements. In his superb write-up of the third fight, Jay Caspian Kang, as he watches Marquez seemingly control the bout, writes of Manny,

…maybe I was just being un-brainwashed about Manny Pacquiao, who achieved his invincible status by fighting a broken Oscar De La Hoya, a pretender in Ricky Hatton, a possibly broken Miguel Cotto, a thoroughly uninterested Joshua Clottey, a possibly broken Antonio Margarito, and a shot-to-all-hell Shane Mosley.

Going into the fourth fight, there is little doubt that the public will be rooting for Marquez, who will of course be fighting in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Mexican crowd, which is typically the case in Vegas when a Mexican fighter enters the ring. We just love the underdog, especially one thought to be the object of mistreatment. Manny may have outlived his status as the people’s champion.

2. Pacquiao’s Left – Marquez’s Right

The first fight of the trilogy predates the narrative of Marquez as martyr and Manny as villain. Contested at featherweight, Manny entered the ring as a rising star who had already won titles in two divisions and dispatched Marco Antonio Barrera. He was an agressive, forward fighter with fast hands and a habit of delivering sensational knockouts. Manny was still new to American audiences and as exciting as anything that had recently come along. It was the plan of action of Pacquiao’s team that besting Marquez would pave the way for a subsequent conquest of Erik Morales.

Marquez, of course, was backed by an entire nation for whom boxing is a religion. He was a Mexican warrior who fought Mexican, expertly counterpunching and displaying his greatest prowess in the midst of “phone-booth” style exchanges. Getting hit is not a problem for Marquez, who will take a hit just so he can hit back with those precise and glorious combinations that visibly stagger opponents. He wants you to come to him. He wants to fight. This fight would be Marquez’s shot at stardom and an opportunity to emerge from the shadow of compatriots Barrera and Morales, fulfilling the promise of his undeniable skill.

The first round of the fight is now legendary and familiar. Both fighters are quick to establish the styles that they would employ throughout the fight and indeed throughout the entire trilogy. Predictability, however, is not necessarily boring. No one goes to a Springsteen concert and doesn’t feel the adrenaline when the Boss breaks into “Thunder Road” or “Hungry Heart,” just as you expected him to do in the encore.

Manny employs more movement, though he does not throw punches from the outside. Nonetheless, this frustrates Marquez, who wants Manny to come in and throw shots that Marquez can in turn counter. This is good for fight fans, as Manny at this stage in his career will only fight when he moves forward and gets on the inside. The two styles mesh perfectly and give way to vicious exchanges that would characterize the fight.

Marquez does indeed counter well even in the first round, but Manny’s speed and power prove to be the decisive factor initially as he floors Marquez three times within the first round of the fight. It seemed that the fight belonged entirely to Manny at this point, whose power was too much for Marquez to overcome despite the latter’s effective counterpunching.

This pattern continues to assert itself as the fight progresses, though the balance of power between the two fighters begins to even out, Marquez appearing to get stronger as the rounds progress. Pacquiao’s left makes itself known and lands effectively, but the Filipino throws it with such ferociousness that he often finds himself off balance and leaves holes in his defence that Marquez seizes by coming over the top with his right. In the fifth, Marquez visibly rattles Pacquiao when he pushes him back on the ropes with a straight right that finds the target. Marquez does this again in the sixth.

The clean right hands from Marquez are his greatest asset throughout the fight. Pacquiao comes in with combinations and is the more agressive and straightforwardly offensive fighter throughout, but the punches that Marquez lands in countering Pacquiao are unambiguously powerful and effective. These are the “showy” power shots that get the Mexican contingent riled up every time they land. Rallies can be difficult to call, and this is where Manny tends to land his best shots and draw blood form Marquez. Marquez, in contrast, lands punches that are independently visible and gorgeous in their brutality. The continue to trade, each man doing what he does best.

The subjective element in scoring a fight is especially at play here. When the fight ends, the overall punch stats favour Marquez in overall punches landed, 158 for the Mexican to 148 for Pacquiao. Marquez lands 29% of punches thrown ,whereas Manny lands 23. With regard to power punches, Marquez lands 122 to Manny’s 100, though Manny’s percentage of power shots landed is 43 as compared to 36 for Marquez.

Boxing, of course, is scored on a round by round basis[1], and such closeness in punch stats over the course of a twelve round fight will not prove decisive. The first round and its three knockdowns also started Marquez with quite a deficit. Giving up one or two rounds to Manny and winning every other in a dominating fashion would still make a comeback for Marquez difficult.

Indeed, the numbers reflect the fact that every round, save for the first, was incredibly close in terms of productivity, placing the judges in quite a predicament when it came to calling a round for one fighter. The subjectivity of determining who really controlled a round, displayed greater aggressiveness, and landed the harder shots could favour either fighter in most rounds. Some will lean toward Manny’s forward and ferocious fighting and prodigious punch output whereas others will favour the technical craftsmanship of Marquez.

This was precisely the case. Judge John Stuart scored the bout 115-110 in favour of Pacquiao and Guy Jutras saw it just the same but for Marquez. The remaining judge, Burt Clements, saw it 113 each, entailing that the fight was a draw. Clements would admit that he improperly scored the first round 10-7 for Manny as opposed to 10-6, which would have shifted his scorecard to 113-112 for the Pacman. If the reader is curious, this writer scored it 114-111 for Pacquiao, while acknowledging that many rounds could have gone either way and that either fighter is justified in feeling that he won.

3. When They Were Kings

At the fight’s conclusion, both men are winners in a different sense. Manny Pacquiao is officially the next big thing and a dominant force in the featherweight division, displaying explosive power and a highly entertaining style of fighting. Marquez, too, does nothing to dismantle the stereotype of Mexican fighters as all out warriors who might rather die in the ring than give up. Most fights would end after three knockdowns, but to actually stand up after three knockdowns, in the first round no less, and continue to fight the remaining eleven rounds on even terms with a relentlessly vicious opponent is positively super-human.

On the scorecards, the official decision should have gone to Pacquiao had Clements properly scored the first round. Boxing, however, much like politics and news in general, has a court of public opinion that can supersede the official verdict. No matter what the jury said, OJ will always be guilty in the hearts of so many. The judges’ scorecards may have said different, but grumpy old men will forever grumpily grumble that Hagler beat Leonard.

To me, and I know to many others, the performance award in this fight goes to Marquez despite my scorecard indicating a Pacquiao victory. In addition to the aforementioned warrior spirit, there is just something so incredibly joyous about watching those right hands land with such precision and force with increasing regularity as the rounds progressed. The tactical offensiveness and superb accuracy that Marquez displays in the midst of close exchanges, not only withstanding his opponent’s aggression, but neutralizing it and coming back with a vengeance, is something to behold.

At the present moment in his career, Marquez has proven that he is without a doubt one of the smartest fighters in the world of boxing. His fights, however, still look like fights. Brutality and agression are still on full display as punches fly at a mind-boggling rate. The way Marquez commits himself fully and equally to a game plan and a full on desire to win cannot but earn him the greatest respect from any fight fan.

Looking back on this fight is to recall a time only a few years ago when both fighters could do no wrong and were fan favourites. No one is truly robbed in this fight and both men were kings in the eyes of fans who not surprisingly wanted more. While negativity and allegations of corruption and disrespect for fans surround the lead-up to the upcoming fourth fight, it wasn’t always this way, and seeing this first fight is a reminder that these two pugilists are perfect foils for one another and have produced one of the most entertaining rivalries in boxing. As fans, the best hope we can have is that despite all the outside drama, their upcoming fourth fight might just bring us the joy that the first did.


[1] An explanation of the 10 point must system that is used to score fights can be found here.

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