Evolution of a Legend (Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez II)

This piece looks back at the second fight between Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao and is part of a series on the three times they’ve entered the ring. My piece on the first fight can be read here.

1. What If?

Counterfactuals are a complicated but enticing business. With regard to major historical events, it seems that we simply cannot help but ask “what if?” What if Stalin had not succeeded Lenin? What if the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand had failed?  What if the July 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life had succeeded? The possibilities for counterfactuals are infinite and likely infinitely inconclusive. Nonetheless, we can’t seem to resist.

Sports fans, it might be said, are more vicious than historians when it comes to counterfactuals. There’s a therapeutic value, something akin to the bargaining stage of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, in boiling our disappointments down to one moment or a series of moments where a few slight modifications in events might have changed the results of a single contest or history itself.

What if Paul Gascoigne had not been sent off in tears with a second yellow card in England’s semi-final match against West Germany in the 1990 World Cup? Would England have then gone on to win the penalty shootout that settled the match and subsequently defeated Argentina in the final? What if Babe Ruth had not been traded to the Yankees? Would the prevention of a single transaction have relieved the Red Sox of the nearly century long Curse of the Bambino?

The reality of such events and the history that followed are far more complex than can be boiled down to a single event. A truly knowledgeable baseball historian could provide a more nuanced and ultimately more satisfying explanation of the excruciating drought that Boston faced after the Babe’s transfer. And surely it’s laughable to entertain the notion that if only Gazza had not been sent off, then England would have eliminated the Germans, doubling down on their 1966 triumph, and gone on to defeat Argentina in the finals. I’m not saying they couldn’t have won it all, but their failure to do so cannot be attributed to a single yellow card.

It’s all a bit fanciful, this business of counterfactuals. Nonetheless, “what if” could very well be the most ubiquitous phrase in sports. Reporters, athletes themselves, analysts, and fans will never give up counterfactual thinking, so neither will I.

What if, then, Juan Manuel Marquez had beaten Manny Pacquiao in their first fight? This, unlike more fanciful counterfactuals, is not so implausible. On  many scorecards, Marquez’s precise counterpunching had resulted in him winning more rounds than Manny – I had each fighter winning six each. What set Marquez back on the scorecards were the three knockdowns he suffered in the first round.

Other rounds were incredibly close as both fighters were effective in implementing distinct strategies. In boxing, when two men do different things equally well, scoring a round is difficult. So it is that many rounds in the first Pacquiao-Marquez contest are still debatable years later. Had just a few rounds been called the other way by judges and Marquez avoided a knockdown by clinching or running rather than trying to counter Pacquiao’s assault, perhaps he would have won the fight. Substitute Burt Clements, who scored the fight a draw, with any one sitting in press row who scored it for Marquez, and you have a victory for the Mexican.

There is no denying that the fight was close, and that swinging one round to Marquez for a victory does not require a whole lot of mental gymnastics.

2. So What?

When we ask “what if?” we are implicitly asking “so what?” If we wish to ponder an alternative outcome, by extension we want to ask what would follow. So what if Juan Manuel Marquez had beaten Manny Pacquiao in their first fight? Assuming that Manny Pacquiao took the same path he did after that first match, the implications for Marquez and his legacy are undeniably significant.

After the draw with Marquez, Pacquiao would continue on a streak of Mexican opponents, initially losing a close fight with Erik Morales, but subsequently avenging that loss on two occasions. In addition, Pacquiao added to his resume a second victory over Marco Antonio Barrera along with wins over Hector Velasquez, Oscar Larios, and Jorge Solis. By the time he had stepped into the ring for his rematch with Marquez, Manny Pacquiao had squared off against Mexican opponents in ten of his last eleven fights, establishing his reputation as the Mexecutioner.

For Marquez, having drawn with Pacquiao, stardom and religious devotion from Mexican fans was still elusive. Despite a victory over Barrera, for which he claimed the WBC superfeatherweight title, and technical superiority over Pacquiao according to Emmanuel Steward, it was the Filipino who enjoyed the superstardom that has only continued to grow until this day. Before the fighters walk to the ring, Larry Merchant states that while Marquez is the champion, defending the title he took from Barrera, Manny is the attraction.

The narrative that imprints itself upon an event often only comes after the final outcome. Boxing is no different. Heywood Broun knew this, and as a result feared the narrative implications of Rocky Kansas claiming the lightweight title from Benny Leonard:

Benny Leonard remains the white hope of the orthodox. In lightweight circles, at any rate, old-fashioned proprieties are still effective. No performer in any art has ever been more correct than Leonard. He follows closely all the best traditions of the past. His left hand jab could stand without revision in any textbook. The manner in which he feints, ducks, sidesteps and hooks is unimpeachable.

His defeat would, by implication, have given support to dissonance, dadaism, creative evolution and bolshevism. Rocky Kansas does nothing according to rule. His fighting style is as formless as the prose of Gertrude Stein. [1]

We need not be so endearingly melodramatic and dazzlingly poetic as Broun. Few writers are capable of that and I do not count myself among them. Outcomes shift narrative, however, and that cannot be denied.

Benny Leonard, the orthodox champion. Via Wikipedia.

We can only imagine what might have been had Marquez been the man who beat the Mexecutioner. It’s fitting, then, that Jim Lampley claims that Marquez enters the ring not only to face off against Manny Pacquiao, but also his fellow countrymen Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera. Having already beaten one out of the two and now entering the ring against the man who beat every Mexican put in front of him, Marquez had his second shot to end Pacquiao’s hot streak and be the Mexican who conquered the the tormentor of his compatriots. He hadn’t done so in the first fight, but that contest was close enough to believe that he could do it in the second.

A victory for Marquez in the rematch, we might assume, would be a story of the triumph of the Mexican’s superior technical fighting over Pacquiao’s wild agression and explosive punching, one of an older fighter proving himself to still be at his peak, and perhaps most one of Juan Manuel Marquez earning recognition as the top pound-for-pound fighter on the planet.

Would a loss have stopped the ascent of Manny Pacquiao and put history on a different path, one which did not include Manny’s signature beatdowns of Ricky Hatton and Oscar de la Hoya?

Once again, asking and attempting to answer such questions might just be an exercise in futility. The best we can say is that an older fighter beating a younger superstar, the one who slaughtered the more revered contemporaries of that older fighter, would have been a hell of a story.

3. What’s the Story?

The story of the Marquez victory simply wasn’t to be in the rematch. What, then, is the story after Manny Pacquiao emerged victorious, having won a razor thin split decision? Judges Jerry Roth and Duane Ford each scored the bout 115-112 for Pacquiao and Marquez respectively. Judge Tom Miller split the vote in favour of Pacquiao by scoring the bout 114-113 in the Pacman’s favour. My scorecard read the same as Miller’s, giving each fighter six rounds out of twelve, but dropping a point from Marquez due to his being knocked down in the third round on a straight left hand.

It’s simply a given that these fighters will always give each other a hard time and produce a close contest. There’s little point in arguing back and forth over who was robbed and who won. There should have been no surprise that Marquez picked himself up from a knockdown and fought valiantly until the final bell. That Manny was the main agressor who threw more punches while Marquez waited for the approach to counter was a repeat of the pattern established in the first fight. For the most part, Pacquiao landed in flurries and Marquez landed clearer counterpunches. It was, for the most part, a see-saw battle the likes of which we saw in the first fight.

The question is what can be said about this fight that is new. What did we see here that we hadn’t seen previously? What new story emerges?

This writer feels that this rematch was the story of Manny Pacquiao’s incredible and undeniable growth as a fighter. Competitive as the fight was, a close look at this contest and those that preceded it reveal a process of Pacquiao, under the tutelage of Freddie Roach, adding new elements to his fighting, some so subtle that at first glance the rematch indeed appears to be a replay of the first contest.

The performance by Pacquiao, the outstanding nature of which is admittedly somewhat obscured when viewed alongside the technical mastery of Juan Manuel Marquez in the same ring, is the culmination of a trajectory that has its origins in Pacquiao’s three fights against Erik Morales, all of which took place before the rematch against Marquez.

In the first, Manny is much the same as he was in the first Marquez match, moving forward constantly and trying to break his opponent down with his left hand. Morales, normally an equally agressive forward fighter, adopts Marquez’s strategy of moving back and countering Manny with clean shots from the outside. When the occasion calls for it, the classic “El Terrible” makes his appearance and fights fire with fire.

On the whole, it was a masterclass from Morales, who used his footwork to neutralize Pacquiao’s aggression and wild punches. In the end, Morales used Marquez’s style better than Marquez, and claimed a unanimous decision victory.

In his rematch with Morales, Manny fights differently, particularly in the late rounds. His right hand begins to make an appearance and he uses his speed to actually move in and out to dodge Morales’ counters while landing combinations himself. The loss of balance from throwing the wild left that left Manny vulnerable in his first contest with Marquez is no longer present.

Manny keeps himself composed and gradually wears Morales down. Manny’s punches are clean and more accurate, making more effective use of the inside fighting that he clearly relishes. Speed and agression are now combined with accuracy and Morales begins to run out of steam, culminating in a tenth round knockout. The effect is multiplied in the rubber match, which belongs entirely to Manny, who knocks Morales out in three rounds.

When he finally meets Marquez in the ring for the second time, Manny does all that he did against Morales in the last two contests, though, as previously noted, the fact that Marquez is still in peak condition and able to fight back makes it difficult to notice at times. In the early rounds, Marquez actually appears to be wining in a fight initially shaping up to be a strict copy of the first.

As Manny moves in, Marquez lands solid counters to the body that visibly rock the Pacman and send him moving back. Manny’s combinations are copious, but also more effective than they were in the first fight. Nonetheless, the Mexican warrior seems to answer every punch that Manny throws. The sixth round is particularly marked by the dominance of Marquez and his right hand.

From that point onward, however, Manny begins to surge. When the Pacman gets on the inside, the combinations land with such psychotic speed that Marquez simply cannot keep up and answer back with those trademark right hands. Manny even begins to move out after landing combinations on the inside and forces Marquez to chase him and even miss. In the ninth round, Manny deftly moves his head while fighting close. In a furious exchange at the end of the round, Marquez misses with big swinging punches while Manny lands straight shots one after another.

The close exchanges are finally in favour of Manny, who wobbles Marquez again in the tenth. It was typically within these exchanges that Marquez would push Pacquiao back with glorious counterpunches, getting hit a few times to land spectacular shots in return. Suddenly, however, Manny begins to dominate these exchanges, putting his aggression and forward fighting to better use than ever before by adding a touch of head movement and a dash of footwork. When he backs off, Manny manages to not get hammered by Marquez’s right hand.

The courage and technical mastery of Marquez are without doubt key components of his legacy, and this fight will always serve as evidence of those traits. We knew that from the first fight, however. The new revelation of Marquez and Pacquiao’s second fight is without doubt the subtle improvements made by Manny Pacquiao.

The Filipino beast is as agressive as he ever was, but accuracy and and ring smarts now accompany that killer instinct. The rematch is by no means a dominant showing by Pacquiao. Neither of these two men will likely ever dominate the other.

When viewed in context of his entire career up to that point, however, this fight is the story of an exciting fighter becoming a well-rounded and exciting fighter. I can’t say what might have happened had any aspect of this fight been different, but that’s what did happen.


[1] Heywood Broun, “The Orthodox Champion,” At the Fights, ed. George Kimball and John Schulian (New York: Literary Classics of America, 2011), 25-28., pp.27

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  1. Still Without an Answer (Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez III) « We are Living in a Society

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