Judging by the fact that ESPN.com put a story up on Manny Pacquiao’s title-winning fight Saturday night on its main page, plus other measures, the new pound-for-pound best fighter on the planet is crossing over to the squares who don’t follow boxing. Squares: Consider this your comprehensive introduction to one of the most exciting, accomplished fighters of his time, who has personality in spades — is there any athlete anywhere ever who has recorded a hit record, ran for political office and gotten his own stamp? Get acquainted with Pacquiao, the boxer, and Pacquiao, the man…
Manny Pacquiao, The Boxer
There may be no athlete more beloved by his home country than Manny Pacquiao is in the Philippines. His fights stop wars. Literally. The government and rebels agreed to a ceasefire so that everyone could watch his rematch this year with Juan Manuel Marquez. For a number of his fights, crime fell, literally, to zero. There have been several reported instances of people having heart attacks rooting for Pacquiao. His fans live up to the root word “fanatical.” One recently commented on this site that Pacquiao would defeat The Incredible Hulk, without any hint of joking. A few called me a “baby-killer” for, at one point, considering Pacquiao only the third-best fighter alive.
Manny Pacquiao can make a claim to be the greatest fighter ever to emerge from the Philippines, with Pancho Villa and Flash Elorde probably the only other two contenders. One website, Eastsideboxing.com, recently asked whether he was the greatest Asian fighter of all time.
With his weekend win over David Diaz, some of the last holdouts among boxing observers who did not consider him the #1 boxer in the world, regardless of weight class — such as myself and ESPN boxing writer Dan Rafael — now consider him the best, toppling Wales’ Joe Calzaghe, Ring magazine’s reigning super middleweight (168 lbs.) and light heavyweight champion (175 lbs). The retirement of welterweight (147 lbs.) great Floyd Mayweather, Jr. left the vacancy, but even if he hadn’t retired, Pacquiao’s dominant win over Diaz may still have propelled him to the top because of Mayweather’s inactivity.
It’s basically a two-man race between Pacquiao and Mayweather for Fighter of the Decade. Ring magazine named Pacquiao the 2006 Fighter of the Year.
Pacquiao has won title belts in four divisions, after starting his career at 106 pounds. No Asian fighter has ever done that, although in this day and age of multiple title belts, this accomplishment must come with an asterisk.
At the beginning of his career, Pacquiao used his quicksilver hand speed, explosive power and a simple jab/straight left combination to wipe out any and all opponents. His first real chance to shine came when he was a late substitute in 2001 to fight for the 122-pound title of Lehlohonolo Ledwaba, and he employed the aforementioned recipe to knock him out. But his true arrival as a star in boxing, in 2003, was his 11th round knockout of Marco Antonio Barrera, one of the best Mexican fighters ever, in his debut at 126 lbs. Barrera could never figure out Pacquiao’s speed, power and straight left, and the result was that Pacquiao thrashed Barrera more soundly than he ever had been thrashed. Some have said since that Barrera was past his prime, but not long after, Barrera looked excellent in winning his third fight with rival Erik Morales, and both before the Pacquiao bout and after the Morales trilogy concluded, Barrera was himself considered one of 10 best pound-for-pound fighters. Pacquiao therefore beat at least a really good version of Barrera, and it’s hard to imagine even a young Barrera beating Pacquiao. Pacquiao collected the Ring magazine title belt with that win.
In his very next fight in 2004, Pacquiao fought the man both Barrera and Morales had diligently avoided: Crafty fellow Mexican Marquez. Pacquiao appeared to be en route to another steamrolling of a Mexican great when he broke Marquez’ nose and knocked him down three times in the 1st round. But this time, Marquez, a supreme counter-puncher, found a way to dodge some of Pacquiao’s jab/straight left rushes, then hit him when he was out of position. He fought back to a draw with Pacquiao, although a judge’s scoring error ultimately cost Pacquiao the win.
In 2005, Pacquiao began his own trilogy with Morales, at 130 lbs. Morales learned Marquez’ techniques well and won a tight decision over Marquez. Pacquiao had no choice but to adapt. He and trainer Freddie Roach, one of the best trainers in the sport, developed Pacquiao’s right hand into a weapon. They labeled this weapon “Manila Ice.” That’s right, they named a punch, basically, after Vanilla Ice. It worked. Pacquiao’s right hook, together with an improved focus on body punches, led Pacquiao to the only knockout win over Morales in Morales’ career, then repeated the feat for a second time in 2006. As with Barrera, some believe the wins over Morales came against a faded opponent, but Morales was still in 2005 one of the top-10 pound-for-pound boxers, and Pacquiao greatly accelerated Morales’ decline.
In March of 2008, Pacquiao and Marquez fought again, with another controversial outcome. An early-fight knockdown that cost Marquez a point deduction on the scorecards ended up being the difference in what amounted to a one-point win for Pacquiao. Many thought Pacquiao deserved the win; just as many if not more thought Marquez did. The win earned Pacquiao the 130-pound Ring magazine belt. Pacquiao in that fight showed improved boxing skills, but his win over Diaz this weekend in Pacquiao’s debut at 135 lbs. showed that he has become the complete package. Over the course of his wars with Mexico’s best, which after a 2007 win over Barrera in the rematch pushed his record against the trio to 5-1-1, Pacquiao displayed speed, power, heart and stamina, but he also was forced to learn on the job. Against Diaz, he showed excellent defense, a more diverse punch arsenal and better-than-ever balance, one of his historic weaknesses, in what amounted to an A+ performance.
Pacquiao also boasts wins over a number of tough or at least credible contenders, including Jorge Solis, Oscar Larios and Fahsan 3K Battery. Ring magazine recently named 1997-2004 the greatest era in featherweight (126 lbs.) history, which overlaps with some of Pacquiao’s best work. His record stands at 47-3-2, although his two early knockout losses can probably be attributed to fighting at too low a weight, since he has rarely even been stunned by a punch since.
His fights are routinely among the most entertaining in the sport, both because they put on display his awesome skills and his willingness to trade blows at unbelievable rates, creating lots of action.
Because of his dominance of Mexican fighters, Pacquiao’s unofficial nickname is “The Mexecutioner,” a nickname he says he doesn’t like, but he hasn’t fought anyone of non-Mexican heritage for three years, so clearly his promoters don’t mind the intense rivalry between Pacquiao fans and Mexican boxing fans. His most common nickname, however, is “Pac-Man.” Apparently, there’s someone out there calling him “The National Fist,” too.
Pacquiao stands 5′6″, has a corny mustache, a floppy ‘do, pupils that don’t line up precisely and an ever-present smile. But he manages to be intimidating because he is almost always freakishly cut, with muscles popping out in places you didn’t know they existed. He doesn’t seem capable of being intimidated himself. When he gets hit hard, he often pops his gloves together in a sign of appreciation of his opponent’s good punch, indicating a zeal for combat that is rare even in boxing. Despite his destructive power and battle-lust, he is an utter gentleman in the ring; he never abuses the rules, and after knocking out Diaz, Pacquiao went over to him to try to help him up.
At 29 and with nearly 14 years of insane combat on his resume, Pacquiao showed signs to some of slowing down beginning in 2007. His dominant win over Diaz suggests that it is more likely he has had trouble squeezing his muscular frame down to 130 pounds, or that outside-the-ring distractions diminished his performances. At lightweight, he could make his most compelling fights with old rival Marquez, still one of the top-5 pound-for-pound fighters today; fellow belt-holder Nate Campbell, himself a top-20 pound-for-pounder; or knockout artist Edwin Valero. He might make a super-fight soon with Ricky Hatton, the 140-pound champ who is almost as beloved in the U.K. as Pacquiao is in the Philippines. There has even been talk of Pacquiao moving up to 147 lbs. or thereabouts to fight Oscar De La Hoya, the reigning superstar in the sport.
Whatever route he goes, Pacquiao has become a huge attraction, and everyone wants a piece of him. His rematch with Marquez sold more pay-per-views than any fight ever below lightweight. He made $3 million for his fight with Diaz, and Diaz got by far a career-high payday of approximately $800,000, big money for a lighter-weight fighter. Fellow pound-for-pound top-10 fighters Miguel Cotto (welterweight) and Kelly Pavlik (middlweight champ, 160 lbs.) are, with Pacquiao, the next generation of major stars who are primed to take over for De La Hoya, the retired Mayweather, the slowing Hatton and aging Joe Calzaghe when they depart from the sport. It’s unclear how much longer Pacquiao will fight, although he certainly appears to be en route to staying around longer than De La Hoya et al. What’s clear is that the takeover has already begun.