Eight world titles in eight different weight classes.
That’s the rare air where Manny Pacquiao finds himself after Saturday’s comprehensive unanimous decision over Antonio Margarito for the WBC super welterweight title at Cowboys Stadium.
With a punishing exhibition of power, accuracy, hand speed and ring generalship, Pacquiao racked up a lopsided lead on the scorecards early before a crowd of 41,734. He bloodied Margarito badly in the middle rounds, reducing the Mexican’s right eye to a thin slit. Then, he pulled Margarito to the finish on a rope, showing uncommon clemency by refusing to go for the knockout against a prideful opponent who seemed incapable of defending himself. Pancho Villa himself would have scored it a shutout.
Flyweight. Junior featherweight. Featherweight. Junior lightweight. Lightweight. Junior welterweight. Welterweight. And now, super welterweight.
In his wildest dreams, could Pacquiao have possibly imagined this reality while growing up in a cardboard shack in General Santos City?
In 1990, when his curiosity of the sweet science was spurred by a cluster of adults huddled around a TV watching Buster Douglas’ upset of Mike Tyson?
In 1994, when he pooled money won in street fights (winner’s purse: 250 pesos, or five bucks) and stole away by ferry to Manila to work his craft in the barely legal smokers in the Filipino capital?
In 1995, at an undernourished 98 pounds, when he reportedly put heavy objects in his underwear to make the minimum weight for his pro debut at 16, a four-round points victory over Edmund Enting Ignacio?
In 2001, not long after that serendipitous meeting with Freddie Roach at the Wild Card Boxing Gym, when he knocked out Lehlohonolo Ledwaba for the IBF 122-pound title at the MGM Grand and became the first Filipino to win a world title in Las Vegas?
Even through electric victories over superstars like Oscar De La Hoya, Miguel Cotto, Ricky Hatton, Juan Manuel Marquez and Erik Morales?
Now he’s the author of eight world championships in eight different weight divisions, a latter-day nonpareil, the most exciting boxer in the sport, the fighter of the decade, the most socially important boxer since Muhammad Ali, etc. Some are calling him the greatest fighter of the modern era. It’s been more than five years since he lost a fight.
It was a triumph for his team: Roach, whose nine-year partnership with Pacquiao ranks with Ali-Dundee, Louis-Blackburn and Frazier-Futch among the game’s legendary trainer-fighter tandems; Alex Ariza, the strength and conditioning coach who’s been the mad architect behind Pacquiao’s history-making rise in weight; Buboy Fernandez, the omnipresent Filipino assistant trainer who came up alongside Pacquiao on GenSan’s mean streets.
Pacquiao (52-3-2, 38 KOs), whose natural fighting weight is probably closer to 140 pounds, has now vanquished current or former welterweight champions in four of his past five fights. He’s raised the bar, accomplished something we’ve never seen. Margarito weighed 165 after rehydrating for Saturday’s fight; Pacquiao weighed 148. (The contracted catch-weight was 150.) That is a huge difference and it showed in the ring, to say nothing of Margarito’s six-inch reach advantage.
You can argue that Pacquiao’s accomplishment is less impressive in today’s alphabet soup of multiple champions, super champions, interim champions, regular champions and champions emeritus across 17 divisions instead of eight. But even if you think Pacquiao’s eight belts are bogus and not per se a definition of greatness, remember he’s won the lineal title in four different weight divisions – i.e. he beat the man who beat the man who beat the man – another boxing first.
The talk leading up to Saturday’s fight was Margarito (38-7, 27 KOs) was too slow, too linear a fighter to compete with Pacquiao’s kinetic, speed-based approach. But Margarito surprised veteran observers by depending almost exclusively on the jab early, a canny and disciplined approach (to the credit of trainer Robert Garcia) that made Pacquiao appear uncomfortable in the opening rounds – even as he was winning them on the scorecards.
Pacquiao outpointed Margarito with speed, the ability to dart inside and deliver a blinding combination, though it was clear Margarito’s sheer size presented unfamiliar problems for the Filipino.
But from the third round on, the concerns about Pacquiao’s problematic training camp vaporized like so many of the pre-fight pyrotechnics (or revealed them as shrewd salesmanship, depending on your level of cynicism).
Even during the brief pockets when Pacquiao appeared vulnerable, he’d leverage the situation to his favor. When Margarito backed him up against the ropes early in the third, Pacquiao adroitly escaped the pressure and landed a crisp seven-punch combo.
The fourth round was a turning point as Pacquiao began directing the action at will, connecting with punches all over Margarito’s body. He began landing shots more squarely, creating a huge welt under Margarito’s right eye that ultimately doomed the Mexican. (“We were going good until I got cut and that’s when the problems started coming,” said Margarito through a translator afterward.) Pacquiao’s slicing punches began to land with more frequency and power, driving Margarito into retreat.
Margarito came back early in the fifth and got Pacquiao up against the ropes, but the Filipino always got the equal or better of the exchanges. Once or twice, Pacquiao was jolted by a Margarito hook or uppercut, but never appeared to be in serious trouble.
With Margarito seeming to tire at the midpoint of the 12-round bout, Pacquiao started turning his opponent tirelessly. The strategy was reminiscent of Pacquiao’s endgame against Oscar De La Hoya, executed with similarly graceful footwork and balance. Margarito’s useless right eye – perilously close to Pacquiao’s heat-seeking left – may as well have worn a bull’s-eye.
The late rounds featured little variety. Pacquiao landed combination after combination as his opponent tried to return fire with mixed results. When Margarito missed with a looping right slow enough to be timed with a sundial, Pacquiao whapped him with a four-punch combo.
Margarito looked ready to fall in the 10th when a Pacquiao right hook appeared to shake his foundation, and a nine-punch fusillade sent him reeling, but the Mexican stood tall. CompuBox numbers revealed Pacquiao landed 57 of 89 power shots in that round, compared to just nine of 23 for Margarito.
After making one last effort to get the kayo, Pacquiao twice looked to referee Laurence Cole in the 11th, imploring him to stop the fight. With the outcome no longer in doubt, the Filipino carried Margarito to the finish line. “I’m not looking for a knockout,” Pacquiao recalled afterward. “I want to finish the round. Yes, I take it easy.”
A.J. Liebling wrote, “The span between the top limit of one weight class and the next represents the margin that history has proved is almost impossible to overcome.” Eight times Pacquiao has cheated this conventional wisdom, racing up the scales like nobody else in boxing history. Eight titles, eight divisions. And yet, fistic shorthand has never felt so hollow. The myth of the Pambansang Kamao – or National Fist – means so much more.
There are so few mountains left to climb. But it’s hard to imagine Pacquiao, at the height of his physical peak (and earning potential), would choose to walk away – even though Roach and Pacquiao’s mother have suggested just that.
Just one name remains, hanging on the reddening horizon.
The inability to make the megafight between Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., a fight made by the public years ago, is the tragicomic nadir of boxing’s institutional dysfunction.
Of course, the ideological limbo that’s snared the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight for the past two years (a positively insane squabble over the drug-testing window) is nothing compared to the legal travails that now threaten Floyd’s freedom. But if Floyd can avoid jail time, all signs point to Money vs. Manny in 2011.
They will be forever linked whether or not they meet in the ring. What a tragedy it would be if they don’t, if the fight were relegated forever to a theater of dreams.
No matter for Pacquiao. That’s where he’s been fighting his whole life.