LAS VEGAS – Manny Pacquiao wanted to go toe-to-toe with Juan Manuel Marquez Saturday night. He never imagined such a battle might end with him face-to-floor.
Marquez may be the best counter puncher of his time, a skillful surgeon in a world of butchers. His is a technical proficiency and intellectual approach amid a world of beautiful brutality. Perhaps because of that Pacquiao forgot for a moment the great danger such a man represents at all times but perhaps most of all when it seems he is in trouble.
This was the fourth time the two had squared off, their first fight ending in a controversial draw and the next two unsatisfying disputed split and majority decisions in Pacquiao’s favor. In all three, Marquez had repeatedly landed stunning counter right hands, punches perfectly timed and annoyingly unavoidable by Pacquiao.
Thirteen months ago, Marquez appeared to have landed enough of them to have convincingly beaten Pacquiao only to again see his nemesis’ hand raised. He grew so angry and despondent in the days that followed that he pondered retirement. Manny Pacquiao now wishes he’d followed through on that thought.
What he and his handlers also wish is that Pacquiao had remembered the lesson of their first fight, when he managed to knock Marquez to the floor three times in the first round but barely emerged with a draw. There was a warning in that outcome but in the heat of the moment Saturday night, as the fight seemed to be turning toward the definitive ending both craved, Pacquiao did not heed it.
Angry about having been knocked down himself for the first time since 1999 in the third round by another counter right hand and emboldened in the fifth after dropping Marquez with a solid left, Pacquiao spent most of Round 6 fiercely closing the distance on Marquez and strafing him with powerful combinations.
Pacquiao had already split open the bridge of Marquez’s nose, sending blood careening across his face, and swelling his eyes and left cheek. What he had not done was break either his spirit or his focus. Even as blows rained down on him, Marquez remained what he has always been – both a fierce warrior in the Aztec tradition of his heritage and a completely focused professional hit man.
With the crowd of 16,348 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena roaring with a primal edge to their voices, Pacquiao and Marquez engaged in the toe-to-toe battle Pacquiao had wanted all along and Marquez’s 72-year-old trainer, Nacho Beristain, looked upon with the disdain of a man who favors intellect over bruising. Confident his moment of utter domination had arrived, Pacquiao bounced forward as Marquez took a short step back in the waning seconds of the sixth round, sending a hard right jab in The Technician’s direction.
It never arrived.
Instead, Marquez shot forward with his own counter right the instant Pacquiao’s shoulder shifted forward, the counter punch exploding unseen on Pacquiao’s jaw with concussive force. The instant it did the dream of dominance had been transferred.
Pacquiao’s body shuttered like a man walking the streets of Chicago in winter as an ill-wind howled. His hair flew up and his hands sagged straight down to his lap as he toppled forward, face first into the floor.
So powerful was the devastation that Pacquiao was unable even to break his fall, instead landing like a felled fir. His fists were tucked under him, no longer of use either as weapons or defense mechanisms. Like Pacquiao, they were disarmed.
As Pacquiao fell, Marquez’s mouth turned into a wide O, as if he too was shocked at the destructiveness of that right hand. Below them both Pacquiao’s cutman, Miguel Diaz, had been preparing his enswell but dropped it back into the ice bucket. It would not be needed.
“A fighter goes down like that, face first, it’s over,’’ Diaz said with the detachment of a doctor who has seen destruction too many times before to deny its existence any more.
Pacquiao lay on the floor motionless for several minutes as his future ticked away. Gone was not only the illusion of his past dominance of Marquez but also the delusion a fight with Floyd Mayweather in his future. Outside the ropes his tearful wife, Jinkee, tried to reach her husband but was held back because no one was yet sure how complete his destruction was.
Eventually he stirred after a cold towel was applied to his head. When he awoke he had no idea what happened, believing for a moment he thought he had won. It was the last delusion of the night for him.
“I was starting to get careless because I thought I had him,’’ Pacquiao (54-5-2 38 KO) admitted after several minutes of stone unconsciousness were followed by a glassy-eyed revival. “I was so overconfident I thought ‘I got him.’ I never expected that punch. He got me a good one.’’
To not expect a counter puncher to try and counter speaks to how the moment can overwhelm even the most seasoned boxer. Pacquiao had eaten more right hand counters in the 42 rounds he’d fought with Marquez than in the entire rest of his 61-fight career, yet with the kind of dominating victory he craved so near he forgot for a moment exactly who he was in with.
He didn’t re-learn that lesson until hours later when he watched the fight’s replay in his hotel suite at Mandalay Bay, right across the street from the MGM Grand Garden Arena where he had been defeated. He had returned there after a CT scan at a local hospital proved negative and as he sat surrounded by his entourage Marquez was across the street glorying in victory while Beristain looked at him the way a proud father does a mischievous son who has engaged in behavior he’d been warned about and still emerged victorious.
“I knew the last three rounds Manny was going for the knockout,’’ Marquez said. “I could have been knocked out at any time. I also knew I could knock him out.
“I was fighting on the inside but with a lot of intelligence. I threw the perfect punch.’’
He had already sent Pacquiao crashing down on his back for the first time since 1999 with a counter right in the third round but he’d also been knocked down himself by a left hand in the fifth and his face had begun to show the dents and bruises that result from too many toe-to-toe clashes with an opponent whose goal was to lure you into them.
The bridge of Marquez’s nose had been split open and was bleeding profusely and his face had begun to puff around both eyes and along his left cheek. At that moment he looked every one of his 39 years, a counter puncher who was still landing but also finding himself too often on the wrong end of those exchanges.
But a fighter as smart as Marquez is seldom unaware of both his circumstances and how to right them and so he waited, cunning in his retreat late in the round, as Pacquiao charged him again as Marquez anticipated he would.
By now Pacquiao’s defense, never his best trait, had grown lax. His thoughts were not on protection but rather destruction as he snapped that hard right hand forward, expecting Marquez to retreat into the turnbuckle behind him.
And then he was asleep, awakening some time later to an entirely new world.
Where does boxing’s most popular fighter go from here? No one, not even Pacquiao, can know. He is now on a two-fight losing streak (although his loss to Tim Bradley is so suspect no one considers it one but the record books), the $100-milion dollar showdown with Floyd Mayweather has gone away and his four-fight struggle with Marquez has at least temporarily ended with the Mexican’s hand raised not only Saturday night but probably over the entire affair.
“Everyone would like to see a knockout because (then) all the close fights would go to that person,’’ suggested Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, several days before the fight. It was not a thought he ever felt would apply to Pacquiao but that is where he stands today, $25 million richer but poorer in a way that will haunt him for some time.
Immediately after the fight Pacquiao insisted he would fight again while Marquez spoke only of a long rest and decisions to be made. For Marquez the time to retire might never be more perfect.
He had his hand raised, something he said was what fueled the long months of preparation he pushed himself through, he has at least $6 million in his pocket and he has nothing more to prove.
He had won with guile and grit a fight that was for no championship other than the championship over his great rival. If he leaves now, boxing will have ended for him the way it does for few others. It would have ended well.
The same is not true for Manny Pacquiao, who likely will return in the spring against someone newer, younger, hungrier with an old lesson freshly in his mind: the boxing ring is no place for blind aggression.