TOLEDO--UNPLUGGING PAC-MAN: SOLVING THE STYLE OF MANNY PACQUIAO
In 1965, Fighting Harada tore into the great Eder Jofre for fifteen rounds and toppled him from the bantamweight throne. From that high perch, Harada thrilled Japan with four successful title defenses. His fifth was against an Australian Aborigine. This challenger, only nineteen years old, was assumed to be nothing more than a “push-over” by the Japanese matchmaker.
As it happened, Lionel Rose tore into the great Harada for fifteen rounds and toppled him from the bantamweight throne. The upset sent shockwaves from coast to coast. “I lose my job,” said the matchmaker afterwards.
Harada was perhaps the greatest Asian fighter in history until another idol from another island nation took his fourth linear title and left Harada blinking in the glory lights.
Manny Pacquiao has not been officially defeated since 2005 when he faced Erik Morales, a conventional boxer-puncher. Many analysts, including this one, believe that another great Mexican fighter defeated him in 2008. Juan Manuel Marquez, a technician, managed to counter Pacquiao’s turbo charges and stun him several times in their rematch. Pacquiao got lucky in that one and left the super featherweight division behind forever. The claim that he fled the division to avoid a rubber match with his nemesis was put to the wind after he vanquished a lightweight titlist, humiliated an icon, and stepped over the flattened form of the Jr. welterweight champion.
Pacquiao then attacked the top echelon of the welterweight class.
Miguel Cotto was rescued by the referee and said that he “didn’t know from where the punches were coming.” Joshua Clottey peaked out from behind his guard to see punches coming from every angle and holed up for 12 rounds until the storm passed. The villainous Antonio Margarito ended up in the hospital with fractures to his face; he blamed Pacquiao’s speed for putting him there. The once-formidable Shane Mosley was dropped by a left hand and spent the next nine rounds like someone who stumbled upon a live hornets’ nest on the front porch and couldn’t decide whether to flail or run or both. “Usually I can go in there and punch with guys,” he said afterwards, but Pacquiao’s power was “…different.” It frightened him. In the corner after the tenth round, Showtime cameras caught him begging his trainer to stop the fight.
In a total of fifty-six rounds against welterweights, Pacquiao lost three.
To the naked eye, Pacquiao seems to have remarkably improved with age. There are many who believe this –and the champion’s camp seems to be encouraging it. Freddie Roach has claimed that his style went into hyperspace after the Marquez rematch, but he is honest enough to admit that he is not above insisting on catch-weights to weaken the opposite corner; nor is he above cherry-picking to protect his fighter and maximize profit. Every welterweight opponent to a man was handed a contract only after Roach was satisfied that the threat posed was minimal. De La Hoya, he said before the fight, was shot. He saw the damage that Margarito did to Cotto’s psyche and Cotto was next. He watched Clottey’s films, including his subtle quit job against Cotto and concluded that Clottey is “not very good.” Margarito was broken down by Mosley, who made it clear that Margarito could no longer cope with speed. Pressure mounted for Pacquiao to fight Mosley after that but Roach declined. "Shane came to the gym twice to ask me to let him fight Manny," he said in February 2010, "I told him no both times, and both times for the same two reasons: First, there isn't enough money there, and second, you're too good a fighter." After Floyd Mayweather defeated Mosley, Roach changed his mind.
No conqueror is above finding advantages. Fighting Harada fought outside of Japan only three times and never in defense of the world bantamweight title. His defeat was the product of a miscalculation. Lionel Rose was a hand-picked, last-minute replacement who fought the champion on a slide, weaved under winged shots, and met his aggression with hard counters. Harada was bleeding by the eighth round and dropped in the ninth before losing a clear decision. Rose had the right answers to the question of Harada’s style.
COMPLICATED ANGLES Pacquiao’s style is no less answerable than Harada’s, it’s just more complicated.
Most boxers are right-handers with a conventional stance who are acclimated to fighting other right-handers with a conventional stance. They are about as comfortable fighting a southpaw as a New York driver would be on an English roundabout. Portside angles and movements are confusing enough to require the temporary rewiring of muscle memory –whether you’re behind the wheel or behind the gloves. Pacquiao’s advantage against welterweights has not been his southpaw stance so much as the failure of his opponents to adjust to it.
The first rule for conventional fighters facing southpaws is to keep their lead foot outside of the southpaw’s lead foot. Not one welterweight heeded this rule with any regularity. Featherweights did. Marquez came out aggressively and was knocked down three times in the first round of their first fight. By the second round, he reverted back to his natural state as a counterpuncher and remembered the formula for defeating southpaws. Things got better and he fought to a draw. During the rematch four years later, Roach was alarmed enough to scold Pacquiao: “Get that [right] foot outside [of his left foot],” he said, “don’t follow him!”
In 2005, Morales defied the expectation that stand-up boxers don’t fare well against swarmers because he applied old remedies and smart tactics. It is no coincidence that the only fight where he consistently moved to his left and kept his lead foot outside of Pacquiao’s lead foot was the only one he won. This move opened up Morales’s advantage on two fronts.
First, it naturally set his right heel in line with the southpaw’s chin; and the straighter a right fist travels, the sooner it arrives at the target.
Second, Morales’s lead foot blocked Pacquiao from moving to his right.
Future challengers should be warned: When Pacquiao moves to his right, he becomes a destroyer. As a southpaw, he moves in that direction at an inward angle and so is placing himself closer to the target. He is therefore better able to punch through the target. This is why most of his knockdowns and knockouts happen when he is moving in that direction or is set at that inward angle. That’s not all. In order to counter him the opponent must first turn and reset –meanwhile his face is getting mashed by leather crashing in from a blind angle. It’s a simple stroke of genius: The same place that maximizes Pacquiao’s offense minimizes his opponent’s.
Pacquiao is less reckless, more efficient, and his balance has improved since he was facing men his own size. However, these adjustments do not explain his domination of world-class welterweights. The explanation is found in geometry, physics, and the failure of his recent opponents and their trainers to grasp what he is doing. They have been too preoccupied with his athleticism to remember a basic truth: Boxing is less about muscles and fast-twitch fibers than it is about accumulated know-how.
UNPLUGGING PAC-MAN That basic truth overrides everything else in the ring. Even Manny Pacquiao is only a punch or a point away from defeat. What follows are principles and plans that, if implemented, can send shockwaves around the world.
1. Never unnecessarily provoke a dragon.
This is not a fighter who should be antagonized. In fact, your strategy should begin the moment you sign the contract. Mosley was courteous to a fault during the pre-fight hype and sought to extend his glove before and after every round during the fight. Who couldn’t notice Pacquiao, a Christian and a practitioner of the Golden Rule, obliging him almost every time? He views what he does as performance art and has, to his trainer’s dismay, gone to some lengths to avoid hurting his challengers. “Nothing personal,” he says repeatedly. Don’t make it so.
2. Jab to stabilize and destabilize him.
The jab helps overcome any kinetic style. Move to your left when you shoot it and be sure that your left shoulder is up and your chin is tucked in as you do. This will protect against the southpaw’s counters. The jab can stabilize him for you to find him and it can destabilize him so that you can mount an attack. Once he starts feinting, jerking, and moving towards angles in your range, jab hard at his chest. If you can knock him off balance, take advantage of the second or two it takes him to recover.
3. Ruin his geometry.
Move leftward and keep your lead foot outside of his because you do not want him sliding in that direction –not if you value your good looks or your consciousness. When Pacquiao sought his evil angle on the welterweights, they let him. When Pacquiao sought his evil angle against Marquez and Morales, they had their feet in position to block him. If they didn’t, they pivoted with him. They also threw left hooks to discourage that direction. Steal a page from Fritzie Zivic and step on his lead foot now and then to foil his attempts to move in any direction.
4. The Right Stuff
If you are in position to ruin his geometry, your right heel will be naturally lined up with his chin. The right hand is the southpaw’s hoodoo, so when he is lined up for it, shoot it. When you throw combinations try to begin and end them with a right. When at close range, try one of Morales’s little tricks: He bent his knees and leaned his head near Pacquiao’s right armpit, then looped right hooks up and over. Pacquiao couldn’t figure it out.
5. Divine timing defeats demon speed.
Pacquiao sees everything. He zeroes in on openings from almost any angle; and however narrow or fleeting that opening seems to you is of no consequence, because to him it’s a widening gyre and your world is in slow motion. Roach laughs at the idea that Pacquiao can be countered by most fighters. He’s simply too fast. Morales put his famous pride aside and accepted this; he accepted the idea that he would not be able to counter in the usual tit-for-tat manner, but he also knew that the way to defeat speed is with timing. He countered Pacquiao’s jab with left hooks; though instead of trying to follow the incoming jab, he anticipated it and threw his left hook with it. It worked.
6. Fight with controlled aggression.
Neither flee nor flail. Don’t follow him when he springs back or rush him unless he is hurt or off balance. When he swarms in, be brave but not stupid; pivot with him, assume a compact stance and remember to step outside of his right foot with your left foot. Thrust forward into the eye of his offense behind a series of tight shots to the body and head. Move your head at the end of every combination to avoid his counters. When you see him with his arms up high in a frontal guard he is in a defensive mode, so exploit it with uppercuts to split the guard and hooks to land around it.
7. Set traps.
Pacquiao is an illusionist who is usually a step ahead of his opposition. He will invite a jab and as it is thrown he will counter it simultaneously with a straight left. Oscar De La Hoya and Miguel Cotto could only watch him repeat this tactic with blurred horror, never realizing why it was happening. If he tricks you into getting aggressive, your own forward motion will propel you into a counterblast that you won’t even see. Feinting is a major part of his repertoire. Feint him!
a. When you see him trying to time and counter your jab, feint the jab, shift left to avoid his counterpunch and come back with your own.
--If he is leaning to your left when he shoots his counterpunch, it means that he is reading you and your right will miss. So, feint a jab, shift left, and shoot a left hook followed by a right.
--If he is leaning left and crouching, use a left uppercut to lift him up, followed by a right.
b. If he springs back, resist the urge to rush in. Feint an attack and as he springs at you, shift your weight onto your back foot and thrust forward with a right.
Be vigilant and prepared –Fighters who know what to look for and what to do once they find it are the ones who end reigns.
Attention underdogs! These answers to the question of Pacquiao’s style are not static; boxing is a dynamic sport and many variables change the game. These answers to the question of Pacquiao’s style are not exhaustive either; though any more will cost a percentage of your purse.
“Unplugging Pac-Man” is dedicated to the memory of the man who once unplugged Fighting Harada –Lionel Rose.
Freddie Roach’s comments about Joshua Clottey are from an article in boxnews.com.ua entitled “Roach: Manny Pacquiao will knock Joshua Clottey out,” February 1, 2010. His comments about Shane Mosley were found in Bill Dwyre’s article “Manny Pacquiao decides to simply fight on,” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 2010.
Springs Toledo can be contacted at email@example.com.