Pacquiao can fight, but can he sell?
Manny Pacquiao (left) proved that he was the No. 1 fighter in the world when he beat Oscar De La Hoya in December. Now, with Saturday's fight against Ricky Hatton, he has the unenviable task of replacing De La Hoya as the sport's No. 1 attraction. Photo / Chris Farina-Top Rank
Over the past six months, nearly three million Americans have lost their jobs. The stock market losses are measured not in billions, but trillions. Real estate values have plummeted, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the average person to get a loan and even the New York Yankees have been forced to hold a fire sale.
And on Saturday night, two men whose total weight is less than the average NFL linemen are guaranteed $24 million for a maximum of 40 minutes of work.
The point here is not that either Manny Pacquiao or Ricky Hatton are being overpaid – by the current standards of professional sports, quite the opposite, in fact – but that in the depths of the greatest economic downturn the country has seen since the Great Depression, the promoter, Bob Arum, appears to be taking a great risk on this bout at the worst possible time.
And if you think Arum has a lot invested in the Pacquiao-Hatton fight, well, just imagine how much boxing itself has invested in it.
Because at long last, this is the fight that will answer the question boxing has both needed to confront and been desperate to avoid.
Namely, is there life after Oscar?
The retirement of Oscar De La Hoya on April 14 was the worst day this beleaguered sport has seen since the night Mike Tyson bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear and spit it at his feet.
Because to that point, De La Hoya had taken it upon himself to carry an entire sport upon his comparatively narrow shoulders, and over the past 10 years or so, no one has stepped up and offered to help.
Oh, De La Hoya had his co-stars – Felix Trinidad, Fernando Vargas, Bernard Hopkins and especially, Floyd Mayweather Jr. – but make no mistake, every one of them was decidedly a second banana. Win or lose, Oscar was the star, Oscar was the draw, Oscar pulled down the bulk of the money, and deservedly so.
Whether you loved him, hated him or were indifferent to his skills in the ring – and he gave you plenty of ammunition to support any of those positions – there is no disputing the fact that De La Hoya was the greatest earner his sport has ever seen.
Right to the end, it seemed, a lot of people were willing to plunk down $50 just to watch Oscar shadowbox.
But now, only Oscar’s shadow remains. Who will fill in the outline?
The convenient answer would seem to be Pacquiao, who beat De La Hoya so badly he drove him to retire twice, in the MGM Grand Garden ring last December and at a press conference in downtown L.A. two weeks ago.
But just because you can beat Oscar doesn’t mean you can BE Oscar.
No doubt, Pacquiao is a dynamic fighter and a charismatic individual with a knockout of a back story of poverty and homelessness as a boy in Quezon City, an exemplary record of philanthropy in his current period of success and a bright future. Some even think he may someday be elected President of the Philippines.
But will that be enough? Does Pacquiao have the indefinable quality to touch a chord with people who outwardly seem to have very little in common with him, as De La Hoya was able to with two communities, native-born Mexicans and Americans of non-Hispanic descent?
De La Hoya’s remarkable financial success – 14.1 million pay-per-view sales and nearly $700 million in revenue generated despite a somewhat spotty career and an 8-6 record over his final 14 fights – had a trickle-down effect on the entire sport. Like Hyman Roth in “The Godfather, Part II,” Oscar always made money for his partners.
That means his opponents made money, the fighters on his undercards made money, his promoters made money, the towns he fought in made money. Wherever he went, he was always welcome to come back. For a sport still reeling from the loss of Ali, Leonard, Hagler and Hearns and the public disintegration of Tyson, De La Hoya came along at exactly the right time, an economic great white shark carrying thousands of remora on his back.
Now, the shark is gone but the remora remain. Who will they feed off now?
In past eras, it would be an American fighter, and preferably a heavyweight.
But right now, there are no heavyweights, American or otherwise, worth gambling a dime on, let alone the future of a sport, and for the time being at least, Money (Mayweather) isn’t walking through that door.
So it’s got to be Pacquiao.
But you get the feeling it will be a lot easier for Pacquiao to beat Hatton, an earnest if glorified clubfighter transformed into a major attraction by his rabidly loyal Manchester fan base, than it will to pick up the onerously heavy burden De La Hoya leaves behind.
Aside from the inherent difficulty a foreign-born fighter seems to have in cultivating an American following – only Roberto Duran, Julio Cesar Chavez and Felix Trinidad have really been able to do it – it must be remembered that Pacquiao may be a relatively young man, but he is by no means a young fighter.
Alrerady more than 14 years and nearly 40 pounds removed from his pro debut against someone named Edmund Enting Ignacio in Mindoro Occidental, Philippines, Pacquiao’s shelf life is limited, even if he is just four months past his 30th birthday.
Because of his phenomenal seven-year run beginning with his KO of Jorge Julio 17 fights ago, it is easy to forget Pacquiao has been stopped twice, both times as a flyweight, in what must seem like a previous life.
But it wasn’t. And although Pacquiao has greatly improved as a figther and a physical specimen as he has gone up in weight, it may well be that his body tells one story, his inner odometer another.
So it will be difficult, although not impossible, for Pacquiao to build the kind of franchise De La Hoya had in the fights that remain for him. Assuming he beats Hatton, there are attractive fights left for Pacquiao against Shane Mosley, the winner of the June 13 bout between Miguel Cotto and Joshua Clottey, maybe Andre Berto, and perhaps even a third match with Juan Manuel Marquez. At some point, Mayweather is going to need to work again and when he does, a showdown with Pacquiao would be a natural.
They’re all “nice” fights, and will make Pacquiao a ton of money, but will they be transcendent fights? The kind of fights that persuade non-boxing fans to buy a ticket or a PPV subscription? The kind of events for which not only the sports world, but the entertainment world and a good segment of the general public, snaps out of its self-absorbed reverie to take notice?
The kind of events that for the past 10 years, featured Oscar De La Hoya against Just About Anybody?
Until last Dec. 6, Manny Pacquiao was one of those Just About Anybodys.
Now, boxing asks him to be a somebody. Boxing asks him not just to beat De La Hoya, but to be De La Hoya.
Because if there’s one thing De La Hoya taught us all, it’s that sometimes it is not how well you fight, it’s how well you sell.
Manny Pacquiao has already shown us he can fight like De La Hoya. On Saturday night, we’ll find out if he can sell like him.
Wallace Matthews is a columnist for Newsday