Manny Pacquiao: Manny and the Mexicans
Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of The Ring.
PACQUIAO’S NINE-YEAR SERIES WITH A TRIO OF MEXICAN STARS PRODUCED SOME OF THE GREATEST (AND UNQUESTIONABLY THE WORST) MOMENTS OF HIS CAREER
The last stop on the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez 3 media tour was Mexico City, “Dinamita’s” hometown, where an estimated 20,000 people turned up at the Monumento a la Revolución to greet them. That’s a mighty big turnout, even for a boxing-crazy nation. As counterintuitive as it seems, their numbers were swelled considerably by those who came to see Pacquiao.
There was even a blowup of a sepia-tone photo from the Revolution, featuring a group of freedom fighters sitting on a locomotive, a Pacquiao-lookalike among them.
The crowd chanted “Manny, Manny” as he laughed and waved. Scenes of mass adulation were a fairly common occurrence in the Philippines. But this was Mexico! What must Marquez have been thinking?
“Manny Pacquiao is an idol in Mexico,” said Diego Martinez, longtime sportswriter for Reforma. “They came because they wanted to see him. Even when he’s not against a Mexican, there’s still a lot of interest in Pacquiao’s fights.”
Make a competitive match between a Mexican and a Filipino and you’re pretty much guaranteed a real fight.
Perhaps the machismo ethos embraced by both cultures is at its root. Mexicans and Filipinos are certainly simpatico when it comes to the style of boxing they enjoy the most. Make a competitive match between a Mexican and a Filipino and you’re pretty much guaranteed a real fight. Rather than hate Manny for beating their countrymen, Mexicans admire his fighting spirit and aggressive style.
Pacquiao’s legacy is forever entwined with Mexico and its fighters. All told, to date, he’s fought nine different Mexicans over 15 bouts, but he will always be most closely associated with Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera and Marquez.
Pacquiao’s series of nine fights with the elite trio, which began in November 2003 and concluded in December 2012, was a voyage of growth and glory, spiced by the sting of defeat. Like archeologists sifting through the sands of time in search of knowledge, tracking Pacquiao’s fights against the threesome is a window into his transformation from raw slugger to crafty elder statesman with mayhem in his heart.
It all started with Ring featherweight champion Barrera, the man who hung the first and only loss on “Prince” Naseem Hamed. He was popular on both sides of the border and ranked third in The Ring’s pound-for-pound ratings going into the Pacquiao fight, held November 15, 2003, at San Antonio’s Alamodome.
READ: ‘Best I Faced’ – Marco Antonio Barrera
It was one-sided from the start and became more so as the fight progressed. It must have been difficult for the pro-Barrera crowd of 10,127 to come to grips with the fact that a kid with an impish grin and wisp of a mustache was kicking Barrera’s ass.
Their man had been ambushed, fair and square of course, but ambushed nonetheless. Barrera didn’t fully understand what he had in front of him until it was too late. Like the hot rod flames on his red trunks, Pac Man was on fire, his raw ferocity overwhelming.
Barrera was knocked down in the third and 11th rounds and was helpless on the ropes when one of his handlers climbed onto the ring apron and told the ref, Laurence Cole, to stop it, which he did with four seconds left in the penultimate round.
“Ninety-five percent of the audience at the Alamodome was Mexican. Nobody knew Manny Pacquiao,” said Martinez. “I think that was a fight that changed boxing and made Pacquiao a legend.”
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in March 2004 and Pacquiao was supposed to be at the Wild Card Gym. Not the one in Hollywood, but its namesake in Sucat, Metro Manila, a state-of-the-art facility owned by Pacquiao’s then-business manager, Rod Nazario.
Manny, who was ostensibly training for his upcoming bout with Juan Manuel Marquez, scheduled for May 8 at the MGM Grand, never showed. He was in Davao City, more than 600 miles away, doing his thing.
“I called him on his cell phone, and I could hear the pool balls clicking in the background,” said Ronnie Nathanielsz, who was among the journalists waiting for Pacquiao.
In his next column, Nathanielsz accused the national hero of “spending long hours and late nights [playing pool] instead of training.”
Pacquiao was still basking in the splendor of annihilating Barrera the previous November, living life to the max and partying just as exuberantly as he fought. When he finally arrived in Manila the next morning, newspaper headlines echoed Nathanielsz: Get serious. Marquez is no joke.
If Pacquiao skipped a few gym sessions, it never showed. The first round was the worst three minutes of Marquez’s career and, oddly enough, contained one of his finest moments.
For close to three minutes, Pacquiao was Chief Lapu-Lapu at the Battle of Mactan, but instead of driving a bamboo spear into Magellan, he floored Marquez three times with his bullet-train left.
Unlike Magellan, Marquez got up three times; not anywhere near as fast as he went down, but get up he did, and that was all that mattered. It foreshadowed the difficulty Pacquiao would have the remainder of the fight and in their subsequent bouts.
After 12 scintillating rounds, the fight could have gone either way, and when a split draw was announced, it seemed fair enough. But a slip of the pencil cost Pacquiao the fight.
It was later revealed that unlike the other two judges, Burt Clements scored the first round 10-7 in favor of Pacquiao instead of 10-6. Had Clements got it right, Manny would have won a split decision.
In a typical example of bureaucratic double-talk, the Nevada commission said Clements made a mistake but the draw verdict would stand. The truth is that sportsbooks had already made it official.
Following a TKO victory over Narongrit Pirang (aka Fahsan 3K Battery) in the Philippines, Pacquiao relinquished the featherweight belt and made his junior lightweight debut against Morales at the MGM Grand on March 19, 2005.
Pac Man and “El Terrible” would fight three times in 20 months. It was a significant period in Manny’s development as a fighter and gate attraction, sort of a crash course in the realities of life at the top in the USA. He was good, real good, but had to get better.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but the first Pacquiao bout was Morales’ last great performance. He was on the back stretch of a long and distinguished career but still a formidable fighter, a tough guy from Tijuana’s notorious Zona Norte who could box as well as slug and never backed down.
An accidental clash of heads in the fifth round opened a crater-like gash over Manny’s right eye. It certainly didn’t help his cause, but terrific back-and-forth action continued unabated nonetheless. They were still going at it in the final round, beating the hell out of one another, and you got the impression they would’ve just kept going until they collapsed if the final bell hadn’t stopped them.
READ: ‘Best I Faced’ – Erik Morales
It was close, but on the whole, Morales had an edge. All three judges scored the fight 115-113 in favor of Morales. There were no complaints from Pacquiao’s camp, just a request for a rematch. And they got it.
Between the first and the second Morales fights, Manny and trainer Freddie Roach worked overtime to find a way to turn his right hand into a significant weapon. He’d been in love with his concussive left for so long that his right had become almost an afterthought.
Manny has always been a quick learner, and the right to the body landed with authority in the Morales rematch on January 21, 2006, at the Thomas & Mack Center. It was instrumental in slowing Morales to a virtual standstill. Fatigue and despair were etched on Morales’ face as he rose from his stool at the start of the 10th round. He was done and he knew it. Two knockdowns later, it was over at the 2:33 mark.
Nobody was calling Pacquiao a one-handed fighter anymore.
There was no reason for a third Morales fight except a monetary one. The fans couldn’t get enough of the pairing, and if they wanted a rubber match, Top Rank and HBO were happy to give it to them. A tremendous crowd of 18,276 showed up at the Thomas & Mack Center to watch Pacquiao demolish what was left of Morales.
Morales was knocked down in the second round and twice more in the third. After being floored for the third time, he just sat there with a bemused look on his face, either unable or unwilling to get up. He’d had enough of Pacquiao to last a lifetime. Referee Vic Drakulich counted Morales out with three seconds remaining in the third round.
The combined attendance for the three Pacquiao-Morales fights was 47,517, and the pay-per-view revenue $49.5 million. Pac Man wasn’t there yet, but he was on his way to the magical realm of eight-figure paydays, and the lessons learned during the Mexican cycle helped get him there.
Following his devastating loss to Pacquiao, Barrera won six of seven bouts against quality opposition. Fans expected the rematch (October 6, 2007) at Mandalay Bay, to be a rousing affair but had to settle for a tactical match. Barrera’s reluctance to go toe-to-toe was matched by Pacquiao’s hesitancy to launch his usual all-out assault.
“Manny boxed well and showed good footwork, which is what we worked on during training,” said Roach after the fight. “Manny was fighting a smarter fight tonight. Speed and power is not enough to stay in the game long enough. He’s bringing more to the table than being ferocious.”
It wasn’t a stinker, but it was far from memorable. And you’ve got to remember ferocity was what Pacquiao was selling. The only real excitement came in the 11th round when Manny connected with a right to the face and then delivered a left that staggered Barrera and buckled his knees. But the moment passed and Pacquiao settled for a unanimous 12-round decision.
The secret of Pacquiao’s success has always been hidden in plain sight: He has the guts to go for broke and has lived the credo like few others.
Manny talked about moving up in weight, but before he did, a lucrative offer for a second Marquez fight at 130 pounds was too good to turn down.
Four years had gone by since their first fight, a lifetime for some boxers, but Marquez and Pacquiao had been competing at an elite level since their original meeting and much was expected when they fought on March 15, 2008, at Mandalay Bay.
Manny and Juan Manuel delivered the goods, trading flurry after flurry, fighting tit-for-tat for 12 riveting rounds. The difference was the knockdown Pacquiao scored late in the third round. When a fight is super close, a knockdown looms large.
Pacquiao won a split decision, but nothing had been settled, not really, not yet.
The time between the second and third Pacquiao-Marquez bouts was arguably Pacquiao’s finest. He stopped an outclassed David Diaz to win the WBC lightweight title and then reeled off three of the most spectacular performances of his career, stopping Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto. Then came wide unanimous decisions over Joshua Clottey, Antonio Margarito and Shane Mosley.
Although Pacquiao shredded Margarito’s face in a bloodbath that should have been stopped, he seemed comfortable coasting to no-sweat decisions over Clottey and Mosley. Pundits debated whether Pacquiao had grown complacent or was on the decline. Maybe he was just mailing it in because he could. After all, his schedule hadn’t included many gimmes.
The third Pacquiao-Marquez match, November 12, 2011, at the MGM Grand, was similar to the second. It was close but even more controversial. Marquez outboxed Pacquiao in many rounds but failed to press his advantage, allowing Pacquiao to rally late.
When Pacquiao was declared winner via majority decision, Marquez fans expressed their displeasure by throwing debris and beer cans. Six months later, on December 8, 2012, they would be dancing for joy at the same venue.
The instant the punch landed, Pacquiao was out on his feet. No longer in control of his body, he pitched forward like a drunk who’d tripped over a curb and landed on his face, his hands and arms pinned beneath his body.
“He’s not getting up! He’s not getting up!” screamed HBO’s Roy Jones.
Referee Kenny Bayless dispensed with the count and waved the fight over one second before the end of the sixth round. Pacquiao looked more like a battlefield casualty than a knockout victim.
The emotional eruption inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena approached pandemonium levels. Fear, anger and elation swirled like dust devils. While Manny’s wife, Jinkee, was having a meltdown, Marquez climbed the corner ropes, both arms raised in victory, a roar of approval washing over him. The counter right Manny ran into was a beaut.
Pacquiao’s darkest moment was Marquez’s greatest triumph, a resounding end to a rivalry that began eight years prior. It also ended Pac Man’s series of fights with the big three. Marquez, Barrera and Morales are retired and have all been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. That says a lot about them and the man who fought them all.
The secret of Pacquiao’s success has always been hidden in plain sight: He has the guts to go for broke and has lived the credo like few others. It first surfaced when the teenage Pacquiao left his family and stowed away on a ship that would take him from Mindanao, the island of his birth, to Luzon and the teeming metropolis of Manila.
Pacquiao never wavered, just plunged headlong into damn near everything he tried, from hustling cigarettes and donuts on the street to being elected to the Philippine Senate. Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao has never been just another boxer.
He has been fighting professionally for a quarter century, and like almost all fighters who manage to stay on top for such a long time, he’s adapted. Gone forever is the insanely quick, extremely vicious skinny kid with a hand grenade in his left glove.
There are still glimpses of the happy warrior that beguiled us from the start, but Pacquiao goes for broke in a different way these days. He has a tighter rein on his reckless impulses but can still strike at any moment. Although they have become rare, Manny still comes to knock out the other guy. He still loves to fight.
We saw that when he beat young buck Keith Thurman in July 2019. A lot of people called it an upset, but was it?
Back when Thurman was fighting four-rounders, Pacquiao was going to war with Mexico’s finest. They helped define who he was and what he could do – the kind of fighter who can shrug off defeat, such as the knockout loss to Marquez, and keep going for broke. That’s a real fighter for you.
Today, he’s the last man standing.
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