The world's greatest boxer is too great for his own good. He can't find anyone who will fight back.
What happens when you're such a good boxer, you can't find anyone else to fight?
Manny Pacquiao, the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, is a man who fires punches at angles that many in the sport have never seen. But he is more than a master pugilist--he is a charismatic Congressman in his native Philippines with designs on the presidency. Pacquiao, who grew up in the streets, likes to say that he fights to give people some relief from their suffering. He wore yellow gloves during his bout on Saturday night to symbolize his unity with his country's poor. "He's not a fighter, he's an entertainer," says Freddie Roach, his trainer. But he was frustrated because he hadn't been able to entertain the crowd who were booing the lack of action in his bout with the American Sugar Shane Mosley. Pacquiao won in a unanimous decision and retained the welterweight championship and the mythical pound-for-pound crown, but he had a difficult time getting over the boobirds. "It's not my fault," said Pacquiao, a typically joyful man, as way of explanation. "Of course I am happy that I won the fight but my first concern is the satisfaction of the crowd. I want to give a good performance. I think he felt my power. But what am I going to do if my opponent doesn't want to fight toe-to-toe?"
Mosley, one of America's greatest fighters, had the unfortunate task of facing Pacquiao. They squared off in front of 16,412 at Las Vegas' MGM Grand Garden Arena. Mosley is 39. He has been a professional fighter for eighteen years and he is a future Hall of Famer, but he seemed to forget how to throw punches. Was he past his prime? Yes. But he has always been considered "a warrior," boxing parlance for someone who will risk bodily harm to win and Pacquiao trained harder than for any previous fight with the expectation that Mosley would attack him with everything in his aresenal. The arsenal was empty. His jab was so timid that it looked like a father caressing his child's cheek. He landed 82 paltry punches to Pacquiao's 182. He blamed his performance to Pacquiao's speed and power, which he couldn't handle. Strangely, he also blamed a foot blister, which didn't seem to hamper his frantic backpedaling from the Filipino.
There was a single moment of excitement In Round 3 when Pacquiao hit Mosley with a sobering left and Sugar crashed to the canvas. The crowd buzzed with jittery excitement, as they always do when it experiences a knockdown. Mosley looked like a kid in a supermarket who couldn't find his mother. But before the Pacman, as his fans call him, could finish him, Pacquiao's left calf muscle became so cramped that between rounds he implored his cornermen to massage it. Leg cramps have been an issue throughout his training runs in the Hollywood Hills and it was feared that it might flare up again. It did and Pacquiao couldn't pivot and pursue Mosley as relentlessly as he wanted to. It was an opening for Mosley but his heart wasn't committed to capitalizing on it.
Blisters, cramps...who knows? But it was certain that millions of dollars were pumped into the event, making it a showcase for the boxing game. ShowTime, which broadcast the bout, had relentlessly promoted the matchup for a couple months through a four-part documentary and by advertising it during the NCAA basketball tournament via its parent company, CBS. The fight was a big deal for boxing, which, anymore, is on par with poker in its popularity as a televised sport. It's a tough economy and ShowTime charged $54.95 for people watching it on television at home. While the pay-per-view buy numbers won't be known for a couple days, they are expected to be over one million, which is considered excellent in the boxing pay-per-view business. Given the CBS involvement and the growing popularity of Pacquiao--who has been featured on 60 Minutes, the Jimmy Kimmel, and many other television programs--the fight was touted as one that would bring the mainstream into boxing and help revive it in the United States. (Yes, this seems to be a theme once a year in the boxing promotions game.) Millions watched but will Pacquiao-Mosley keep them interested in the sport? On Pacquiao's press tour he met with President Obama at the White House. The Commander in Chief said he planned on watching the fight because he is a Pacquiao fan. Of course, no one believed Pacquiao would lose, but boxing experts--from writers to matchmakers--believed it would be an exciting bout. The president probably went night-night before the fight was completed.
Mosley, who will earn about $10 million for his efforts, looked like a man who should have retired long ago. Mosley was an 8-1 underdog but he promised a slugfest. He was full of confidence and told me that anyone betting on him "was going to be rich." When I visited Mosley in his training camp in Big Bear, California, he told me how the fight would be "full of fireworks." Roach, the best trainer in the world announced on Saturday morning that he would help the U.S. Olympic boxing team for the 2012 games, and at the press event, publicists gave out Nike t-shirts that said, "Freddie Knows." Well, Freddie definitely knew that Mosley's "legs were gone. I don't think Mosley tried to win the fight. When you get to that point in boxing, it's time to call it a day."
After the contest, as the crowd snaked its way into the Vegas night, it was all black humor among the reporters as they gathered at the post-fight press conference. Boxing has lost its footing in mainstream newspapers, but because of Pacmania, big time reporters were generously represented at the fight. Because of the one-sided nature of the bout and the non-action, some of the sportswriters wondered if they would ever get sent to cover another boxing match.
What can be done?
Pacquiao's opponents are falling as fast as quarters into a slot machine. In two of Pacquiao's last three fights, his opponents were so overwhelmed by his speed and power that they went into a turtle-like shell. In his last fight, he broke his opponent's orbital bone and he has fought three other world class fighters--Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, and Joshua Clottey--who never returned to the ring. Mosley might be the fourth candidate on that doomed list. Mosley's trainer calls Pacquiao the Rubik's cube of boxing because no one can figure him out. Mosley can take some solace in that he survived, but survival was an empty victory. In recent fights, Pacquiao has a ridiculous--but exciting--habit of getting on the ropes just to test the other man's punching power. It's fun and the crowd loves it. Roach goes ballistic when Pacquiao uses this suicidal technique because he doesn't want his fighter to take unnecessary shots. On Saturday Roach was so underwhelmed by Mosley's abilities that mid-way through the fight he actually told the PacMan to lean against the ropes. He thought it might lure Mosley into some risk-taking behavior, and in turn Pacquiao could bounce off the ropes and return fire and finish him. But Mosley was so confused, intimidated, and dazed that he refused the opportunity. "Sometimes time catches up with you," said Mosley.
In the press conference--and an hour later over martinis--Bob Arum, Pacquiao's promoter who also managed Muhammad Ali, talked about Pacquiao's greatness and wondered aloud about who he could match with the PacMan. Pacquiao will fight again in November. It will be against Juan Manuel Marquez, Zab Judah, or the up-and-comer Timothy Bradley. "Every fighter he faces looks helpless," said Arum.
So what do you do when you are dominating your sport to the point of making it look ridiculously easy?
Elite fighters, one after one, have not been able to figure out how to beat Pacquiao for...six years. Pacquiao, 32, is a great one. He might be the best of his generation. Many people have started to put him in the top ten of all time. But his dominance has become a curse. The most exciting fighter in the world can't find anyone who will fight back. Of course, there is a fight that people desperately want to see: Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr. Pacquiao is the best offensive fighter in the world and Mayweather is the best defensive fighter and a Hall of Fame trash talker. There is so much worldwide interest in the fight that they could probably make $35 million each for facing each other, making it the biggest ever payday in boxing. Mayweather, who has a perfect record and is worried about losing it, doesn't seem inclined to fight Pacquiao, however. "He would beat the crap out of Mayweather," says Arum. "I guarantee it. And the person who knows that best is Floyd Mayweather Jr."