No one should question that the world champion beat his Mexican rival in their third match-up
Welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao finally gave us a controversial fight Saturday night against Mexican champion Juan Manuel Marquez after two years of the most complete domination of his weight classes that anyone's seen since ... well, let's think about that. Marvin Hagler of the middleweight ranks back in the early 1980s? Roberto Duran as a lightweight during the mid-1970s? Muhammad Ali from the time he won the heavyweight title in 1964 until he was forced into retirement by the U.S. government in 1967?
At least that's the way many sportswriters are seeing Pacquiao-Marquez 3. I watched the fight with the sound turned down—my daughter, who wasn't feeling well, had fallen asleep on the sofa next to me—and I didn't find it controversial at all. I thought it was a close fight, just as Pacquiao's two previous bouts with Marquez—a draw in 2004 and split decision in 2008—had been. But I saw nothing in their third meeting to indicate that Marquez should have been awarded the decision.
Old-time boxing writers are fond of saying that you can't judge a fight by what you see on television, that you have to be there in person. This is nonsense. I've been to fights in person and found it like being live at a pro football game—without the numerous camera angles and instant replay, it's very difficult to figure out what actually happened. With boxing there's a simple reason why TV is better, namely that a boxing ring isn't really a ring at all, it's a square, and no matter which side you sit on and how many giant screens there are, you're not getting a full view of about 75 percent of the action.
There are other reasons why you get a clearer idea of a fight at home than you can when you're in the arena: you're not swayed by appearances. For instance, several commentators pointed out that after the fight Pacquiao's face looked worse than Marquez's. (As if how a fighter looks were a criterion for judging a bout; some fighters throw a majority of their punches to their opponent's midsection.) What many of them failed to note was that there was a reason for the blood for that had nothing to do with punching. In the 10th round, Marquez landed a crashing hand-butt—for the record, it doesn't look intentional in the replay—that opened up a two-inch cut on Manny's face and sent him in to the final two rounds bleeding.
Crowd noise has a huge impact on judges who are scoring a fight. It's true that the crowd at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Saturday night loudly booed the decision (a fact, no doubt, which also heavily influenced many watching it on Pay-Per-View). What most fight writers failed to mention was the crowd was largely comprised of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who had come to cheer their man on. Watching the replay, it's obvious that shouts of "Marquez! Marquez! Marquez!" were ringing through the Vegas night. (Since I had my volume down, this didn't influence me.)
I think there was yet another factor at work, and that was what I call the boxing point spread. When you watch a football game and one team is heavily favored by, say, 17 points and only wins by four or five, there is a feeling that the team somehow failed. (As the late odds-maker Jimmy the Greek once put it, "If there's one thing I hate to see, it's a team that didn't beat the point spread and thinks it won.") Pacquiao was heaving favored in this fight, though he should not have been; Marquez is probably the third best fighter in the world, pound for pound, after Pacquiao and the man whom everyone wants to see Manny fight, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. And there is something in Marquez's laid-back, counterpunching style that clearly frustrates Pacquiao. (As the game-but-not-great heavyweight Ken Norton did when fighting Muhammad Ali back in the 1970s.)
No matter, though. The point is that Pacquiao did not dominate the fight the way most writers expected him to—and certainly not in the way he's dominated nearly everyone he's fought over the past couple of years, which contributed to the false impression was created that somehow Marquez "won." (You can judge yourself this Saturday night when HBO replays the bout.)
Meanwhile, we are once again left wondering if simple math and logic can shed any light on how to score boxing matches. Judges are told to consider several factors in their scoring, most of which strike me as completely irrelevant. According to most state athletic commissions, Judges are expected to consider "effective aggression, defense, clean, hard punching and"—most subjective of all—"ring generalship."
The last is the first I would eliminate if I had the power: If one fighter is hitting the other fighter harder and more often (which seems to me to be the point of a fight), then no one need to consider "ring generalship." Likewise with defense: if one guy hits the other guy harder and more often, then by definition the other guy's defense isn't working. I'd also get rid of "effective aggression." What does it even mean? In baseball, they don't give you credit for swinging hard and missing; in football they don't give you credit for hitting someone hard but not bringing him down. Clearly effective aggression means one thing: hitting the other guy harder and more often.
This brings us to the only category that should be considered: clean, hard punching. Throw out all the others, and you'll find that this alone can be tough enough to evaluate. Most punches are partially blocked by the other man's gloves, elbows, and arms, and even many of the shots that get through don't land, in boxing parlance, on the button.
HBO employs CompuBox PunchStats to add up the number of jabs and "power punches," punches with some weight behind them—hooks, crosses, and upper cuts—to either the body or head. By this measure, Pacquiao was a close but decisive winner: In nine of the 12 rounds, he landed more total punches (with two of the rounds even) and in eight of the 12, he landed more power punches. That's pretty much how I saw it; I saw nothing to choose from in the first round so called it even, and had Pacquiao winning by three rounds. I'm not saying that I was swayed by the CompuBox stats, as I did not count their numbers from round to round. I simply scored it the same way they did.
Today I'm reading several old-school boxing writers who think that the CompuBox numbers should be thrown out because ... well, no one is sure exactly why, but probably because they don't want the scoring of a fight to become pro forma. In this interpretation, Marquez did land the harder punches. All I can say is that harder is in the eye of the beholder. Neither man scored a knockdown; I've now watched the fight twice, and the hardest blow Marquez landed all night, in my estimation, was his 10th round head butt. (Check out CompuBox's punch stats for the fight here).
There's a boxing adage that to take a champion's title, you have to beat him decisively. I don't agree, at least in theory. Two men get in the ring, and you score it win, loss, or draw, depending on how they perform, with no consideration for which one is the champion. In practice, though, scoring a fight is invariably something else - you want a clear winner, and Marquez, in my estimation—and also that of the official judges and HBO's Harold Lederman—was anything but a clear winner.
But seeing as how Floyd Mayweather, Jr., refuses, for reasons known only to himself, to fight Pacquiao (in what would surely be the highest-grossing pay per view fight of all time) and since Pacquiao and Marquez have now given us three thrillers, they can, as far as I'm concerned, go right on fighting until one of them scores a clear victory. And then they can fight again.