About a minute into the second round of Saturday’s welterweight megafight, Manny Pacquiao leaned against the ropes and let Miguel Angel Cotto hit him. It went against everything he had been taught in his storied career, and his cornermen were furious. Cotto is a concussive slugger from Puerto Rico, and a few of the blows hit Pacquiao, a cultural icon in Asia, square in the chin. “Just testing his power,” Pacquiao would say later.
As it turned out, the blows didn’t faze Pacquiao, a 144-pounder. Soon the PacMan, as he is called, slipped away from Cotto and started to brutalize the man. He put the Puerto Rican on the canvas twice. For most of the bout, Cotto’s face was a bloody, bloated mess, and his white trunks were stained red from his own blood. Pacquiao is so fast that he can dive into a fighter’s punching range, deliver a head-snapping blow, and then dart outside again. It is beautiful to behold. Pacquiao’s artistry in the ring is being compared to Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. He is the best fighter of his generation, maybe ever.
I, along with two-thirds of Asia, had been fantasizing about this moment for months, and as I sat ringside, and watched Pacquiao in the ring, it felt like the sport mattered again.
My journey to the fight began two years ago. I was chatting with Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s trainer. We were in his gym, which was once an anonymous Hollywood rat hole but lately has become a hip place for celebrities and the thousands of Pacquiao fans who linger outside to catch a glimpse of their demigod. Roach’s eyes lit up when he told me about Pacquiao, “the most exciting fighter in the world today.” Roach, who suffers from Parkinson’s, is the world’s best trainer and a person to trust. So I started studying the Filipino boxer.
Since the American media gave up on boxing long ago, I followed Pacquiao through the Filipino papers, and on televised bouts. His skills in vanquishing the boxing stars Oscar De La Hoya (who received such a beating that he retired) and Ricky Hatton (who was dropped cold by a devastating Pacquiao punch) were astounding works of pugilism. Pacquiao, 5-foot-6, has gained 40 pounds since the start of his boxing career, but even as he put on the weight he was able to flummox two of the sports brightest stars with his speed and engineered power. Boxing historians, or what’s left of them, were astounded that Pacquiao could win six different weight classes. The fight against Cotto, the reigning welterweight champ, would give Pacquiao a chance at an unprecedented seventh belt.
I had been wanting to see Pacquiao live. Watching a fighter in person, instead of just on television, can give a sense of the fighter’s speed and a feel for the weight of the punches. In press row you can hear the gloves strike the flesh, which usually sounds like push-push-push. I have been to fights, even championship ones, but I have never seen such fist speed coupled with such power. Pacquiao's punches are still resonating in my ears.
Before the main event, I sat down in the press row and took in the undercard. There were a lot of media people, as usual, mostly from overseas. I talked with Larry Merchant, the HBO analyst, who had sent a contentious letter a couple weeks earlier to Tom Jolly of the New York Times complaining about the paper’s lack of boxing coverage. Jolly had countered that the sport is disorganized and not important. I find boxing’s disorganization and corruption rather entertaining and intriguing; it is an antidote to the corporatization of American sports—tightly controlled entities that relentlessly and neatly package their athletes, stories, games, and merchandise.
The undercard was tedious, except that Yuri Foreman, a Brooklynite from Israel who is known as the Fighting Rabbi, had won his match and was now the WBA Superwelter Weight champion. “I want to thank God for giving me strength, we are tough people in Israel, and my Arab friends were sending me messages on Facebook saying that they were praying for me to Allah,” said Foreman. Soon the crowd started chanting, and Miguel Cotto and his entourage approached the ring. Cotto was a 3-to-1 underdog but he looked confident and very serious. Cotto had only lost one fight, 16 months ago, a controversial one to Antonio Margarito, who many suspect had put an illegal, hard substance in his gloves. "I am pretty recovered from the Margarito defeat," Cotto, 28, had told an interviewer before the fight.
Then it was Pacquiao’s turn to make the ritual entrance. Behind him was Freddie Roach, shaking from his Parkinson’s tremors, caused by his own journeyman boxing career. Pacquiao looked relaxed and in shape. It was mid-afternoon in the Philippines, and I was sure the entire country was glued to the TV. Many Filipinos, including the vice president, had made the trip to Vegas because Pacquiao represents so much them. He was abandoned by his father (a man who ate the family dog) and then he left home at 14 to help support his family. He sold snacks and trinkets on the streets. He once lived in a cardboard box. He boxed his way to fame and fortune with fights in his homeland and abroad. (His father was somewhere in the arena tonight, watching his son for the first time.) Said a Filipino sportswriter, “We are having hard times in our country. There is terrorism. There is poverty. There are kidnappings every day. We find solace in Manny Pacquiao.” There is even talk of him running for congress. In a country with thousands of different dialects and ethnic groups, Filipinos see him as a unifier.
The judges gave the first round to Cotto. But Pacquiao started letting loose in the second. “He hit harder than we expected and he was stronger than we expected,” said Cotto’s trainer, Joe Santiago. Pacquiao knocked down Cotto once in the third and again in the fourth. Pacquiao’s punches came from different angles: straight lefts, hooks, undercuts, combinations. MANNY! MANNY! As the fight wore on, Cotto started backpedaling. MANNY! MANNY! Pacquiao would repeatedly strike Cotto’s once handsome face, which was puffy with blood streaming everywhere. He looked dead-eyed and morose, but he refused to quit. For some reason or other, it made me sad to watch him. “If I was in his corner, I would have thrown in the towel in the ninth round,” Roach told me after the fight. “They should have had compassion for him.”
In the 12th round, 55 seconds in, the referee called the fight a TKO. Before being rushed to the hospital, Cotto stopped to console his mother, who was weeping in his corner.
Pacquiao’s team held him in the air. Pacquiao smiled, winked, and talked about his gratitude to his fans, and how he would be singing at a concert that night at the Mandalay Bay. Most of the post-fight talk centered on Pacquiao’s next potential match, a fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr., a bombastic, unbeaten American, which could be one of the biggest fight’s of all time, if it can be arranged. For now, Pacquiao will return to the Philippines to spend time with his family, and boxing will wait for his encore.