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.