Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Everybody wants you to be just like them

While the rest of the world has moved on I’m still fixated on that explosive left. I’ve probably watched the fight two dozen times now and one starts to notice different things. For example that Pacquiao missed the exact same punch thirty seconds earlier by mere inches, landing hard on Hatton’s upper chest. For another, the sound. Not only at the moment of impact, but right before, a little grunt that Pacquiao makes as he loads up, planting his feet and swiveling his hips and exhaling just so, the sound that a man gives when he’s hard at work, straining, but in the moment.

I’ve been thinking about Angela’s post recently. What Pacquiao means to Filipino’s, they way he is of them, and conversely the ways he is foreign to us. Thinking back to my own infatuation with him I wonder how I truly saw him at the start; a potential great, or an amusing curiosity? He is different, and it’s hard to accept that.

Boxing has its’ familiar tropes; the old versus the young, the boxer versus the puncher, the physical versus the scientific, the matador versus the bull, and the boxer as extension of racial/national identity. We expect certain things from certain fighters; African American’s are athletic, slick, and cautious; Mexicans are body-punchers, destroyers, and unbreakable. Eastern Europeans are powerful, robotic, and deliberate; African’s are rough, crude, and super-tough. It’s profiling but it’s ingrained. The fans expect it and need it; it creates frameworks and narrative arcs. A fighter comes from a tradition, and that tradition turns mere tribalism into a kind of generational inheritance.

And that’s the thing about Pacquiao that made it so hard for him to reach this point; not only a superstar, an athletic hero and pugilistic curiosity, but a recognized and real-deal ring genius. We lack cultural antecedents. Excepting those from the distant past; Fighting Harada, Pancho Villa, Flash Elorde; there has been a certain kind of Asian fighter we’ve come to know recently. I’m talking about In Jin Chi, Duk Koo Kim, and the fighters we hear about in the midget divisions. They share a tradition of dour fearlessness, limited athleticism, and grim determination. Is it unfair to group a multiregional group of several billion people? Clearly it is, but boxing is all about comparisons and fantasy judgments, and it’s hard to break from the old guard.

And that’s why I feel it has been difficult for Pacquiao to get to that last step of greatness. The money is one thing, and his effervescent style and militant good-nature meant he would never have a hard time building a fan base; but hell, Ricky Hatton has legions but that didn’t get for him even the limited respect which he earned with results in the ring. The casual fan he has convinced, the ones who should know better are those he’s had the most trouble with. He simply doesn’t fit the right profile for a pound for pound king.

Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Julio Ceasar Chavez, Pernell Whitaker, Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones, Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley, Bernard Hopkins, and Floyd Mayweather. Over the past 25 years these were, for the most part, the pound for pound kings. I see two clear profiles; one is racial- black or Mexican- and the other is career paths-amateur great or long slow slog to acceptance. Pacquiao fits none of these categories, he is racially distinct and his explosive entrance to the mainstream following his first Barrera fight, wholly unexpected, didn’t follow the characteristic path. He was neither a pre-packaged superstar like Leonard, or Jones, or De La Hoya, or an underappreciated professional who could no longer be ignored, like Hopkins or Hagler.

Pacquiao burst onto the scene; deeply flawed but triumphant, like the romantic notion of the rural physicist, whom, outside the confines of the academy, uncovers a new theory, all ragged around the edges and unartful, but holding some new but deep and abiding universal truth. And the keepers of the flame snarl and scoff and point to the frays and failures, but the thing holds firm, and with work and patience and polish turns into something even more powerful and true. That was Pacquiao’s path, and I think it explains much of the hesitation. He came from outside the establishment. He broke the rules. People kept putting more and higher thresholds for him to cross and when he did it still wasn’t enough.

Much of it is the nature of things. I recently read a piece referencing thoughts of contemporary writers on Duran’s place as a lightweight. While universally recognized today as one of the three greatest ever, most experts hesitated to put him in the top ten. People are conservative, and those that know the most are often the last to see the obvious. A thing is what it is, they say.

And Pacquiao was that. All he had was the straight left and an excess of fight. They saw the leaky defense and the lunges: and in an amateur great - an ordained hero - they would have seen the potential for improvement, they would have marveled at the manifest gifts and made way for the polish of the years. True, he didn’t have the economy of motion that marked the greats, all flailing and flopping and raising of the arms as he rumbled back into the scrum. But since he popped out so unexpectedly, with no framework, there was no empathy, only conditions as he mowed down the greats. And they waited for the fall.

And many wait still, his flaws will tell. Hatton was made for him, De La Hoya was too old, and Diaz too limited. But all it is now is saving face. He might lose his next fight, they want to send him in with the lions, but he already stands atop a mountain of ordinary heroes, from where he stands there is no going back.

I exchanged emails with Graydon Gordian from the excellent Spurs blog a few weeks back. He told me that; “I have never been able to give myself over wholly to the Pac-man. Something about his personality, in particular his prolific smile, gives me pause.” That same smile which Angela found so charming, so personal and of her tradition was so foreign to him. In others a smile in the ring walk is cold, confident, intimidating. But Pacquiao’s is different, that of a child’s long awaited satisfaction, or of a simple man’s simple pleasure. I would say he had the temperament of a sociopath, the joy in battle and seemingly genuine fatalistic worldview, but I think it would be taking something from him. He is a revolutionary, but he is of something, a living worldview that I can’t place but is nonetheless profound and strong.

Usually the flash judgments and Johnny-Walker wisdom are deeply flawed, but Pacquiao is the exception. He’s a different special something, one that fades and is obscured by close analysis, easy to pick apart and dismiss; but that’s the difference between science and inspiration, or at least it’s the distance that connects them. There are times to look away from the telescope and at the stars. That’s Pacquiao.


Mark said...

Interesting and thought provoking post as always, keep it up.
Still in the afterglow of Lebron's heroics tonight, it brought to mind the contrast between Bron's reaction of utter jubilation and fulfillment and Kobe's game winner against the Suns with the MJ fist pump and stare at no one in particular. I don't want to push the comparison too far right now, but I think Bron and Pac (albeit for a bevy of different reasons) share at least the problem of to whom are we supposed to/inclined to compare them.
Part of Manny's (or at least his interpreter's) problem, as Angela's previous post touches upon, is rooted in the general difficulty of Filipino positionality. You're right that he complicates the East Asian, Duk Koo Kim "Live or Die" mythos, which also doesn't exactly line up neatly with his cigarette selling, "my dog got eaten by dad's friend cuz times are hard on the boulevard all the time for many in the Philippines" (paraphrasing) aspect of his narrative. I wonder how much currency the Cinderella Man/Rocky (itself already a racialized, working class white trope) ethos still carries in the sport, or maybe it just doesn't apply at the echelon of fighters Manny currently occupies.
I agree that Manny's career arc makes it difficult to interpret his pound for pound status, and I still have this uneasy feeling that he gets the #1 ranking from many writers and talking heads by default, since especially at this point, he has no one left but Mayweather and Marquez (definitively, unlike the first 2 meetings).
I actually started following his career, (and contemporary boxing in general) after seeing commercials for the first Morales rematch when I was visiting home from college and watching TFC (The Filipino Channel) at my parents' house. After a lot of Youtube and having to watch fights streaming online I found myself still nervous at the beginning of the Hatton fight when he had Manny against the ropes, just as I spent most of the De La Hoya fight waiting for that Golden left hook equalizer, and the same with waiting for the decision to go against him in the Marquez rematch. I was forced to watch Lebron's game winner tonight online, and while I cheer for him as an individual, I wouldn't be as distraught if he were to lose a game, series, or even Finals, compared to the despair I believe I'd feel should Manny's fire finally consume it's own intensity. (I have been spoiled and set up for disappointment by not having seen him lose a fight live.) While my insider status as a Filipino-American influences my reading of Pacquiao, to see (project, perhaps?) the humility and the workmanlike efficiency behind the ring chaos and relate to him in a personal manner, it still doesn't allow me to place Emmanuel Pacquiao, professional pugilist, in a distinct and neat archetype.

WV: hoter, (how appropriate)

shoefly said...

Thanks for the terrific comment, Mark.

I was talking with a friend after the Lebron game, and the connection I made was their games are easy to pick apart. Lebron has that drift on his jump shot, slightly off balance, that makes a Rick Barry cringe, he's not the textbook. Manny is much the same, often off balance, but there is something more there that is so obvious the wise can't see. It's one thing to know the right thing to do and how to act against it, it's something entirely different to know something is coming and not be able to stop it. It is true power, and people who place their vegetables into neat corners of their plate don't like it.

I also should have used this before or saved it for a post, but Manny's other problem is he doesn't have a division. When you rank him, which class is he in? All the other greats, even the weight jumpers, had a defining class. What is Manny, a generic featherweight? That doesn't feel right, and it makes him hard to fix.