Monday, May 25, 2009

Too Much

I’ll move on eventually, but I still have more to say. Check out the last post on Pacquiao if you didn’t already, I think it’s my best piece so far. I promised a friend I’d do a close reading of the fight and though it’s late I’m going to go through with it. Here is a poor link to the fight if you want to follow along, you can probably find better. I’ll be using the time stamp from the HBO counter.

1st round

3:00-2:45: First thing we see is the size. Pacquiao may be smaller in the upper body, but he doesn’t seem disadvantaged otherwise. Next, Hatton’s clumsy footwork as opposed to Manny’s superfast darting balance. Against a normal fighter Hatton is faster and finds it relatively easy to close distance, in the first few seconds one can already see that’s not so.

2:30 The first landed blow is a sneaky right hook. Hatton comes forward with a tepid jab, looking to apply pressure, but Manny’s timing and precision shows immediately. We could almost stop here, as this first blow is basically the story of the fight. Hatton and Mayweather Sr. knew this punch was coming, had made fun of it on 24/7, but there was nothing he could do about it. If you look at 5:34 they talk about the move, prepare for it, but were instantly unable to respond. There has been a lot of revisionist history since the fight, blaming Hatton for leaving himself unprotected as he lunged in, but it’s the story of his career. Against most fighters he is fast enough to close the distance, against Pacquiao he was crushed every time. It's not that he didn't do this right, or he made that mistake, it's that Ricky Hatton just isn't as good at boxing as Manny Pacquiao.

2:10 After a few seconds of trying to mug Pacquiao on the inside, the fighters gain separation. Hatton is again forced to wade through Pacquiao’s punching zone and eats another solid right hook. A good fighter will be able to time shots like this a few times a fight. Lazcano landed a good one on Hatton in their fight. Malignaggi landed a couple. Pacquiao landed two in the first fifty seconds. Not with full power, but with incredible accuracy.

1:55 Here we see where Hatton is really doomed. He had just managed to slip the Pacquiao right for the first time, and at center ring throws his first earnest right at distance, but Pacquiao easily slips the punch and lands his first left hand. I think Hatton felt okay, as though he could eat the right, but that first left was thrown with force. The difference in speed, accuracy, and class is already clear. Hatton is a fast fighter, but he looks in poor shape already. He can’t close the distance safely, and at range his inferior handspeed and amateurish form gives him no chance.

1:46 Hatton manages to slip a left, but Pacquiao again lands the right hook at half speed and ducks away.

1:30 Pacquiao lands another right hook, and this one he has thrown for keeps. It is a perfect shot, comes from underneath, and Hatton goes stiff legged. Lampley misses it, calling a Hatton shot, but you can hear the sound of the impact. When watching it live I was already jumping up and down screaming. I truly felt the fight was over. Hatton has a very particular way of looking hurt. He stands upright and lurches with stiff, tin-man movements. Floyd had him this way multiple time before he put him down, Manny is not so merciful.

1:00 Again we see Hatton’s problem. Taking some time to regather himself he waits at distance, throwing a few jabs and exhibiting his version of “boxing.” This is what Teddy Atlas claims he should have done from the beginning, but it was really no sort of option. Manny easily manages to slip everything that Hatton throws at distance and lands two straight lefts before Hatton can even manage to raise his hands. In the David Diaz fight we saw much the same predicament, but while Diaz was slower, he managed to last with his high guard. Though marginally quicker, Hatton could in no way slip the straight left at distance. Floyd managed to nail him with dozens of his equivalent straight rights, but he didn’t throw with the same conviction and power that Manny did.

:56 The knockdown. Pacquiao throws the same right hook he had landed three times before, but Hatton, already buzzed from the previous straight lefts crumples to the floor. It’s a beautiful rhythm shot, perfectly balanced and thrown while dodging the counter. Again, people claim that Hatton did something wrong, which is true, but ultimately meaningless. This is the way he fights. It is flawed, but works against even very good fighters. Only a special few have the ability to take advantage of it. Tszyu, Castillo, Urango, Collazo, Malignaggi; they could all see the opening, and they could even find it occasionally, but not the way Pacquiao did. Floyd Mayweather waited the whole fight for the left hook; in fact he landed the exact blow in the exact spot in the ring in the 8th round of his fight against Hatton, two rounds before he achieved the knockdown. He had what it takes to execute. The flaw is much easier to see when someone with speed, force, and accuracy is able to lay it bare.
Manny Pacquiao Drops Rick Hatton in First Round

:26 Hatton tries to regain his composure, but there is nowhere for him to go. He can’t risk taking the lunge to get inside, and at distance Pac’s handspeed is almost comical. Hatton careens into the ropes, a look of pure haplessness on his face.

:08 Pacquiao scores the second knockdown on a straight left that connects through the glove to Hatton’s face. The only question after the first knockdown was if he could last the round, and he does an admirable job of taking a few punches, slipping a few, and is ultimately fortunate he goes down here. If he had managed to stay up a few more seconds Pac likely would have scored the killing blow. As the bell rings he tries for one more right hook but it comes up short.
Manny Pacquiao vs. Rick Hatton Second Knockdown

Round 2:

2:37 Hatton comes out aggressively and Pacquiao responds in kind. He seems to be pressing a little bit. At 2:37 he loads up on a huge left that overshoots the target and opens himself to a ragged counter shot by Hatton. He wanted to end it with this shot but started from a little too far away. This is the same shot that he uses later to finish the fight. He threw it with full force, but mistimed it slightly.

2:31 Pac throws a 1-2, the jab followed by the straight left. This is his money combination, the one that he used to wipe out Barrera and batter Marquez. It lands flush on Hatton’s nose. It’s the first time in the fight he leads with it, and it’s still as effective as ever.

1:45 Pacquiao throws a hard and brutal combination, a left uppercut beneath the ribcage and then a straight left to the face that partially lands. Hatton almost seemed as if he was getting back into the fight, but the way he immediately drops his right hand to cover up his side shows that the shot hurt him. Manny’s body punching has gotten much better over the years. Though he didn’t land many here, this one was a good one.

1:03 This is an important moment. Pacquiao again throws that supercharged overhand left, and this time he gets even closer. Manny throws it with full power and it lands on Hatton’s upper chest. It is the exact same sequence as the final blow. Hatton lunges with a weak jab to close the distance and Pacquiao slings it like a baseball pitch, just a few inches too low. You can hear the loud smack as Manny’s fist hits the collarbone. The first one at the beginning of the round missed by a good distance, this one was closer, it’s like he’s honing in, timing the target. One gets the feeling he could have more easily continued landing the right hook, but he knows there is little danger, and the more powerful left will end the show.

:33 Manny throws another left to the body, left to the head combination that badly wobbles Hatton. He is throwing with full power, no fear. He seems to want to end it in one shot, not the lighter, quicker combination punching he used to force the stoppage against De La Hoya.

:08 The knockout. Not much description needed. It was the same moment as 1:03. Hatton tries to jab his way in, in fact does land the jab, but he can’t close the distance and Manny connects with full power. Hatton drops his right hand, a silly mistake, but again, one that he always makes. Manny seemed to use those two earlier misses as measuring shots, coming closer and closer before he finally timed it right. This was no lucky shot. It was thrown with full force and bad intentions. You can hear Manny grunt as he throws it, the only time he did so the whole fight. It’s an amazing shot, the kind one dreams about.

Manny Pacquiao Knockouts Rick Hatton

People view Pacquiao as a kind of naïf, but nothing about this performance was thoughtless, he enacted a game plan with brutal and scientific efficiency. It reminded me of the Floyd Mayweather fight with Phillip Ndou. In that match Roger Mayweather told Floyd on the ringwalk that Ndou was open to the pull-counter, meaning a drawing back to avoid the jab followed by a counter right hand. Mayweather proceeded to execute the move with frightening precision. It’s one thing to see the flaw, to know the opening, it’s quite another to be able to make it flesh.

What does this tell us about future fights? There will obviously be time for this later, but in my mind Manny has two potential opponents. If Cotto beats Clottey next month the fight is possible, as they are both represented by Arum. Cotto was the one big welter I always thought Manny could beat, because he’s not huge, and he’s somewhat fragile. While we can save a closer analysis for this later, take a look at what happened the last time Cotto fought a left handed 140 pounder. This is poor quality, but check out the punch that lands at the 4:55 mark.

Yes, Cotto has clearly improved, but that punch sure looks familiar.

And the other fight, obviously, is Floyd Money Mayweather Jr. It’s almost too big to talk about yet, like cancer or all you can eat bananas. A year ago I wouldn’t have believed it, but who’s to say Pacquiao couldn’t do it. Look at this.

And this, at 1:05.

Another blatantly unfair video. I’m picking out a couple of moments over the course of a career, incidental contacts in rounds that Floyd probably didn’t even lose. I could find dozens where Manny was similarly vulnerable. And yet, a man that can execute with such precision… who’s to say it’s not possible? All it takes is a fist, in motion, at a specific point and time in a specific spot, and you have… word made flesh.

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.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The National Fist

Today marks our first ever guest post at Boxiana. I'd like to profoundly thank Angela Garbes for her first-person account of the Pacquiao-Hatton fight. Check out her blog.

A week after the Pacquiao-Hatton fight, there are two things I can’t get out of my head.

First, a nagging chorus, thousands of British voices strong, singing—over and over—their Ricky Hatton cheer, to the tune of Winter Wonderland: “There’s only ooone Ricky Hatton! There’s only ooone Ricky Hatton! We’re walking along, singing a song, walking in a Hatton Wonderland!” It’s a persistent, beer-soaked, insipid song; it bullies its way into the brain and hangs around.

Then there is the smile of Manny Pacquiao—joyful, ear-to-ear wide and almost goofy, accentuating his flat, bridgeless nose, so irrepressible as to appear childlike, so natural it’s infectious. For a boxer, expected to appear stone-faced, stoic—purposefully intimidating, as Hatton surely did—Pacquiao’s smile is surprising, unnerving. Powerful.

It’s Pacquiao’s smile that actually matters, exposing that Christmas carol-cum-fight song as mere distraction, and promptly dismissing it from my mind.

The Pacquiao-Hatton fight was, without a doubt, the most exciting, passionate, and awesome sporting event of my life. The feeling remains in my bones long after the vibration and deafening ring of 16,000 screaming spectators has passed through me. Unsurprisingly, it was sensory overload. There was a constant barrage of improbable sights: a punch thrown so hard during an under card bout that it sent a mouth guard flying; the strange thrill of being able to spot Jack Nicholson in his ringside seat from far away; women in Lucite heels and gold glittered bikinis parading around with giant signs at the end of every round; sitting next to my uncle Xerxes, who had traveled all the way from Philippines to see this fight with his son, Xerxes Jr., whom he had not seen in six years; a little brown man knocking a bigger white man unconscious as though it was the easiest thing in the world.

* * *

I’ve always joked that Filipinos are the Rodney Dangerfield of the Asian world. Filipinos far outnumber Thai people in the United States, yet how many Filipino restaurants can you think of off the top of your head? Compared to other Asian countries, Filipino culture is not widely known. Filipinos are happy, hospitable people who love to eat, dance, and sing. The cuisine and way of life are not admired or celebrated the way, say, Japanese and Chinese are. Looking back, five hundred years of Spanish colonial rule left the Philippines without their native religion, the only Catholic country in all of Asia. And though the U.S. preferred to call it a “territory” rather than a “colony,” the Philippines spent the first half of the 20th century under American rule. People remember Imelda Marcos and her 3,400 shoes, but ask them to name another famous Filipino, and most come up short.

No respect. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t fierce pride.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Manny Pacquiao is a national hero, an icon. When PacMan fights, the Philippine Army call a truce with both the communist New People's Army and the Muslim insurgents in the south so that everyone can tune in. The Philippines is a poor country—40 percent of the population lives in abject poverty, and the economy depends heavily on the billions of dollars sent home annually by the millions of Filipinos working abroad. Anyone who’s watched the HBO 24/7 Pacquiao-Hatton is familiar with Pacquiao’s improbable rise to glory and wealth: he began working as a young boy, selling donuts on the streets of one of the poorest, most violent cities, General Santos, living in a dirt floor shack. There are no platitudes here: Pacquiao is a unifying figure, carrying the hopes and dreams of the Filipino people on his shoulders. What’s most striking is that Pacquiao is more than willing to take this on.

“All I’m trying to do is give happiness and joy to the people,” Manny has said. And after he destroys his opponents, Pacquiao says simply, “Nothing personal for me. Just doing my job.” You get the feeling he actually means it.

Consider Pacquiao’s nicknames. He is known as both “The People’s Champion” and, even better, “The National Fist.” When Pacquiao emerged from the locker room and made his way down the tunnel to the ring last week, shrouded in a Philippine-flag robe, all the while looking loose and excited, unable to stop himself from breaking into the occasional smile, he did so to the tune of “Lahing Pinoy” (translation: “The Filipino Race”), a rallying cry in the guise of a pop song whose opening line calls for the Filipino flag to be raised high, then instructs its listeners to shout to the world, “Filipino! Filipino! My race is Filipino!”

Now consider this: The singer of the song is Manny Pacquiao himself.

In true celebrity fashion, Pacquiao is dabbling in a singing career and has released a few singles in the Philippines. His best-known song is “Para Sa Yo Ang Laban Na To,” which translates to “This Fight’s For You.” The song, far from subtle, yet gently and reassuringly crooned, promises that Pacquiao will never surrender: “Even my life I will risk for you / I will protect you with my hands / This is the only plan I can think of / So that there will be unity among my fellow Filipino.”

* * *
Pacquiao not only represents the hopes of millions of people in the Philippines, but also millions of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans in the United States. Filipinos in the States are used to the idea that we can succeed, but what we’re not used to seeing is someone who actually looks like us succeed on such a high level. In America, the list of well-known Filipinos (mostly mixed race entertainers) stirs little excitement: Kirk Hammet from Metallica, that one guy from the Black Eyed Peas, Arnel Pineda, the guy who became the new lead singer for Journey via a reality television show, and rumored fractional Filipinos Dean Cain and Rob Schneider. But in Pacquiao, we have a rare thing: a Filipino athlete, a role model, someone who is the best in the world at what he does—someone that Jay-Z, Jack Nicholson, and New York Giant star Brandon Jacobs will pay thousands of dollars to see. A real deal celebrity.

But Pacquiao’s smile betrays him. When he flashes it, he seems as familiar to all Filipinos as an uncle or cousin. In the same way that I occasionally forget that I don’t actually know Barack Obama and have never had a conversation with him about basketball, it’s easy for me to feel like I know Manny Pacquiao, that I may have sung karaoke with him at a second cousin’s baby’s Christening party. It was barely a surprise to me when the young man in a Team Pacquiao windbreaker sitting next me on my return flight from Vegas to Seattle told me that he knew Manny. And that Manny had generously purchased fifteen tickets so he and his family could watch the fight together. And that while training in LA, Manny, despite his millions, lives in a small, crowded three bedroom apartment with ten other men, one of whom, Buboy, cooks all the food for them.

There is something wildly humble and down-to-earth about Pacquiao. ESPN boxing columnist Dan Rafael wrote about his experience watching a DVD of the Pacquio-Hatton fight with a gracious Pacquiao in his hotel room the day after. Pacquiao had not yet seen the fight, watching intently while working his way through a plate of steak and white rice. When the knockout punch was thrown, Pacquiao instinctually put down his fork and made the sign of the cross, praying that Hatton was ok, even though he knew Hatton was fine. This is no doubt exactly what countless old Filipino ladies watching the night before did.

Last week I came across this video of Pacquiao unwinding with this friends after a day of training. The two-and-a-half minute video is silly and mundane—Manny plays guitar and his friends lip synch and dance to a Filipino singer’s verision of “Lonely Teardrops.” A lamp goes out; the camera man is giggling the entire time; a paunchy man uses a banana as a microphone. But it brought a smile as wide as Manny’s to my face because, as any Filipino could tell you, this scene is likely to occur at any Filipino gathering, anytime, anywhere.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

And Then There Were None

Forgive my tardiness, but I was still trying to come to grips with the phantasm of last week, it seemed to linger longer because it was so short, so definitive and exact and rote. The meanings and readings of the impact more difficult and fixed, like the atom bomb versus the before the flood.

But that’s for later (including tomorrow, when we’ll have our first guest post!), when I plan to do a more precise blow by blow of the destruction, and a look ahead to the possibilities; the elements of combustion deserve both respect and distance, and the left that Pacquiao landed had to cloud the mind of anyone who saw it to an extent that it’s worthwhile to clear the air.

And that happened on Saturday, with an event as somber and emotionless as last week was outsized and apocalyptic. Nobody was particularly interested in watching Chad Dawson and Antonio Tarver fight the first time, and in the interest of full disclosure I didn’t watch the fight live, nor all the way through when I finally did. It was boring and uninspiring, and the only reason this fight even happened was the rematch clause Tarver invoked, one that he probably wouldn’t have if there were any other choice.

And the fight went roughly as expected, a virtual mirror of the first, with perhaps a few more moments by Tarver and conversely more vulnerabilities by Dawson. It was no surprise, and the only reason this fight happened on HBO is they are looking for a new hope, an American to follow in the middleweight to Light heavyweight divisions now that we know Jermain Taylor isn’t the one, Hopkins is too old and hard to deal with, and Kelly Pavlik doesn’t seem interested in fighting anyone of note following his rude education.

We’ll see what happens with Dawson. He has the fast hands, excellent technique, and left-handed rigmarole that seem to mark him not just as a belt-holder, but maybe someday a real champion. So now Dawson is the future, the new order they tell us, and they very well might be right. Two clear wins over Tarver, Thomas Adamek, and a debatable but formative decision over Glen Johnson are excellent for a fighter still coming into his own. Very few can match those accomplishments, and they should be appreciated and recognized, but for me there is something missing, and not just fans and excitement as HBO announcer Max Kellerman tries to tell us.

I think he’s missing the stakes. He seems to treat boxing like a sport or a game, and I feel that will always come back to haunt you. And by that I don’t mean only that he lacks killer instinct, though that’s part of it, but he also seems to lack disdain, repugnance for his opponent, and joy in the task at hand. Floyd Mayweather lacks killer instinct, but he rightly looks at boxing as an exercise in dominion. I don’t see it in Dawson yet, more the gentleman boxer role left open by the departure of (forgive the racializing, I mean for that to come later) Jermain Taylor. Perhaps I’m unfairly marking his bland personality on his fighting style, but I believe that, as in most cases, they are the same.

Some people are agitating for him to take on Bernard Hopkins next, and while I think it would be a waste for Hopkins; both too dangerous and too much of a non-event for a fighter who should only go for cash and glory at this point, I wonder if it might not be what Dawson needs. In many ways I feel Hopkins ended the possibilities for both Taylor and Pavlik, or at least limited and made clear what they are. Hopkins is the exact opposite of how I described Dawson; marginal physical tools mixed with all stakes, with all purpose and meaning and dominion and dark will. A fighting (forgive the dorkiness) gom jabbar; after that we’d know if Dawson was the new king. It won’t happen, I hope not, but if it did I think Dawson would finally receive an education in what it is to be a prizefighter.

But now I’ve nattered on for too long, and won’t give the person I meant to write about the respect he deserves. They say old politicians and prostitutes eventually become respectable, and I feel the same about old boxers. I’ve never particularly liked Antonio Tarver, like Dawson I felt he didn’t really take it all that personal, like he was playing a role in the ring. The only time it seemed serious was against Roy Jones, his white whale, whom he finally, after years at sea, harpooned through the chest with a blind left hand in the second round of their second fight.

And maybe that was part of my dissatisfaction with him. He wasn’t big enough to bring down the ring legend, he felt like an accidental hero. Roy Jones wasn’t supposed to lose to the likes of Tarver, he didn’t seem the man for the job. He lost the first fight against Roy by sheer caution, it was his to win and he let it go. Tarver had been hunting him for years, but when he had him, alone and vulnerable, he didn’t get his man. It took that second fight for him to step into his future, and after we’d seen Roy so weak and vulnerable in the first match it seemed to lack the impact and was more depressing than inspiring.

There was also his personality. A whinging, parodic yearning for respect that he seemed to feel was owed rather than bought in the ring. While brash black fighters are invariably my favorites: James Toney, Bernard Hopkins, Floyd Mayweather: Tarver’s clownish stretching of the role seemed insulting. It was an expanded, cartoonish act that descended to vaudevillian parody, so silly that he actually had to tone it down when he played Rocky’s opponent in the last movie. Like the Chappelle Show skit about racial pixies that led to his resignation, Tarver’s outsized humorless routine was more disturbing than entertaining.

But like all those who work for their pay age and loss leads to respectability. I couldn’t help but root for him Saturday night as he tried his best to figure out a way to beat the faster man. Tarver was always limited and cautious, slow but powerful. He used to have a move where he would tap with punches at one speed and then explode with a hard fast one. He still did it on Saturday, but the two levels he had were painfully slow and just slow. But there was determination and serious mindedness, as though at the last he finally realized it meant something.

It ultimately did mean something for him, and for me, and somber defeat can wipe clean many ungracious victories. I won’t think of him that often. Tarver ultimately wasn’t the right man for the task appointed him, the legend killer, but in the end he was a man, and that’s more than most can say.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Tell it to the Judge

Well, after all that what is there really left to say? That wasn't supposed to happen. The mind starts to search for context, but it’s hard to find antecedents for someone moving up in weight against a fine champion and scoring a second round knockout. And not just a second round knockout, but the type of brutal, uncomfortable KO which, if it had been scored by a prospect on Friday Night Fights, would follow that fighter for the rest of his career. “That guy is a puncher!” “I saw him ‘bout kill a man with a left hand once.”

But that’s not supposed to happen against the elites, on the biggest stage, so far above the featherweight limit where Manny Pacquiao made his bones as a one-handed wrecking machine. It’s just not supposed to happen.

This is a makeshift list of the other great weight jumpers and how they won their final belt.

6 Belts:

Oscar De La Hoya UD 12 Felix Sturm: Oscar moves up to middleweight to set up the huge fight against true middleweight champion, Bernard Hopkins. He encounters the limited Sturm and, looking fat and unmotivated, receives a dubious decision that even he seems unconvinced by. This is for the least respected and only recently recognized WBO belt. Oscar is promptly knocked out in his next fight against Bernard Hopkins.

5 Belts:

Ray Leonard KO 9 Danny Lalonde: In a farce of a fight Leonard makes Lalonde come down from the Light Heavyweight class to Super-Middleweight to fight for a vacant belt. In addition to the vacant Super-Middleweight title, Lalonde’s light heavyweight belt is on the line, marking, I believe, the first and only time anyone has won belts in two different weight classes in the same fight,. Only the media darling Leonard could have gotten away with this silliness. Leonard scores a great knockout against the extremely limited Lalonde, but the circumstances of the fight, and the opponent, are very dubious.

Thomas Hearns UD 12 Virgil Hill: A fine performance from the great Hearns wins him the light heavyweight title in a close, competitive fight. Virgil Hill was a great fighter, and this was a terrific performance by Hearns, but even the preternaturally powerful Hearns, in my opinion one of the top five punchers of all-time, couldn’t dent Hill in his fifth division.

Floyd Mayweather SD 12 Oscar De La Hoya: Floyd does well in winning the junior-middleweight belt. By no means should this have been a split decision, but it was a competitive fight, with Floyd using his superior handspeed to peck his way to victory.

4 Belts:

Roberto Duran SD 12 Iran Barkley: The legendary Duran was 38 when he won the middleweight belt from the limited but born tough Iran “the blade” Barkley. In one of the finest achievements of his great career Duran scored a late knockdown to edge the fight on the cards.

Pernell Whitaker UD 12 Julio Cesar Vasquez: Whitaker, the defensive genius, moves up to Junior Middleweight and takes the belt from Vasquez, a decent but uninspiring champion. Whitaker looks tiny and is forced to be extremely defensive in an ugly, scraping fight.

Roy Jones UD 12 John Ruiz: Jones moves to heavyweight and cautiously picks his way to a clear decision win. Though a great achievement, Ruiz is widely regarded as one of the worst belt holders in heavyweight history.

Now, the caveat must be made that there are more divisions now, and more belts. Who knows how many Henry Armstrong or Ray Robinson could have if given the same opportunities.

But even still, what Pacquiao just did is historically unprecedented. Not merely winning a belt in his 6th weight class, not only becoming the first man to win the legitimate title in four weight classes, but to do it against a highly respected Ring champion, and to do it like this; it is almost unspeakable. Most on the preceding greats were nearing the end of their careers, looking to pick up a strap in the easiest manner possible, and finding even that a struggle. Manny just ripped through a pound for pound fighter as though he was a prospect. It was the finest performance in a career filled with them. It was a goddamned ritual beating, it was a bloodletting, it was Manny Pacquiao, the guy I first saw at SUPER-BANTAMWEIGHT what done the deed, your honor, I seen it with my own two eyes. My goodness but it’s a marvel.

The urge comes to dismiss Hatton, especially as he lays quivering and lifeless on the canvas. He was overrated, he was hype, he fought the wrong fight, his face first style was made for Pacquiao. True, but bullshit. Hatton is a fine fighting champion, he earned what he got; Pacquiao is just better. De La Hoya was past his prime, he was weight drained; true but bullshit, Pacquiao made it happen. There is nothing like him.

He’s at the height of his powers, a terrible thing. A laughing assassin. I love one-sided performances, have watched the Diaz masterpiece and the De La Hoya fight many times, but this bout is hard to watch again. It seems to burn the eyes. That left hand looked like it might have killed him. Accuracy and power like that do not belong together.

Manny Pacquiao KTFO Ricky Hatton

And I think that may be why some seemed to doubt him, and perhaps still do. He is a contradictory package. A left-hander that aggressive? Not supposed to be. A happy warrior so destructive? No, that’s for the brooding killers, the Duran’s and Chavez’s. An athlete so physically unique and spectacular? That’s for the black fighters.

We have a framework in which to place Mayweather, Roy Jones, and Julio Ceasar Chavez; with Pacquiao it feels like we are flying blind.

Boxing is about context, more than any sport history interacts with the present, so when we see something special and unique and wholly separate it takes a long time, sometimes years or decades, to appreciate it. I liken it to debating superheroes' superpowers. New heroes rise up, but it always seem natural that those from our childhood and prehistory are the ones who stand unvanquished.

Normally I would feel a little guilty for selling a fight so hard only to see it end an uncompetitive show, a queasy reminder of the brutality of the sport; as one contestant lay prone, wracked by spasms, his eyes dead to the world. It’s an amazing and impossible thing to turn a prime physical specimen, honed to his limit, so quickly into an insentient heap with ones' fists. It’s amazing and troubling and barbaric and I should feel a little bad; but really I don’t. Everyone who watched that fight will remember it, they’ll remember that they saw a warrior king at his apex, a rare glimpse of greatness in real time; like a volcanic eruption or earthquake or something equally awesome and powerful.

There will be much talk of where Manny is going, and who knows if he will ever get any further, any higher than this, but really it does not even matter all that much. He has already arrived.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Touch the sun: Or revelations twice

I had a suspicion this would be Manny's masterpiece, the type of performance to end all the speculation and reveal to the doubters that special grace that comes so rarely in life. But still, not this, not this way.

Some revelations are hidden even from the devout. As always I am humbled to see someone reach the limits. The palm at the end of the mind, beyond the last thought.

It happened, the ascension.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Before the plunge

I'm excited and having a little trouble sleeping. For my full preview/prediction, click here, also some terrific stuff in the comments. Some final thoughts on the day of the big event:

• Don’t know if this is a good sign or not, but seeing the Big Dog with the Pacman makes me feel good inside.

• Been having some discussion of making weight in the comments section and this picture of Hatton, looking extremely gaunt, is a fine example of the way the weigh in process is used. You can just see how drained Hatton is, his sallow skin almost the shade of death here. He’s a pro, came in right at 140, and should be fine, but I bet he has already put on ten pounds in liquid tonight. I could be wrong but I don’t see him having all that many more fights at 140. Manny weighed in at 138. They look the same size here, but I expect Hatton’s upper body to be noticeably larger than Pac’s come fight night. Manny seems to keep all his weight in those legs.

• Something I meant to talk more about was what impact Manny’s southpaw stance will have on the fight; here is my amateur technical analysis. The general consensus is that, because of the angle of the bodies, an orthodox fighter’s left jab is less useful and the straight right becomes the best punch (this is why Bernard Hopkins is always so successful against them). Hatton has often struggled with left-handers, and I think the primary reason is that he has probably the weakest straight right of any elite level boxer in the world today. He hurt Malignaggi with one in his last fight, but even that was thrown with poor form, landing not on the knuckles but with a downward clubbing slap. He throws it almost like a basebal,l and is going to have a hard time catching the elusive Pacquiao. Though Hatton can hook and uppercut with the right once he gets inside, the poor form will give Pacquiao a huge advantage.

Now, this assumes that Pacquiao stays conservative and doesn’t square his body as he used to do earlier in his career. If he gets overly aggressive and squares up to throw combinations, the jab and left hook to the body, Hatton’s best punch, will come into play. In my mind's eye, though, I keep seeing Hatton lunging in with the left as Pacquaio steps to the side and lands one of his short, blind lefts directly on the point of the chin to hurt Hatton. The question is will Hatton be able to handle it, or will he get rocked and stopped? I’m leaning toward a stoppage.

• I made a couple references to this before, but I’ve always loved this footage of Manny shadowboxing from a few years ago. Only Mayweather Jr’s jump rope routine compares.

• Speaking of Floyd Mayweather Jr. it looks like the fight with Marquez is being made. I gave some preliminary thoughts, but right now all I can say is it’s good to have Floyd back. The sport is better for having him in it. He makes big events and this will be another. The fight will be at a catch weight of 144. I wish Floyd would have come down to 140 because even though I don’t think it would have made a difference to the fight itself, I think it would have changed how the event was viewed. I also wish we’d have gotten to see the rubber match between Marquez and Pacquiao. But hell, it’s a superfight between two great boxers. There are so few examples of truly special fighters going at it, so I'm on board.

• Longtime readers of Freedarko might remember Elie Seckbach for his NBA interviews. Here he is at the Wildcard, Freddie Roach’s gym, where he finds some Hatton fans. He’s a lot less awkward than I remember him.

• This video is silly, so I feel sort of bad saying that it's also hilarious and worth watching to the end. This person did a very good job. For those of you who don’t know, Manny has a vastly inferior fighting brother, Bobby.