By Thomas Hauser
Thanksgiving and Christmas came early for boxing this year. The November 14th mega-match between Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto was the biggest and most important fight of 2009. Think of it as a holiday festival with Pacquiao in the role of Santa Claus. Or maybe Manny is better characterized as a non-stop Energizer Easter Bunny, whose fists exploded like Fourth of July fireworks and turned Cotto’s face into a gruesome Halloween mask.
Andrew M. Kaye writes, “Like royalty, the reign of a particular fighter can instantly evoke an era, reminding us of some of the values held by his generation, people, or nation.”
Pacquiao is the perfect symbol of the hopes and aspirations of the Filipino people.
The Philippines are mired in a culture of poverty and oppression. “Pacquiao,” Time Magazine observes, “has a myth of origin equal to that of any Greek or Roman hero.” He grew up amidst squalor that most Americans can’t begin to comprehend. At age twelve, he ran away from home to escape his abusive father. Thereafter, he survived by selling water and donuts on the streets and worked occasionally as a gardener’s assistant. Then he fell into boxing, living for two years in a tiny room adjacent to the workout area in a Manila gym. He fought for pennies under all manner of circumstances; then professionally for as little as two dollars a fight.
Now, Time Magazine proclaims, “In the Philippines, Pacquiao is a demigod.”
Pacquiao is dedicated to improving the spirits of his people. “There is bad news all the time in my country,” he says, explaining why Filipinos love him. “There is not enough food. We have typhoons. There is corruption in the government and too much crime. So many people are suffering and have no hope. Then I bring them good news and they are happy.”
Filipino journalist Granville Ampong speaks to Pacquiao’s mass appeal when he writes, “Pacquiao has been a saving grace for the government. The Philippines is in a state of political chaos and economic meltdown. There are many controversies around the current administration. The masses could have overthrown the government; but each time Manny fights, he calms the situation. When he enters the ring, a truce is declared between guerrillas and the national army and the crime rate all over the Philippines drops to zero.”
"To live in the Philippines is to live in a world of uncertainty and hardship,” notes Nick Giongco (one of that country’s foremost boxing writers). “Filipinos are dreamers. They like fantasy. And what is more of a fantasy than Manny Pacquiao?”
During the past year, Pacquiao has also become a standard-bearer for boxing. In recent decades, the powers that be have balkanized the sport, depriving the public of legitimate world champions. As a result, boxing has become more dependent than ever on “name” fighters.
Pacquiao fights with the look of a video-game action hero. He’s a remarkable blend of speed, power, endurance, determination, and (in recent years) ring smarts. He first came to the attention of boxing fans in the United States when he challenged Lehlohonolo Ledwaba for the IBF 122-pound crown in 2001. At the time, he was an unknown 22-year-old, who’d fought only in the Philippines, Thailand, and Japan.
Entering the ring on two week’s notice, Pacquiao lit up the screen and won every minute of every round against Ledwaba en route to a sixth-round stoppage. Since then, he has been on an extraordinary run.
Over the past year, each Pacquiao victory has been more remarkable than the one before. The snowball keeps getting bigger. At a promotional event in Manchester, England, to promote Pacquiao’s May 2, 2009, fight against hometown hero Ricky Hatton, Manny’s fans were so exuberant that Pacquiao was moved to comment, “I think Manchester is now Mannychester.”
Pacquiao’s November 14th encounter with Cotto shaped up as Manny’s toughest test to date. Miguel had amassed a 34-and-1 record with 27 knockouts. His sole loss was an eleventh-round stoppage at the hands of Antonio Margarito. Subsequent events led to the suspicion that Margarito’s handwraps had contained gauze sprinkled with plaster of Paris.
Cotto is respected but not adored in his native Puerto Rico. “I know that some people are happy with my accomplishments in boxing,” he said a week before the Pacquiao fight. “Others do not believe in me. I have to do my work whether the people believe in me or not. I am here for me, my family, and the people that want to follow Miguel Cotto.”
As for his place in Puerto Rican boxing history, Cotto declared, “I am going to be wherever the fans put me. I am never going to claim something that the people won’t give me. Wherever they are going to put Miguel Cotto, I am going to be happy.”
Prior to fighting Pacquiao, Cotto was no stranger to going in tough. The list of opponents he’d vanquished included Shane Mosley, Joshua Clottey, Zab Judah, Paulie Malignaggi, Carlos Quintana, and Randall Bailey. His loss to Margarito had been followed by two less-than-scintillating victories. But the assumption in boxing circles was that Miguel would have dominated Oscar De la Hoya and Ricky Hatton (Pacquiao’s most recent opponents) as thoroughly as Manny had.
Then there was the issue of weight. Pacquiao-Cotto would be fought at a catchweight of 145 pounds. On March 15, 2008, Pacquiao defended his super-featherweight crown at 129 pounds. Four weeks later, Cotto defended his WBA welterweight belt weighing 146. In other words, twenty months ago, there was a differential of three weight classes between the two men. Being the best fighter in the world pound-for-pound (an honor accorded to Pacquiao) doesn’t mean that a fighter can beat any opponent at any weight.
Breaking down the fight, most prognosticators began with the premise that Pacquiao was faster while Cotto was bigger and stronger. They further agreed that Miguel would be Manny’s toughest test to date. Pacquiao had beaten two great symbols (De la Hoya and Hatton) in his last two fights. Now he’d be facing a great fighter. Cotto had proved that he could deal with speed when he defeated Shane Mosley and Zab Judah. And Judah, like Pacquiao, was a southpaw.
“Everyone is so intrigued over Pacquiao and thinks that he wins big,” trainer Emanuel Steward posited. “I just don’t see it that way. Miguel is going to have to improve his defense; in particular, his defense [against punches] right up the middle. If he boxes and keeps his defense a little bit tighter and if he starts banging those hard left hooks to the body on the smaller guy, this could be a tough fight for Manny because Manny is not really a welterweight. I see it as almost a toss-up.”
Cotto radiated confidence. “His weaknesses are obvious to me,” Miguel said during a teleconference call. “He is coming from a lower weight division. If he thinks he is going to have the same power as Miguel Cotto, his thinking is very wrong. He’s a fast fighter. You know what? That’s why we prepare ourselves. We know he has speed and we are prepared to beat it. I am prepared for anything he can show me.”
Miguel, the media was told, was having his “best training camp ever.” Meanwhile, Team Pacquiao was reportedly in chaos.
Freddie Roach (Pacquiao’s trainer) would have preferred that Manny prepare for the fight at the Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles. But United States law dictated that Pacquiao’s tax bill would rise considerably if he spent more than three weeks training in America.
Initially, Roach wanted the early stages of training to take place in Mexico. “Toluca is the best option,” he maintained. “It’s private, quiet, not a vacation-type of area. The gym is owned by the government. It’s a very safe place. A federal marshal works there. He’d be with us the whole time, so security wouldn’t be a problem.”
But as of September 1st, the training site still hadn’t been agreed upon and Roach was having trouble contacting his charge. “My gut feeling,” he said, “is that we’ll end up in the Philippines. The thing is, there are a lot of distractions in the Philippines. One weekend, this governor will want to fly him here. The next weekend, another governor will want to fly him there. It’s a hassle.”
Eventually, Baguio (in the Philippines) was chosen as the camp site. Then that region of the country was hit by typhoons and there were reports that civil war had broken out within Team Pacquiao.
Roach, it was said, had been conspiratorially lodged in a separate hotel away from Pacquiao. Manny, according to some newspapers, was spending as much time helping typhoon victims as he was training for Cotto. Strength-and-conditioning coach Alex Ariza and Pacquiao adviser Michael Koncz were engaged in a much-publicized feud that culminated in a physical confrontation.
“Koncz is so condescending, so passive-aggressive, and just doesn’t care if he’s being unreasonable,” Ariza told Time Magazine. “He crossed a line, and I bitch-slapped him."
Meanwhile, Roach was fearful that the long flight from the Philippines to Los Angeles (where Pacquiao would conclude training) would result in several days lost due to jet lag.
Pacquiao tried to keep things in perspective. During a teleconference call, he was asked about the problems inherent in training in an area that had been devastated by typhoons.
“It is very difficult for me,” Manny acknowledged. “But I have to focus on my fight because nobody can help me in the ring. I am not only fighting for me. I am also fighting for my country. It is my responsibility to focus on training.”
Then more typhoons threatened and the training camp was moved to Manila.
How did it all work out?
“Much better than I thought it would,” Roach reported. “It was very emotional in Baguio. We saw a lot of death and destruction. But when Manny walks into the gym, he leaves the distractions behind. We had to run inside with the treadmill because the rain was so heavy, but it didn’t effect our preparation. We worked right through it. We had good sparring partners. We didn’t miss a day. The first month was the best first month of training I’ve had with Manny. He was in great shape. I’d go back to Baguio with Manny in a minute. We had a great four weeks there.”
“The five days in Manila sucked,” Roach said. “Everyone wanted a piece of Manny. Filipino politicians, governors, mayors, councilmen; all dragging him every which way. The American Embassy, entertainers, you name it. Too many distractions; too many people in the gym. Manny’s mind was all over the place. His focus wasn’t there.”
Then Pacquiao journeyed to Los Angeles for the final days of training, and what passes for normalcy within Team Pacquiao reigned.
“Manny trains hard for every fight,” Freddie said afterward. “If he was fighting me, he’d train hard and be in perfect shape. He sees that as his responsibility to his country and himself, and he’s right.”
On paper, Pacquiao and Cotto were fighting for Miguel’s WBO welterweight crown. In theory, that offered Manny the opportunity to win a world championship in the seventh weight division of his career. But given the multiplicity of belts in boxing today, that was of secondary importance. The real prize was Pacquiao’s pound-for-pound title.
There was a buzz in the media center at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino during fight week. Pacquiao-Cotto wasn’t a manufactured event. It was a legitimate super-fight, and the promotion had caught fire.
Time Magazine ran a five-page feature article on Pacquiao in its United States edition and placed him on the cover of its Asian counterpart. The New York Times (which has largely ignored boxing in recent years) ran daily stories on the fight. Pulling out all the stops, Top Rank (which was promoting the bout) spent US$150,000 to rent a 21-foot-high cylindrical LED video screen that was suspended above the ring and was evocative of a rock concert. Google and Twitter reported record numbers for Pacquiao traffic. The fight was completely sold out.
“Not one ticket left," Top Rank CEO Bob Arum chortled. “We got a list of one hundred names of people that want tickets, and we don’t have any. It’s not my problem. Everybody had an opportunity to buy tickets. The peopled that snoozed lose’d."
Arum was in his glory. His run as Pacquiao’s promoter began with Manny’s first fight against Juan Manuel Marquez in 2004 and has been highlighted by two bouts against Marquez, Pacquiao’s second fight against Marco Antonio Barrera, three fights against Erik Morales, and one fight each against Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton.
Arum is also Cotto’s promoter. “One reason this promotion has gone so well,” he noted, “is that I have no co-promoter to argue with and give me tsuris.” But for the first time in his ring career, Miguel was the “B-side” in a promotion. Fight week was The Manny Pacquiao Show.
“Fights like De La Hoya-Trinidad and De La Hoya-Mayweather were big,” Arum proclaimed. “But they were boxing stories, and boxing people live in a very insular world that’s all about HBO, Showtime, and the boxing websites. This fight has created interest in non-traditional ways. There’sTime Magazine, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal. People who know nothing about boxing have heard about Manny Pacquiao and are becoming interested in him.”
“Manny has gotten bigger since he fought De La Hoya and Hatton,” Arum continued. “Neither of those fights had this kind of feeling. The interest in this fight is global. Oscar was charming and good-looking and a very good fighter, but Manny is something more. Globally, Manny is now bigger than Oscar ever was. And Manny is going to get bigger and bigger because the world has changed. The stars no longer have to come from America.”
At the center of it all, Pacquiao seemed to glide effortlessly through the storm of attention.
Despite an unspeakably hard childhood, Manny looks younger than his thirty-one years. Women describe him as “adorable.” There’s a gentle childlike quality about him, much like a young tiger cub. He’s partial to casual clothes, has a ready smile, and laughs easily. Left to his own devices, he text messages constantly on two cell phones that he carries with him. Reflecting on the fame that has overtaken him, he says, “It’s a big change in my life. That’s for sure.”
Fame like Pacquiao’s can eat a person alive (think Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson). To survive, either a person sets rigid boundaries in the manner of Tiger Woods or gives himself to the public like Muhammad Ali.
Pacquiao immerses himself in his celebrity status the way a fish takes to water. He might wonder sometimes, “What’s going on here? What’s this all about?” But he’s loves being Manny and is enjoying the ride. He understood early on the value of speaking English and has learned it well. He acts and speaks without media advisors telling him what to do and say. He loves the big stage. He makes movies. He sings.
“There’s no spotlight that’s too bright for Manny,” says Freddie Roach. “He likes being famous and he handles it well. He’s got class and a great way about him. He brightens every room he enters.”
Meanwhile, Roach has been on a remarkable ride of his own. Like Pacquiao, he’s one of boxing’s feel-good stories.
As a young man, Freddie had a promising ring career that began with 26 victories in 27 fights. Then the opposition got tougher and he got older. By the end, he was an opponent, losing four bouts in a row to fighters with a composite record of 81-2-2. He closed the active-fighter portion of his life with a 39-and-13 career mark. Then Parkinson’s syndrome struck.
Roach is now one of the best-liked and most respected trainers in boxing. He’ll be fifty years old in March. Despite his physical condition, he’s constantly in the ring with Pacquiao and other fighters, working the pads and otherwise engaged. His workload would exhaust a younger healthy well-conditioned man.
Freddie has a self-deprecating sense of humor. At the start of a satellite TV interview two days before Pacquiao-Cotto, a sound technician asked him to count to ten for a microphone check.
Roach dutifully complied: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.” Then he added, “Didn’t think I could do that, did you?”
“I get more anxious as a trainer than I ever did as a fighter,” Freddie acknowledges. “When I’m lying in bed at night before a fight, I go through things over and over again in my mind. I do it for hours. And finally, when I’m satisfied that I’ve covered all the bases, I fall asleep.”
Pacquiao is Roach’s monument. Freddie never achieved greatness as a fighter. But as a trainer, he has reached glorious heights. Skyhorse Books (a division of Simon & Schuster) has contracted for his autobiography to be written with journalist Peter Nelson. Time Magazine calls him “the most popular foreigner in the Philippines.”
“Training a fighter like Manny is what a guy like me lives for,” Roach says. “As far as the attention is concerned; I’m like Manny. I enjoy it. It’s nice to be recognized for what you do, and it’s not that hard to smile and be nice to people. If I can make someone happy by taking a picture with them or signing my name, I do it.”
Three days before the fight, Roach supervised Pacquiao’s final intensive workout at the IBA gym in Las Vegas. The early odds had favored Manny at slightly better than 2-to-1. Now they were 3-to-1 and would settle on fight night at 5-to-2, despite the insider view that Pacquiao should be only a slight favorite.
Manny never trash-talks. In the days leading up to the bout, he spoke respectfully of his opponent, telling the media, “Cotto is a bigger guy and a hard puncher and strong. He has a good left hook and a good uppercut. He is a good fighter and a champion. For this fight, it is a challenge.”
Early in the promotion, Roach had predicted that Pacquiao-Cotto would be “the toughest fight of Manny’s life.”
“This guy beat Shane Mosley, a speed guy,” Freddie explained. “He knows how to nullify speed. Cotto is better than Oscar De La Hoya, better than Ricky Hatton. He’s the biggest, strongest guy we’ve ever fought. To beat Manny, you have to slow him down. Cotto knows how to do that with body shots. And low blows. I’m a little concerned about the fact that, when Cotto gets hurt, he goes to low blows. I try to teach fighters, ‘If the other guy hits you low, hit him back low.’ But Manny won’t do it.”
However, as the fight approached, Roach seemed increasingly less troubled. Among the thoughts he offered were:
* “I’m not worried about Cotto’s size. Size and brute strength might win a weight-lifting contest, but they don’t win fights. Boxing ability wins fights, and Manny is a better boxer than Cotto. Hatton was bigger and stronger than Manny until the fight started. So was Oscar.”
* “We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re adjusting to the styles of our opponents. We study them and we find their habits and adjust to them. I don’t look for mistakes. Every fighter makes mistakes, and you don’t know when they’ll come. I look for habits. I’ve seen all the tapes on Cotto. The idea is to not get hit with the hook. Cotto cocks his left hand before he throws it, so it shouldn’t be that hard for Manny to take it away from him. And Cotto makes certain adjustments when he fights a southpaw, which is something we’ll deal with.”
* “Working the mitts with Manny at this weight; he’s punching so much harder than he ever has. He’s used to the extra weight now and has learned how to use it to his advantage, especially on the inside. I’ve never seen Manny better than he is now. He’s punching harder than I’ve ever seen him. He’s as fast as I’ve ever seen him. Cotto has never fought a guy with speed like Manny. That’s where he’s going to have trouble; with Manny’s speed. I don’t think he can handle it.”
* “I’m very confident in my guy. Manny is one hundred percent ready for this fight and he knows exactly how to win this fight. It’s like a choreographed dance. Manny knows what Cotto will do, and he knows how he’ll respond to it. We have a Plan A and a Plan B. I don’t think we’ll need a C.”
* I don’t think Cotto has enough. He’s hittable; and people that Manny can hit, he knocks out. I feel like Manny, with the power he’s punching with right now at this weight; he’s going to knock Cotto out. I think I have the greatest fighter in the world today, and I think we’ll prove that again with Cotto.”
In the IBA gym, Roach worked with his fighter for close to an hour. During a break, he observed, “Sometimes, when I’m working the pads with Manny, I ask myself, ‘What would I do if I was fighting this guy?’ Let’s be realistic. What could I do if I was fighting Manny?”
Then the conversation turned to the issue of weight. There’s a school of thought that the division Pacquiao is fighting in now is more appropriate for him than the lower weight classes that he competed in for years. He was undernourished as a child, eating mostly rice until the age of sixteen. Then he suffered through another decade of having to make weight. Now (the theory goes), for the first time, Manny is eating what he should be eating.
“I’m not a nutritionist, so I can’t answer that,” Roach said. “I think that Manny’s best fighting weight is probably 140, but the biggest fights are at 147. What I do know is that, when Manny had to make weight at 126 or 130, he was unhappy all the time. Now he can eat the week of a fight. He can eat on the morning of the weigh-in. The whole time leading up to the fight, he’s in a much better frame of mind.”
Then there were the intangibles.
“It’s what you can’t see that’s inside a fighter that makes the difference,” Freddie offered. “Manny has all the right things inside. One of the questions I have about Cotto is, ‘What did the loss to Margarito take out of him?’ I was 26-and-1 when I got knocked out for the first time, and I never believed in myself quite the same way again. Cotto can tell himself that the reason he got beat up by Margarito was the gloves. But whether he believes that in his heart is something else. I don’t think Cotto is the same fighter he was before Margarito. His first fight back [against Michael Jennings], he wasn’t that good. And I wasn’t impressed with Cotto against [Joshua] Clottey either. Cotto is slower now than he used to be. I don’t think he has the confidence he once had. Manny is better now than ever and he feels like he’s fighting with a hundred million Filipinos behind him. Nothing is certain in boxing, but I’m as certain as I can be that Manny will beat Cotto.”
The fighters weighed in at the MGM Grand Garden Arena at 3:00 PM on Friday. Fans started lining up at 5:45 AM. At one o’clock, fire marshals closed off access to the arena because the six thousand seats available to the public were filled to capacity.
Cotto tipped the scales at the contract weight of 145 pounds; Pacquiao at 144. Spirits were high. There was partisan cheering. The only thing missing was the Ricky Hatton Band.
One discordant note accompanied the proceedings. Earlier this year, Cotto split with his uncle, who had trained him throughout his career. Evangelista Cotto’s replacement, Joe Santiago (formerly a Cotto camp assistant), was training Miguel for only the second time.
Initially, Santiago and Roach were respectful of one another. “I have a lot of respect for what Freddie Roach has done,” Joe said early in the promotion. “But he won’t be able to fight for Pacquiao. It’s the fighters that are going to do the fighting.”
Then people started questioning whether Santiago was qualified to train a fighter at the elite level. Joe got huffy and made a few intemperate remarks about Freddie that led Roach to respond, “He’s never fought in his life and he has no idea what it’s like being in the ring. He’s got a towel on his shoulder and gives water and all of a sudden he’s a coach. Cotto trains himself.”
One issue prior to the fight was whether Cotto would have trouble getting down to 145 pounds. At the weigh-in, as the scale registered Miguel’s weight, Santiago turned to Roach and said, “145, asshole.”
“He’s supposed to weigh 145,” Roach countered. “And if you call me ‘asshole’ again, I’ll punch you in the face.”
The trash-talking escalated from there until cooler heads prevailed.
On fight night, Roach was the first member of Team Pacquiao to arrive at the arena. He entered dressing room #3 at 5:30 PM and emptied his bag of the tools he’d need in the hours ahead.
Pacquiao was due at 6:00 PM. Word came by cell phone that his van was stuck in traffic.
“I’m not worried,” Roach said. “The earliest we’ll walk is eight o’clock. HBO likes the fighters here two hours early, but I can get Manny ready in an hour. And whatever happens, they’re not starting the fight without him.”
Pacquiao arrived at 6:40 PM, accompanied by an entourage far larger than Roach or the Nevada State Athletic Commission would have liked. He went into the toilet area to give a pre-fight urine sample to a commission inspector. Then he returned to the main room, took off his shoes and socks, and began putting band-aids on his toes to protect them from blisters. When that chore was done, he stood up, intoned, “Ladies and gentleman; from the Philippines . . .” and threw several punches in Roach’s direction.
At seven o’clock, NSAC inspector Jack Lazzarotto began the process of clearing unauthorized personnel from the room, winnowing the number from thirty to twenty.
Over the next twenty-five minutes, Pacquiao wrapped his own hands, singing softly to himself as he worked.
Several of Manny’s friends who had balked at the earlier removal order were escorted to the door.
Pacquiao did some stretching exercises and shadow boxed for fifteen seconds. He had the look of a boy who was warming up for a youth soccer game.
At 7:45, referee Kenny Bayless entered and gave Manny his pre-fight instructions. After Bayless left, there were more stretching exercises and a brief prayer.
The number of people in the room had risen again due to the presence of several entourage members who had hidden in the shower area during the earlier sweeps. This time, with help from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, the room was cleared for real.
At 8:10, assistant trainer Buboy Fernandez gloved Pacquiao up. There was an almost-casual feeling in the air. Manny had the calm demeanor of a man who felt fully protected against the storm to come.
At 8:20, Pacquiao began hitting the pads with Roach; his first real exercise of the night. World class fighters have a snap to their punches. The crack of leather against leather sounds like an explosion. There was intensity in Manny’s eyes.
Roach gave running instructions in a soft voice.
HBO production coordinator Tami Cotel entered the room. “Ten minutes, guys,” she said.
The padwork ended at 8:30. “You’re ready to go,” Roach told his fighter.
On a large television monitor at the far end of the room, Miguel Cotto could be seen in real time throwing left hooks toward the body of his trainer.
“That’s what he does,” Roach reminded Pacquiao. “He cocks the left when he goes up top and opens himself up when he reaches with the hook to the body. Either way; you nail him with a counter-right.”
Manny sat on a chair. He looked happy and serene.
No one spoke.
Then it was time.
Pacquiao stood up and turned toward Peter Nelson, who’d been granted access to the dressing room because of his work with Roach on the trainer’s autobiography.
“Do you have a good story?” Manny asked.
Nelson looked startled that his book would be of concern to Pacquiao at this moment.
“Yes,” he answered after a moment’s pause.
Each time a fighter steps in the ring, he has to prove himself all over again. Against Cotto, Pacquiao did just that.
The first round belonged to Miguel. He neutralized Manny’s speed with his jab and fought a smart measured three minutes. Pacquiao turned the tables in the second stanza, getting off first and giving every indication of relishing a fire-fight.
The pendulum swung several times in round three, most of which was controlled by Cotto. He landed several hard shots and seemed the stronger of the two men. Manny took the punches well and scored a knockdown with a sharp right hook of his own. But because Miguel didn’t seem hurt and was superior for the rest of the round, two of the three judges appropriately scored it 10-9 in Manny’s favor instead of 10-8 (which a knockdown usually warrants).
Round four belonged to Pacquiao. He decked Cotto again; this time with a hard left-uppercut that hurt Miguel.
Round five was close. All three judges gave it to Pacquiao. But many observers (including this writer and HBO’s Harold Lederman) thought that it belonged to Cotto.
At this point, as predicted, Pacquiao was the faster of the two men, but Cotto looked to be physically stronger. Certainly, Miguel was competitive.
“I was a little concerned,” Roach admitted afterward. “Cotto looked pretty good. And for a while, Manny was fighting Cotto‘s fight. He was laying on the ropes, and Miguel caught him with some punches that got his attention.”
Then, in round six, Pacquiao turned a great fight into a great performance. The “smaller” man started digging to the body and scoring up top, staggering Cotto twice. By the end of the round, Miguel was badly cut on the left eyelid and Manny was dominating the action.
From that point on, Pacquiao beat Cotto up. The second half of the bout saw Miguel in full retreat, back-pedalling and circling away in an effort to get to the end of the fight with as little additional damage and pain as possible. He looked like a man who was trying to escape from a spinning airplane propeller. Manny relentlessly pursued him and, when Cotto landed, simply walked through the punches.
“When Cotto started backing up, I knew it was over,” Roach said afterward. “His corner should have stopped the fight three rounds before it ended. All that happened after Miguel started running was that he took a beating.”
Cotto himself later acknowledged, “I didn’t know from where the punches come. I couldn’t protect myself. After round seven, I tell Joe [Santiago] to stop the fight, but I think better and I prefer to fight.”
Roach was right. Santiago should have stopped it. As the fight progressed, Cotto’s face became more and more disfigured. He was bleeding from the nose and mouth. His lips were horribly swollen.
One could make a strong case that round nine was 10-8 in Pacquiao’s favor even though there was no knockdown. Rounds ten and eleven were more of the same. Meanwhile, Manny wasn’t playing it safe. Great fighters have the ability to finish strong and close the show. He was going for the kill.
Fifty-five seconds into round twelve, Bayless did what Cotto’s corner should have done earlier. He mercifully stopped the slaughter.
The entourage was waiting when Pacquiao returned to his dressing room after the fight. After embracing several friends, he began to sing:
You raise me up so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up to more than I can be.
Then he grimaced. Manny had been in a fight. There were bruises under both eyes and, of greater medical significance, he’d suffered torn cartilage in his right ear. The ear hurt and was starting to swell. Unattended, it would lead to the condition known in boxing as a “cauliflower ear.”
A plastic surgeon took Pacquiao to an adjacent room and drained his ear. When they returned, white gauze was wrapped around Manny’s head. The merriment resumed. Roach stood quietly to the side.
“Manny is such a great guy to work with,” Freddie said. “He’s unbelievable, one of a kind. I’m working with the greatest fighter of my time and one of the greatest fighters ever. Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am.”
So . . . How good is Pacquiao?
It’s axiomatic in boxing that either a fighter is getting better or he’s getting worse. Remarkably, at age thirty-one, Pacquiao is getting better; much better. He’s on a roll where each new fight (first De La Hoya, then Hatton, now Cotto) becomes his signature outing.
Part of that is Roach’s influence. Freddie has worked with some of the best fighters of our time and the three most famous (De La Hoya, Tyson, and Pacquiao).
“Oscar was a slow learner,” Roach says. “Oscar needed repetition. He had to do something over and over again to get it right. Tyson, at the point in his career that I was with him, wasn’t interested in learning. Manny is very teachable and an incredibly fast learner. He’s carrying his punch and his power with him along with his speed as he moves up in weight. He‘s on fire. He’s getting better all the time.”
Against Cotto, Pacquiao made a world-class fighter look ordinary and turned him into a foil. “His performance,” Gordon Marino wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “was absolutely jaw-dropping; a fistic work of art.” His ability to take punches and walk through punishment is astounding. And speed is only part of the problem that Manny poses for opponents. He punches with power too.
“We thought Pacquiao was great,” Larry Merchant said after the fight. “He’s better than we thought.”
Pacquiao frequently talks about entering the political arena. In 2007, he ran for Congress and was defeated decisively by incumbent Darlene Antonino-Custodio. But his popularity has grown since then and another campaign in 2010 appears to be in the cards. Manny’s motives are pure, but some of his biggest admirers fear that politics could be his unmaking; that depending on his associations, he could be tainted by the political process, especially if he wins.
“Manny might find out that politics isn’t as much fun as boxing,” Roach says. “And it might be rougher. I’ve been wrong before, but I think Manny can do more for his country as a boxer than he can as a politician.”
What we know for sure is that Pacquiao is doing a lot for boxing.
“What did Manny Pacquiao achieve?” Jerry Izenberg (the dean of American sportswriters) asked after Pacquiao-Cotto. “He brought boxing back into newspapers, back onto television, and back into an unbroken chain of conversations across America, from its office water coolers to its neighborhood saloons. Yankee Stadium and the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium are now talking about outdoor championship fights with guess who as the magnet that will pack them in. The face of all of boxing is indelibly stamped with that of Manny Pacquiao today. This wasn’t just a great fight. It was a coronation.”
For years, the people who run boxing worried, “What will happen when Tyson retires?” Then it was, “What will happen when Oscar retires?” Now Manny Pacquiao is ushering in a new potentially-golden era.
Pacquiao-Cotto showed that boxing is still capable of thrilling entire nations and giving the world magical nights. It wasn’t the last big fight of the current decade. It was the first big fight of the future.
For too long, boxing has been rooted in the past. Ten years ago, the conventional wisdom was that all things good and profitable in the sweet science flowed from the United States. The Internet was an afterthought insofar as marketing was concerned. Now boxing has gone global and digital. And Pacquiao is reaching critical mass. His fights keep getting bigger.
Boxing has taken Manny Pacquiao on a journey that’s almost beyond belief. In return, he has put his mark on the sport forever.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com. His most recent book (“An Unforgiving Sport”) was published earlier this year by the University of Arkansas Press.