What You Missed While Watching Pacquiao and Marquez

By Dave McKee: When the opening bell tolled, bringing the eyes of boxing fans and casual observers alike to focus on the fabled squared circle on November 12, 2012, something profound transpired. Thirty-six-plus-twelve minutes of deep significance passed, and few who watched took notice.

Two men, both acknowledged as among the mightiest of their peers, met for the third time. Having reached first a draw and then a decision so close it might as well have been a draw, Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez came together to “set the record straight”. Someone had to be knocked out. Both fighters’ camps had expressed as much. These two proud boxers both claimed to ‘know’ they had won each of the previous bouts; fan and ‘expert’ opinion was divided. A clear victory was required to settle the matter.

A clear victory was generally expected. Marquez had taken too much damage in recent fights, while Pacquiao had improved his skillset and refined his ring intelligence and patience so much that Marquez had little hope of winning. Betting lines bobbing around 10:1 in favor of the Filipino pound-for-pound champ proved at least that the betting public was willing to believe this. On the other hand, Marquez had performed better against Pacquiao than had anyone since Erik Morales, and Morales’ decision win over Pacquiao had been avenged by brutal knockouts in two subsequent fights.

Some fighters simply have the number of other fighters, no matter how great. How else to explain Ken Norton’s success against Muhammad Ali over three fights, when the second tier puncher Gerry Cooney was later able to drive Norton into the canvas like a nail into wood in a mere fifty-four seconds? Norton won his first meeting with Ali, and lost the second via split decision. The final fight was won by Ali, but Boxing Monthly named the result the fifth most controversial decision in boxing history.

When the final bell tolled, neither Pacquiao nor his nemesis had made a definitive case for victory. Both still stood at the conclusion of the bout. Each showed about equal damage on his body. Marquez had shocked observers by landing dramatic right hand after right hand, all the while avoiding the preordained fate assigned him by writers and commentators. Only Pacquiao’s fans seemed to notice that the power of these blows also emphasized the resilience of Pacquiao’s chin. For the first time in three meetings, Marquez avoided being knocked down. Strangely, Pacquiao won by the widest margin in any of their fights.

Pacquiao was booed out of the venue following his split decision win. Marquez is thought by the majority of observers to have lost a fight that at worst should have been a draw. Many think he won, but was robbed. Pacquiao landed more punches in a close fight, so those who favor the decision feel justified. The fight was very close. Perhaps it should have been scored a draw, but this is a rare outcome under any circumstances.

What we are missing is that none of this matters. Dissatisfaction with the official result in this fight is a failure to appreciate what these two great boxers gave us. Every moment of this contest was fraught with tension. Whose stomach did not churn each time Marquez bombed Pacquiao, thinking a dramatic upset had materialized, only to watch in amazement as the tough little champion from an island nation in the Pacific shrugged off the punch and soldiered on? Who imagined the meteoric left hand of Pacquiao would not soon crash onto the head of Marquez, bringing to Earth the Mexican’s foolish dreams?

Dissatisfied with a close fight and a result that is less than conclusive, we are upset. We are let down, and we aim our outrage at the fighters and the judges. We should aim it at ourselves.

Better yet, we should think back on that fight and remember how tense the action was, how close we knew the fight to be. We should remember our confusion upon learning renowned trainer Nacho Berestein was advising his fighter in the latter rounds that he was winning. Who would do that, knowing a fight that even resembled a close call was far too dangerous to treat lightly?

And why was the fight so close? Why was the tension so painful? Looking back on the bout some will conclude that both Marquez and Pacquiao failed to bring the expected ferocity. We expected a war. Where were the knockdowns? Where were Pacquiao’s wobbly knees following Marquez’s sharp, counter-rights? We waited and waited. Nothing.

What did we miss?

This fight meant everything to these warriors. We assume, looking in from outside the ropes, that, perhaps, it meant less than we had imagined since we did not see the dramatic, predicted war of attrition. We are missing the point.

These men are no fools. Pacquiao calibrated his approach in his second fight with Marquez, fighting a more mature fight. He scored two fewer knockdowns, but won a split decision rather than scoring a draw. His restraint paid off. He won purely on the weight of the one knockdown, reminding Marquez that restraint –and discipline in maintaining defense- were absolutely mandatory when facing Pacquiao.

Both brought these lessons to the final leg of their trilogy. Each respected the power, the craft and the resilience of the other. What resulted was a taught battle of wills, a dangerous chess match in which these two men, linked by an intangible confluence of personal qualities, produced the only result that they could – and perhaps the only result that is fitting. They engaged in a battle so closely contested that any judgment would be inadequate to describe what happened in that ring.

Split decision. Draw. Terrible scoring. None of that is relevant. These champions of the ring are meant to be remembered together. Though their fates will be linked for all time in controversy and debate, what we should remember is that when they both brought hell to the ring, they matched one another. When they each adjusted their strategies to reflect deeper regard for one another’s skill and durability, neither could dominate. Throughout the course of thirty-six rounds we sat at the edge of our seats, wondering until the final bell sounded what would happen next.

It is this unresolved tension that leaves us wanting. As fans we desire clear answers. Nothing judges can produce will ever satisfy, and nothing should. We should forget everything except what happened between the first moment and the last of each fight. We should savor what these great fighters allowed us to witness.

The acknowledged pound-for-pound champion fought, through thirty-six rounds, for his life. He put down his foe four times in this span, and bravely struggled throughout the remainder. Marquez did not lose two fights. He rose to each occasion, displaying toughness, strength of character and a will to win. These fighters are not responsible for little pieces of paper scribbled on by soft-bodied persons at ringside. They are responsible for the great drama they enacted.

It was an ineffable greatness they showed us.

We should thank them.

November 16, 2011
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