There’s nothing that gets sports fanatics talking like a good old fashioned rivalry. Some are deeply rooted in competitive parity and/or fury (Lakers-Celtics, Michigan-Ohio St) while others may simply be the by-product of local jibber-jabber (49ers-Raiders, Cubs-White Sox). A boxing match is unique, in the sense that one man puts an entire country on his shoulders for roughly 45 minutes of athletic competition, with no teammates to rely upon nor coaching strategies to blame. When a rivalry is ignited and the athletes take center stage, the hope and dreams of nations are held in the balance, and the sports world quickly takes notice.
Such is the case this Saturday night in Las Vegas, when welterweight superstars Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines (54-4-2, 38 KO’s) and Juan Manuel Marquez of Mexico (54-6-1, 39 KO’s) meet for the 4th time, re-igniting the passion and competitive spirit that surrounds boxing’s best rivalry of the new millenium.
The first three contests left us with more questions than answers in regards to who is the best little fighter of our era (not named Floyd). Although there have already been 36 action-packed rounds between the two of them, with Pacquiao holding a 2-0-1 lead in the rivalry, fans of both men feel that their guy not only won all three fights, but won them decisively.
Since everybody and their Grandmama seems to have a strong opinion on the outcome of bouts 1 thru 3, It looks as if it’s my turn to chime in. Regardless of mathematical snafu’s and allegiances to either athlete, I believe that a draw was the right decision in their first meeting. In the 25+ years that I’ve followed the sport, this is the only contest I can recall where one fighter went down three times in a single round, got up from all three, and didn’t lose the fight.
Pacquiao’s Vegas headline debut vs. Marquez in ’04 began with a furious bang, as he tore through the unified featherweight champ to score 3 brutal knockdowns in round 1 off the strength and precision of his legendary left cross from the southpaw stance. Marquez not only survived, but came back to dominate most of the remaining 11 stanzas with his precise counter punching and defensive savvy. A 4-point swing is nearly impossible to comp, however, so the valiant comeback by Marquez after the disaster of round one was worthy of a draw in one amateur writer’s opinion, and was unofficially recognized as the year’s best boxing match.
Fast-forward 4 years to their clash for Marquez’ super featherweight strap in ’08, at a time when both men were steadily climbing the pound-for-pound charts. Pacquiao began slower this time around, waiting for opportunities as Marquez racked up points with his jab and counter left. PacMan scored a nasty flash knockdown in the 4th (off the left cross, of course) then turned the tide in the middle rounds, only to fade a bit late when Marquez got his 2nd wind. At the end of the evening, I had the bout 6-6 in rounds, with Pacquiao earning the W on points based on the KD, and the judges concurred, awarding the PacMan with a highly-controversial split decision win.
Their 3rd meeting last November for Manny’s welterweight belt produced what was possibly the most controversial outcome of the rivalry. Pacquiao didn’t display much of his storied offensive firepower for the first few rounds, while Marquez was razor-sharp from the beginning. Slowly but surely, the Pilipino began to find the mark with both hands and win rounds, although it was the Mexican star who landed the more telling blows throughout the bout. Of the 3 contests, this is the only one where yours truly didn’t agree with the outcome. Pacquiao was awarded a heavily-scrutinized majority decision win, and once again, Marquez and his supporters felt cheated out of a victory. For the 2nd bout in a row, I had it even at 6 rounds a piece, and with no 10-8 rounds, believed that a draw should have been the proper ruling.
This brings us to this Saturday night, as both men are now at the proverbial crossroads in the twilight of their respective Hall of Fame careers. No title belt is on the line, as Pacquiao dropped his welterweight strap in his last outing against Tim Bradley, while Marquez stayed busy last April with a homecoming victory in Mexico at 140 pounds.
Although the outcomes of all three of their bouts have been debatable, the respective strategies for each man going into Saturday’s bout are relatively simple. Pacquiao, first and foremost, needs to dial-in his wicked lead left cross in the early rounds in order to establish a good pace from the outset. We can split hairs for hours about Manny’s improved jab and hook, but at the end of the day, the left cross is his multi-million dollar mechanism. If he finds the mark early (as he did in his previous bout vs. Bradley), it will potentially set-up openings for combinations on the inside later in the bout.
The game-plan for Marquez is nearly as simple (on paper, of course); avoid the lead cross, then effectively counter with sweeping hooks and crosses of his own. For the 1st half of bout #3 last year, Marquez followed the script perfectly. He made Pacquiao miss and miss often, countering each wild shot with effective counter punches upstairs. The key for Marquez will be consistency in this area, with no mental or physical lapses, as one wrong move could lead to disaster.
The game plans may be simple, but the competition in the ring will unquestionably be nip and tuck from bell to bell. I’d be hard-pressed to expect anything other than 12 more rounds of world class prizefighting at its highest level this Saturday night. When two athletes of this caliber prepare like they do, with infinite focus and desire and the skills to match, there’s little reason to believe that either guy will dominate the action.
Although the brain is telling me that Marquez solved the Pacquiao puzzle in their last contest, the gut instinct predicted a Pacquiao victory in the 1st three bouts, and this weekend will be no different. Based on how accurate Manny was with his left cross in his hotly-disputed loss to Bradley last June, I believe he will find the mark with more precision and ferocity in this outing, as his killer instincts of the past will once again be on display for the viewing public. Expect at least one clean KD from the Pilipino superstar in the middle rounds, with Marquez matching the overall output shot for shot, but with less velocity and effect.
It’s a cheesy cliche, of course, but I do have one bold prediction on who will ultimately be the winner after it’s all said and done this Saturday: THE FANS! We’ve already been treated to 3 outstanding matches between these two gladiators, and bout #4 should be much of the same: great exchanges, great competition, and high drama in Sin City, with plenty to talk about at the water cooler on Monday morning.
PREDICTION: Pacquiao by close, debatable, controversial 12 round decision
SEE YA AT THE FIGHTS!!!