Saturday, November 12, 2011

They Have Been Weighed. They Have Been Tested. Who Will be Found Wanting?

Seventy-two minutes. Seventy-two minutes in eight years. It doesn't seem like that much time, does it? For boxing fans it hasn't been nearly enough. Luckily for us we have the chance to see another thirty-six minutes on Saturday night. That's when Manny Pacquiao faces off against Juan Manual Marquez for the third and probably final time at MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Without question Pacquiao is the darling of the boxing world and one of its biggest draws. With an other-worldly combination of speed and power he has dazzled fans since his 11th round TKO of Marco Antonio Barrera in 2003. In those 8 years he has only lost once (to Eric Morales which he avenged twice) and has beaten all of the big names in weight class save for Mr. Money Mayweather.

Pacquiao has fought 17 times since the Barrera fight facing 14 different opponents. Of those 14, thirteen of them have been soundly defeated, and he sent two into retirement (Ricky Hatton and Oscar De La Hoya). Only one opponent during that stretch believes that he has never lost to the Pac Man. That man is Marquez.

They first met in 2004 and produced the fight of the year. Despite being knocked down three times in the first round and having to fight the rest of the way with a broken nose, Marquez battled to a draw. The three knockdowns showed that Marquez wasn't prepared for the speed of Pacquiao's left hand. Once he adjusted, he was able to effectively counter a majority of his opponent's attacks.

When they met for their rematch in 2008 Marquez found himself on the canvas once again, courtesy of another lethal left from the energetic Filipino. Of the four knockdowns this was the only one that I thought actually hurt Marquez.

In the 9th round, Pacquiao's repeated straight lefts would open up a huge gash over Marquez's right eye. The kind of cut that makes you say, "Ewwwww" when trainer/cutman Nacho Beristain is shoving his finger into it to staunch the bleeding. Despite the knockdown and the blood, Marquez would battle to a split decision loss. If Judge Tom Miller had switched one round to Marquez, the relentless Mexican fighter would have won the fight.

For what it's worth, I re-watched the fights (thanks YouTube!) and scored along. In their first match I had Pacquiao winning 113-112 thanks to a 10-6 first round. In the second fight I scored it 115-113 for Pacquiao. Over the 24 rounds they fought I have Marquez winning 12, Pacquiao 11, and one round a draw (the first round in the second matchup).

Pacquiao's best round of the fights is undoubtedly the first one of their first fight. Marquez was totally unprepared for Pac Man's speed and power. I don't think any of the knockdowns really hurt Marquez, but they did put him way behind in points and left him swallowing a lot of blood as a result of the broken nose.

Marquez's shining moment came in the 8th round of the second fight. He had Pacquiao's timing perfect and was pummeling his opponent at will. There was a brief moment when it looked like Manny might go down, and at the end of the round blood was flowing freely from a cut above his left eye.

So what makes Marquez such a difficult matchup for Pacquiao? Is it his relentless drive? Is it his counterpunching? Maybe it's his patient, subtle defense? Or could it be his awesome Dave Matthews-esque receding hairline?

Most likely it's a combination of all of those things. Marquez is willing to accept the fact that he will have to eat a few punches in order to get his shots in. When he's had his most success he's been able to bury a left hook into Manny's side and follow up with a right straight down the chute. The key is to get that right off before Pacquiao can come over the top of it with his devastating left.

So what are the chances of Marquez pulling off the upset? If you're in Vegas today you would
probably be getting close to 10-to-1 odds, so it doesn't appear likely. In the previous two fights Marquez hasn't had a problem getting to Manny, he just hasn't had the punching power to knock him on his Filipino ass. By focusing more on his upper body strength for this fight he hopes to change that.
There is a trade-off for building strength. It usually leads to a decrease in speed. At 38 years old, Marquez is already facing the natural erosion in skills that comes with aging. Putting on weight (at 145 this is heaviest he's fought at) also can be a detriment. Most small fighters struggle at higher weight classes, a fact that makes Pacquiao's success all the more mind-blowing (Pacquiao's first professional fight was at 107 pounds).

The biggest problem, however, for Marquez is going to be the evolution of Manny Pacquiao. In their first matchup, the Pac Man was an energetic, one-handed fighter who bounced around the ring like Calvin after his third bowl of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs and fired viscous left hands from every angle. Sure he threw a couple of right hands, but in a disinterested "yeah I have this hand so I might as well use it" kind of way.

In the next match-up, wasn't quite as spastic in the ring. Still employing a ducking and weaving stance that was hard for Marquez to time, he also found out that using his right hand could be effective. He was able to use a jab that wasn't a factor in the first fight to set up his left and keep Marquez at bay.

Moving into the third fight we will see Pacquiao as the truly developed fighter. In his destruction of Antonio Margarito last November, he used both hands as battering rams, pummeling Margarito with lightning-fast combinations. In their previous fights Marquez, for the most part, has only had to counter lunging, one-punch attacks by Pacquiao. Now he faces a fighter who can snap off three or four big shots per rush.

As the overwhelming betting favorite it seems unlikely that Pacquiao will lose, and with the prospect of a mega-fight with Mayweather on the horizon you might think he could be looking past Marquez. I don't think he is. While he might not have the intense dislike for Marquez that he did for Margarito, Manny wants to end this trilogy with a decisive victory. He doesn't want there to be any doubt in this fight. Make no mistake he is looking to knock Marquez out. Against a viscous counterpuncher that need for a knockout can be dangerous.

For his part, not only is Marquez looking to prove he is better than Pacquiao, he is also looking to cement his place as one of the great Mexican boxers of this generation. He wants to be on the same tier as Eric Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera. A win over Pacquiao will do that. He will no longer be the third wheel, the brilliant tactician who just couldn't pull off the big victory. He will be a legend.
As for a prediction, I have Pacquiao winning by TKO in the tenth round. (That sound you heard was the rush of thousands of Vegas-ites running to the nearest sports book to lay money on Marquez.) Pac Man is just too good right now.

I think the fight unfolds much like the second, more tactical, more boxing than brawling. The difference will be that Pacquiao can now fight that style. His hand speed and combinations will be too much for the counterpunching Marquez. That's not to say Marquez won't get his shots in. Despite his improved defense, Manny still gets hit. In the face. A lot.

Keep an eye out for head butts. With Pacquiao's lunging in style, and the natural awkwardness of a southpaw facing a traditional fighter there is a good chance there will be at least one clash of heads. In their second fight, a butting of heads in the seventh round led to a small cut outside of Marquez's eye. Marquez also likes to work the body which normally leads to the occasional low blow or two. It hasn't been a huge factor yet, but should Marquez get frustrated he could go Golota on him.

In the previous 72 minutes of their fighting each fighter has been punched more than 300 times each. Seventy-five percent of those hits were of the "power" variety. I see no reason why the next 36 will be any different. Enjoy them.

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