By contrast, the long-running rivalry between Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Márquez, a crafty Mexican veteran, was compelling precisely because it wasn’t definitive. They fought to a draw in 2004, and then had two rematches, in 2008 and 2011; Pacquiao earned narrow victories in both, although many believed that Márquez deserved to win one, two, or all three of the fights. This past Saturday night, Pacquiao returned to the MGM Grand, in Las Vegas, to fight Marquez for the fourth time. And though most casual fans still thought of Pacquiao as the best boxer in the world, mostexperts considered him the underdog, and some even predicted that the ambiguous rivalry might finally see a definitive conclusion.
In the years since he knocked out Hatton, Pacquiao, who is thirty-three, seems to have slowed down, and become noticeably easier to hit. Meanwhile, Márquez, who is thirty-nine, looks brawnier than ever, a fact that did not escape the attention of Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach. In an interview with USA Today, Roach suggested that Márquez’s new body wasn’t “natural,” adding that the physical changes “throw up a red flag”; the implication was that Márquez might be using performing-enhancing drugs. Márquez credited the physical changes to his strength-and-conditioning coach, Angel Hernandez, which hardly quieted Roach’s suspicions: Hernandez used to be known as Angel Heredia, the man who reportedly admitted to supplying banned drugs to Marion Jones and other athletes. Boxing, which exists in a state of perpetual crisis, is currently trying to figure out how, and how much, to crack down on doping. (Thomas Hauser, a respected boxing reporter, recently wrote a two-part article that suggested that doping is widespread.) In the meantime, given the absence of reliable testing, it seems naïve to accept any boxer’s assurance of innocence—and unfair, too, to single out any one boxer for suspicious behavior.
But despite the cloud of allegations, and despite the fact that these fighters had met three times already, Pacquiao-Márquez IV generated a huge amount of excitement. It was broadcast on pay-per-view by HBO, with promotional help from ESPN—the two networks recently signed a programming agreement that has helped give boxing a higher profile on “SportsCenter,” making a niche sport seem, on nights like Saturday, almost mainstream again. The usual celebrities (Magic Johnson, Steven Seagal, 50 Cent) were ringside, along with two very unusual celebrities: Mitt and Ann Romney. Backstage, before the fight, Romney had an awkward exchange with Pacquiao. “Hello, Manny,” Romney said. “I ran for President. I lost. I wish you good luck tonight. Congratulations on your race.” Pacquiao is a congressman in the Philippines, representing the district of Sarangani, although the election he won was two and a half years ago. But Romney pressed on: “And your fight. Congratulations. Way to go. Have a great night.”
Pacquiao did not have a great night, although perhaps Romney did: he got to see a fight that was exciting, important, and possibly even definitive. Pacquiao and Márquez traded knockdowns, and seemed to be settling in for a long and violent night when, in the closing seconds of the sixth round, Márquez connected with a brutal right hand, so short and compact that many viewers probably missed it. But they certainly would have seen the result: Pacquiao falling forward, facedown, onto the mat, and staying there. Roy Jones, Jr., one of the HBO commentators, said, “He’s not getting up!” Romney’s face, as captured by the HBO cameras, betrayed more or less the same reaction. Kenny Bayless, the referee, kneeled down, peered at Pacquiao’s face, and waved his hands above his head: the Pacquiao-Márquez saga finally had its satisfying conclusion.
After the fight, Roach, Pacquiao’s trainer, said, “Possible retirement, possible rematch—I’m not sure which way we’re going to go, right now.” It seems unlikely that Pacquiao would retire, but few people who watched him get knocked out on Saturday night would pick him to win a fifth fight against Márquez—once you have seen a fighter get knocked out, it’s hard to unsee it, and to imagine that the fight could have gone otherwise. In the span of one eventful night, lots of spectators went from seeing Pacquiao as a formidable adversary to seeing him as fatally flawed. At least one person who was there knows exactly how that feels.
In the aftermath of Pacquiao’s knockout loss, which was shocking even though it wasn’t entirely unexpected, there was an undercurrent of mourning, as some of boxing’s most astute observers considered the prospects of the great unmade fight: a match between Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, Jr., widely considered the best boxer alive. Dan Rafael, reporting for ESPN.com, called the knockout “the final nail in the coffin” for Mayweather-Pacquiao. Tim Starks, who runs Queensberry-Rules.com, argued that Pacquiao’s loss “certainly kills the viability” of a fight with Mayweather.
These are rational analyses, but they seem to ignore the fundamental irrationality of boxing, in which top fighters choose their opponents based on complicated considerations of risk and reward. It seems possible that Pacquiao’s loss—which will hurt his reputation and his bargaining power but probably not his popularity—will only make him more appealing to Mayweather, who tends to be reckless outside the ring and cautious inside it. In 2006, after Zab Judah lost to Carlos Baldomir, Mayweather picked Judah as his next opponent, and beat him easily. And earlier this year, Mayweather fought and beat Miguel Cotto, who had already been knocked out by Pacquiao. For a top-rated boxer, there are few opponents more appealing than big stars with evident flaws. Pacquiao is aware of this, too. In 2009, when he chose to fight Hatton, Pacquiao knew that his opponent would bring lots of fans to the arena. He also knew that Hatton could be knocked out—after all, Mayweather had done it two years earlier. Sometimes in boxing, a definitive loss is less definitive than it seems.