Manny Pacquiao in Texas

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Manny Pacquiao

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Manny Pacquiao at his best seemed as unbeatable as a video-game action hero. But some thought the much larger Antonio Margarito would be a bridge too far, writes Thomas Hauser

ON November 13, 2010, Manny Pacquiao added another page to his boxing legacy when he fought Antonio Margarito at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the vacant World Boxing Council 154-pound title.

Outside the ring, fully clothed, Manny Pacquiao looks almost delicate and vulnerable. The first reaction many people have on meeting him is surprise that he’s so small. His voice is soft. There’s a gentle quality about him.

But in the ring, Pacquiao was a destroyer. He won his first world title in 1998 at 112 pounds and had compiled a 51-3-2 record with 38 knockouts by the time he fought Margarito. At age 31, he’d earned belts against credible competition in seven weight divisions. More significantly, three times during the preceding 23 months, Pacquiao had moved up in weight and destroyed bigger men.

“It’s not just about beating opponents,” former featherweight champion Barry McGuigan observed. “It’s the way that you beat them. Pacquiao went through Oscar de la Hoya like a sparring partner. The way he knocked out Ricky Hatton was staggering. He just pole-axed him. Then he systematically took apart Miguel Cotto in a way no one could have predicted.”

Pacquiao’s journey from abject poverty to wealth and fame almost beyond imagination had made him an icon in his native Philippines. And his celebrity status exploded after his stoppage of De La Hoya.

“The broad outlines of his legend,” Time Magazine declared, “have made him a projection of the migrant dreams of the many Filipinos who leave home and country for work. Some spend decades abroad for the sake of the ones they love. Everyone in the Philippines knows a person who has made the sacrifice or is making it. Pacquiao gives that multitude a champion’s face of selflessness; the winner who takes all and gives to all.”
In May 2010, the people of Sarangani province elected Pacquiao to Congress. Unlike many politicians, he meant it when he told voters that he saw the struggle of every Filipino in his own torturous journey.

“I feel what they are feeling because I have been there,” Pacquiao said. “I slept in the streets. I ate once a day. Sometimes I just drank water, no food. That was my life before. So hard. I understand the needs of people who need help. My heart hurts when I see people in the street, sleeping. I remember my past when I was young.”

“Manny Pacquiao,” HBO Boxing commentator Jim Lampley observed, “is having a lovefest with the world while beating the crap out of people.”

The lovefest continued when Pacquiao squared off against Margarito.

Manny Pacquiao

Pacquiao-Margarito was seen by many as a morality play of the highest order. Margarito had fashioned a 38-6 (27) ring record and previously held the World Boxing Organisation and World Boxing Association welterweight titles. The latter prize was attained by virtue of a 2008 knockout of Miguel Cotto in a brutal encounter. Then, in his next outing, Antonio fought Shane Mosley. In his dressing room prior to that fight, illegal inserts were found in Margarito’s handwraps. They were removed and Mosley knocked him out in the ninth round.

Margarito’s trainer at the time, Javier Capetillo, took responsibility for the incident, saying that he’d grabbed the wrong knucklepads “by mistake” and that Antonio was unaware of the problem. Thereafter, Capetillo was banned from practising his trade in the United States and Margarito’s licence to box was revoked by the California State Athletic Commission. The boxing community was split on whether Margarito should have been given the opportunity to fight Pacquiao. Some thought that the decision by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation to license him was a thumb in the eye for the sport. Be that as it may, Pacquiao-Margarito was contracted for at a catchweight of 150 pounds. That enabled the WBC to put its 154-pound belt on the line and allowed the promotion to talk about the possibility of an unprecedented eighth world title for Pacquiao.

In late-October, Team Pacquiao journeyed from the Philippines to Los Angeles for two weeks of final preparation. Then it descended on Dallas. There’s no entourage like a boxing entourage, and Pacquiao’s was substantial. Manny had chartered an American Airlines 757 that brought 180 people from the Philippines to the United States. “Air Pacquiao” cost him $120,000 plus food, lodging, and fight tickets for many of the travellers. Peter Nelson (then a freelance writer and later the head of HBO Sports) heralded their arrival.

“When Pacquiao fights in Cowboys Stadium,” Nelson wrote, “his countrymen will colonize Arlington, Texas, forming a populace replete with advisors, cooks, priests, security, political chiefs-of-staff, a five-piece band, mentors, apprentices, past exiles for crimes now forgiven, future ones for crimes yet committed, and, of course, his mother. Where he goes, his people follow. They have nowhere else to be but living on his largesse. Manny Pacquiao has become the 7,108th island of the Philippines.”

On Wednesday of fight week, Pacquiao worked out in Longhorn Exhibit Hall E (a huge room in the Gaylord Texan Hotel that had been converted into a makeshift gym). Then a hundred invited guests gathered at the far end of the room. Pacquiao donned a straw hat and walked over to a group of musicians that included three guitarists, a keyboard player, and drummer (known collectively as “The Manny Pacquiao Band”). Two back-up vocalists joined them. For the next 75 minutes, Manny sang.

“At this point, it’s all about keeping Manny happy,” Rob Peters (the point man in Pacquiao’s security detail) explained. “He loves doing this. It relaxes him. Right now, he’s having fun, singing love songs. And Margarito is on a treadmill somewhere, killing himself to make weight.”

Weight and size were Margarito’s perceived edge in the fight (if he had one). Pacquiao was a 4/1 betting favorite. But Manny had begun his career at 106 pounds. Two days hence, he would weigh in at 144-½ pounds while Margarito (five inches taller) would tip the scales at 150. On fight night, there would be a 17-pound weight differential between them.

“Size doesn’t win fights,” Freddie Roach (who trained Pacquiao) said. “Skill does. And Manny is the most skilled fighter in the world.”

But size in boxing translates into power and the ability to take a punch. That’s why the sport has weight divisions. At some point, big becomes too big to handle. Margarito’s battle plan would be to apply pressure, pressure, and more pressure. Wear Pacquiao down. Suffocate him with punches.

“He’s a great fighter,” Margarito said of Pacquiao. “We all know that he’s fast and lands punches from all angles. But I think it’s impossible that he’ll have the power of a super-welterweight. He might hit me with five to one at first, but I’m too strong for him. I will gradually break him down and knock him out.”

★ ★ ★

On fight night, Freddie Roach arrived at dressing room F300 at Cowboys Stadium at 5.45pm. Peter Nelson and training assistant Billy Keane were with him. A commission inspector was already there.

Pacquiao was Roach’s signature fighter. They’d begun working together in 2001. At the time, Manny had awesome physical gifts but was largely a one-dimensional boxer. Jab, jab, straight lefthand. Roach improved his charge’s footwork, balance, and defensive skills; added a right hook to his arsenal; and brought consistency to his technique.

How good a trainer was Roach? Paulie Malignaggi said that, when he watched a tape of the HBO telecast of his own fight against Amir Khan, he listened to Roach’s corner instructions.

“After the third or fourth round,” Malignaggi recounted, “Freddie told Amir, ‘I need you to feint. If you feint, he’s going to drop down and then you do this.’ I’m saying to myself, ‘Wow. That is my reaction to a feint. I never focused on it before, but that is how I respond.’ Freddie knew me better than I knew myself.”

When a fighter’s hands are wrapped before a fight, the man doing the wrapping runs long strips of tape between each finger (other than the thumb) on each hand. Most trainers apply the tape flat, six strips in all. Roach likes to roll each strip vertically so they resemble sticks of incense. He calls the strips “ligaments.”

Sitting in Pacquiao’s dressing room, Roach began rolling the strips while conversing with Nelson and Keane.

“Manny loves to watch himself on television,” Freddie said. “Between rounds in Vegas, he watches himself on those big video screens. The first time it happened, I tapped him on the cheek to get his attention and he told me, ‘I’m listening.’ In Cowboys Stadium, he can’t see the screen because it’s above the ring so I won’t have to compete for his attention.”

Cutman Miguel Díaz entered the dressing room. He was wearing black pants. Pacquiao won’t wear black for a fight and he doesn’t like anyone in his corner to wear black.

“Don’t worry about it,” Roach told Díaz. “You’re wearing a red jacket. Manny won’t notice.”

At 7.20, by prearrangement, an observer from Margarito’s camp entered. Because of the Margarito handwrap scandal, it had been agreed that each side would have a representative in the opposing fighter’s dressing room for the entire pre-fight proceedings and each trainer would fashion his fighter’s knucklepads in front of the observer and a commission inspector.

Billy Keane left for Margarito’s dressing room.

Roach began folding gauze into knucklepads.

At 8.05, Buboy Fernandez (Pacquiao’s assistant trainer and longtime friend) arrived – a sure sign that Manny was in the building.
Buboy arranged Pacquiao’s trunks, robe, and shoes on a rubdown table.

Díaz’s red corner jacket was adorned with advertising logos from a previous fight.

“Buboy,” Miguel queried. “Is the advertising on this jacket okay, or will it be a problem?”

“No problem,” Buboy answered. “They’re not paying me, they’re paying Manny.”

At 8.10, Pacquiao entered with 36 people in tow.

In due course, the dressing room was cleared of non-essential personnel. Pacquiao put on his trunks and did some stretching exercises. “I’m going over to watch Margarito wrap,” Roach told him. “If you need anything, ask Miguel. Is that okay?”

Pacquiao nodded.

With Díaz assisting him, Manny started to wrap his own hands. Margarito’s representative objected to virtually everything, including the tape provided by the commission and the knucklepads approved by the commission. The inspector overruled the objections.

Margarito’s co-manager, Sergio Diaz, entered and lodged more objections. They too were overruled.

Roach returned.

Díaz finished wrapping.

At 9.30, there was a problem. Billy Keane telephoned Pacquiao’s strength and conditioning coach Alex Ariza (now in the dressing room with Manny) to report that Margarito was about to take Ephedrine (an appetite suppressant and stimulant) nasally.

“When you stack Ephedrine with caffeine and aspirin,” Ariza noted, “you get speed.”

Keane said that three cups of coffee had just been delivered to Margarito’s dressing room.

“It won’t show up in his urine unless we test him before the fight,” Ariza told Roach. “An ECA stack burns out quickly. A post-fight test will be too late.”

William Kuntz (executive director of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation) and Dickie Cole (administrator of combat sports) were summoned to Pacquiao’s dressing room.

“I want a drug test right now,” Roach demanded.

“You focus on what you have to do,” Ariza told Pacquiao. “Let the rest of them handle this bullshit.

Pacquiao did some more stretching exercises and began shadow boxing.

Robert Garcia (Margarito’s trainer) entered and complained that no one from the Margarito camp had been present when Roach rolled the ligaments earlier in the evening. He wanted Pacquiao to rewrap.

“It’s pieces of tape,” Roach countered. “Your guy looked at them and didn’t have a problem.”

Tempers flared. People started shouting. Pacquiao looked at Nelson and winked.

Kuntz and Cole announced that they wouldn’t administer a pre-fight urine test even though Ephedrine is a controlled drug and its use would be against commission regulations.

Garcia’s complaint was overruled.

Keane reported that Margarito had agreed to not use the Ephedrine.

Pacquiao finished warming up.

Once a fighter steps into the ring and the bell for round one sounds, nothing that he has accomplished before matters.

Before the fight, Roach had declared, “I’m not worried about Margarito. He’s made to order for us. Margarito is tough. He’ll come to win. But I’ve watched tons of film on him. He’s always the same, completely predictable. He winds up on all of his punches so you can see them coming. He likes to exchange and he’s hittable. He has poor footwork. He doesn’t cut the ring off. And he’s too slow to beat Manny. You can watch Manny on TV and say, ‘Oh he’s fast.’ But you don’t know how fast until you get in the ring with him. Manny will beat him up badly. This will not be a difficult fight for us. I don’t see any issues.”

That said, it was a hard-fought battle. The first two rounds were cautiously contested. Margarito was less aggressive than expected. In round three, he began stalking in more determined fashion. Pacquiao circled, darting in and out, alternating between getting off first and landing sharp counter blows.

In round four, the landscape tilted lopsidedly in Manny’s favour. One minute in, he landed a hard left uppercut. Seconds later, Antonio’s face was grotesquely swollen and discoloured beneath his right eye and blood was dripping from a cut that would require six stitches to close.

The cut wasn’t a major problem. What was happening beneath the cut was. The area swelled up so dramatically that one could assume there was a fracture (there was). That led to further splintering of the bone as the fight progressed and problems with the muscles and nerves around the eye.

Now Margarito was on his back foot, giving ground. Round five was more of the same. But at the start of round six, Manny looked a bit tired. Take away the swelling beneath Antonio’s right eye and Margarito might have seemed the fresher of the two men. With 30 seconds left in the round, he backed Pacquiao into the ropes and dug a vicious left hook to the liver. Manny doubled over in pain and spent the next 20 seconds in retreat.

“I was a little worried in the sixth round,” Roach admitted afterward.

“He hurt me,” Pacquiao later acknowledged.

Margarito was behind in the fight but very much in it. He’d entered the battle in top physical condition, and the energy level between the two seemed to be shifting.

Margarito began round seven by going to the body. Pacquiao, as he’d done before, circled and darted in and out. The combatants resembled a grizzly bear swatting with his paw at a swarm of killer bees. Over the next few rounds, Manny landed the more numerous blows. Then the bout began to take on the look of a man smashing a large boulder to pebbles with a sledgehammer.

By round 10, Margarito’s right eye was useless and his left eye was closing, which meant that he was fighting with half an eye. The right side of his face was disfigured to the point of mutilation. Referee Laurence Cole stopped the action, raised his left hand to cover Margarito’s right eye, and asked the fighter how many fingers he was holding up. Margarito answered. The action resumed. But Antonio was now defenseless against Pacquiao’s onslaught.

With 20 seconds left in round 10, as Margarito was plodding hopelessly forward, Pacquiao landed a sharp right hook to the jaw. Antonio’s legs buckled and Manny followed with a barrage of punches that left his opponent lurching back to his corner at the bell. Margarito had been blasted with 64 punches during the round; 57 of them, power punches.

The ring doctor examined Margarito briefly from outside the ropes. He couldn’t look into Antonio’s right eye with a penlight because the eye was swollen shut.

Round 11 was target practice. On three occasions, Pacquiao stopped his assault and looked toward Cole – in effect, asking him to stop the fight. “Boxing is not for killing,” Manny said afterwards. But Cole ignored the gesture and the carnage continued.

Pacquiao fought the rest of the bout with what seemed to be a blend of caution and compassion. The judges scored the contest 120-108, 119-109, and 118-110 in Manny’s favour.

After the fight, Pacquiao went to Margarito’s dressing room, where Antonio’s cuts were being stitched up. The two men embraced and exchanged words of mutual respect. Then Manny hugged Antonio’s wife and left.

Meanwhile, Roach was critical of Robert Garcia for allowing the fight to continue. “There’s no doubt at all in my mind that he should have stopped it after the eighth round,” Freddie said. “Margarito had no chance to win by then and his face was a mess. After round 10, I thought, ‘They have to stop it now. If the corner doesn’t stop it, someone else will.’ But they didn’t. Margarito might never fight again after this. For sure, he won’t be the same fighter.”

Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honoured Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honour – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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