Monday, November 14, 2011

Notes from Pacquiao-Marquez III

In my opinion, there are two significant factors worthy of discussion from last night's Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez fight. 1.) To the surprise of many, Pacquiao and Marquez fought on equal footing. 2.) American judges often prefer the aggressive fighter, regardless of whether the aggression happens to be effective.

Pacquiao was as much as a 9-1 favorite in the fight for a good reason. Since he last faced Marquez in 2008, he had barely lost a round, let alone a fight. Meanwhile, Marquez lost to Mayweather and struggled against lesser opponents like Juan Diaz and late-vintage Joel Casamayor. The conventional wisdom for yesterday's fight stated that Pacquiao's size and strength would be too much for Marquez, who had already been knocked down four times by Pacquiao at lesser weights.

Clearly, the conventional wisdom was wrong. Instead, the fight served as a more cautious continuation of their first two meetings. Pacquiao and Marquez traded in the center of the ring. Pacquiao pressed the action, landing straight lefts when he led and counter right hooks in exchanges. Marquez scored with single or two-shot counters throughout most of the night, including his straight right hand to the head and the body and his counter left hook.

To my eyes, Marquez landed the cleaner, more effective punches throughout most of the night. His body shots took a lot of steam out of Pacquiao. His counters dissuaded Pacquiao from engaging in lengthy engages. I scored the fight 116-112, with Pacquiao winning rounds 3, 4, 9 and 11. I believe that this was Marquez's best performance of the trilogy and Pacquiao's worst.

However, almost all of the rounds were tight. While watching the fight with BoxingFriendChris, I remarked more than once, "I don't know how you score that round." After big fights, I often compare my scorecards with a boxing writer in the industry whom I respect. We differed on each of the first four rounds. He gave the first two to Pacquiao; I awarded the first two to Marquez. It's certainly possible that a knowledgeable boxing observer could have given the first four rounds to one fighter or the other and still submit a responsible scorecard. Thus, the potential for wildly divergent, and yet acceptable, scorecards was certainly possible if not probable. Although one judge's 116-112 score for Pacquiao was at the outer edge of acceptability, it was still within the bounds of accurately reflecting what occurred in the fight.

The judges, like all of us, picked what they liked in each round of the fight. U.S. judges, if they have certain biases as a collective entity, tend to place disproportionate emphasis on the fighter who is the aggressor. Of course being an aggressor is not one of the scoring criteria in it of itself, but being an "effective aggressor" is. Too often, judges and boxing observers pick the busier fighter when in doubt.

This bias, or perhaps, a predilection, for aggression is widespread among U.S. judges and disfavors counterpunchers (Harold Lederman, HBO's unofficial ringside scorer, admitted during the broadcast that in close rounds, he picks the aggressor). In recent years, excellent counterpunchers like Bernard Hopkins, Winky Wright, Joel Casamayor and, yes, Juan Manuel Marquez, have lost numerous decisions to the more active and aggressive fighter.

I also believe that the judges misapplied one of the key criteria of judging last night: ring generalship. At the conclusion of many of the tight rounds, I said to myself, "Which fighter would I rather be?" Was that round which featured low activity, few exchanges and just a couple of meaningful connects a Marquez round or a Pacquiao round? In almost all cases, I selected Marquez, who wanted a slower pace to the fight than did Pacquiao. Marquez was happy to land one or two hard shots and then step out of the pocket. If Pacquiao had his way, he would throw whizzing four, five and six-punch combinations. In terms of ring generalship, I favored Marquez decisively.

As for the other judging criteria, defense was essentially a wash. Pacquiao landed a few more shots, but where were the lightning-fast combinations that routinely found their mark in the first two fights? Marquez tightened up his defense for the third fight, which was the only one of the trilogy where he wasn't knocked down or seriously hurt. Again, I also believe that Marquez had a decided advantage in most rounds on clean punching, scoring with his right hands to the head and body and his left hook. For me, Marquez won most of the rounds with his advantages in clean, effective punching and ring generalship.

Tactically, Pacquiao fought with a lot of caution. There were only a few instances – rounds 6 and 9, for instance – where he really let his hands go with multiple-punch combinations. Pacquiao, even though he was still the aggressor throughout much of last night, threw significantly fewer punches than he had in the earlier fights. In addition, his punches were different. To use a baseball term, last night he was throwing singles and doubles, whereas in the first two fights he was loading up for home run blasts. 

On one hand, Pacquiao has become a much more disciplined fighter, with better balance and footwork. However, in his present iteration, he is less likely to take the risks (i.e. throw four and five-punch combinations) that he did earlier in his career.  He has become more responsible in the ring although less exciting.  It's a tradeoff that every boxing trainer would take.   

In the past, there were two ways to defeat Juan Manuel Marquez. You could overwhelm him with speed, which Pacquiao did in their first two fights, or you could wear him down with physicality, which was Mayweather's modus operandi. Marquez neutralized one of his prior disadvantages by coming into last night's fight in terrific condition. His legs looked stronger than they had in the past. His shoulders and back were much broader and more muscular. Unlike his conditioning for the Mayweather fight, Marquez came up to welterweight the right way last night, with a nutritionist and a strength and conditioning coach.

Essentially, Marquez's improved physique left Pacquiao with one option for victory: speed. However, Pacquiao didn't feel comfortable rushing in last night. In addition, he barely threw his vaunted and improved right hand. He had a couple of good counter right hooks. His jab barely landed at all, which was really surprising. Also, he really didn't initiate any combinations with his right hook, a weapon that had confounded many of his opponents over the last few years.

Of course, there are two boxers in the ring. It's not as if Pacquiao decided that he wasn't going to be dynamic. Marquez dissuaded him from opening up. He was able to reduce Pacquiao's punch volume and keep his combinations down to a trickle. Pacquiao was cautious last night; it was enough to win, but it wasn't an inspiring or electrifying performance.

Nacho Beristain surely had an interesting night. I'd put his performance last night at two parts excellent and one part foolish. During the 24/7 Countdown Show, Beristain remarked (and I'm paraphrasing) that Pacquiao is easier to fight now because he is more conventional. Pacquiao's blinding speed and odd-angled shots gave Marquez such difficulty in their first two fights, yet, in examining Pacquiao's recent matches, Beristain concluded that Pacquiao had transformed into a more traditional fighter. He was right.

What Beristain did last night was to prepare Marquez for the Pacquiao of 2011, not the 2008 or 2004 version that provided so many unique challenges for his fighter. The Pacquiao of today is a pocket fighter, who starts exchanges as normal fighters would. He still has excellent speed and good power for his weight, but he is now more predictable than he was in previous iterations. What Pacquiao has lost in creativity, he has made up in technique and boxing savvy. However, these new strengths play well for Marquez, who is one of the most fundamentally sound fighters in the sport.

Beristain emphasized punch placement, body shots and single punches to neutralize Pacquiao's offense and protect his fighter from harm's way. It was a masterful game plan. If you would like to quibble, Marquez could have been a tad busier, but Beristain's blueprint was excellent.

Beristain controversially told Marquez in the championship rounds that he was winning. To Beristain, Marquez executed the game plan and was accomplishing exactly what they set out to achieve. However, Beristain, one of the most experienced and successful trainers in the sport, should have known that winning a decision against Pacquiao would be a difficult task. Beristain had Marquez winning comfortably after the 10th round, but it was certainly possible that the judges did not. If Marquez goes all out and secures the 11th and 12th on all of the cards, he would have won a split decision. That being said, Marquez still fought well in the 12th (I and one of the judges gave him the round). Nevertheless, Beristain still gave his fighter awful advice.

Meanwhile, Freddie Roach implored Pacquiao to knock down Marquez after the 10th. He didn't say "we need these rounds" or "the fight is close." He said that Pacquiao had to put him down. This is not the instruction of a corner that is confident; it demonstrates that Roach thought that Pacquiao was significantly behind in the fight.  

For Roach, this is the second fight in a row where Pacquiao didn't meet expectations. The trainer predicted knockouts for both Mosley and Marquez – neither of which occurred. It may be that the Manny Pacquiao of two years ago could have easily disposed of both foes, but that may no longer be the fighter who Roach trains.

It's certainly possible that Pacquiao has already peaked. Even just small deteriorations in his hand or foot speed could take him from the extraordinary to something more traditional. In addition, this is the second consecutive fight where he has had foot problems; his body may be starting to betray him.  It wouldn't surprise me if he makes significant changes in his conditioning program going forward. 

I don't want to be overdramatic and claim that Pacquiao is no longer an elite fighter – of course he is. However, for the last three years he seemingly ranked head-and-shoulders above all of the other top boxers with the exception of Floyd Mayweather. (Again, this follows the conventional wisdom. Marquez had always fought him competitively). At this point, it's tough to say if Pacquiao can dominate the other great fighters at welterweight. I would still favor him to beat Victor Ortiz and Andre Berto at 147, but his days of blitzing through bigger opponents may be over.

When the final bell sounded on Saturday, Marquez hoisted his arms in glory. His team celebrated its perceived triumph. Pacquiao walked solemnly and without emotion back to his corner. For Pacquiao, one of boxing's most dynamic and magnetic personalities, that picture spoke thousands of words.

After the match, Team Marquez spoke disapprovingly about the result, but without passion. They were convinced that they won and felt no urgent need to strenuously argue their case. Meanwhile, as Pacquiao heard the boos cascading from the crowd during his post-fight interview, the discomfort on his face was obvious. Pacquiao had always brought such jubilation and joy to boxing audiences but last night they turned on him. The fans at the MGM arena were angry and Pacquiao was unfamiliar with the wrath of boxing fans. It was a striking image and one not soon forgotten.

Tim Bradley looked excellent against the ghost of Joel Casamayor last night. He was his aggressive self, landing pinpoint right hands and crisp left hooks. The effects of an 11-month layoff were imperceptible. Bradley, not known for his power, was able to knock Casamayor down three times before their corner stopped the action. The knockdowns, however, may tell us more about Casamayor's legs and reflexes at this stage of his career than they do about Bradley's power.

Bradley, who has won three belts at junior welterweight, has taken a lot of hits recently over his decision to pass up a fight with Amir Khan. As a fighter, he will never wow with his power or speed, but his makeup is exceptional. He is far more than the sum of his parts. His tenacity, dedication and relentlessness will make him difficult to beat at 140 lbs.

Mike Alvarado rallied from a significant deficit to stop Briedis Prescott in the 10th and final round of their fight. Prescott, who knocked out Khan at lightweight, started aggressively. He worked off the jab well and landed punishing uppercuts and straight right hands. By the third round, he opened up a nasty cut over Alvarado's eye. Prescott, a strong frontrunner, was way ahead at the half-way mark of the match. However, as the fight progressed, Alvarado started to assert his dominance, landing crushing lead right hands and uppercuts. In the 10th, Alvarado landed a series of blistering uppercuts that damaged Prescott. He finished the fight with a beautiful left uppercut-right uppercut combination that forced Jay Nady to stop the fight. It was a good stoppage and without it, Alvarado would have lost the bout.

Alvarado has been a well-regarded Top Rank prospect for a number of years. Already 31, his progress has been stymied by personal and legal problems outside of the ring. If Alvarado's ship is right, he can be a force at junior welterweight, winning titles and appearing in major fights fairly quickly. However, with Alvarado, that "if" should not be taken lightly.

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  1. you never mention the dirty tactics of marquez in this fight... almost every round marquez foot step on pacman foot.. check it out duds...

  2. hey!pay respect the judge decisions..watching replay or even in live or PPV is diferrent from this 3 guyz sat in front of the two fighters..