Thursday, December 13, 2012

Opinions and Observations: Pacquiao-Marquez IV


After last year's unsatisfying result in the third fight of the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez series, where Marquez appeared to have boxed himself to a victory but didn't win on the scorecards, both camps went back to the classroom in preparation for Saturday's fourth edition. For team Pacquiao, Freddie Roach and crew studied their successes in the first two fights, while Nacho Beristain and Marquez conducted a thorough post-mortem on the third installment.

Each side entered the ring on Saturday with its adjustments and variations. Pacquiao's team ditched its attempt to win by boxing and returned to the brawling style of the first two fights. In addition, Roach added some new wrinkles: more feints and head movement. Although Pacquiao weighed in at a career-high 147, his speed looked excellent, and it was clear from his performance that this training camp featured a renewed focus on agility.

For Team Marquez, its strategy in the third fight – single counters instead of trading – had its desired effect inside of the ring, but not with the judges sitting directly outside of it. The one-shot counterpunches reduced Marquez's vulnerability to longer exchanges, which favored Pacquiao with his superior speed and athleticism. Marquez and Beristain realized two additional things from the third fight: 1. They might not ever win a fair decision on the scorecards. 2. They had to go for the knockout.

For the fourth fight, Team Marquez employed a strategy of blunt force trauma. Marquez wasn't going to match Pacquiao's punch output or win every foray, but he needed to end the fight before the final bell. In short, when Pacquiao got hit hard, he needed to go down. That meant Marquez's counters had to be thrown with malicious intent. Thus, instead of straight right hand counters, which Marquez had perfected throughout his career, his emphasis needed to be placed on maximum-leverage punches: overhand rights and looping right hands from the outside.

Leading up to the fight, Marquez undertook an extensive weight training regiment, supervised by strength and conditioning coach Angel Heredia (also known as Angel Hernandez, much more on him later). Using the eye test, Marquez entered the ring more muscular than he had ever been in previous fights. Throughout Marquez's career, his power had emanated not from God-given power or favorable musculature, but from perfect punching technique. Now, with Heredia's assistance, Marquez displayed Hulk-like biceps and shoulder muscles. However, once the fight started, he didn't look stiff or unfluid, like many boxers do when they overcommit to weight training.

The fight started much faster than the last installment did. Pacquiao darted in and out of the pocket and his legs looked very fresh. His feints confounded Marquez at first and he also incorporated his right hook. Marquez lost the first two rounds, but practically every shot of his went to Pacquiao's body. Yet, he had not unloaded any big punches. He was trying to slow Pacquiao down and set him up for later in the fight.

In the third round, this series forever changed; Pacquiao went down. It was the first time he touched the canvas in nine years. Marquez struck with a picture-perfect combination: jab to the head/jab to the body/looping right hand to the head. Pacquiao, who was moving away from the jab to the body, never saw the punch from the outside. There was a simple explanation for the knockdown; Marquez brought a new girl to the dance.

It wouldn't surprise me if Beristain, who is one of the ultimate students of the game, took away something very substantive from Floyd Mayweather's win over Miguel Cotto earlier this year. In that fight, Mayweather debuted a looping right hand from the outside. Cotto had not prepared for that punch and he was hit with it at will.

Marquez had always been one of the best counterpunchers in boxing, using his left hook, uppercut (right or left) and straight right hand. Pacquiao and Roach had seen those punches before and had different degrees of success defending against them. In fact, Marquez's straight right hand had been the only punch that had provided continued success throughout the earlier trilogy.

In essence, Beristain used his knowledge of Pacquiao, the prior success of Marquez and perhaps some borrowing from other fighters to put together a brand new wrinkle. Pacquiao wouldn't expect a looping right hand because Marquez had never thrown it in their previous fights. If you look at Pacquiao's hands prior to the third-round knockdown, they were lowered a little because of the body shot attempt, but they were straight in front of him. Most likely, he would have at least been able to partially block a Marquez counter straight right hand. However, prior to the knockdown, the whole left side of his face was exposed. He was not expecting anything looping.

Marquez' knockdown combination was not the product of some sort of improvisational genius. It was thrown so fluidly. You could tell it was practiced and perfected in the gym prior to the fight. There was no hesitation or pausing to study Pacquiao's reactions. Jab, jab and then bang.

Nevertheless, Pacquiao pulled himself together and by the end of the fourth round, he scored with solid connects. In the fifth, he got his revenge. In a brief trade, his left hand beat Marquez's jab and Marquez staggered back with his glove touching the canvas – a knockdown. In real time, that punch – and I don't say this lightly – was blindingly fast. I've probably played the clip of that knockdown 20 times or so and I still can't see it unfolding without the benefit of slow motion replay. For those who claim that Pacquiao's hand speed had slipped (and I was one of them), that fifth-round round knockdown was certainly evidence to the contrary.

Pacquiao continued to pile on in the fifth after the knockdown. His straight left hand repeatedly snapped back Marquez's head. By the end of the round, Marquez's nose was busted up and he was bleeding profusely.

The sixth round started out with more of the same. Marquez got tagged again and again. He was badly hurt. It looked like he might go down again. As the round came to a close, Pacquiao attempted a crafty little maneuver. While Marquez was stationed along the ropes, Pacquiao feinted with the jab and then rushed in behind his jab....

WHAM!!!!!!!

The next coherent image was Pacquiao face-first on the canvas, motionless underneath the ropes; he was out cold. The fight was over.

What the hell had just happened?

Marquez, the expert of adjustments, didn't go for the feint. As soon as Pacquiao tried to throw his jab, Marquez put all of his force behind an overhand right. The punch connected at short range and Pacquiao collapsed.

What Beristain and Marquez had figured out in their preparation for this fight was that Pacquiao stayed in the pocket long enough to be countered with home run bombs. Again, instead of the straight right hand counter, Marquez opted for a punch thrown with more leverage and power. Team Marquez always knew about Pacquiao’s penchant for running into the pocket. That was how they were so competitive in the first three fights. The change in the fourth fight was the type of counter shot they employed. Pacquiao, ever the risk taker, knew he could withstand Marquez's straight right hand from past fights, but the overhand shot proved to be a different beast entirely.

And that was that. There was pandemonium, euphoria, a palpable sense of awe from the crowd. Everyone knew that they had witnessed an unforgettable moment of boxing history.

It was shocking. I was yelling at the TV, jumping up and down like a little boy, waking the neighbors. What a fight! What a spectacle! It was boxing, no, sport at its finest. It was the highest of highs.

Instantly, I went online and started posting and talking about the fight. My heart was racing. It was the type of exhilarating moment that only boxing could deliver.

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And then a strange thing happened as the euphoria of the knockout started to wear off. My overwhelming sense of joy had transformed into something else: skepticism.

A nagging voice inside my head started to ask the following questions: Do 39-year-olds suddenly develop wipeout power? Was Marquez clean? Was Pacquiao? Was it just the perfect punch?

The pleasure of the night had suddenly vanished, replaced by suspicion. This was an epic moment in boxing and yet I couldn't enjoy it fully. And I hated that.

Ultimately, Marquez's decision to employ Angel Heredia, a confessed steroid dealer and cooperating government witness in the BALCO scandal, affected my comprehension of the fight's conclusion. Although Marquez had always been seen as an upright figure in boxing, why was he consorting with a person with this type of background? Clearly, he knew that this relationship would bring increased scrutiny of his performance. Although Marquez came into the third fight with an improved body under Heredia, his physique on Saturday was something entirely different. He scarcely resembled the lightweight of two years ago.

In the aftermath of the fight, I started to wonder about Marquez's ease in obliterating Pacquiao with just one punch. Remember, Pacquiao hadn't been knocked down in nine years. Now, strange things do happen in boxing. George Foreman wiped out a number of fighters in his 40s, but he always had concussive power. For Marquez, historically he had never been a one-punch knockout artist. He had beaten people up and eventually stopped them. But he had not been one who suddenly turned out the lights of world-class fighters.

But this is boxing – the theater of the unexpected, as the phrase goes. It could have been just an amazing knockout. I hope it was. I want it to be. But I'm also not entirely trusting. Not this year.

Earlier in 2012, Andre Berto, Lamont Peterson, Antonio Tarver and Erik Morales all tested positive for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Some names on that list had sterling reputations before their failed tests. In all of those cases except Tarver's, the fighters used testing that was far more thorough than those of the state commissions.

For Pacquiao-Marquez IV, the fighters submitted to the basic and flawed drug testing of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which allows elevated testosterone levels as compared to other states, and doesn't test for synthetic testosterone, HGH (human growth hormone, a synthetic drug which increases muscle mass) or EPO (a PED designed to deliver increased oxygen delivery to muscles).

Because of the number of high-profile drug cheats caught this year, a confessed steroid dealer surrounding Marquez's training camp, the fighter's advanced age and the spectacular result of the match, it was difficult to avoid ruminating about the specter of PEDs.

But I wasn't just thinking about Marquez. In an ironic twist, the initial push for increased drug testing in boxing originated because of Pacquiao's success. Floyd Mayweather was incredulous of Pacquiao's reign of terror, when in a 30-month period he went from beating junior lightweights to destroying junior middleweights, four weight classes higher. Mayweather and others in his camp accused Pacquiao of taking illegal substances. Pacquiao would sue Mayweather for defamation and eventually wound up receiving a settlement.

With that said, Manny didn't help himself on this topic when he initially refused to submit to random blood testing during the first round of negotiations for a potential Mayweather mega-fight. Additionally, once Pacquiao agreed to testing, there were all sorts of skirmishes between camps about the arbitrary end points of the testing prior to the fight. The potential mega-fight never occurred as Pacquiao and promoter Bob Arum were livid about being dictated to by Mayweather. (Drug testing was only one of several issues that prevented the match from being finalized. Both boxers and their teams deserve their fair share of the blame for the failure to make the fight).
 
But Floyd was on the right side of the PED issue; it was not mere gamesmanship. Time has vindicated his stance that there is a serious PED problem in boxing.

Interestingly, since Team Mayweather's accusations first surfaced in 2009, Pacquiao hasn't knocked a fighter out. Before this current streak of six bouts without a knockout, he  had never had more than three consecutive fights without a stoppage, and those were his first three bouts in 1995.

Ultimately, suspicion of Marquez and Pacquiao, as well as other fighters, is not proof of any wrongdoing. However, because of the lack of uniform and comprehensive drug testing, this is boxing's current reality, full of unanswered questions about illegal substances. Dopers and their enablers are much further advanced than the testing protocols that the individual states employ. The absence of a unifying governing body in the sport hinders its ability to address this problem with the speed and decisiveness that it deserves.

Watching it live, I loved Pacquiao-Marquez IV. It was epic and memorable, and all that other great stuff. But a lot of my Sunday was spent wondering if one or both fighters were even clean – and I really resented that.

Yes, I want there to be a fifth fight between Pacquiao and Marquez, but there needs to be Olympic-style testing. Pacquiao and Marquez have an opportunity to help push for a cleaner sport. I hope that they utilize their power and status to mandate stricter testing for all of their future fights. At this point, they have already made vast fortunes in boxing. For them, supporting stricter testing would not be an act of great moral courage, but it would certainly set the right example for the sport and the industry.


Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com
@snboxing on twitter
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6 comments:

  1. Thanks for another great, thought-provoking article!

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  2. I don`t think drugs were involved. Pac just ran into a punch that Marquez threw with every ounce of strength and perfect timing.

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  3. It was both good timing and lucky punch by Marquez. Marquez was not even looking when his fist met the forwarding head of Pacquiao. This is luck brought by preparation.

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