It is as jarring an image as we’ve seen in an elite-level boxing ring this century. A recumbent Manny Pacquiao, prostrate and unmoving on the canvas floor, momentarily oblivious to the bedlam descending around him. Some, his trainer and promoter among them, later confessed to having feared the very worst. His wife and teenage sweetheart, Jinkee, wept freely as she fought her way towards her stricken husband in near hysterics. The rest of us simply struggled with competing emotions of concern and disbelief.
He had been beaten before, of course. Four times as a professional, in fact, if we must count the parody of bad scoring that was the shameful Timothy Bradley Jr. decision exactly six months prior in the same MGM Grand Arena.
And he had been stopped before too. A couple of months after his 17th birthday, a little of Rustico Torrecampo’s glove, and a lot of the burly shoulder that followed through as backup, left a dazed and confused young Filipino lying in the foetal position for longer than the count of ten.
Three years later in 1999, Medgoen Singsurat’s visceral straight right put him down again. There on the ring floor, mimicking the final throes of the sardine and herring he used to drag daily from the Sulu Sea, Manny arched and writhed and gasped for air. With his diaphragm spasming and the oxygen his lungs craved arriving in too short a supply for his body to continue, the count again beat him.
But this was very different. Juan Manuel Márquez had just landed a right hand for the ages. It may not quite have been a shot heard around the world, but in Vegas, Mexico and the Philippines at least, the blow landed with the most almighty, altitonant crash. Kenny Bayless looked to take up the count but the futility of such a response became almost immediately apparent. At ringside, Roy Jones Jr. was already shouting to his co-commentator: “He’s not getting up Jim, he’s not getting up.”
As the victor vaulted onto the ropes to better absorb the perfervid acclaim of his now frenzied followers, most eyes strained to see the collapsed body of the vanquished, face down and motionless with its head asleep on the ring apron. The fiercest fire in 21st century boxing had just been extinguished and it was either too surreal or too brutally real to fully comprehend.
But let’s rewind a moment: this was Pacquiao Márquez IV, eight and a half years on from their first fistic rendezvous. There had, until this point, been precious little between them, but plenty to debate, as they chased one another up the weight classes from feather to super feather to welter. In the acrimony which followed each close decision, the Mexican tended to be the more aggrieved of the two. Manny, however, could be forgiven the odd gripe as well.
The first three minutes the two men shared with one another were special. Just ninety seconds in, the customary feeling out period was cut painfully short by a Pacquiao right-left combination that caught Márquez cold and sat him down on the seat of his white shorts. Thirty seconds later, Manny repeated the trick to enforce a second mandatory eight count. There was still time for Dinamita to be dropped once more before he trudged back to his corner with bowed head and a rill of blood trickling from either nostril: a 10-6 opening round was not part of the plan.
But by the third stanza, Márquez was finally moving his head to evade more of Pacquiao’s devastating single punch attacks and he began to claim rounds with counters and combinations of his own. He largely controlled three through eight before Manny refound his range to win nine and ten. Márquez took the eleventh to set up a grandstand finale that could have gone either way.
The scorecards made for bizarre reading with one declaring Pacquiao the winner by five points, another Márquez by the same margin, and the decisive third calling it a draw. Though neither camp felt satisfied with the outcome, when judge Burt Clements, who had it 113-113, later admitted he mistakenly scored the opening gambit 10-7 rather than 10-6, perhaps Team Pacman had reason to feel most hard done by.
The inevitable rematch took longer than expected to materialise but four years later, and four pounds heavier, they clashed again. Once more, Márquez was the only man to go down and, once more, he recovered to ensure every other round was competitive. Two of the judges preferred Pacquiao’s persistent aggression, however, and the Filipino took the split decision.
The third bout in the series was perhaps even harder to call. It lacked a knockdown but wanted for little else throughout the thirty six minutes of action. Team Márquez were sure they had done enough but again the ringside scorers disagreed and this time awarded a majority decision to Pacquiao. Watching it again, it is easy to make a convincing argument for either fighter but, certainly, the belief that the Filipino was receiving the benefit of any doubt that lingered in the ring at the end of each round was growing stronger in some quarters. Either way, the rivalry still demanded closure.
Part four took place on the 8th of December, 2012, and many seasoned observers believed this could finally be Juan Manuel’s moment. With Manny’s political ambitions in the Philippines commandeering more and more of his time, the feeling was that the fire in Congressman Pacquiao’s belly was fading fast. El Dinamita, on the other hand, was still kept awake at night by pesadillas of defeat and sueños of revenge.
A pumped up, and bulked up, Márquez strode to the ring with the sound of thousands of his countrymen roaring the famous Mexican ranchera, El Rey (the King), echoing around the arena. Some sage, and perhaps prophetic, advice could be found within the lyrics they belted out that night:
“Una piedra en el camino, me enseñó que mi destino, era rodar y rodar. También me dijo un arriero, que no hay que llegar primero, pero hay que saber llegar.”
“A bump in the road, showed me that my destiny, was to keep going and going. An arriero also told me, that you don’t have to arrive first, but you have to know the way.”
Pacquiao, as is his wont, skipped joyfully along his ring walk without a care in the world. Unlike the vast majority of top professional boxers, whose personalities darken notably in the hours preceding a championship bout, Manny rarely, outwardly at least, switches into fight mode until he has physically climbed through the ropes.
The constant infectious grinning, combined with naturally elfin-like features, suggest a happy yet bashful nine year old kid approaching the school stage to collect a sports day medal rather than a warrior on the cusp of battle. But the innate affability of the man merely belies the potential violence in his fists and opponents ceased being lulled into false senses of security a very long time ago.
The bell sounded and the busier and more accurate Pacquiao shaded rounds one and two which were energetic but lacking any real meaningful exchanges. It appeared that, even after 114 minutes of engagement, Márquez, the thinker, was still puzzling over the jerking movement and rapid, stinging, single shots that emanated from the ball of hurtful energy bouncing incessantly in and out of his range. But he did not have to wait much longer for a breakthrough in cracking the Pacman code.
Taking a massive stride forward with his leading left foot, Márquez threw away a decoy jab before feigning another and lunging forward with a heavy, wide, swinging, looping right hand that bypassed Pacquiao’s high but loose guard and detonated on the side of his skull. The Filipino sank and the Mexican backed away to the neutral corner without once taking his eyes off his foe.
Manny recovered well, however, and was competitive in the fourth, a stanza that proved to be little more than an appetiser before the classic fifth that Ring Magazine proclaimed round of the year. A straight left from Pacquiao forced Márquez’s glove to touch the canvas before a right hook caused his nasal bone to shatter and the flesh under his left eye to swell. Saved by the bell may be slightly overstating it, but he was undoubtedly relieved to get the minute’s refuge when it came.
Momentum had now swung firmly back towards Southeast Asia as Márquez’s face adopted a predominantly vermilion hue. His nose was broken and Pacquiao went to work on it in the sixth, ruthlessly targeting the damaged bone and cartilage to increase the flow of blood. The smiling, childlike, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth Pacman of barely twenty minutes before was by now a distant memory.
Though the straight left still looked most likely to win the fight for Manny, he was now also landing short, stunning rights that jounced Márquez’s head and further reddened his battered face. In reply, the Mexican, who so dearly wanted to unleash another damning overhand right, had some success in keeping Pacquiao honest with stern left jabs and counters.
But as the seconds ticked away, it was undoubtedly heading for a Pacquiao round in what was in danger of becoming another Pacquiao fight. Márquez’s left eye was sinking out of view as the pockets of flesh circling his eye socket inflated towards each other. His nose was getting tenderised like a tough cut of steak and the blood which so visibly blotted and speckled his face must also have been trickling down his throat and clogging his airways. He was 39 years of age, a veteran of sixty one ring wars: he wasn’t going to make it through another six rounds of this.
As the clapper let us know we were entering the final ten seconds of the sixth round, Márquez overreached with an overhand right. It fell well short and allowed Pacquiao to counter with a machine-gun right left that unbalanced Márquez, making him look suddenly clumsy and amateurish. From that position rocked back on his heels, the enraged Mexican shifted his weight forward and lunged towards Pacquiao swinging wildly and inaccurately and unsuccessfully.
There was now just a single second to go. Pacquiao could have bounced twice on the spot then turned and sat in his corner with another round in bank. Freddie Roach would have told him: “That’s it son, we’ve got him now. He’s tiring, the blood is bothering him and he’s struggling to breathe. The hook is doing it for us son. Just keep moving and we’ve got him.”
But he didn’t bounce on the spot. He bounced forward. And Márquez was ready.
Juan Manuel Márquez will never be described as passive in the ring, but as Mexican champions go, he is relatively patient. Like a wildlife photographer on a snow leopard stakeout, he was in position and waiting for Manny this time. Perhaps he had been waiting for this precise moment for forty two rounds spread over eight and a half long years.
Like a batsman taking an exaggerated stride down the track to meet the pitch of a full delivery, Márquez planted his left foot alongside where Pacquiao’s right was due to arrive a millisecond later. As Manny fired out a right lead, Márquez crouched forward slightly and tilted his head and body to about half past ten to avoid it. This left Manny twisted and unguarded, out of position and moving forward into no man’s land.
Marquez, meanwhile, had already started the process of transferring all of his weight from the big toe of his right foot pushing off the canvas, up through his extended leg and rotating body and, as that rotation continued, into and along his cocked right arm to arrive in his gloved right fist at the exact moment it thudded into Pacquiao’s oncoming face. The impact was immense and Manny dropped like a stone, unconscious before he hit the floor.
“He’s not getting up Jim, he’s not getting up.”
And then bedlam descended…