Grantland’s Rafe Bartholomew and Jay Caspian Kang were both ringside for Pacquiao-Marquez IV Saturday night in Las Vegas. This is what they saw and experienced, from the leadup to the fight to its stunning conclusion.
Kang: Here’s what I remember: Manny Pacquiao disappeared. I last saw him hopping around in the far corner of the ring, his fists battering the head, neck, and chest of Juan Manuel Marquez. Then, with one second left in the sixth round, Manny was gone.
It’s a very strange thing, to watch a man disappear like that. On the JumboTron, I could see the image of Manny Pacquiao facedown on the mat, his gloves tucked neatly underneath his hips. To my right sat a Mexican radio announcer, who, for God knows what reason, had spent the entire fight screaming an agitated, old-timey Spanish blow-by-blow broadcast into a Nokia cell phone from 1998. Between rounds, I’d look over at him as he yammered on about derechos and guerras and he’d look right back at me as if to dare me to point out the absurdity of what he was doing. This radio guy had somehow managed to get through the entire fight without saying Manny’s name once, referring to him only as “El Filipino.” But when El Filipino disappeared, the radio man leaped to his feet and screamed “¡Pacquiao, no más! ¡Pacquiao, no más!”
When Manny disappeared, 10,000 Mexican fans stomped, screamed “¡Sí se puede!” and threw keg cups and popcorn high into the air. Standing in that beer rain, jaw dropped halfway down my chest, I still didn’t really understand where he had gone. Then I saw Jinkee Pacquiao crying into Bob Arum’s shoulder and saw the doctors waving smelling salts under Manny’s nose and saw Juan Manuel Marquez riding around the ring on the shoulders of his cornerman and the scene finally snapped into focus.
Throughout boxing history, when the great ones go down, the surrounding details turn surreal. Mitt Romney makes his first post-election appearance in an arena filled with his coveted Latino voters and introduces himself to the champ: “Hi, Manny. I’m Mitt Romney. I ran for President. I lost.” Ali heads up to Lewiston, Maine, for his second bout with Sonny Liston, the indestructible Roberto Duran has quit, and for some reason a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear has been spat out onto the canvas. Every recollection of a great fight comes with its attendant inaccuracies and bizarre coincidences. Perhaps our consciousness, scrambling to adjust to what has just happened, fills in the gaps with inaccuracies and fictive, seemingly random recollections. Manny Pacquiao disappeared on Saturday night and as I write this just two hours later, I can recall Marquez’s right hand thudding into Manny’s chin, I can still feel the drops of beer on my face, I can hear the Mexican radio announcer screaming “¡Pacquiao, no más!” into his ancient cell phone, I can even recall the exact moment when Manny dropped out of sight, but those memories already feel odd and distant, as if they happened in some other life governed by an entirely different logic.
Bartholomew: Here’s what I remember: Manny Pacquiao ducked his head and hit Juan Manuel Marquez with a straight left hand that caught Marquez backing up and knocked him off balance. There were 10 seconds left in Round 6, and after a brief and wild counter flurry from Marquez, Manny chased him toward the corner, where he could perhaps sneak in one last blow before the bell. Manny had his back to press row. I saw him lunge forward with one more straight left, and then it looked like he fell through a trap door. My first thought after Manny ran into the counter right that left him motionless and lying facedown on the mat was, Did it come after the bell? Not that it mattered. The fight was over.
The next 60 seconds are pretty gauzy in my mind: I can see referee Kenny Bayless crouching over Manny’s body and waving his hands to stop the fight; I can hear Michael Buffer’s voice, but I have no clue what he said; I can hear the roar of the Mexican fans in the MGM Grand Garden Arena, but it sounds not much different from the white noise that drowned out my thoughts as the shock engulfed me. Then I saw the replays — four consecutive times, each from a different angle, each shown on the LED screens hanging above the ring. Manny’s head snapping back. The shockwave pulsing down his spine. Marquez’s glove connecting with Manny’s face. Manny’s features going flat. And then, the final image: Manny’s left foot kicking up into the air as his body hit the canvas, his toe falling in slow motion then settling on the ring floor with a quiver. I didn’t see it at first. Now, I’m fairly certain I’ll never be able to unsee it.
People are already calling Pacquiao-Marquez IV the fight of the year. Some are calling it one of the best in the history of boxing, a skill-laden brawl between two of the best boxers of their generation with a stunning and devastating ending. They’re saying it may belong in the same breath as Hagler-Hearns. They’re right. But how these observers can find the distance and perspective to make such heady comparisons is beyond me. In that moment, one second before the end of the sixth round, I was looking at my two favorite fighters. One of them was standing on the ropes in a corner of the ring, triumphantly holding his fists in the air. The other was flat on his face in the other corner. I felt pretty sure he wasn’t dead, but he was terrifyingly lifeless.
Kang: You can say it started in the third, when a huge overhand right from Marquez found its way around Manny’s defense and dropped him for the first time since 2003, or you can say it started in the last minute of the fifth, but for the fans and media who spent the weekend at the MGM, especially those who spend liberally from the coffers of hindsight, the knockout started at the weigh-in, when 39-year-old Juan Manuel Marquez stripped off his black tracksuit, stepped on the scale, and flexed out his new physique.
Despite weighing four pounds under the 147-pound welterweight limit, Marquez looked like a Frankenstein’s monster made up entirely from the body parts of young Olympians. The chatter started almost immediately in the press section about Marquez’s rumored use of performance-enhancing drugs during his training for the fight.
It’s always a bad scene when a bunch of sportswriters get together to speculate on anatomy and science through completely subjective and mostly misinformed gawking. But for whatever it’s worth, which is definitely not much, Marquez failed pretty much everyone on press row’s eye test. The allure of the first three Pacquiao-Marquez bouts came from the contrast between Manny’s speed and power and Marquez’s ability to adjust, to gut and think his way through what should have been an impossible physical deficit. In the first round of their first fight, Manny famously knocked Marquez down three times. For the remaining 11 rounds, Marquez put on a rare exhibition — you could actually watch his brain in action as he solved Manny Pacquiao in the ring.
At Friday’s weigh-in, cagey, old Marquez had been upgraded into something new. Doctor Octopus had put on his new suit.
Bartholomew: Unfortunately, in boxing, the eye test might be as close as it gets to uniform drug testing. The various state athletic commissions set their own lax standards, often little more than a urine test on the day of the bout. When individual fighters sign contracts, they can agree to random blood testing under the supervision of anti-doping groups like VADA or USADA, but the only figure in boxing who has the promotional leverage and desire to force opponents to submit to these stringent measures is Floyd Mayweather Jr. Sometimes, even after a boxer tests positive for a banned substance, as Erik Morales did twice before a fight in October, the bout is not canceled because there is money to be made and the show must go on.
It didn’t take too long Saturday night for Marquez to demonstrate that his transformation wasn’t purely cosmetic. He didn’t just look stronger than ever before; he also punched harder. Throughout his career, when Marquez has stopped his opponents, he has done so through the accumulation of precise blows. In the first two rounds Saturday night, he didn’t land many of his signature combinations or counterpunches. I wondered if his new muscle suit could have dulled the reflexes and scrambled the fluidity that made him one of boxing’s greatest technicians. Or maybe he was just waiting for one big shot.
That shot — the first one, anyway — came in the third round. It was a looping right that dumped Pacquiao violently on his back. After 38 rounds of surgical counterpunching, including their first two fights, Marquez finally managed to knock down Pacquiao, and he did it with a single crushing blow. This was the moment when Indiana Jones looks at his whip, smirks, and instead chooses his revolver — only Marquez’s pistol had the stopping power of an elephant gun. Even though Pacquiao recovered quickly from that first knockdown, Marquez’s punch sent a message and added a new wrinkle to the matchup — now, either fighter could get dropped.
Kang: At the start of the fifth — oh my goodness, the fifth — Manny and Marquez came out in their classic stances. Manny bobbed his head, bounced in and out of range, and flashed his hands in front of his face and down to his chin. In the past, this frantic, aggressive buzzing about has drawn annoyed opponents into making critical mistakes — if you’re trying to figure out Manny Pacquiao and he won’t stop hopping the fuck around, who wouldn’t want to punch him straight in the face?
But Marquez would not be baited. He backed up with his left shoulder dipped slightly down, his feet squared below his hips, his eyes clear and darting about. After two early rounds cut straight from the Pacquiao-Marquez template, a surprise third and a seesaw fourth, Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez fell back into their familiar rhythm. Manny buzzed around and dove in whenever he saw an opening. Marquez countered when he could. When he couldn’t, he ate straight lefts and rights. With 1:54 left in the fifth, Marquez tried to put a little bit of leg into a slow left jab. Manny slipped the punch, turned to his own left, and drove a hook straight into Marquez’s jaw. Marquez spun down into a crouch. His glove hit the canvas.
The crowd gasped. The Mexican radio announcer yelled “No no no … ” into his phone. Behind me, a somewhat notable light welterweight said, “It’s not over. It’s not over.” But he’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the crowd who agreed with him. Not because Marquez seemed really hurt or because anyone questioned his unimpeachable heart, but more because in the fifth round on Saturday, Manny Pacquiao looked a lot like the all-time great who ripped through Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, and Miguel Cotto.
Marquez stumbled forward and lifted his gloves as if nothing had happened. Referee Kenny Bayless correctly separated the fighters and started the standing eight count. Marquez frowned and inhaled sharply through his nose. More than anything, he looked annoyed at himself for letting Pacquiao back into the fight.
If the Hagler-Hearns talk has already begun, it’s because the next 100 seconds of Pacquiao-Marquez IV were fought at a pace far beyond any measured, reasonable comparison. Nearly every punch thrown during those 100 seconds landed — Marquez kept backing up and countering with heavy shots, Manny kept flying in with fast, powerful straight lefts. The styles had not changed, but both fighters had turned into superhuman versions of themselves. At 1:30, just 18 seconds after being knocked down, Marquez unloaded a counter right that spun Manny around, spraying sweat, spit, and blood into the stands. Manny, undeterred, went immediately back on the attack. For the first time in years, really, he looked pissed — the slap-your-gloves together, jump-in-and-throw-six-straight-punches Manny Pacquiao had returned for what may have been his last show. With 45 seconds left in the round, Manny buried a straight right that busted open Marquez’s face. I have no idea how Marquez withstood that shot — I’m certain, if asked, he would say something about being Mexican and I suppose there’s been enough evidence in the history of the sport to just roll with that answer. Sensing an advantage, Pacquiao drove Marquez back into the corner and tried to finish the fight before the bell. Marquez refused to cover up or hold. With 22 seconds left, he shoved Manny back into the ropes and unleashed a brutal four-punch combination that earned him enough of a respite to survive the round.
When the bell rang and the cheers swelled to a deafening level, I turned to my Mexican cell phone radio broadcasting friend and tried to say, “Wow,” but could only manage a full dry heave. I realized that I had been holding my breath for nearly a full minute. Gasping for air, all I could manage was a weak clap on the back. I wasn’t the only reporter who happily abandoned his or her journalistic duties on Saturday night. Nearly every member of the press, whether Mexican, Filipino, or American, stood and applauded at the end of the fifth.
For years, Juan Manuel Marquez has been the embodiment of a familiar, inspiring story line — an undersized, scarred-up Mexican genius who, through ring savvy and heart, achieved greatness. Nobody gave Juan Manuel Marquez a fair shake throughout his career because there is nothing sexy about him. He was never as good-looking or as lionized as Erik Morales, he never fought with the explosiveness of Marco Antonio Barrera, he couldn’t smile and give thanks to God and play the role of Manny Pacquiao, lovable prodigy. Despite all that, Juan Manuel Marquez will end his career as one of the greatest fighters of all time, a title he earned with dignity and courage. Full disclosure, if it’s still even necessary: Marquez is my favorite fighter.
On Saturday night, I don’t know if it was Marquez’s unreal physique and the PED rumors or if it was the contrarian in me that instinctively goes against the crowd or if Manny’s brilliance in the fifth demanded a switch in allegiance, but I, who send off bitter e-mails to my friend in Mexico City every time something reminds me of the injustice of Pacquiao-Marquez III, stood up and cheered lustily for El Filipino. In retrospect, the sight of Marquez at the weigh-in, flexing, almost jeering at the crowd as he showed off his new shoulders and core, had a more profound effect on me than I would like to admit. By beefing up, by fighting power with power, Marquez abandoned his post as the intellectual’s fighter. Selfishly, I still wish the judges hadn’t robbed Marquez this past November, when he used intelligence and timing to frustrate and stymie Pacquiao’s attacks. I recognized and cheered for that Juan Manuel Marquez. I am completely unfamiliar with the new Marquez, this yoked kid with one-punch knockout power. If he’s the real Juan Manuel Marquez, where has he been for the past 15 years?
Of course, none of this matters much to Marquez’s millions of fans, who now have a corrective for all arguments that might come up about their man. It’s hard to begrudge them their joy — after what they feel were three straight robberies, Marquez & Co. must feel something pretty close to salvation. And if you process the fight game through its own draconian standards, Marquez deserved to knock out Manny Pacquiao in a fashion that would leave no doubt about who had been the better fighter. He did that. You can argue that the equation is stupid (it is) and that Juan Manuel Marquez didn’t prove anything he hadn’t already proven before, you can say that the results of this fight should have no bearing on what happened in the past. But the power of a knockout is that it renders all that talk irrelevant. The lasting image of the first four fights will be Manny, lying face-first on the canvas, his eyes closed and unresponsive.
When you’ve got that running through your head, who has the time to parse out scorecards?
Kang: On Friday, about 30 hours before the opening bell, Rafe and I stood in the corner of Manny Pacquiao’s suite on the 60th floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino. On a flat-screen television from the first Bush administration — softly out of focus and burning out — the Sixers were playing the Celtics. About 12 rows of chairs had been set up in the room, many of them still empty. We had been informed by the church lady at the front of the room that the chairs were reserved for women and that we should be gentlemen tonight. The closest window faced south, and because we were at the southernmost tip of the strip, we could see none of the bright lights of Las Vegas Boulevard. Instead, our view consisted of an In-N-Out and some slow-moving highway traffic and the small-scale neon of the dozens of little cheap beer and hot dog and loose-slot joints that had set themselves up by the airport.
Manny’s Bible study was scheduled to start around 6 p.m., but it was running late. A heavily rouged and powdered woman with Andie MacDowell’s hair stood at the front of the room. Accompanied by a pale, thin young man with a pronounced comb-over, she led the amassing congregation in song. I spotted a couple autograph seekers in the crowd and two cowboys who had come over from the National Finals Rodeo, but other than those few gawkers and onlookers and random journalists, the room was filled with Manny’s colleagues, family, and friends. It occurred to me that this might be the closest thing Manny got to a private moment anymore — a hotel suite filled way past fire-safety capacity with strangers who just want to catch a glimpse of him.
The Sixers and Celtics game stayed tight through the fourth. Andie MacDowell made one more run through the hymnal, making sure to include all the verses. With five minutes left in regulation, Jinkee Pacquiao made her first appearance at the front of the room. Twenty iPhones and one iPad mini were foisted in the air in camera mode. Jinkee sat down on a couch in the front row. Andie MacDowell covered the mic to ask Jinkee something, and after getting her answer, she struck up the band for a third rendition of a verse from Psalm 133, sung to an upbeat, Klezmer-style tune:
Behold how good and pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell to-ge-ther
In unity in un-i-ty!
La la-la-la la laaahh
Manny finally made his entrance with two minutes left in regulation. He grabbed a microphone and sang along with Andie MacDowell before taking a seat next to his wife. With the guest of honor now comfortably seated, pastor Rice Broocks took the microphone. An imposing, broad-faced man of indeterminate age and origins, Broocks launched straight into explaining how he wasn’t one of those pastors who prayed for both teams to be safe and play their best. Broocks said he believed God had a favorite in every contest and that through prayer and dedication to the word, an athlete or team could swing victory their way. “Some opponents might cheat and use performance-enhancing drugs,” Broocks said, “but we know here in this room today that the true path to triumph and salvation lies elsewhere.” He said he prayed every day for his hometown Tennessee Titans to win, but admitted that particular project hadn’t been going very well.
For the next half-hour, Broocks read through a litany of verses from a lesson entitled “The Spirit of Power.” Manny maintained a solemn, almost mournful air throughout the service. After Broocks led the congregation through one final prayer, Andie MacDowell said that Manny would not be signing autographs or taking photos that night. Twenty-four hours later, after Manny’s supine body had been photographed a thousand times over, I saw Andie MacDowell outside the MGM Arena. Her makeup had been smeared across her face and a bit of her heavy mascara had dripped down from the corner of her eye. I overheard some kid ask her if Manny was going to be all right. She said, “They said he’s gone to the hospital and he’s fine. There’s no reason to think he’s not fine.”
Bartholomew: It has been suggested that Manny’s religious awakening is incongruous with his profession. That he can’t raise his hands in prayer while singing a Christian rock-ified Bible verse the night before a fight, then enter the ring the following day and raise his fists in violence against his fellow man. A new leader of this chorus emerged after the fight — Manny’s mother, “Mommy” Dionisia Pacquiao. Dionisia, a Catholic like the majority of Filipinos, blamed the knockout on the time her son spends in Bible study with non-Catholic, evangelical pastors. But Manny’s game performance and even over-aggression against Marquez on Saturday should expose this line of thought as nonsense. No, the real Catholic God did not smite Manny with Juan Manuel Marquez’s fist Saturday night. That said, I will admit that I have found it harder to relate to Bible-study Manny than the flawed-Catholic punching machine who would bob and weave his way into the ring before every fight wearing a giant shit-eating grin.
Back then, you couldn’t have asked for a better example of the Filipino everyman. You’d see him on television: Traveling and sharing apartment space with his ever-multiplying barkada of friends and hangers-on; rarely straying from his diet of chicken tinola, nilagang baka, and mounds upon mounds of white rice; and going on Jimmy Kimmel Live to belt out “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You” with all the earnestness and passion of a Manila construction worker spending his day off at a streetside karaoke parlor. He was sweet and humble and deadly. He conquered boxing and made us all — Filipinos, Americans, the world — fall for a onetime street kid from General Santos City.
That Manny has seemed less sympathetic since he announced his newfound devotion to Christ — since he started recounting dreams in which God spoke directly to him, since he bumbled into gay-rights issues here in the States, since he began dedicating himself to side careers in the generally sordid realms of Philippine politics and variety-show hosting.
But this weekend — at Bible study, of all places — I got the impression that deep down, Manny hasn’t changed. The same easy confidence, generosity, and charm that have always been the foundation of his public magnetism were still there. He is as comfortable and sure of himself today as he was three years ago, only now he expresses it through a certain kind of Christian worship instead of through the greatest hits of Glenn Medeiros. More important to sports fans, some version of Manny Pacquiao from three years ago was alive in the ring Saturday night. The frenzy had returned to his attack and the thunder had returned to his fists. But Marquez somehow matched his power and Manny got caught.
This may read like a eulogy for Manny Pacquiao’s career, but it’s not. He has already announced that he plans to continue fighting (he does, after all, have a likely 2016 Senate campaign to finance). So maybe he will return to avenge this defeat and claim greater boxing glories, or maybe he will return and be a shell of his former self. But the sight of Manny Pacquiao facedown in the ring, perfectly still — a living tableau of how death might look — forced us to imagine boxing without him and to consider how much he means to us.
This column has been updated.