Editor’s Note: Jay Caspian Kang went to Mexico for his vacation away from Grantland. After watching the fight in a bar in Oaxaca, he filed the following piece.
The night before the third fight between Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao, I went to visit the world’s oldest tree. A stout, white church stood in the tree’s considerable shadow, and up in the belfry, a man in a nylon parka was pounding out a crazy, incoherent rhythm on the three bells. In a nearby garden populated with hedge animals (fake), a young man was lying on his back on a patch of turf (also fake). At random intervals, he would flap his arms and legs, as if to make imaginary snow angels. The bells kept banging, and it occurred to me that the person up in the belfry must be insane. For the next 10 minutes, I waited for the man to stop. He did not stop. I began to wonder if I might have died in some car wreck and if maybe my soul had been transported into a Mexican purgatory where the tree is old, massive, and elegant, but where the bells won’t stop clanging and never fall into any pleasant or, at least, predictable rhythm.
Right when I was about to admit my confusion to my tourmates, the clanging stopped, the young man stood up from his turf angels, and everyone calmly walked toward the garden’s gate.
Twenty-four hours later, I was in a taxi headed to a bar where they had promised to show the fight. I had never met the couple in the cab with me, but both were nice and tried their best to speak to me in English. The guy, who looked exactly like a young Paul Giamatti, was telling me about how he didn’t like Canelo Alvarez because “Canelo is TV creation,” and how true Mexican boxing fans identified more with Juan Manuel Marquez. One thing I’ve always loved about boxing is how its fans, without malice, can sit and talk in ethnic and racial absolutes. You can describe a fighter as truly Mexican, load it up with a lot of implications, and not have to worry about the fallout. Which is to say, I was agreeing that Juan Manuel Marquez was a true Mexican warrior, and even though Manny Pacquiao and I are both Asian, I told my new friends that I hoped that Marquez would make a good showing for his home country. My new friend said, “Marquez, if he wins tonight, he is the best Mexican fighter of his generation. It is so hard right now to pick between him, [Marco Antonio] Barrera, and [Erik] Morales, but if Marquez can beat Manny, it will be clear.”
We arrived at the bar at the end of the first round. Two hundred people were scattered around long, banquet-style tables. There were bottles of mezcal in the center of each of these tables, and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. When we sat down, the TV was showing Marquez on his stool. Nacho Beristain was saying something encouraging. The scorecard flashed and read: Marquez 10, Pacquiao 9. And although we would all come to learn that there was nothing official about that scorecard, everyone in the crowd roared with approval. Without much warning, the coverage quickly cut to a buxom, scantily clad girl, who, after mouthing the word “Tecate” (or, at least, that’s what I assume she said, as she was wearing a Tecate T-shirt), poured water all over her breasts. This ad ran between every other round, alternating with an ad for Mexico City’s Marxist newspaper.
With about a minute left in the second round, I turned to my new friend and asked what the hell was going on. Earlier that day, I had predicted that Manny would stop Marquez in the sixth because I thought Manny would be too fast and that at some point he would pivot or hop to the side and land the same punch he used to drop Ricky Hatton. Marquez had not looked particularly sharp in his past two major fights and hadn’t carried the weight well in his fight against Floyd Mayweather. Manny, as everyone knew, got better as he got bigger. He had also become a smarter and more balanced boxer. It was difficult to imagine that he would fall into the same lunging patterns that had played into Marquez’s hands in their first two fights.
But from the opening bell to the late-middle rounds, Manny seemed stuck in the past. Every time he went forward, Marquez answered with precision counterpunching. At the end of the seventh round, the Mexican TV scorecard read: Marquez 69, Pacquiao 64. It made sense. Manny was clearly frustrated, confused. Marquez had whipped himself into a rare focus. I asked my friend if he had ever seen Marquez this good, this sharp, this strong. He shook his head and said, “He is ready, I think, to be Mexico’s champion.”
It must be said that Mexican boxing television is about as impartial as U.S. Olympic coverage. Because the producers had to make time for the Tecate girl and the Communist newspaper, there were only a few seconds for the requisite super-slo-mo, face-melting replay. Every big punch that made it to replay was thrown by Marquez. But even if the TV bias had gone the other way and the crowd of 200 had been cheering for Pacquiao, all the promotional bluster in Manila couldn’t have covered up what was becoming obvious: Marquez was not intimidated. He was landing harder punches, and although Manny was throwing more punches, Marquez was either picking them off or ducking his head into Manny’s midsection to slow him down.
For the first six rounds, Manny kept lunging forward and Marquez kept tagging him in the forehead and the torso with counterpunches. After the fight, Freddie Roach would say, “I asked Manny to move to the right and he didn’t.” Maybe this was related to foot cramps that bothered Manny throughout the fight, but I took Manny’s refusal to adapt as evidence of a hard truth about boxing: Fighters are mostly set in their styles. Manny did not step to the side because he became one of the all-time greats by lunging straight at his opponent.
Why would he have thought that fighting a 38-year-old he has already beaten would be any different?
Maybe it’s because I read too many silly novels as a child, or maybe it’s because I had been drinking too much mezcal that weekend, or maybe it’s because of the world’s oldest tree and the discordant, random bells and the young man making turf angels, but everything about Saturday night’s fight felt surreal. As the rounds went on and Marquez kept pounding Manny with counterpunches, I began to accept that the invincible Manny Pacquiao was going to lose. But what I was witnessing bore no resemblance to what I had expected — perhaps, more than anything, the measure of a sports superstar is that when he struggles, and struggles badly, you feel as if the natural order of the world has been upended. And yet, there was also something inevitable and machine-like about Marquez’s domination. By the sixth round, I had given up on the knockout. By the eighth, I wondered again if I had died in a car wreck on some Oaxacan freeway and had awoken into some drunken stereotype of a Mexican dream state. My friend felt similarly. He asked, “What the fuck is going on?”
It occurred to me that the uneasy, floaty feeling might have been a side effect of the brainwashing I was receiving from Mexican boxing television. But then I wondered if maybe I was just being un-brainwashed about Manny Pacquiao, who achieved his invincible status by fighting a broken Oscar De La Hoya, a pretender in Ricky Hatton, a possibly broken Miguel Cotto, a thoroughly uninterested Joshua Clottey, a possibly broken Antonio Margarito, and a shot-to-all-hell Shane Mosley. After Saturday night, the angle on Manny’s past three years should shift a bit — is he the all-time great who moved up in weight or is he the smiling, marketable star of a desperate sport? Maybe he’s both? I certainly couldn’t tell — all I knew was that when HBO wasn’t carrying the fight and when I wasn’t hearing Manny Steward talk about all-time greats, Pac-Man didn’t look the same.
As the fight moved into the ninth round, my head was in my hands. I kept picturing the press conference after the fight. Manny somberly saying, “I tried very hard, and I am sorry to my people and all my fans. He is a great fighter, and I am hoping I can fight him again so I can prove myself.” Then Marquez saying, in Spanish, “Justice is finally mine. I beat him twice before and nobody gave me my credit. Today, I proved to everyone who is the better fighter.” I even felt a little bad for Floyd — after this fight, he would clearly be considered the great fighter of his generation, but only because Manny had fought poorly against a man he had dominated just two years before.
Manny began his comeback in the ninth round. He finally stepped to the side and hit Marquez with a couple of combinations. The focus of the early rounds appeared to be breaking up. But Marquez wasn’t done, either — he fought back gamely and landed a few of his own power shots. Given the score at the time, which, by my count, was six rounds for Marquez, two rounds for Manny, it didn’t feel as if there was enough clock left for Manny to stage a comeback on the scorecards. It didn’t really look like Manny thought much differently. The 200 in the bar started muttering about how all Marquez needed to do was not get knocked out. He could lose the next three rounds and still be far enough ahead on the cards to win by decision.
Instead, Marquez kept each of the last three rounds close while mostly avoiding the big shot. By the 11th, both fighters looked exhausted and the prospect for a knockout seemed far-fetched. The crowd began shouting, “Marquez! Marquez!” in anticipation. And when the final bell sounded after the bizarre 12th, in which Manny seemed to understand that he needed the knockout but couldn’t quite gather himself to go after it, the bar erupted into cheers. As we watched each fighter’s reaction — Marquez ecstatic and proud, Manny clearly crestfallen — the cheering continued. Because I was still confused, I began complaining: What the hell was Manny doing the entire fight, and why didn’t Freddie Roach tell Manny to stop lunging straight into Marquez’s counterpunches, and what the hell fight we were going to see next. The decision felt like a formality. After flashing a 117-111 score for Marquez, the footage on the TV switched over to the four Mexican ringside announcers. They looked beside themselves — the unthinkable had happened. Juan Manuel Marquez, the fighter most emblematic of the country’s fighting spirit, had finally broken through.
As the footage switched over to a split screen that showed both men awaiting the official decision, my friend said, “Manny looks depressed. This is great.”
And then Manny was jubilant, jumping up in the air like Rod Roddy just told him to come on down and be the next contestant on The Price Is Right. The bar filled with a chorus of boos and chants of “Un Robo!” I was in shock. I had scored the fight 116-112 for Marquez. I felt awful for Marquez, who fought a perfect fight. I felt awful for the people in the bar who had been ready to crown Marquez as the great fighter of his generation. But mostly I felt awful for myself and all the time I have spent over the past years trying to make sense of this corrupted, dying sport. The bout I watched was a dominating win by the fighter who was willing to make adjustments and outsmart his faster, stronger opponent. Manny threw more punches, but they reminded me of the “more punches” Oscar De La Hoya threw in his bout against Floyd Mayweather. In that fight, the defensive, precision puncher clearly won on the cards. This, from what I had seen, was a similar victory. As some of the crowd shuffled angrily toward the exits, a stranger grabbed me by the arm and said, “Fucking Bob Arum, man. Fucking Bob Arum. He would not give Marquez a chance. That is why Marquez was so big and strong for this fight, because he knew he would have no justice unless he knocked out Pacquiao. Fucking Bob Arum, man.”
I couldn’t have said it better. Fucking Bob Arum. Fucking boxing. For 12 rounds, Marquez and Pacquiao put on a show. Marquez clearly emerged the better man. Even Manny, who slunk off to his corner after the final bell, seemed to understand that.
My friend said he never wanted to watch boxing again. He said he had always loved Manny but hated him now. I agreed with never wanting to watch boxing again and pointed out that in the States, idiots like me routinely shell out $60 to watch this garbage. As I was walking out of the bar, I looked up at the TV and saw Bob Arum with Marquez, who was having his gloves cut off.
Arum looked like he was apologizing.
When I got back to my hotel, I was shocked to find that a number of boxing writers whose work I admire had scored the fight much differently. One scored it a draw. The other scored it 115-113 for Marquez. Another had the fight 115-113 for Manny. And so I did what very stupid people on the Internet do when they’re upset: I took my anger to Twitter. Before long, someone had tweeted back at me that neither side had lost the fight. Marquez would get paid off huge in the rematch, and Manny would get to continue his reign at the top of boxing.
I have no idea what fight the judges watched, but before the decision was announced in that bar in Oaxaca, the fight had one clear winner and one massive loser. The winner would have a redefined role in boxing history — he would now be considered one of the smartest and toughest fighters of all time. The loser’s role in history would also change, albeit not as badly as some might have thought. Manny’s first two bouts against Marquez would be reexamined, but for the most part, the story of Manny Pacquiao would be of a great champion who had just one guy he couldn’t quite figure out.
Wouldn’t that have been a pretty good ending?
Instead, both sides lost. But the biggest loser on Saturday night was the sport of boxing. No matter what HBO says over the next few months, Manny has been diminished. And Marquez, understandably devastated, has hinted at retirement. Who can blame him? He has nothing to gain in the ring anymore — the sport won’t give him a fair shake against the one opponent who can change his legacy. I wouldn’t be surprised if he beat up Erik Morales and never fought again. His legacy is secure in Mexico. He has more money than he’ll ever be able to spend. Why would he submit himself to all the bloated pageantry of another Las Vegas PPV fight?
To say that both sides won because Manny, Marquez, and Bob Arum will get paid stinks of the rampant cynicism that has spread across the sports landscape. To be a fan these days, you have to pretend to be able to adjudicate TV deals, salary caps, contracts, advanced statistics, and whatever else makes one dude look smarter than the other guy at the bar. Who cares what Manny and Marquez might get paid for a rematch? Is it somehow worthwhile to humiliate the sport so that two people you will never meet can make even more money? It is exactly this sort of cynicism that allows for farces like a 116-112 scorecard in favor of Pacquiao.
People are already looking forward to the next fight and speculating about the payday.
Let’s stop talking about the power of the almighty dollar and call the fight for what it was: a robbery. The almighty dollar isn’t even ours.
Un robo! Un robo! Un robo!
To read Rafe Bartholomew’s take on the fight from ringside in Las Vegas, click here.
Jay Caspian Kang is an editor at Grantland. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, will be published by Hogarth/Random House in Summer 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @jaycaspiankang.
Previously from Jay Caspian Kang:
Fight of the Year?
The X Factor Preview: In Defense of TV Singing Competitions
Why the North Carolina Tar Heels Will Win the National Championship
Why the NFL Needs Tim Tebow
We Need a Renegade Basketball League
Mayweather-Ortiz: What the Sucker Punch Just Happened?
Immigrants and the importance of Ichiro
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