In November last year, I was sitting in a hotel room in New York City watching Manny Pacquiao take on Juan Manuel Marquez for the WBO welterweight crown. As a South African, a guy who hadn’t been interested in boxing since Dingaan “Rose of Soweto” Thobela ripped the WBC super middleweight belt off of Glenn Catley, it was a curious position in which to find myself.
But there was nothing I’d rather have been doing that night, and it was all due to a Filipino poet by the name of Joel Toledo, a man I’d befriended while on a three-month writing residency in the United States.
The residency was in Iowa City, and Joel’s room was a few doors down from mine. In the corridors and the canteen, while I spoke about rugby—it was the time of the World Cup—he would speak about this countryman of his who had dropped out of high school at the age of 14 to support a family mired in poverty, a fighter from the slums who would go on to define a nation.
For Toledo and all Filipinos, Pacquiao had long been more than a great boxer. He was the country’s conscience, a boy made good who never forgot his family or his roots, a figure as central to the Philippines’ conception of itself as Nelson Mandela is to South Africa’s. And there was nobody better to explain this to me than an acclaimed and deeply contemplative Filipino poet.
So because we had cable in our rooms, we’d follow the build-up to the Marquez fight every week on HBO. In the training session banter and informal interviews, Pacquiao—the world’s first-ever eight-division champion, the “Fighter of the Decade” according to the Boxing Writers Association of America—appeared to be everything Joel said he was: humble, considerate, big-hearted.
I became a fan, and the approaching Marquez showdown became an event that cemented a friendship. By the time we got to New York, where we spent the last few days of the residency before flying home, I was almost as jumpy as Joel. The bout was on pay-per-view, which meant we couldn’t (thanks to the technological lockdown) find it in a Manhattan bar. We had no choice but to chase it illegally off the net.
With five browsers open and the streaming Filipino webcasts closing as fast as they were opening, we watched Pacquiao enter the ring. It was the most self-assured he would look the entire night. We thought Marquez had him, and when the judges’ decision was announced after the 12th round—114–114, 115–113 and 116–112 to Pacquiao—the relief was marred by disillusion. Joel was convinced the fight was rigged, and he was bummed about putting his psychic energy into a sport that was corrupt.
But the post-match stats showed that Pacquiao landed the majority of strikes (176 to 138) and power punches (117 to 100), and ESPN’s Dan Rafael, who Joel considered the best boxing commentator around, wrote that he felt the decision was fair. Pacquiao, we finally agreed, still had a shot to seal his dominance when he took on fellow welterweight titlist Floyd Mayweather Jr in 2012.
On Saturday night, 9 June 2012, that dream sustained a cynical blow. At the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Timothy Bradley, one of the top 10 “pound for pound” fighters in the world, took on Pacquiao after negotiations with Mayweather ended when the camps failed to come to terms. The fight was amongst the most contentious in the annals of modern boxing.
The first round saw Bradley come out firing, but to the naked eye of almost everybody watching, Pacquiao was the better man for much of the rest of the bout. In the third round the American was jarred by a hard left from the Filipino, in the fourth he reeled and wobbled off the ropes from another hard left and a combination, and in the sixth he was hammered at a neutral corner post.
By the eighth round it was apparent Bradley had no power left in his punches, and the ninth saw Pacquiao daze him with a superb uppercut. The 11th had Bradley ducking low to avoid Pacquiao’s lefts. In the 12th and final round Bradley was deflated, a warrior beaten. Though he raised his hands after the bell in an obligatory show of defiance, it was clear he didn’t mean it.
Here’s what Dan Rafael had to say after the judges awarded the fight to Bradley (113-115, 115-113 and 115-113):
“Stunning, simply stunning. Manny Pacquiao looked rejuvenated after a controversial split decision win over Juan Manuel Marquez in November, but in what will surely go down as one of the most controversial decisions in boxing history—one of the worst, really—Timothy Bradley Jr was awarded a split-decision win to claim a welterweight title on Saturday night before 14,206 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
“This time, the judges got him. And they got him good. Maybe it was a make-up call for the Marquez fight? Whatever it was, it was a shocking result after Pacquiao had spent virtually all of the fight beating Bradley to the punch, strafing him with power shots from both hands and visibly rocking him on multiple occasions. Frankly, Pacquiao looked dominant, and those who thought he had lost a step after the performance against Marquez were wrong.”
Question is: how could two of the judges, CJ Ross and Duane Ford, have awarded the fight to a man whom virtually every media outlet pegged as the obvious and outright loser? Amongst others, the Associated Press scored the match 117-113 in favour of Pacquiao, the Los Angeles Times 117-111, and ESPN 119-109.
The answer, to many minds, is simple. Ever since the peerless AJ Liebling wrote The Sweet Science in the late 1950s, boxing has been to fans the ultimate paradox, a coming together of irresistible man-on-man rivalry and seamy corruption on a scale not found in any other human endeavour.
All you have to do is follow the money. Pay-per-view technology has made the sport more profitable for media houses than ever, with pre-match tasters drawing in once-off subscribers like virtually no other offering. Nowadays, HBO invests hundreds of millions a year, and it wants a return. And what better way to get one than to ensure that top fighters are always primed for a rematch and heroes never allowed to retire undefeated?
It’s as if Hollywood itself were scripting these world title bouts. Of course, if such were the case, growing the audience might be deemed as important as paying off the insiders in the value chain—from the promoters to the venue managers to the bookies. Pay per view is the perfect vehicle when the engine is greased on a fight-by-fight basis. When the long view is taken, it’s a non-starter.
Meaning, every year the sport of boxing loses more of its fan base. Take my friend Joel Toledo, a dedicated enthusiast if ever there was one. On Sunday morning, after sending my commiserations and asking if he thought the fight was fixed, he came back with this:
“Most definitely. I don’t know which fight those judges were watching. But it reeks of Las Vegas bet-money rigging. Wow. No one, as in none, thought Bradley won seven rounds. (Pacquiao’s trainer Freddy) Roach should put this in protest and deny the rematch clause. Fuckin’ evil empire. I’ve had it with boxing, bro.” DM
“Pacquiao shocked in split decision,” by Dan Rafael on Espn.com
Photo: WBO welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao (L) of the Philippines punches at Timothy Bradley Jr. of the U.S. during their title fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada June 9, 2012. (REUTERS/Steve Marcus)
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