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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pacquiao and his bobbleheads good for boxing

Willie Mays said hey to him, and a frenzied crowd at AT&T Park couldn't get enough of him. Not a bad night for Manny Pacquiao, even if they did run out of his bobblehead dolls.

Not a bad time for boxing, either. The sport everyone loves to bash just lost its biggest cash cow in Oscar De La Hoya, but the reports of its demise are, shall we say, premature at best.

Good thing, because where else are you going to get lines like this?

"There's going to be another bobblehead night on May 2," said Freddie Roach, who trains Pacquiao. "Only this time we're going to use Ricky Hatton's head."

They just don't say those kind of things in baseball, which may be good because guys carry bats in their hands. But that didn't stop the San Francisco Giants from honoring Pacquiao on Tuesday with a Filipino heritage night promotion complete with 10,000 bobbleheads of the fighter for a packed house against the San Diego Padres.

The night tied nicely, of course, into the promotion for Pacquiao's upcoming fight against Hatton, his first since sending De La Hoya into retirement. The fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas is officially sold out (more on that later), but promoters want you to open your wallet to see it in the comfort of your living room with family and friends.

HBO wants you to do that, too, which is why it's airing another episode Saturday night of its "24/7" reality series that surely will feature lots of footage of Manny Mania in the Bay Area. You'll see Manny being mobbed by fans, Manny throwing out the first pitch, and Manny having a clubhouse chat with Mays.

Pacquiao is a star, at least at home in the Philippines and among Filipino-Americans. Hatton is a star, too, but mostly just in his native England.

That's boxing these days. It's a niche sport that caters to niche fan bases, crossing over every once in awhile with a fighter such as De La Hoya who can sell to the mainstream.

That doesn't mean it's dying. Far from it.

Yes, promoters and their television partners almost killed it by refusing for years to match the best fighters against each other, but that has changed. And with it has come a resurgence of sorts for a sport that once seemed threatened to be trampled by the onrushing success of mixed martial arts.

De La Hoya may be retired, but even that's not all so bad. His retirement frees up pay-per-view dates, and, he'll still be active as one of the top promoters in the sport. Fans will still see plenty of him, with the only difference being he won't be taking punches to the face.

"I would argue that boxing is stronger with De La Hoya retired because he so dominated the sport," promoter Bob Arum said. "Now that he's gone all the other flowers will bloom bigger."

Indeed, Pacquiao and Hatton would not be fighting next week if De La Hoya hadn't officially announced his retirement earlier this month. The Cinco de Mayo weekend was always his on pay-per-view if he wanted it, and his fight two years ago with Floyd Mayweather Jr. was the richest fight ever.

Pacquiao-Hatton won't match that, but the 140-pound bout has got the makings of a pretty good fight by itself. Pacquiao holds the mythical title of best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, while Hatton's only loss came on a knockout at the hands of Mayweather. Both are eager to trade punches at a moment's notice, and neither work too much on their defense.

Both have big fan bases, too, which is why promoters were able to announce this week that the 16,000-seat MGM arena was sold out with a top ticket price of $1,000. Then again, the same promoters announced two hours after tickets went on sale for the De La Hoya-Pacquiao fight that it was a sellout, and 2,000 tickets remained unsold at fight time.

Not all is always what it appears to be in boxing, though that's part of the charm of the sport. But with Mayweather on the brink of unretiring, middleweight Paul Williams looking dominating, and Wladimir Klitschko and David Haye expected to draw 60,000 to a German soccer stadium in June for an intriguing heavyweight title fight, there should be some good days ahead.

De La Hoya is gone, but as good as he was at selling tickets, someone will take his place. That's the way boxing has always been.

Maybe even someone with his own bobblehead.


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