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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pacquiao's Greatest Hits - Part I

For better or worse, a fighter is defined by his history. Not only is a boxer's reputation shaped by who he fought but also how he fought against them. For example, Sugar Ray Robinson is regarded by most as history's greatest pound-for-pound fighter not because of the numbers that make up his record – for others like Willie Pep sport a superior winning percentage – but because of the way he went about his business.

The films said all that needed to be said for the original Sugar Ray. His stiletto sharp jabs set up dazzlingly fluid combinations that often ended with a crunching left hook, a weapon that in turn rendered his opponents a semi-conscious mess. Moreover, his peerless skill was amplified by the regal aura highlighted by his perfectly slicked hair, the megawatt smile, the lean but powerful musculature and the pink Cadillac he drove around the streets of New York. In his time, Robinson was far more than a boxer but a vibrant sporting character that befitted his status as king of boxing's second most glamorous and historically significant weight class.

In recent months Manny Pacquiao's awe-inspiring scale-hopping deeds have inspired comparisons to another consensus pound-for-pound great – "Hammerin'" Henry Armstrong. The perpetual punching machine pounded his way to simultaneous championships at featherweight, lightweight and welterweight while the Filipino typhoon has already won belts spanning from flyweight to lightweight. On Saturday in Las Vegas, Pacquiao will attempt to win Ricky Hatton's Ring Magazine 140-pound belt and hold off old rival Juan Manuel Marquez for pound-for-pound supremacy.

How did Pacquiao get to this point in his career and which fights best represent his body of work? This two-part series will relive – in chronological order – 10 contests that either relive his most breathtaking knockouts, his most significant victories or, in many cases, both.

December 4, 1998, Tonsuk College Ground, Phuttamonthon, Thailand – KO 8 Chatchai Sasakul: It is difficult to believe that the man who most recently scored a dominant stoppage of onetime WBO middleweight champion Oscar de la Hoya actually held the WBC flyweight title a decade earlier. But win it he did against Sasakul, who ended the five-year reign of Yuri Arbachakov 13 months earlier and notched defenses against Young-Jin Kim (W 12) and Yong-Soon Chang (KO 5).

Aside from his most recent outing seven months earlier against Shin Terao in Tokyo (KO 1), Pacquiao (23-1, 14 KO) had fought exclusively in the Philippines and had not beaten anyone of great consequence. But he had something that was in short supply in the flyweight class – pure one-punch power. All but four of his knockouts came in the first three rounds and at 5-6 he towered over most 112-pounders, including the 5-3 Sasakul (33-1, 22 KO).

Once the opening bell sounded Sasakul proved the boxing truism that timing trumps tall. His savvy side-to-side movement and spearing blows befuddled Pacquiao, who flung wild hooks and crosses that the champion easily sidestepped. A stinging right hook hit Pacquiao flush with 1:50 to go in the second but it lacked the power to discourage the Filipino’s charges. Nevertheless, the 28-year-old Sasakul’s skill made Pacquiao, who was two weeks short of his 20th birthday, look amateurish.

A stiff left knocked Sasakul off balance in the closing moments of the third and a harder left staggered the champ in the fourth but his bursts were too sporadic to change the flow of the fight because the Thai filled the power gaps with textbook boxing.

With the sun sinking toward the horizon of the outdoor stadium, so seemed to be Pacquiao’s hopes for championship glory. Sasakul intelligently granted proper deference to the youngster’s power and while his own blows failed to hurt Pacquiao he inflicted mighty mathematical damage by piling up round after round on the scorecards. Try as Pacquiao might, he couldn’t solve the Riddle of Sasakul and a lopsided decision defeat appeared likely.

Midway through the seventh Pacquiao showed signs of breaking through as he began cutting off the ring and landing more of his venomous lefts. In the eighth, the results of Pacquiao’s relentless pressure and Sasakul’s constant movement began to show. Instead of springing away from the ropes on lively legs, Sasakul opted to slap on a clinch and he seemed more accepting of trying toe-to-toe exchanges. The fact he found success only deepened the temptation to trade.

As future opponents would learn, standing still in front of Pacquiao is a disastrous move. With 30 seconds remaining in the eighth Pacquiao landed a searing left that forced Sasakul to retreat toward the ropes. With the champion finally pinned Pacquiao struck with the final blow, a follow-up left that slammed squarely on Sasakul’s jaw line and neck. The punch caused Sasakul to fall on his face, where he would lie motionless for six seconds. At seven he tried to push himself up, his head poking up like a groundhog looking for his shadow. But he could do no more, for at nine he somersaulted forward onto his back, where referee Malcolm Bulner counted him out.

One of the hallmarks of a future great is his ability to produce under the most trying of circumstances and Pacquiao’s one-punch knockout in the face of prohibitive numerical odds qualifies as the first sign that a potentially special career was in the making.

June 23, 2001, MGM Grand, Las Vegas, Nev. – KO 6 Lehlohonolo Ledwaba: Pacquiao’s first fight on American soil took place on the undercard of Oscar de la Hoya-Javier Castillejo – and the Filipino wasn’t even the original opponent. Former WBA junior featherweight champion Enrique Sanchez was to have fought IBF 122-pound king Ledwaba but when he fell out Pacquiao was summoned on 10 days’ notice.

The 24-year-old Pacquiao (32-2, 23 KO) was clearly the "B" side of the equation this night. The 29-year-old Ledwaba’s stylish unanimous decision over Carlos Contreras on the undercard of Hasim Rahman-Lennox Lewis I in South Africa wowed HBO’s brass and the clear hope for this, the sixth defense of his two-year reign, was to broaden his appeal in America. Meanwhile, most people who were watching the fight in the arena and on HBO struggled to properly pronounce the Filipino’s surname as they said "Pac-kee-oh" or "Pac-kai-ow" instead of "Pac-kyow."

Pacquiao, who had scored five knockouts in six wins since his prodigious three weight-class jump to 122, would soon give everyone ample reason to learn his name.

The 121-pound challenger pushed the pace from the start as he shot hard lefts to the head and body – shots that Ledwaba (33-1-1, 22 KO) often ducked into. Ledwaba, 122, had trouble exploiting his three-inch reach advantage because he was forced to focus solely on keeping Pacquiao away. In round one Ledwaba threw 28 punches while Pacquiao landed 32.

Following trainer Freddie Roach’s advice, Pacquiao sliced left uppercuts through Ledwaba’s guard in the second while bouncing nimbly on his toes. Just 41 seconds into the round an incredibly fast and short left to the face caused Ledwaba to stumble forward to the canvas. As Pacquiao drove the champion back with a fusillade of heavy blows, HBO analyst Larry Merchant said what many already knew: "Ledwaba came in as the potential star; right now it looks like Pacquiao may go out as the star."

The crowd oohed and aahed at Pacquiao’s fireworks while Ledwaba, with blood trickling from his nose, tried to rally in the round’s final minute. That surge was stopped with yet another scintillating left to the face, a punch that Ledwaba couldn’t seem to stop even if he wanted to.

Pacquiao vibrated with energy as he picked away with jabs and power bursts throughout the third. Blood now poured from Ledwaba’s nose and the crimson stained the champ’s trunks and Pacquiao’s torso. Following a similarly dominant fourth and fifth, Pacquiao scored his second knockdown 31 seconds into the sixth with a trademark cross. As Ledwaba arose at seven his face wore a look of resignation. A final left that scraped the injured nose sent Ledwaba down in agony, prompting referee Joe Cortez to wave off the fight – and signal the start of the greatest run an Asian fighter ever had on North American shores.

June 28, 2002, The Pyramid, Memphis, Tenn. – KO 2 Jorge Eliecer Julio: Seven months after a foul-filled and troubling technical draw against Agapito Sanchez, Pacquiao (32-3-1, 24 KO) defended his IBF junior featherweight belt on the undercard of Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson against Julio.

The 33-year-old Colombian (44-3, 32 KO) was a respected boxer-puncher who had previously held the WBA bantamweight title, but who was making only his second start at 122. Meanwhile, Pacquiao was hoping to revive his budding star in the U.S. after his struggle with Sanchez and because Julio’s manager was Ricardo Maldonado – the same as Sanchez’s – it was thought that he would have Julio employ similarly dirty tactics.

Julio, 122, began the fight trying to impose long-range boxing while staying in the pocket but the 120 ½-pound Pacquiao – introduced as "The Destroyer" – instantly got his respect by landing heavy lefts from the start. Unlike Ledwaba, Julio was not rattled by the Filipino’s power and as a result he connected on several quality counters and held more than his own after a troubling opening minute. An elbow and a low blow by Julio raised the ire of Pacquiao fans but their hero reassured them by landing another succession of power lefts in the final half minute.

More straight lefts by Pacquiao curled around Julio’s defense to start the second and he worked the jab-cross-uppercut combo with great success. Just 15 seconds into the stanza a straight left sent Julio toppling to the floor. After the challenger arose at seven Pacquiao pressed for the kill by backing Julio to the ropes and whaling away with impunity. A barrage of blows registered the second knockdown but Julio, with blood coming out of his right nostril, arose at four and opted to continue.

With victory in sight Pacquiao bludgeoned Julio with a succession of blazing combinations that prompted referee Bill Clancy to intervene at the 1:09 mark. The relief that washed over Pacquiao’s face confirmed that he knew he had to produce to regain his place as a rising star. Because he had reaffirmed his credentials as a fan-friendly whirlwind the talk of future encounters with featherweight stars Naseem Hamed, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera became real again.

July 26, 2003, Olympic Auditorium, Los Angeles, Calif. – KO 3 Emmanuel Lucero: Before Pacquiao could think of fights with the pound-for-pound stars, he had to take care of one last piece of business at 122 on the undercard of Fernando Vargas-Fitz Vanderpool.

The 24-year-old Lucero entered the bout with a glossy 21-0-1 (12 KO) record but that ledger featured few well-known names. His best wins came against a faded Juan Polo Perez (W 10), Rogers Mtagwa (W 10), John Lowey (W 12) and Frankie Archuleta (W 12) and had fought just twice in the past 12 months. Still, the Mexico City battler was a rugged infighter who wasn’t afraid to mix it up with the powerful Pacquiao.

Pacquiao (36-2-1, 27 KO) entered the bout off a first round KO of Fahprakorb Rakkiatgym at 122 and a fifth round TKO of Serikzhan Yeshmagambetov at featherweight, a bout that saw the Filipino suffer a fourth round knockdown before rebounding with two of his own in the fifth.

Lucero, 121¼, started the bout operating from an extremely low crouch and a peek-a-boo defense while firing both hands to the body. The 120-pound Pacquiao, for his part, laid back and boxed from a distance and had some initial trouble penetrating Lucero’s turtle-like shell, though he experienced more success in the final minute. In the second Lucero winged several inaccurate overhand rights that allowed Pacquiao to find the range with his vaunted left cross. A body shot-left cross combo jarred Lucero, who tried to retaliate with more wild swings. Pacquiao remained calm and calculating as he uncorked studied three-punch flurries and meaningful power blows.

Forty-five seconds into the third Pacquiao applied the finisher. He drilled Lucero with a beautifully timed chopping left that wrenched his neck and clicked off his motor skills. Upon impact Lucero’s knees dipped toward the canvas but after straightening himself he tottered drunkenly toward his corner. The moment he turned his body away from Pacquiao referee Jose Cobian waved off the bout. At that, Lucero dropped to his knees.

For once Pacquiao encountered a fighter that was even more chaotic than himself and because he handled the situation with a champion’s aplomb it marked an important chapter in his development as a fighter. While he appeared to be a calmer and more studious athlete he maintained his flair for the dramatic and Lucero’s curtain-dropping stumble was testament to just how powerful boxing’s smallest athletes can be. That power would manifest itself even more emphatically the next time he stepped between the ropes.

November 15, 2003, Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas – KO 11 Marco Antonio Barrera: With a sparking record of 57-3 (40 KO) and titles at 122 and 126, Barrera was a confirmed pound-for-pound star. After losing the first of what would be a titanic trilogy with Erik Morales, Barrera had won his last eight fights over the likes of Jesus Salud, Naseem Hamed, Morales, Johnny Tapia and Kevin Kelley. He entered the bout as a favorite of both the betting public and the fans that jammed the Alamodome. Even the San Antonio Spurs jersey Pacquiao wore into the ring could not curry the crowd’s favor, but he accepted the hostility by blowing kisses and wearing a Cheshire-like grin.

The fight didn’t start well for Pacquiao (37-2-1, 28 KO), for 26 seconds after the opening bell an apparent trip was counted as a knockdown by referee Laurence Cole. Pacquiao banged his gloves together as he took the count but Barrera successfully fought fire with fire and kept the Filipino on the back foot.

Pacquiao settled down and began to find a rhythm in the second by following Roach’s advice to throw double jab-left cross combos. As he gained confidence he strafed Barrera’s body and caused a small swelling to erupt under Barrera’s left eye. Twenty-nine seconds into the third Pacquiao exacted revenge for the first-round "knockdown" with a wicked left to the point of the chin that dumped Barrera for a seven count. Pacquiao’s lightning-like speed confounded the Mexican veteran, whose head was made to snap with a frequency previously unseen and whose left eye now sported a gash.

Pacquiao soon seized physical and psychological control as he brimmed with energy and forced Barrera to fall back on the boxing skills that were so effective against Hamed. Barrera tried to slow the pace in the fifth but Pacquiao wouldn’t fall for the ruse as he continued to whip punches from both sides. Barrera had a better round in the sixth as two heavy rights prompted Pacquiao to defiantly raise his arms overhead but the bout swung again in the seventh when Pacquiao dramatically worsened Barrera’s eye cut. Barrera, frustrated at his inability to crack the Filipino, wanted Cole to disqualify Pacquiao for an intentional foul but he wouldn’t be given such an easy out. With Barrera clearly rattled, Pacquiao steamed in with an avalanche of blows, an assault that led an exasperated Barrera to intentionally butt Pacquiao in the round’s final moments. Even his fouling was off target as his cranium hit Pacquiao’s chest instead of the face.

Behind on all scorecards Barrera had little choice but to trade with Pacquiao in search of an unlikely knockout but Pacquiao’s multi-punch flurries were too quick to evade or to counter. Barrera continued to complain to Cole for various perceived fouls and when Cole didn’t accommodate him he lashed out with a vicious right to the face during a break, an infraction that forced Cole to subtract a point from Barrera’s score.

By the 10th, with a tidal wave of adverse circumstances overwhelming him, a resigned Barrera shifted his goal away from victory and toward lasting the distance. But Pacquiao, flush with the excitement of scoring the biggest victory of his career to date, would accept nothing less than a knockout. A flurry highlighted by a ferocious right-left floored Barrera for a seven-count in the 11th and the bout ended at the 2:56 mark with Barrera’s cornermen jumping into the ring as their man floundered under yet another withering assault.
On this night, Pacquiao was the personification of the flames that adorned his bright red-and-black trunks and that fire finally vaulted him toward pound-for-pound superstardom. The second installment of this retrospective will relive five more fights that have helped shaped his sure-fire Hall of Fame legacy.


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