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All Hail Pacquiao:
Filipino Featherweight Saves the Sport

Oct 6, 2003  By Alex Pierpaoli
Saturday, November 22nd marked the 17th anniversary of Mike Tyson’s 2 round blowout of then WBC Heavyweight Champion, Trevor Berbick. With that victory Tyson made history, becoming the youngest heavy ever to be called Champion, and more importantly he launched himself into the forefront of the public’s collective imagination. No one had ever seen such a combination of hand speed, power and unbridled aggression in such a compact but thickly muscled fighter like Iron Mike. On that night, when Referee Mills Lane rescued Berbick from the Tyson onslaught, HBO’s Barry Tompkins cried out “it’s over, and we have a new era in boxing.”

That same phrase could have echoed throughout the Alamodome in San Antonio last month when the Philippines’ Manny Pacquiao crushed Featherweight King and Pound-For-Pound great Marco Antonio Barrera in what will likely be considered the Upset of the Year for 2003. In only his second fight at 126 pounds, Pacquiao (pronounced PAK-ee-ow), the current IBF Super Bantamweight champion, just about mopped the canvas with the best featherweight on planet earth with a swarming, aggressive offense and the self-confidence akin to the best we’ve seen in boxing this year. At a time when the sport of boxing is plagued with rumors of its certain decline, here comes little Pacquiao to save it.

Nothing rejuvenates sport and brings a crowd, any crowd, to its feet like an upset. Despite much recent debate about what sort of stimulus will bring explosiveness back to the Fight Game, Manny Pacquiao is just the sort of firecracker to light up the lower weight classes and remind everyone that half of greatness is being ready for an opportunity when it presents itself.

Already heralded as the Philippines’ favorite son, Pacquiao met a mostly hostile crowd in San Antonio and he greeted the jeers and boos with a wide grin during his walk towards the ring to meet Barrera. Although a four to one underdog, Pacquiao’s good cheer and visible confidence seemed out of place for a man about to come to blows with one of the world’s best. In Barrera, Pacquiao was taking a huge leap in class, and although Pacquiao, with his quick dynamite fists, was the epitome of the “live” underdog going into the bout, Barrera seemed just too complete a fighter to be undone by a blown up super bantamweight.

But the signs were all there. Marco Antonio Barrera, recently signed with Golden Boy Promotions, Oscar De La Hoya’s company, had been “outed” by his former promoter, Ricardo Maldonado for having cranial surgery in 1997, which left a small metallic plate in his head. Plagued by reporters’ questions about the surgery and ordered to submit to numerous medical exams, Barrera’s training camp was probably not as focused as it should have been. Add to that the fires in Southern California which forced Team Barrera to leave their Big Bear mountain training camp two weeks early and Barrera was left defending his undisputed featherweight title in the midst of adversity against a hungry challenger.

Barrera learned by the end of round one that on this night he was not facing a faded world-class fighter like Kevin Kelley or a gritty, battle-worn but determined pug, like Johnny Tapia. In Pacquiao, Barrera was able to recognize that same inner fire and motivation he had in his youth and even though he pointed it out to HBO’s commentators, Barrera failed to prepare himself for the fire Pacquiao would bring into the ring.

Crowding and pressuring Barrera throughout, Pacquiao was able to bang away with both hands while inside and close to Barrera’s chest. When Barrera threw his arms around Pacquiao’s neck to force a clinch, Pacquiao would dig to the Mexican’s mid-section until Ref. Lawrence Cole separated them. It was as if Pacquiao was a punching machine with a broken kill-switch.

At the end of 2 Barrera was already banged up especially to the mid-section, which looked blurry and not as well trained as it usually is.

Pacquiao’s bold aggressive style was captivating and inspiring to watch. His long narrow torso accentuated the odd and difficult angles the large quantity of quick stinging punches were coming from. Whenever Barrera was able to land a solid blow or combination, Pacquiao would launch a counterattack, unwilling to concede any semblance of a shift in the fight’s momentum. Just like a mini-version of Mike Tyson, the southpaw Pacquiao’s bobbing, weaving and darting style set a pace Barrera couldn’t hope to maintain. As the rounds wore on and the beating continued Barrera’s instincts toward roughhousing revealed his frustrations with being simply outgunned and outfought.

But Pacquiao had already been tested by a myriad of dirty tactics by Agapito Sanchez in their bout more than a year ago. When Barrera pushed the Filipino’s head down, butted him and swatted at him on the break, Pacquiao never lost focus and more importantly never let up for fear of getting roughed up by the Mexican’s acts of futility.

As Pacquiao rat-tat-tatted him with combinations to the belly and head it seemed as though all the punches Barrera ever took caught up to him and were finally exacting their toll. There was no late round push to turn the tables, no come from behind knockdown scored by the great Mexican legend, he simply took and took from his young hungry conqueror until his brother could watch no more and climbed the steps to the ring apron with tears in his eyes. After such a defeat, it wouldn't be shocking if Barrera never fights again.

The last time Barrera took anywhere near that type of punishment was at the hands of Junior Jones. After losing the rematch to Jones, Barrera went into a semi-retired hibernation for 8 months. When he returned he was a more focused and careful fighter, less wanton and unlikely to brawl if all else failed. He's made a lot of money, his legacy, as a great fighter, is secure.

Barrera, like any warrior, will probably want to defeat his conqueror. Unless he knows he can’t. Like Felix Trinidad after the loss to Bernard Hopkins, perhaps Barrera will find it difficult to envision a re-match with Pacquiao ending any differently. As HBO’s commentators suggested during the bout, it seemed quite clear that Barrera was being painfully outclassed. A rematch with Pacquiao cannot be something Barrera is looking forward to. And any self-imposed period of hibernation now will just make Barrera older. How much more focused can he get? How does he recapture the fire of his youth and enough of it to overcome a hungry and motivated dynamo like Pacquiao? Pacquiao dished out a very physical beating and Barrera was banged around more than ever before, can he recuperate and rebuild himself at almost 30 years of age?

Fighters with as much heart and warrior spirit as Barrera don’t usually retire until they’ve been beaten and punished repeatedly, but retiring after a single emphatic loss is not unheard of in recent history, see Felix Trinidad and perhaps more poignantly, Prince Naseem Hamed. As durable as the heart of a warrior may be, when it is broken all the kings horses and all the kings men...well, you know the saying...

For Pacquiao the sky is the limit. He has emerged as the force to be reckoned with at 126 and despite Juan Manuel Marquez’ methodical domination of the upper echelon of the division, Pacquiao is the likely favorite when they eventually meet to settle the matter of just which one of them is the best featherweight in the world.

Manny Pacquiao and bold aggressive fighters like him will always elevate boxing to the highest levels of drama and excitement which make it the greatest of any contact sport. At a time when the boxing industry seems headed for a bruising period along the proverbial ropes, Manny Pacquiao reminds us that the next star is sometimes just one night away from re-writing the current definition of greatness in the squared circle.

We've seen the future of the feathers and it is Filipino!

Alex Pierpaoli has followed the Sweet Science for the past 17 years and is an avid boxing fan/writer. He has a degree in English from the University of Maine. Send comments or questions to:

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