Sacred Pugilism Amidst Clouded Truths
‘Hi Manny – I’m Mitt Romney. I ran for president and I lost’.
The above sentence might seem like a rather peculiar way to introduce one self. Yet when one considers the individual it came from, it seems like a natural fit. This was how recently vanquished presidential candidate Mitt Romney introduced himself to boxing icon Manny Pacquiao on the night of December 8, 2012. Romney (being no stranger to an awkward exchange) saw fit to introduce himself to the boxing champion in his dressing room - hours before Pacquiao would fight in the main event of the evening. The strange encounter in the bowels of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas seemed unremarkable enough; yet in retrospect one might take it as a rather ominous occurrence.
For boxing die-hards (such as myself), Manny Pacquiao has been a known commodity for over ten years. However, it wasn’t until 2008 that he began to cross over into the popular culture. The combination of his fast-paced attacking fighting style, his childlike enthusiasm, and his cult like status in the Philippines (his native land) – allowed him to become one of the few modern boxers who was able to enter into the mainstream consciousness. He’s tried his hand at singing and acting (‘try’ being the key word), traded jokes with Jimmy Kimmel, and appeared in commercials for Nike and Hewlett-Packard. And last – but definitely not least – he was elected as a representative to the Congress of the Philippines in 2010.
But at the end of the day, Manny Pacquiao is a fighter. This is his job; it’s how he makes a living. And as boxing announcer Jim Lampley once said – unlike other sports, you don’t ‘play’ boxing. Two highly tuned athletes in a ring trying to detach each other from their senses is serious business. To some it might seem brutish. Yet to others it is sacred – something whose skills, traditions, and culture can be traced through history. In its highest form the ‘sweet science’ can be exalting. A display of things all too human: courage, grit, fear, redemption, honor, failure, and sometimes tragedy. Yet the most important quality of all might be a certain kind of ‘truth’.
Boxing commentator Max Kellerman once remarked that when two men enter a boxing ring, the ‘truth will find them’. Of course this truth can be deemed false by corrupt judging; but his basic point remains true. You can’t fake it in boxing; no matter what happens leading up to the fight – or who says what. Once the bell rings, whichever man is in better shape, smarter, stronger, more courageous, or faster – ‘the better man’ will carry the day. This truth is what fight fans pay to see. And the two opponents in the ring are the ones who determine the nature or quality of this truth. Differing match ups yield differing results – thus the notion, ‘styles make fights’. Some fighters were just born for each other, or as boxing scribe Steve Kim likes to put it: they go together like ‘peanut butter n’ jelly’. Fighters that go well together produce a truth that captivates and enthralls. Some past examples include Jake Lamotta and Sugar Ray Robinson – along with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. A more modern incarnation can be seen in the contests between Mexican champion Juan Manuel Marquez – and a certain congressman from the Philippines named Manny Pacquiao.
Juan Manuel Marquez has always been the ‘yin’ to Pacquiao’s ‘yang’. His highly accurate and technical counter-punching style has proved to be the perfect compliment to Pacquiao’s high-octane ‘blitzkrieg’ attack. One looks to force the action while the other looks to exploit the assertiveness of his opponent. This results in what some like to call ‘high-level combat’. Yet whatever their styles – both are proud, both love to fight, and both were born to fight. This is the essence of their competition.
Prior to December of 2012, they had faced each other three times. Their first fight took place in 2004 - in the featherweight division (weight limit of 126 pounds). Having never faced Pacquiao before, Marquez was unprepared for the speed and power of the Filipino. He was blitzed – and wound up being knocked down three times in the first round. However, true to his ability he was able to adjust – and ended up turning the fight into a pitched twelve round battle. The fight ended up being scored a draw, though some thought Marquez had done enough to earn a come from behind victory. Fans were eager for a rematch; though they would have to wait four years.
The two would clash again in 2008 – this time in the super featherweight division (weight limit 130 pounds). This fight picked up where the last one left off – a hard fought, back and forth battle. The only knock down came in the third round with Marquez getting caught by a Pacquiao left hook. Yet Marquez once again came back strong and proved his excellence over twelve rounds. Thus, another close decision by the judges – except this time Pacquiao won a razor thin split decision. And once again, many observers felt Marquez had done enough to earn victory; despite being knocked down.
Marquez was primed for a third encounter, in order to right the wrongs that had been done to him through the scoring in the first two fights. But Pacquiao had different plans; he wanted no more of Marquez, and began to move up the weight classes for bigger fights – and bigger paydays. He would ultimately find a home in the welterweight division, which has a weight limit of 147 pounds. Sometimes when a fighter moves up in weight, his power and speed can diminish. Yet Pacquiao retained all his attributes from his days fighting in the lighter weight classes. And when a boxer begins to dominate in one of the ‘glamour’ weight divisions, their stardom becomes visible in the popular culture.
Meanwhile, Juan Manuel Marquez began his own march up the weight classes – as he stewed for a potential rematch with his rival. After some success he too moved to the welterweight division – to face the best pound for pound fighter in the world; Floyd Mayweather Jr. However, unlike Pacquiao – Marquez wasn’t the same fighter in the 147-pound weight class. Granted he was facing an elite opponent; but his physique looked softer (despite hard training) – and he seemed slower. Mayweather punished him for twelve rounds, and many felt the 147-pound division was just too much of a reach for the Mexican warrior. And at age 36 it seemed rather unlikely he would be able to condition his body for welterweight success.
By 2011 Manny Pacquiao had cemented his status as a mainstream sports icon. He was now able to pick and choose his opponents, and make millions of dollars doing so. With only a few logical opponents on the horizon, a third fight with Marquez finally seemed like a natural fit. Pacquiao had grown weary of hearing people say that he had never really beat Marquez. And after all, Marquez hadn’t looked good in his foray into the welterweight division. It was time to put an end to the discussion – to bring the saga to a close, so to speak. Many picked Pacquiao to finally get a knockout victory – for he was five years younger than the now 37 year-old Marquez. The fight was billed as the ‘end’ of something – but it would prove to be the beginning of something else.
The build up to the third encounter between Pacquiao and Marquez followed the usual protocol – press conferences, interviews, and short films about the fighters preparing for the fight. The cast of characters was familiar – trainers, promoters, and family members that were all well known to the boxing faithful. However, there was a new face - Marquez’s new strength and conditioning coach, Angel Hernandez. Understandably with his problems moving up in weight, Marquez had hired someone to help him add the pounds ‘correctly’. Or in other words, add muscle and only muscle. Yet it soon became clear that Angel Hernandez was actually Angel ‘Memo’ Heredia – a notorious steroid dealer / chemist turned government witness. The same Angel Heredia who supplied illegal substances to former track stars Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, and actually injected himself on camera with an illegal substance for a German documentary on sports doping. And if that weren’t enough, Marquez trains for his fights in Mexico where laws against performance enhancing drugs are lacking to say the least. Despite all this, neither fighter would have to undergo any kind of meaningful drug testing leading up to the fight. It was under these circumstances that Marquez would debut a noticeably more ripped and bulked up body than what he brought into the ring during his first foray into the welterweight division.
The questions surrounding Angel Heredia’s presence would not come to dominate the media atmosphere surrounding the outcome of the fight. For like their first two battles, Pacquiao – Marquez III was a close, intense, hard fought contest. Except this time many felt Marquez had finally edged out a narrow, yet decisive victory. There were no knockdowns in the fight, and Marquez’s accurate counter-punching had seemed to get the better of Pacquiao for most of the twelve rounds. At end of the final round, Pacquiao walked slowly back to his corner – while Marquez raised his arms towards the crowd triumphant. The Mexican had done it - he had finally beaten his nemesis. All that was left was for the judges to certify what he felt he had accomplished. But yet again, it was not to be. The judges awarded Pacquiao a close, split decision victory that spurred the Mexicans in the crowd to boo and howl. In the dressing room after the fight Marquez would say, ‘It’s the second robbery of the three (fights) we’ve had; and I think this one was even more clearer than the first’. Whatever the case, the issue that the fight was supposed to resolve was left far from decided.
Marquez’s disappointment would lead him to consider retiring from the sport. Yet as time passed he would resolve to carry on in hopes of a fourth (and hopefully deciding) fight with his rival. Pacquiao and his team felt as if they owed Marquez another fight - so a fourth encounter was more likely than not. Many assumed that if a fourth fight was consummated there would be some kind of random drug testing. Yet with no overriding commission or ‘boxing league’ it would up to the entities putting on the fight to decide on a drug-testing regimen (State athletic commissions have their own tests but they are beyond archaic). The promoters would have to agree, and the fighters would have to agree. While some in Pacquiao’s camp were suspicious of Marquez and his newly found strength – Pacquiao was left in a difficult position. For Pacquiao had balked at drug testing when Floyd Mayweather Jr. demanded it for their proposed super-fight. For there were suspicions about Pacquiao’s own strength and conditioning coach, his own climb through the weight classes, and his own ability to maintain his ‘ripped’ physique. Because over the years Pacquiao had not just beaten larger opponents – he had punished them. By 2012 the issue of performance enhancing drugs in boxing had become a hot topic. With no standard or effective testing, suspicions and rumors swirled. Some fighters were even beginning to get caught by what little testing there actually was. The ‘truth’ that was expected to emerge from the ring was becoming more clouded by the month.
It was amid this atmosphere that a fourth fight was agreed upon between Pacquiao and Marquez. It would take place on December 8th, 2012 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas - with no meaningful drug testing. Same as before, Marquez would train under the guidance of Angel Heredia – and same as before he would come into the fight bulked up with shredded muscle. However, the media attention this time was different. Boxing scribes wrote story after story about the ‘elephant in the room’. Yet with no smoking gun, all one could do was speculate. Though the last fight was supposed to have a sense of finality to it; this one really did feel like there would be some sort of definitive conclusion. Pacquiao was now determined – he would press the action and knock Marquez out to end their rivalry. He would open up and go ‘toe to toe’ – yet this option was a high risk / high reward proposition. For one who opens up to hit his opponent, opens himself up to be hit. The stage was set for an explosive final confrontation between two of boxing’s most storied rivals.
The night of the fight, Pacquiao was relaxed and playful in his dressing room in the hours before he would enter the ring. He clowned with an HBO reporter who interviewed him by taking the microphone and conducting a ‘reverse’ interview. And it was here that he welcomed a visiting Mitt Romney, and his awkward wishes of good luck. The former presidential candidate who could barely get out of his own way offered what some would see later as the kiss of death. Yet the presence of one of the most dishonest political figures in recent memory seemed appropriate – since the truth of this night was suspect indeed. As Romney made his way to his seat in the arena he would shake hands with Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson, and Metta World Peace (the basketball player formerly known as Ron Artest). One has to believe that only a boxing match could play host to such surreal encounters.
Romney and others would take in the preliminary bouts - but they are always viewed as the appetizers on a big fight night. The buzz in the arena would begin to build, as the time finally came for the main-event. The anthems would be sung – American, Mexican, and Philippine. Pacquiao and Marquez would make their customary walks to the ring – Marquez to the glorious sounds of ‘El Rey’ (King) by Vicente Fernandez, which would send the mostly Mexican crowd into rapture. The crowd would sing along to the words describing a man who ‘does what he needs to do’. And as was the routine for a big fight, ring announcer Michael Buffer would call the proceedings to order with his trademarked introduction:
Let’s get ready to rummmmmmble!
The two fighters would then face off in the center of the ring to hear the referees’ instructions. This is the moment where the referee has the boxers face to face, says some words, and then tells the fighters to ‘touch gloves’ before the fight begins. Usually at this moment Pacquiao doesn’t really look at his opponent. His head kind of bobbles a bit, his gaze is unfocused - his arms bent upwards with his gloves by his chest. However, this time – Pacquiao’s gaze never wandered. He swayed from side to side, never breaking eye contact with Marquez. Was he looking at Marquez with indignation for the suspicion around his muscle gain? Or was he simply exuding his determination to take the fight to the Mexican? One cannot know for sure. Yet at that moment I knew this fight was going to be different – the saga of Pacquiao vs. Marquez was about to reach its zenith. The referee would send the fighters to their perspective corners to await the beginning of the round. The small moment of anticipation right before the opening bell of a big fight is like no other. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find an equal within the world of athletic competition.
Round one (the 37th between the two) would begin with Pacquiao moving swiftly across the ring to engage – he was keeping to his pledge to press the action. The pro-Marquez crowd chanted, ‘Mar-quez! Mar-quez! Mar-quez!’as the two fighters quickly circled each other. Pacquiao moved his head from side to side looking for a way in – while Marquez looked to make the Filipino pay dearly for any mistake. One would punch; the other would throw back immediately. They were ‘feeling each other out’ – even though they knew each other far too well.
Throughout the second round and into the beginning of the third, Pacquiao would begin to assert himself. He plastered Marquez with a couple of his trademarks - hard straight left hands. Marquez took them well, and landed a few of his own trademarks – deadly accurate counter punches. Back and forth they went, yet Pacquiao’s movement and aggression seemed to be reaping dividends. Marquez was doing his best to slow the Filipino down (with body punches) when something occurred that had never happened before. Marquez landed a hard over-hand right, and Pacquiao dropped to the canvas like he had been hit with a sledgehammer. In the thirty-eight rounds they had previously fought Marquez had never really hurt Pacquiao. He had ‘buzzed’ him once but never really came close to even knocking him down. Additionally, no one could even remember the last time anyone had knocked Pacquiao down. Yet all of a sudden a fighter who couldn’t come close to dropping Pacquiao over the course of three twelve round fights was able to do it with one punch.
Pacquiao (as surprised as anyone, no doubt) popped up and slammed his gloves together in grim determination. The crowd was in a frenzy – for they knew the rarity of what they had just witnessed. As the fighters re-engaged, Marquez looked to expand on his success and landed another right hand. Yet Pacquiao seemed to regain his senses and began to return fire against his opponent. Towards the end of the round the Mexican fans began to chant, ‘Si se puede! Si se puede! Si se puede’ (yes you can!) for Marquez. With ten seconds left in the round the two fighters began to open up on each other – swinging wildly. As the bell signaled the end of the round, the crowd was on fire. Jim Lampley (the HBO announcer) exclaimed, ‘A fight breaks out in Vegas at the end of round three!’ The two fighters stared briefly at each other as they headed back to their corners. Both seemed to sense that there would be no need for the judges’ scorecards before the night was over – for this fight would not go the distance.
The drama at the end of round three saw a brief respite at the beginning of the fourth. Pacquiao’s movement had slowed to a more cautious pace. Yet the pattern remained the same, Pacquiao was still the stalker – while Marquez remained the opportunist. As the round went on, the pace would quicken. In and out they went, back and forth – moving, probing each other. A punch would land here and there, but neither fighter could gain the advantage. Between rounds four and five the HBO camera would cut to the troubled face of a small, well dressed Filipino woman seated behind Pacquiao’s corner. Jinkee Pacquiao always attended her husbands’ fights – so she was used to the tension. Yet she probably had never seen her husband dropped to the canvas as he was in round three. Her emotions and concern were now in uncharted territory.
The fifth round began as the fourth did – with both fighters probing. Pacquiao – timing Marquez a bit – began to land his straight left hand. Finally, he landed one that caught Marquez off guard and caused his glove to touch the canvas. This was a knockdown that counted on the judges’ scorecard – but more importantly swayed the momentum. The crowd began to rise again, as it was now Pacquiao who looked to press the issue. He engaged with Marquez and got caught with a big right hand – remember, he who opens up is open to get hit. Pacquiao kept his senses, and the two began to go toe to toe. The pace quickened as they exchanged, neither landing clean or backing up. In the last minute of the round Pacquiao regained the advantage. He whipped Marquez with a short right hook, stunning him. Sensing he had his man, Pacquiao attacked with both hands – forcing Marquez into the corner of the ring. But Marquez was alive and well, and fought back spiritedly. The two would close the round with a heated exchange – or ‘all out war’ as Jim Lampley put it. Marquez had survived the fifth round, but not without a broken nose – or allowing Pacquiao to seize the momentum.
The sense of drama was high now – enabled by the break between rounds five and six. The two veteran warriors were putting on a display of guts and glory. They carried with them all the history between each other, and the backing of millions of fans in the Philippines and Mexico. In the sixth round both fighters began to land hard punches - each trying to measure the other. One would flurry, the other would respond. Marquez’s nose streamed blood, no doubt making it harder to breath for the Mexican. They would keep a measured pace until the very end of the round. With about fifteen seconds to go, they began another exchange of wild punches. Pacquiao would force Marquez back - then the opposite would happen. With less than ten seconds left in the round Pacquiao would have Marquez backing up towards the corner of the ring. Pacquiao began to try and setup his hard straight left hand by jabbing softly with his right – and stepping forward. Ever the technician, Marquez saw this coming. As he stepped forward Pacquiao made a grievous error. He jabbed with his right hand and he leaned / stepped to his left. This put him directly in the path of a perfect right hand from Marquez – a punch he would never see coming. Marquez stepped back (timed his opponent) and delivered a devastating blow to the jaw of the incoming Pacquiao. The Filipino dropped immediately face first to the canvas – almost as if God himself had decided to rip the life out of the fighter’s body. A few feet away Mitt Romney sat with his mouth agape at the sudden turn of events – and the crowd in the arena exploded into a sudden cacophony of astonishment.
The referee moved over to Pacquiao’s lifeless body to give him the ten count. Yet there would be no need – Pacquiao was asleep. Seeing this, the referee waved his hands to signal an immediate end to the fight. Marquez ran to the corner of the ring, stood on the ropes and raised his hands triumphant to the adoring Mexicans in the audience. In the ensuing chaos, a crowd of attendants began to gather around Pacquiao who was laying face first on the canvas. Jinkee Pacquiao screamed with horror as she tried to climb towards the ring to reach her fallen husband. She would break down in tears and end up in the arms of Pacquiao’s 81-year old promoter, Bob Arum. The attendants in the ring would gently turn Pacquiao over onto his back – and try to coax the fighter to awaken from his catatonic state. It would take almost a full two minutes to get Pacquiao up on a stool, and back to the world of the living.
Yet before Pacquiao could even awake – the world of social media began to explode. Boxing reporters, casual fans, and die-hards alike all expressed their spontaneous reactions to the ‘knockout of the year’. Twitter, Facebook, and eventually YouTube would come alive with images and video of the event. And a new internet meme would be born – to be knocked out was now to be ‘Pacquiao’d’. This was all great for boxing of course. For a sport that doesn’t always connect with the mainstream culture can surely only benefit from a fight that captures the world’s attention. Yet there were some (including myself) that had reservations about what would be remembered as a truly epic night in the history of boxing. The spectacular nature of the fight and its outcome had seemed to overshadow whatever doubts had existed beforehand about Juan Manuel Marquez’s bulked up frame. The ‘sensation’ was being consumed and celebrated, not the ‘truth’ – as complex as it might be. In the days following, many boxing reporters who covered the fight would raise the performance enhancing drug issue in their articles. Yet many of these were the same people who celebrated the sensational knockout the moment it happened on Twitter, etc. This kind of disconnect was touched upon by Grantland founder and ESPN sports writer Bill Simmons:
Marquez couldn’t knock down Manny Pacquiao for 36 solid rounds over three of their fights. Before their third fight, the 39 year old Marquez aligned himself with a disgraced strength and conditions coach named Angel Heredia (Google his name and PEDs - it’s a fun ten minutes), arrived in Vegas so ripped that he weighed in four pounds under the 147 pound limit, knocked Pacquiao down early with a vicious power punch, then cold-cocked him a few rounds later with one of the single greatest knockout punches ever thrown. What did we do? We bought the fight, gathered in our living rooms. We oohed and aahed, tweeted our disbelief and forwarded the YouTube clip around. And when Marquez passed the bogus post-fight drug test (for the record, Keith Richards in 1978 after a night at Studio 54 could pass one of boxing’s drug tests) everyone let the moment go.
It’s very easy to ‘let moments go’ in a society that lives moment to moment; or in a culture that feeds off of the sensational - without any notion of ‘truth’. A culture where the surface of things has become increasingly important - along with the high gloss of shallow interpretation. Some have called this ‘the spectacle’ – others simply call it bullshit. Entertainment and stimulation now reign supreme – and the digital age allows for hyper-sped delivery of these two seductive forces. These forces stimulate our addictive impulses, which is why we seem to never have enough – all highs must be chased after all. Throw money into the mix and it’s easy to see why this powerful concoction can encompass the modern culture. Yet the cultural result of such a mixture rarely results in things that carry any meaningful truth. David Foster Wallace saw this happening as a young man – which is why he was a genius. He also warned about a culture that consumes (or produces) too many ‘low-calorie’ items. Many were quick to celebrate the spectacle of Juan Manuel Marquez’s knockout of Manny Pacquiao – without knowing or caring about the context. Yet one has to wonder what would have happened if Manny Pacquiao had never woken up.
The in ring death of one of boxing’s few icons at the hands of a suspected ‘juicer’ would surely have been a tragedy and a nightmare for the sport. For a society growing weary of the brutality of football would eagerly turn its sights to the brutishness of boxing. The blame for such a scenario would fall squarely on the shoulders of the boxing establishment. After all, they are the ones who have failed to institute meaningful drug testing despite the obvious indication of a serious problem. Yet it seems sad that it would take such a terrible occurrence for the culture at large to be able to see (or accept) the truth of such an event. Our society is often only prodded to move by tragedy – when the consequences become life and death. Yet life doesn’t unfold through a frequent stream of extreme events. Most things (big and small / important and non-important) happen without a head in the guillotine – there is no immediate sense of mortality. Yet these are the things that one might deem most important as they make up the bulk of our existence. And it is these things that have fallen victim to the warped sense of truth that is so easily dispensed in our modern times.
This ‘warped’ sense of truth can easily become solidified – or the status quo. It can encompass whole systems in our lives, which in turn become complexes - self-feeding entities that perpetuate the same harmful and ineffective outcomes. Examples of this include: the military industrial complex, the pharmaceutical / healthcare industrial complex, the drug war (prison industrial complex), the modern financial system, the Washington ‘mainstream’ media complex, and even the rarely quantified ‘art industrial complex’. All of these examples formed slowly and organically over many years. They are obviously very different yet share broad commonalities - the tentacles of Washington and Wall Street tend to run through each. They all are the sum of many small events and decisions – some honorable in their intention. We accept them because of their size and organic nature – it’s ‘just the way it is’ after all. The societal outcomes these complexes produce can run contrary to the intention or desire of the individual institutions that comprise them. This was one of the many notions David Simon eluded to in his TV show ‘The Wire’. This truth is widely acknowledged by the American public (faith in public / private institutions is at record lows). Yet even when tragedies akin to a boxer dying in the ring occur at a societal level (the financial crisis of 2008 or the Iraq War) the entrenched nature of these modern complexes insulate them from disruption. The system is ever resilient.
One might think that our increased access to media and information should allow for greater transparency and insight - that individuals would be empowered with the knowledge to interrogate the status quo. Yet this is not always the case. As an example, I will list some stories in the news at the time of this writing. Some of the hot topics of the day are: President Obama giving aid to Syrian rebels, domestic spying by the NSA, and the IRS targeting ‘Tea Party’ groups for special scrutiny. Ask yourself this - can one possibly know the immediate ‘deep truth’ in these matters? Of course not – yet we are bombarded with information. Much of which (as was stated before) falls under the high gloss of shallow interpretation. Headlines and ‘instant reaction’ are now delivered at light speed, many times without consideration. Combined with our decreased attention spans, and consumption of like-minded sources – the truth becomes sensational and hollow. Notions of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, ‘healthcare reform is socialism’, ‘we must be tough on crime / drugs are bad’ and ‘Romney won the debate (even though he lied his ass off)’ are enabled to flourish. This high gloss yields cover for the encrusted complex beneath. And it’s here where the wheels of un-checked high finance grind on, where the Washington media eats at the table with those they are entrusted to cover, and where a supposed ‘artist’ has a workforce manufacture commodities to sell for millions. And it’s also the place where a boxer lays face first on the canvas – on the wrong end of the ‘knockout of the year’. It was George Orwell who said, ‘to see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle’. The truth today is always in front of our noses – yet it seems to require a greater struggle than ever before to reach.