LAS VEGAS — Manny Pacquiao never saw it coming. He never saw the punch that snapped his head back Saturday and dropped him to the canvas and left him sprawled there momentarily, face down, while his wife sobbed uncontrollably and the packed crowd at MGM’s Grand Garden Arena rose to its feet in shock.
With that, a rivalry known for its lack of a definitive triumph suddenly had the most definitive ending of them all.
Juan Manuel Marquez threw both arms skyward, as blood dripped from his nose. Bedlam ensued all around him, but Marquez said little. His face said it all.
His face summarized four fights between two men, two scored in favor of Pacquiao, another one a draw. His face summarized the release of nearly a decade of frustration. For the moment that Marquez waited for and obsessed over, for the moment he set the record straight.
“I threw the perfect punch,” he said.
It happened in the sixth round, after Pacquiao mounted the most furious of comebacks, after he overcame an early knockdown with a reciprocal knockdown, after he stung Marquez with a series of left hands. As Round 6 neared its conclusion, Marquez (55-6-1, 40 knockouts) crept in close to Pacquiao, and he came over the top from a short distance with that right.
The shot crumpled Pacquiao (54-5-2) to the canvas, right in front of Bob Arum, his promoter, who held his hands out as if he wanted to catch his prized fighter in his arms. Pacquiao’s wife, Jinkee, held her face in both hands and cried. It took her husband several minutes to rise, and when he did, his face was bruised under both eyes, which were vacant. He looked lost.
“We knew it would be a tough fight,” Marquez said. “But not an impossible fight.”
Pacquiao was later sent to the hospital for a CAT scan; Marquez had a broken nose and a suspected concussion.
Before the fight, Pacquiao strode deep inside Grand Garden Arena, through a maze of tunnels. He entered Dressing Room 2 at 5:40 p.m. This was about an hour earlier than for his previous foray against Marquez. Pacquiao was so early that he caught the drug testers off guard. One ran off to fetch a test kit. Pacquiao just smiled, his face filled with confidence, so sure.
The boxer embraced his trainer, Freddie Roach.
“How are you?” Roach asked him. “You good?”
Pacquiao simply nodded.
He wore a blue T-shirt imprinted with his likeness; T-shirt Manny held a microphone, wore boxing shoes and spun a basketball on an index finger. Real-life Manny sat in a chair below where highlights of his previous Marquez fights played on a flat-screen television.
As if to underscore his mood, Pacquiao did not wait for the HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant to interview him. He grabbed the microphone and interviewed Merchant instead. Merchant ably played along. To one query, he said he wanted to confirm HE won the previous three fights against Marquez.
Pacquiao looked up, incredulous. “Wait,” he said, “that’s my line.”
Then it got surreal. In came Mitt Romney. Yes, that Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and the presidential runner-up, every hair on his head in place. Romney, in fact, came in twice. His introduction was at once awkward and hilarious.
“Hi, Manny,” he said. “I’m Mitt Romney. I ran for president. I lost.”
All that really happened, truth stranger than fiction. Or just another Pacquiao fight.
The fighter himself stood coiled in his corner before the opening bell ring, his fists already raised. Then he charged at Marquez like a bull at a matador. Pacquiao fought the smarter fight early, as he tagged Marquez with lefts and avoided the right hand.
That all changed in the third round, all changed with one punch. It came from Marquez, who sent his right arm wide, over Pacquiao’s left glove, flush into Pacquiao’s face. The punch sent Pacquiao flying backward, on his backside. He climbed to his feet quickly, his face twisted into a sneer.
It marked the first time in 39 rounds between the fighters that Marquez had knocked Pacquiao down. If anything, it seemed to galvanize Pacquiao. Well, at least until the sixth.
Through three previous fights, through 36 razor-thin rounds, Pacquiao and Marquez had already staged a trilogy that lacked but one significant element: a clear outcome. In those bouts, Pacquiao did not lose. But he did not exactly win, either. His Marquez tally consisted of two victories and one draw and enough doubt to make a rare fourth fight compelling enough to stage.
Boxing history is much like blockbuster movies in that regard. They are plenty of trilogies, three meetings between two fighters that defined careers. A fourth fight is more uncommon. It happened with Sugar Ray Robinson and Gene Fullmer, with Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles, with Bobby Chacon and Rafael Limon and in a handful of other instances.
Pacquiao did not want a fourth bout, not initially. Nor did Roach. Marquez, among the best counterpunches of his era, often befuddled Pacquiao with stylistic kryptonite. He waited until Pacquiao came to him. And when Pacquiao, against Roach’s instructions, shifted left and led with jabs, Marquez countered over the top with stinging straight right hands.
Marquez arrived here like some boxing Popeye, his body bigger, his muscles carved from long hours in the gym. The questionable past of his trainer, Angel Guillermo Heredia, an admitted steroids dealer who testified for the government in the Balco scandal, only added to rampant speculation, which Marquez and his camp vehemently denied.
Still, Roach maintained that speed, not bulk, won fights. “I don’t think muscle men have a better chin,” he said.
The last time these boxers met, Pacquiao entered the ring with his personal life in shambles. He arrived late to the arena, and in an argument with his wife. Throughout that camp, his confidants described Pacquiao as a changed man who replaced his numerous vices with religion. Now, they say that Pacquiao, obsessive in all endeavors, had binged too much on Bible study.
Only in boxing could someone cite too much Bible study as a distraction for a fight.
For this bout, Pacquiao cut out plyometrics from his training, exercises that he said led to cramping in his calves. His promoter, Arum of Top Rank Boxing, said the last time he saw Team Pacquiao this peaceful was before Pacquiao fought Oscar De La Hoya, before he became famous and his life personal life imploded, before he won a Congressional election in the Philippines.
Whether such tranquillity could translate into the aggression Roach desired remained to be seen. They had a game plan for the third fight, after all, until Pacquiao discarded it.
This time, Pacquiao appeared to follow the plan. He remained aggressive, even as he lunged forward, at times off balance, susceptible to the right. Asked afterward if he would entertain a fifth fight, Pacquiao said, “Why not?”
Perhaps he will want to watch the punch on replay. It happens to most every fighter, one of boxing’s starkest and saddest truths. They all get hit, all get knocked down. Some champions, even Pacquiao, get knocked out.
“I got hit by a punch I didn’t see,” he said.