Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Manny Pacquiao Vs Julio Cesar Chavez: Tackling Invincibility
What if Pacquiao had met Julio Cesar Chavez at 135 pounds? First, the fight would almost certainly have not fallen through at the negotiating table, so that’s a plus. However, the fight itself would have been compelling in so many other ways. My first reaction was to think that there is simply no way that Chavez could have handled the other worldly combination of speed and power that Pacquiao brought to the table. Chavez struggled with Meldrick Taylor, particularly in the first half of their classic fight in 1990. Taylor had ridiculous hand speed, but Pacquiao has the same kind of speed. Which fighter was faster is interesting but hardly the issue; the similarity of that speed is undeniable. Admittedly, Chavez came on in the second half of that fight and delivered a fearsome beating to Taylor which highlights some of the problems that Pacquiao would have faced even if things went well early on. However, my initial take was that Chavez would be hard pressed to wear down Pacquiao like he did Taylor. Pacquiao seemed too strong for that to take place. And there it was, my first question came to mind.
There may not be a fighter in the world that has undergone a greater metamorphosis in a single career than Manny Pacquiao. Pacquiao began his career at the astoundingly low weight of 106 pounds. Since then, Pacquiao has moved up seven divisions and, incredibly, he has only become more dominating as he has moved up. The scary thing about Pacquiao is that he may only now be reaching the weights where he can truly fight his best. In order to deal with Chavez, Pacquiao would have to be strong. That is not a problem because apparently he is.
Pacquiao just weathered a strong offensive assault by a hard punching welterweight in Miguel Cotto. The astounding thing is that Pacquiao not only took the punches, but he never appeared close to being dazed or hurt in the fight. Miguel Cotto has world class power at 147 pounds, how in the world could little Julio Cesar Chavez hurt that Manny Pacquiao? He most likely couldn’t, but that is not necessarily the Manny Pacquiao he would face.
The Manny Pacquiao that fought at 126 and 130 pounds was the same man that is now devastating the welterweight division. As such, Pacquiao had to drain himself to make that weight. Consider the following; Pacquiao has been stopped twice in his career. Both stoppages took place south of 126 pounds. Pacquiao was young and inexperienced and those dynamics probably played a part in his demise. However, at least one of the stoppages came on a body shot. That kind of result is only more likely if a fighter is a little weakened by trying to make an unnatural weight. The last time Pacquiao was noticeably stunned came in his second fight with Juan Manuel Marquez. Marquez caught Pacquiao with a perfect counter left hook as Pac closed in and the after effect was startling. Pacquiao wobbled and nearly went down. Of course, Pac gamely held on and stayed on his feet. Granted, that fight came at 130 pounds, but Pacquiao was also older. As Pacquiao aged, it no doubt became increasingly important that he not continue to drain himself to make weight. Since Pacquiao has moved up, what has been most striking is his increased ability to take punishment; obviously he is much stronger at the higher weights. Manny at 126 pounds at Manny at 145 pounds are equally tough, but not equally strong and just how strong Pacquiao would be at 135 pounds is hard to say definitively.
Still, the increased ability to withstand punches is only part of the story. At the lower weight classes, Pacquiao was incredibly fast, a little awkward, and a strong puncher. However, his power was still cumulative. In his big fights against top competition, he was dominating, but he often wore down his top opponents. In his first fight with Barrera, Pacquiao dominated from the outset, but still did not gain the stoppage until the 11th round with Barrera still on his feet. In his first fight with Marquez, Pacquiao stunned Marquez and the entire boxing world by dropping him three times in the first round. Yet, in the rounds that followed, Marquez was not only able to survive but in fact turned things around. The point is, Pacquiao had more than enough power to gain your respect at featherweight, but he didn’t possess the kind of power to put out the lights on top opponents early on. As it turned out, that kind of power only came later. Pacquiao had his first early stoppage in a big fight in his initial foray into the Junior Welterweight Division. Pacquiao devastated Ricky Hatton with a picture perfect left hook in the second round. It was the single most impressive knockout of his entire career given the stage and opponent.
Pacquiao followed that up by depositing the incredibly rugged Miguel Cotto on the canvas twice in the first four rounds of their fight last November. Cotto had endured some questions regarding his chin, but that came at 140 pounds. Cotto’s ability to take punishment at 147 pounds simply could not be questioned; until he met Pacquiao. Once again, there can be no doubt that Pacquiao had power at any weight class. However, his single punch power seemed to increase as he moved up in weight. Where he always possessed the power to stun and hurt his opponents, he subsequently seemed to develop the power to close the show with a single punch early on only later in his career. Once again, how much power Pac would have at 135 is difficult to measure. Still, the increase in strength and durability is still merely the beginning of the story of Pac.
Which Pacquiao – Part II
Pacquiao has not only become stronger with age, he has become better. Pacquiao’s increase in terms of acumen rivals his obvious increase in strength. Pacquiao’s first fight with Marquez typically provides the first chapters of this story. Pacquiao came out like a tornado and ravaged Marquez for what must have seemed like the longest three minutes in the history of boxing. As has been well documented, Marquez made it out of the round and turned the tables on Pacquiao for much of the remaining eleven rounds. Pacquiao continued to fight hard, but once Marquez adjusted to his straight left, Pac didn’t have a whole lot else he could bring. By any objective measure, Marquez had the better of it for much of the fight. Ironically, Pacquiao was denied a win by a scoring quirk in which he was not given an additional point for his third knockdown of the first round. However, in a greater sense, it would be hard to argue that a draw didn’t represent a just result for such a tremendous effort by both men. At that time, Pacquiao was talented, explosive, but somewhat limited. That was a long time ago.
Unlike his apparent spike in terms of power and durability, Pac’s ascent as a technical fighter has been one of a slow and steady arc. For a long time, it has been a familiar refrain as Pacquiao has looked a little better each time out. The right hand has been the story. Once nowhere near the weapon that his left represented, it is now more than formidable.
In his second fight with Marco Antonio Barrera, Pacquiao showed just how far he had come as a fighter. Barrera was a tremendously smart fighter whose technical prowess could not be overestimated. It would be hard to forget the way in which Barrera utterly exposed Naseem Hamed in their mega-fight years before. Barrera thoroughly dominated Hamed taking full advantage of the holes in Hamed’s defense brought on by his deficiencies in balance and distance. Hamed had been more than good enough to overcome these weaknesses thanks to a combination of speed, power, and awkward style. That is, until he met up with a fighter as good as Barrera. It was a shocking performance that demonstrated beyond any doubt that Barrera was far from just a gutty warrior, he was a master boxer as well.
Needless to say, upon gaining a second look at Pacquiao, one could be assured that Barrera would be ready for the straight left that had bedeviled him three years before. And, for the most part, he was, Pacquiao did not land the left nearly as often and when he did, Barrera took it well as he was better able to see it coming. On top of that, most of the positive moments for Barrera came when he slipped the left and landed his own right hand counter. Yet, Pacquiao still cruised to an easy decision. The key to his win was his own right hand which he used to score points, to disrupt Barrera’s timing, and to stifle any offense that Barrera attempted to mount. In the end, the development of his right hand was something that even a brilliant tactician like Barrera could not have anticipated nor prepared for. Since that time, Pacquiao’s right hand has only gotten better; improving each and every time he enters the ring. Pacquiao’s rise has been so measured and consistent that Freddie Roach himself suggested that only now, nearly six years after the first fight with Marquez, does he have his man right where he wants him to be.
So Chavez has no shot?
It would be more than fitting if that were the take on this one. The reality is, Chavez is often underrated as a fighter by many fans. In fact, Chavez was underrated by more than a few opponents as well. Greg Haugen once infamously ridiculed Chavez’ then unblemished record suggesting that he had compiled that record against a parade of Tijuana cab drivers. Haugen can be forgiven for his words for a few reasons. First, he stood in there and took his beating like a man when the two met in 1993. Second, this was his opponent, what was Haugen supposed to do? Talk him up? But, the third reason is the key to forgiveness; when asked after the fight (Haugen lost by 5 round TKO) about his earlier comments, Haugen said, “OK, so they were tough cab drivers.” You have to like a guy who can admit he was wrong and be funny at the same time.
Yet, the Haugen story underpins any underestimation of Chavez. After all, anybody who remains unbeaten for so long must have had his share of walkovers. Frankly, that is probably true to a certain degree. One is not going to win 80 plus fights in a row over non-stop championship level opponents. So the argument goes as follows: Chavez has some easy wins, thus his record is inflated and therefore he is not invincible. From that logic, it became possible to view Chavez as primarily a brawler who relied on strength and durability primarily to eventually overwhelm often overmatched opponents; Chavez as an excellent, albeit one dimensional fighter. But, a closer look at his resume will yield the absurdity of that notion.
Obviously, Chavez had more than his share of tough opponents. Moreover, with over 100 fights in his career, it seems safe to say that he saw just about every body type and fighting style there is. To have compiled such an insanely impressive record against such a brutal combination of quality and variety leads to the inescapable conclusion that not only was Chavez a great fighter, but he was incredibly complete as a fighter. After all, he never saw the style that completely befuddled him, with the possible exception of Pernell Whitaker and whom did he not befuddle? If Chavez didn’t have the versatility to adjust; didn’t have the intelligence to set up his man; didn’t have the ability to fight different styles himself; he would not have suffered only his first loss… at 31, in his 13 ear as a pro, in his 6 eight class. The sheer numbers speak volumes.
Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera, and Juan Manuel Marquez will probably always be tied to each other in boxing lore. Together they represented a golden era in the 122 to 135 pound range in Mexican boxing during the last 10 to 15 years. However, there is another way in which they should be linked. They all followed a ring legend in Chavez. Each one of them demonstrated a warrior’s heart; a trait that is so often used in describing Chavez. However, they also all demonstrated tremendous versatility and intelligence in the ring as well. In so clearly demonstrating these traits, each man was continuing the legacy of Chavez who, no doubt, influenced all of them.
Morales had never been one to shy away from contact in the ring, yet he pulled off the most impressive win of his career when he boxed magnificently to win a unanimous decision over Pacquiao in 2005. Barrera had already apparently been exposed as a mere brawler by Junior Jones when he demonstrated remarkable and, at that time, largely unseen counter punching and defensive skills in dismantling Hamed in 2001. Marquez was nearly out in the very first round against Pac, but then adjusted and, as the fight progressed, even began to earnestly go after Pacquiao. All three men were tough, but also incredibly sound technically; each uniquely able to break down what his opponent was doing and take full advantage of the holes that were inevitably created. Each man was a master at the art of the possible in the ring. Chavez was possessed of this gift to the rarest of degree. If there is a trait for Chavez that would be problematic for Pacquiao, it is most certainly that.
How would it go down?
It is almost impossible to imagine that the Manny Pacquiao fighting right now could lose. It is ironic, for a few years, it must have seemed that a machine like Chavez couldn’t lose either. There doesn’t seem to be any way to prepare for Pacquiao’s speed and power, while a couple of decades ago, it didn’t seem like there was any escape from the relentless power and precision of Chavez. Predictably, when analyzing greatness, parallels abound. My take on a matchup between these two once again arises out of the arcs of their careers.
Chavez was the prototypical ring legend. At the lower weights, Chavez was a more devastating puncher scoring a much higher percentage of early KO’s. As Chavez moved up, the knockouts came a little more slowly. As he aged, the skills diminished slowly but inexorably. Eventually, Chavez began to suffer losses. The cracks started to appear at 140 pounds where he struggled and was a Lou Duva brain freeze away from losing to Meldrick Taylor. The cracks deepened when he appeared lost at times trying to find Pernell Whitaker. However, Taylor and Whitaker at that time were among the best fighters around and two of the toughest opponents Chavez would face in his career. Thus, the walls truly tumbled against Frankie Randall where Chavez was finally dropped and lost a split decision that shouldn’t have been that close. Eventual losses to Tzsyu and Willy Wise merely provided a sad denouement to his career. The career of Chavez was the textbook story of a legendary fighter; profound greatness gently sliding into sad mediocrity as the effects of aging finally set in.
Not so for the Pacman. Perhaps, Pacquiao is simply still in his prime and the inevitably dwindling of his formidable skills is sadly yet to come. However, for now there is no debate; Pacquiao is getting stronger. As he has moved up, he is better able to withstand punishment and, incredibly, he seems to hit harder. Manny Pacquiao stopped Hatton in two rounds. Pac delivered a more savage beating to Miguel Cotto than a giant welterweight who likely had plaster on his hands in Antonio Margarito. And finally, Pac was about to KO De La Hoya when DLH refused to continue. Only a huge middleweight in Bernard Hopkins had performed that feat. All of this from a man who generally wore down his top opponents when he was fighting in lighter weight classes. The whole data set defies any rational explanation.
As for the fight, it all depends on when and where they met. For Chavez, the earlier the better; if Chavez only had to get by the left hand, he would be in good shape. If Marquez could turn the tables on Pacquiao then a stronger and similarly intelligent Chavez would likely have been able to do the same. If he had Pac at a lower weight class where apparently it was at least possible to hurt him, he would similarly be looking good. There can be no doubt that Chavez was a fearsome body puncher at any weight; the kind of guy against which every fighter had a plan until he felt that punch. At a lower weight class, Chavez might have been more successful slowing Pac down with his devastating body attack.
On the other hand, if it was this Pacquiao, a two handed beast, ridiculously strong at 140 plus pounds, 115 fights or not, even the great Julio Cesar Chavez would have almost certainly finally encountered something he had never seen before.
Author: Jeff Stoyanoff