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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Saturday’s “Event” a Far Cry from Pacquiao’s First Texas Trip

Long before Manny Pacquiao’s coronation as the best fighter on the planet, the late-night serenades on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” or even the Nike endorsement deal, there was trouble in the Alamodome.

On November 15, 2003, the home of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs hosted the Filipino’s first mega-bout, and only 24 seconds into the fight, his ascent to boxing’s peak was almost over before it started.

After landing a lead left cross on then-featherweight world champion Marco Antonio Barrera’s jaw, the two fighters’ legs became entangled, causing Pacquiao to slip and fall on the blue canvas.

Incredibly, referee Laurence Cole started flashing fingers at the challenger and counted to eight. The third man in the ring had, in fact, incorrectly scored the mix-up as a knockdown in favor of Barrera.

By rule, Pacquiao instantly trailed 10-8 in a fight where the differences between him and his opponent began to present themselves.


The predominantly Mexican fan base almost instinctively jumped out of the 10,127 seats they occupied, filling the cavernous arena with raucous screams and horns, cajoling Barrera to finish him off. Pacquiao, in contrast, heard no reply from his own fans because they resided an ocean away in the Philippines.

Even worse, while “The Baby-faced Assassin” had fought nine previous times at the 126-pound limit, Pacquiao had accomplished the feat only once since vacating his IBF super bantamweight title.

If there was any question of the house fighter’s identity, Oscar De La Hoya watched ringside. His Golden Boy Promotions outfit was both the lead promoter of the fight and Barrera’s handler. It was clear to see why Vegas oddsmakers installed the Mexico City native as a four-to-one favorite.

A psychological roadblock to victory existed as well. In the decades following the reign of legendary flyweight champ Pancho Villa, a long line of great Filipino fighters after World War II, like Flash Elorde and Luisito Espinosa had clawed their way to the cusp of boxing notoriety in America—only to fall short when it mattered most. It is arguable that the disappointments of Pacquiao’s predecessors contributed to the lingering stereotypes then attributed to Pinoys as lacking the heart and skills to succeed against elite competition.
In addition, the former teenage construction worker had already made his countrymen proud by merely getting his name and likeness printed on a poster alongside the great Barrera. There would be nothing to be ashamed of in the event of a loss.

In short, Pacquiao was not only going up against the man in front of him, the officiating, and the hostile crowd, but the ghosts of failures past. Most fighters in his shoes would have packed up their tents and disappeared over the horizon in a fashion befitting a “spaghetti western” film.

But there was something different about this fighter from the Pacific Rim and the signs were evident. Pacquiao was no stranger to winning on the road. In December of 1998, at the age of 19, he traveled to Thailand and dethroned longtime WBC flyweight world champion Chatchai Sasakul. On only two weeks’ notice, he came to America for the first time, in June 2001, and promptly knocked out IBF super bantamweight world champion Lehlo Ledwaba.

This Filipino was hungry to make amends for almost a century of heartache in the ring. If Barrera refused to pass him the torch, he would take matters into his own hands.


As Cole administered the controversial standing eight-count, the crowd noise was deafening. Despite the heightened tension and immediate deficit, Pacquiao kept his composure and finished the round.

As the challenger walked toward his corner, his trainer, Freddie Roach, would later divulge to the press that he told his ward, “We have to make him fight every minute of every round now.”

Like a soldier eager to prove his mettle on the battlefield, the “Pac-Man” executed his general’s orders with precision.

As if energized by the injustice impeding him, the inspired underdog began to bewilder and frustrate Barrera by utilizing a storm of punches from a variety of angles that swarmed his opponent from pillar-to-post. Two rounds later, a role reversal occurred.
This time it was Barrera dazed on the canvas, the recipient of a bona fide knockdown via another Pacquiao left cross—a precursor to the prolonged beating of which the future Hall of Famer would be at the losing end.

The thousands in San Antonio and millions around the world from Mexico City to Manila were stunned at what they were on hand to witness. As every cumulative punch landed on Barrera’s head and torso with increasing accuracy and impact, the attrition in his body language was on full display. In the midst of Pacquiao’s relentless attack, the spectators soon turned the Alamodome into a place with all the personality of a morgue.

When Cole mercifully stopped the punishment in the 11th frame and raised the underdog’s arm in triumph for his third world title in as many weight classes, it signified the greatest accomplishment of Pacquiao’s career up to that point. HBO commentator Jim Lampley likened the coming-out party to the emergence of Greta Garbo.

A superstar was born, with the remnants of previous stereotypes about Asian fighters sprinkled like shattered glass all over the atmosphere of the boxing world.


Four weight classes, 21 pounds, and four world titles later, Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao stands today as the pound-for-pound king. In a twist that would rival The Most Interesting Man in the World, he singlehandedly causes military ceasefires and holds a spot on the Time Magazine Influential 100, a list usually reserved for dignitaries like President Barack Obama.

This Saturday, he makes his triumphant return to the Lone Star State to defend his unprecedented seventh belt against former welterweight champion Joshua Clottey. However, the circumstances have changed dramatically.

This time, the venue is the pristine Cowboys Stadium in Arlington and will house four times the number of spectators that viewed his knockout of Barrera. Unlike the fight in 2003, Pacquiao is the overwhelming odds-on favorite. As the headlining attraction, he stands to make a reported $6.5 million plus a portion of the pay-per-view revenue; seven years ago as an opponent, his piece of the purse was $350,000, paltry by comparison.
Maybe the most telling factor is that he no longer toils in anonymity. The once-hostile Texas boxing fan base has been stricken by “Manny Mania” and will be expecting nothing less than another eye-popping knockout.

Eerily enough, it seems he now finds himself in the similar precarious position once occupied by Barrera that fateful day in San Antonio. Remarkably, in Pacquiao’s 14 subsequent fights—a résumé that includes a second fight with Barrera, three tours against Erik Morales, two wars with Juan Manuel Marquez, and a series of emphatic knockouts over De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, and Miguel Cotto—that Cole’s erroneous ruling still stands as the last time the “Pac-Man” has ever been technically knocked down.
With enough money to fill an Olympic swimming pool and his place in Canastota secure, will he approach Clottey with the same sense of urgency and resolve that willed him to victory seven years ago?

It’s almost certain that, at some point this week, Manny Pacquiao will remember the Alamodome.


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