Posted: Sunday January 22, 2006 5:02PM; Updated: Sunday January 22, 2006 5:02PM
Manny Pacquiao (left) started slowly against Erik Morales but gradually took control.
There is a vast slice of the American public -- mainstream sports fans, reality-TV watchers who might have caught a few episodes of The Contender or moviegoers who've seen a Rocky or two, former Mike Tyson followers, and even (or maybe especially) editors of national sports magazines -- whose knee-jerk reaction to boxing is, "It's a circus." They dismiss the sport as an irrelevant mix of over-hyped, under-talented heavyweights (who, after all, aren't "real" athletes like those in the NFL or the NBA) and "a bunch of little guys no one's ever heard of," all promoted by charlatans. As my mother would say, you just can't talk to people like that.
Maybe, though, you could show them a tape of Saturday night's superfeatherweight bout between Erik Morales and Manny Pacquiao, and maybe then they would start to understand that there's more to this business than Sylvester Stallone and Don King. The bout was everything that makes boxing compelling: two talented, extremely well-schooled, well-prepared fighters coming together with their reputations and professional futures at stake, each with reason to believe he could beat the other, but each also with reason to know he would be tested in the extreme. For the nearly 19,000 on hand at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas and for however many more around the country put out $44.95 for the HBO pay-per-view, Morales and Pacquiao delivered the kind of performance, the kind of struggle, that raises boxing above the easily-assimilated thrills of most "sport."
The bout was a rematch of their dramatic and bloody 12-round fight of last March. Morales won that one on a close, but clear unanimous decision. In the time between, the 27-year-old Pacquiao, who is an action-film star and all-around national hero in his native Philippines, had won his one bout, stopping Hector Velazquez in six rounds in Los Angeles last September to run his record to 40-3-2, with 32 knockouts. Morales, however, fighting on that same September card in L.A. and making his first move up to 135 pounds, had lost his tune-up, getting clearly outboxed by the slick Zahir Raheem. It was only the third loss for the 29-year-old Morales in 51 bouts -- and the only one not to his Mexican countryman Marco Antonio Barrera (who'd taken two of three from Morales in their electrifying triology). In the end, though, the loss didn't derail the rematch, and as the boisterous, flag-waving groups of Filipino and Mexican fans made clear on Saturday night, that was as it should be.
As with any rematch, the question was whether the loser of the first bout could do enough different to change the outcome this time around. The charismatic Pac Man, a relentlessly energetic southpaw with an explosive punch, had rocked Morales several times in their first meeting, but Morales, taller by an inch and a half at 5-feet-8, supremely durable (he'd never been off his feet as a pro) and a resourceful, disciplined fighter, had weathered the shots and kept the less technically sound Pacquiao off balance and backing up with a long left jab and jarring right hands. A natural warrior, Morales had simply outgunned the naturally smaller Pacquiao, who was bothered from the fifth round on by a bad cut beside his right eye. Pacquiao had also complained about having to wear Winning brand gloves, rather than Reyes brand, which because they are stuffed with horsehair, rather than foam, are considered better "puncher's gloves."
Outfitted with Reyes this time around, Pacquiao exuded confidence. He is a remarkably cheerful-looking fighter, with a small happy smile under his wispy mustache, and he provided a dramatic contrast to the chiseled severity of Morales. Still, there was no doubt that Pacquiao was all business. During prefight instructions in his dressing room, he asked referee Kenny Bayless, in soft, halting English, for clarification of one point, to be sure that a fighter could not be saved by the bell in the final round. There was no doubt that Pacquiao was making sure not of his own safety, but that there was every reason for him to keep trying to take out Morales right up to the final second.