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THE WIN was easy and entertaining, and when Manny Pacquiao burst into his dressing room at Mandalay Bay last Saturday night as the new WBC lightweight champion, he leaped into the waiting embrace of a cluster of fans who know a bit about resounding championship clinchers.
In Las Vegas to celebrate their own title, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and several other Celtics alternated chants of "Manny, Manny!" and " Boston, Boston!" as Team Pacquiao—a mostly Filipino crew led by Dedham, Mass.--bred trainer Freddie Roach—reveled in its hero's KO of David Diaz 2:24 into the ninth round.
"I told Manny before the eighth round not to knock him out [yet] because I had him going down in the ninth," Roach said with a smile. "He really just followed the game plan."
Though the 29-year-old Pacquiao (47-3-2, 36 KOs) was heavily favored, given his consensus status as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world (after the June 6 retirement of Floyd Mayweather Jr.), two questions loomed over the Filipino's quest to become the first Asian to win belts in four weight classes (112, 122, 130 and now 135 pounds): Would his vaunted quickness play at lightweight, and could his body weather the punches of a career 135-pounder? Both concerns were revealed as naive moments after the opening bell. The southpaw Pacquiao darted around the ring from the start, effortlessly disfiguring Diaz, 32, with right hooks. And when a definitive left at last felled the Chicagoan, face-first, referee Vic Drakulich didn't even count. Said Diaz (34-2-1), "It was all his speed. I could see the punches, but he was just too fast."
It was, in other words, totally unsurprising but awfully fun to watch. For all the attention given to Pacquiao's domination of Mexico's best fighters (with wins over four Mexican world champs), his demeanor (affable outside the ring, almost joyful within it) and his nearly cultlike popularity in his home country, it is his relentless style that is helping to carry the sport. With the heavyweight division mired in mediocrity and fans diverted by the rising popularity of mixed martial arts, Pacquiao has set media-sales records with his aggressiveness. (He unleashed 788 punches to Diaz's 463 and connected on 29% compared with Diaz's 19%.) His rematch against Juan Manuel Marquez in March set pay-per-view records for a bout below welterweight, with 400,000 buys and $20.2 million in revenue. "He weighs 135 pounds, [but] his PPV numbers look more like heavyweight numbers," says Mark Taffet, senior vice president for HBO PPV.
Now, with Mayweather gone and Oscar De La Hoya one bout away from retirement, the question of whom Pacquiao takes on next becomes even more critical. Promoter Bob Arum traces a path toward a bout with Britain's similarly energetic and beloved Ricky Hatton at junior welterweight in February 2009. ( Hatton is under contract to face Paulie Malignaggi in November; Pacquiao will likely tune up that same month against lightweight Edwin Valero.) For Pac-Man and his fans, a showdown with Hatton would be a perfect storm of styles: if not as easy as his lightweight debut, then at least as entertaining.
ONLY AT SI.COM Big-fight previews and analysis by Chris Mannix.