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So this is how it ends, how Manny Pacquiao's four-year reign of terror comes to a stunning halt: with a savage short right hand from longtime rival Juan Manuel Márquez that sent him face-first to the canvas, where he lay motionless for two agonizing minutes while shaken supporters enveloped him, and his wife, Jinkee, wept in promoter Bob Arum's arms. The punishment for a fighter who has lost a step is a harsh one that has been absorbed by even the very best—Joe Louis knocked through the ropes by Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali battered by Larry Holmes, Roy Jones Jr. laid out by Antonio Tarver—and last Saturday in Las Vegas, the 33-year-old Pacquiao received his actuarial dose.
For so long it was Pacquiao inflicting the punishment. He retired Oscar De La Hoya in 2008 and put Ricky Hatton on the shelf for 3½ years in '09. After Pacquiao knocked out Miguel Cotto, Floyd Mayweather Sr.—father of pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr.—vowed that "my son is not fighting that guy." The combination of relentless pressure, blurring speed and concussive power made Pacquiao a 5'6", 140(ish)-pound dervish, one trainer Freddie Roach molded into an unbeatable champion.
Recently, though, Pacquiao's aura of invincibility had diminished. Last November, in their third meeting, he beat Márquez by majority decision in a fight most ringside observers felt he had lost. In June, Pacquiao was robbed in a split-decision loss to Timothy Bradley, but the shock was that Pacquiao couldn't walk through Bradley, a pitter-patter puncher with foot and ankle injuries so bad he had to be taken to the postfight press conference in a wheelchair.
There wasn't exactly a clamor for a fourth meeting with Márquez—Pacquiao led 2-0-1—but when a showdown with Mayweather failed to come together (surprise!), the professed determination of both old foes to settle this series with a knockout ratcheted up the intensity. Pacquiao came out aggressively, pressuring Márquez, backing him up and rocking him with pinpoint straight left hands. Márquez rallied in the third, attacking Pacquiao's body before winging a perfectly timed overhand right that caught Pacquiao flush on the side of the head, dropping him for the first time in their 39 rounds.
Pacquiao appeared to regain control over the next two rounds, knocking Márquez down in the fifth before breaking his nose with a thudding straight left. Pacquiao was winning the sixth round, too, before Márquez, his legs wobbly, his nose bleeding, connected with the right hand, sending Pacquiao down and providing the first undisputed victory in this epic rivalry. "I knew Manny could knock me out at any time," said Márquez (now 55-6-1). "I threw the perfect punch."
It wouldn't be Pacquiao-Márquez without a whiff of controversy. In Márquez's corner was Angel Heredia, an admitted distributor of performance-enhancing drugs whom the 39-year-old Márquez credited for his newly chiseled 143-pound physique. Only in boxing can an athlete openly employ a disgraced PED peddler and seem astonished that anyone would question it, and the presence of Heredia, coupled with Nevada's feeble drug-testing system, will cast a shadow over the win despite Márquez's denials of PED use.
Ultimately, the defeat of Pacquiao (54-5-2) was the story, with the attendant calls for him to retire. These days he is a man spread thin, with his duties as a congressman in the Philippines and his commitment to the church, embraced last year while he was on the brink of divorce. His entourage is a vast, needy bunch—his pastor reportedly asked for 44 tickets and multiple hotel rooms for Pacquiao's bout with Bradley. Roach insisted that Pacquiao had a superb training camp, but privately members of his team say that the outside influences have sapped the fighter's strength. "I'm not sure which way we're going to go right now," said Roach after Saturday night's loss. "It really depends upon how he feels and what he wants to do. We'll get back in the gym, and if I see signs of decline, I'll tell him to retire. If I don't, I'll tell him to go on."
Most expect Pacquiao to return—"I see no reason for him to retire," says Arum—likely against Márquez, likely next year. A possible superfight with Mayweather, if it was ever really possible, has been scuttled. And for all the talk of overkill, Pacquiao-Márquez IV drew a sold-out crowd of 16,368 to the MGM Grand Garden Arena, generating a live gate of $10.8 million. Expectations are that the fight will exceed a million pay-per-view buys, bringing in even more revenue. Pacquiao, who has taken hefty advances from Arum before his recent bouts and who has had well-publicized tax problems, was guaranteed $26 million on Saturday, and the drama of the fight means a fifth installment could rake in plenty more.
Yes, Pacquiao's career will continue, indefinitely. His days of dominance, however, are over.