Forty-five years ago, a bill was proposed to ban boxing. Cassius Clay testified on the sport’s behalf, casting himself as its messiah:
“Boxing is at the winter of its year…When there are no great fighters, people lose interest. It’s a question of time…Will man ever get to the moon? In time he will. Will I be the next champ? Time will tell. In boxing’s winter, people lose interest, but I am here to liven things up.”
Last Saturday, the media room’s false prophets were again heralding the death of boxing, after the sport’s colossus, Oscar De La Hoya, fell to Manny Pacquiao, virtually disintegrating before the audience of the MGM Grand Arena. His corner threw in the towel after eight rounds, 224 punches received, 83 punches landed, and one eye souffléed shut. De La Hoya shook hands with his opponent’s trainer (and his own former cornerman), Freddie Roach, in the ring and conceded, “I just don’t have it anymore.” With poise and humility, boxing’s ambassador congratulated Pacquiao through a din of boos before heading to the hospital as a precautionary measure.
Pacquiao was guaranteed $11 million for the fight, in contrast to De La Hoya’s $20 million. From what’s left of the pay-per-view (early figures are at $70 million gross), ticket sales, and foreign rights, Golden Boy will take 68 percent, while Top Rank, which represents Pacquiao, will get 32 percent. (The promotion costs for this fight are estimated to be $4 million, including $1.5 million to produce the HBO behind-the-scenes documentary series on the fight, 24-7.) The judges received $5,150 each to watch a TKO at ringside, slightly less than the referee who was given $8,150 and a better view of the action. As far as I know, nowhere in the fight contract was it stipulated Pacquiao was to go essentially untouched in the ring.
Though in superb physical condition, De La Hoya seemed to have trained excessively. He gained only two pounds in the 24 hours between the official weigh-in and fight night, about 10 pounds lighter than many anticipated. I would guess he was weakened from a shrunken stomach. His strength suffered immensely—De La Hoya was apparently trying to prove the point that he was not going to beat Pacquiao with sheer size. Even if De La Hoya had taken another approach, however, I do not believe the Golden Boy would have been a safer gamble. Pacquiao’s speed and surgical precision were unstoppable.
Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, told me months ago that he knew a secret he could not reveal: why De La Hoya’s jab stopped working in his loss to Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in May 2007. Saturday, Pacquiao unveiled the reason: De La Hoya could not “cut off the ring,” meaning that he was unable to limit his opponent’s mobility. The second weakness Roach perceived in De La Hoya was an inability to attack with resolve, a point Roach articulated at press conference in October; after De La Hoya took a friendly swipe at Pacquiao at the Space Center in Houston (declaring Roach’s only words for his fighter would be “Houston, we have a problem”), the cornerman limped a mile-long walk to a toy store where he bought a plastic machine gun for the following event in San Francisco: “Oscar, I found this toy gun, and I can’t pull the trigger. I think it must be yours,” to the delight of the congregation of in-the-know boxing journalists.
Two independent boxing notables predicted this fight correctly to me: the author Bert Sugar, who said “Pacquiao will win because the union limit on hands allowed is two,” and Mike Tyson, who pointed at Pacquiao at his final training and whispered that the Filipino would triumph “because he’s hungry.” After the first round, I asked the reporter sitting next to me whom he believed won it: “Pacquiao,” he glibly replied, “because I don’t believe he’ll win many more.” By the second round, the reporter sitting on the other side of me (who had also picked De La Hoya to win the bout) had written in his notebook, “The fight is over.”
By the end of the fifth, De La Hoya wore a sad expression in his corner, having caught his opponent on the ropes with three crushing blows to no visible effect on Pacquiao. As A.J. Liebling put it back in 1962, “there are few dreams worse than the one in which you hit a man without making any impression, and in waking life the situation is even more frightening.” The crowd, too, seemed to affect De La Hoya. Hedging their bets, they had been applauding both men early. They were now against him.
After the fight, Freddie Roach joined Pacquiao’s after-party at the Mandalay Bay’s Rum Jungle, where members of the Wu-Tang Clan serenaded him with their greatest hits. (Roach inquired the next day, “Who is the Wu-Tang Bang?”) Barely 40 hours after the victory of his life, Roach already had begun training of another fighter this past Monday morning.
Emmanuel Pacquiao entered the ring a 2-1 underdog and left it having destroyed a legend. In his native Philippines, the match induced an unofficial ceasefire between the army and rebel militants. The fight brought to mind Pacquiao’s role this year in a historical reenactment as Chief Lapu-Lapu, the George Washington of the Philippines, who became the nation’s first hero when he slew Magellan and cut short his hubristic trip around the world. By now, Pacquiao’s boxing legacy in his country far surpasses that of Muhammad Ali after he defeated Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila (which, like last week’s fight, was co-promoted by Bob Arum). The support of his people may lead him to victory in his second run for congress there.
In the west, Pacquiao will likely never attain the mass-marketability of an Oscar De La Hoya, but hopefully he can comfort himself with being known merely as the greatest fighter in the world. Unlike the Golden Boy, Pacquiao is still struggling with English. At times, he will give enigmatic responses to questions that he seems not to have fully understood. (In an unaired segment from a televised interview last month, Pacquiao was asked, “You love the Philippines as much as the Philippines loves you?” He paused, replying, “Maybe.”) A king in his native country, he sometimes appears an innocent abroad here. Although we have done several interviews, when Pacquiao was reading about his own dietary habits in this series, he asked who had written the article. "Peter," the champion was informed by a friend. Pacquiao was confused, "Who's Peter?" The member of the entourage explained, "You know, the guy who's always here." Pacquiao replied, "He's a writer? I thought he just liked to hang out."
De La Hoya’s loss to Pacquiao has ushered in the dogs, and the Golden Boy is undergoing blistering criticism in the media. His mastery with the press is a charm that has worked both for and against him. “I’m a target,” he shrugged during one of our interviews prior to the Dream Match. Despite having been able to pick his opponents, he has deliberately chosen brutal competition, and even Roach admits, “Oscar does not dodge fights.” By successfully transcending the sport of boxing, however, he has invited a backlash against his popular image. His unpolished moments, like when he swears, are reassuring: it is a reminder that behind every Disney character is an animator who takes cigarette breaks. With a blushing laugh, De La Hoya once described to me a moment of weakness when he signed into a boxing web forum: “I went in as Gold92…and it’s crazy because I find myself really getting into arguments with people like, ‘What are you talking about? De La Hoya’s cool! He’s a cool guy!’”
Like most tycoons, Oscar De La Hoya defined an era and is in search of an heir. For years, while his physical prowess rivaled his celebrity, he had no need to cultivate a successor. Since 1995, he has generated nearly $700 million of gross revenue on Pay-Per-View (the most of any athlete) and built a promotional empire. He now has an opportunity to win over the skeptics with his promotional ambitions: to unionize boxing, help all fighters receive proper healthcare, and restore public faith in the underlying credibility of the sweet science. Accomplishing just one of these aims would redeem De La Hoya in the eyes of all boxing enthusiasts, eclipsing even the illustrious reputation he established in winning 10 world titles. At his training camp in Big Bear, De La Hoya told me, “There’s so much room for improvement for boxing… We need a drastic change. It’ll happen. I mean, fuck—I’m young. We have all the time in the world.” As a fighter, however, his time is running out. Regardless of the calls to retirement, De La Hoya may fight again. Just before he began training, he told me, “that last impression that you make is really important, especially in boxing, because you’re [only] as good as your last fight. That’s just the way they see it for some reason. I would love to go out on a win.”
Today, the general public can name five modern fighters as quickly as they can five modern sculptors. As the most powerful man in boxing, De La Hoya could change this. He echoes the sentiment that HBO pay-per-view has carved a niche for a paying public: “Our audience is on HBO or pay-per-view which obviously diminishes the viewership to a certain amount.” He also cites the absence of talent among American heavyweights, who now “want to become football players. They want to become basketball stars. They don’t think of going to the gym and becoming heavyweight champion of the world.” Beyond just skill, a transformative champion must define his artistry in and out of the ring. As David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine, said to me about Muhammad Ali, the subject if his 1998 biography, King of the World, “Individual talent is astonishing not because it resembles other things, but because it has the feel of originality.”
Should De La Hoya focus on saving boxing instead of continuing to fight, he would doubly defy the tradition of fighters who are resistant both to change and to retirement. This sport, however, is addictive. When I was a boy, I thought the ring’s ropes were there to keep the fighters in, but increasingly I believe that they also help keep the pensioners out. In reforming this sport, De La Hoya would embody the greatest post-career metamorphosis in boxing history—that is, until Pacquiao becomes President of the Philippines.