Many highbrows have been standing over boxing and counting it out these days. But as the figures of Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and others attest, pugilism has had an enormous impact on American history. And rightfully so. If sports are ritualized enactments of the struggle that is human life, what more pure form of the struggle could there be than the sweet science?
If boxing was down, it got off the canvas this weekend. On Saturday night, Filipino sensation Manny Pacquiao won the WBO welterweight title in an epic struggle with Miguel Angel Cotto. Pacquiao, who began boxing at 106 pounds, has now set a record by winning titles in 7 weight divisions. But never mind the records, his performance was absolutely jaw dropping, a fistic work of art.
Cotto is an inch taller and naturally ten to fifteen pounds heavier. Up until Saturday, he had only one loss and that was a questionable defeat at the hands of Antonio Margarito, whose gloves were found to be juiced in his later fight with Shane Mosley. Cotto is a left-hook artist and arguably the best body puncher in the bruising business. Still, Mr. Pacquiao simply dissected his foe by his speedy in-and-out movements, feints, and howitzer-like straight lefts and right hooks.
Unlike many elite boxers, Pacquiao, under the tutelage of trainer Freddie Roach, has continued to learn new boxing techniques. He told me, "I consider myself a student of boxing, a philosopher so to speak, and my philosophy is to keep learning."
One of his new tricks of the trade was at work against the gritty Cotto. As a southpaw who always depended on his straight and incredibly explosive left, Pacquiao has now added a mighty right hook to his arsenal. Many times during the bout, Pacquiao would slide right, get an angle, and clobber Cotto with a right hook that Cotto could not see coming. In boxing, it's the punches that you are blind to that take you out, because your body cannot prepare itself for their impact.
As a boxing trainer, I could easily carry on about the marvel of Pacquiao's speed, technique and power, but there were other more important virtues on display in this contest. The courage of Miguel Cotto was astounding. Though the Puerto Rican champion was very competitive in the early going, he was starting to lose badly by the seventh stanza. With blood flowing from his eyes and mouth, he fought on until the referee stopped the contest just before the 12th round. Many of us parents talk to our children about commitment and some of us about the importance of giving all of your gifts. Cotto, as well as his opponent, embodied this commitment on Saturday night in a way that even those who crook their snoots at the sport would have to acknowledge.
I worry about Cotto, not because of the pounding he took but because he is so completely committed to his art that he is sure to be devastated by this loss. And unlike Pacquiao, who is running for public office in the Philippines, Cotto does not have a lot of interests outside of his hard trade.
As for the marvel Manny Pacquiao, his trainer told me, "He will have two more fights and that is it. " Roach added that he sure hopes that one of them is against Floyd Mayweather.
At the end of the bout, the crowd at the MGM Grand was chanting, "Mayweather, Mayweather." The public demands that the two square off to decide who is the best pugilist on the planet. Many cynics think the contest will not happen because both men will want the larger cut. But Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports assured me, "These guys both have huge egos but the money we are talking about here is astronomical and will set their families up financially for the next century. I think they can be convinced to come to a fifty-fifty split." There is, however, more than A-Rod type dollars at stake here.
A couple of weeks before the bout I interviewed Miguel Cotto. He was so focused on the fight that it was nearly impossible to get him to talk about anything. However, he waxed passionate at one question, pressed by a local reporter. What will bring the glory days of boxing back? A fire came into Cotto's eyes and he snapped almost angrily, "The glory days will come back when boxers stop worrying about money and the best just fight the best." The best fought the best on Saturday and despite the naysayers, the best will fight the best again in 2010, when Mayweather and Pacquiao meet.