Monday, November 16, 2009

Transcendence Through Ascension


I've been talking about the Pacquiao-Cotto fight on Saturday since it happened with my friends, trying to get at what exactly it is about Manny that we've never seen before.

Here's what's verifiable: No one has ever done what Manny accomplished this past weekend, winning his 7th title in seven different weight classes. Neither has anyone moved up in weight - Manny started as a teenager around 100 pounds, has a natural weight of around 135, and fought Cotto at 145 - so easily and retained their speed while adding power of this ferocity.

In his last two fights Pacquiao has boxed men purported to be dangerous; bigger and tougher than himself. Both times he annihilated these men so comprehensively replaying the fight makes it seem like neither belong in the ring with him. It's utterly incredible. There's nothing in sports that's analogous to what Manny is doing right now in boxing.

Miguel Cotto is younger than Manny, stronger and heavier, a powerful puncher who dissembles men in the ring, wearing down opponents with counter punches and body shots. Cotto is a quiet, serious man, he's dedicated and focused and wears an expression of concentration so frequently it's a wonder how he sleeps. If you caught the HBO 24/7 series before the fight, it's also clear that Cotto is, for lack of a better way to describe it, a good dude. An admirable man. Boxing gets littered with personalities who exist to glorify themselves, Cotto's boxing acumen is as removed from that selfishness as Mariano Riveria is from showboating. He's in excellent shape, devoted and hungry and the only time he has lost previous to Saturday was against a boxer who had illegally weighted his gloves to increase his power (allegedly, but only technically so).


And for the last half of the title fight, Cotto ran backwards to avoid Manny. If the 4th round had lasted 30 more seconds, he would have been knocked out then. It was enormously one-sided. In the latter rounds, Pacquiao stops chasing him and waits at center ring, where Cotto approaches him as a zebra would a lion. Finally in the 12th Pacquiao catches Cotto in the corner and before he can even unload the fight is called, something Cotto's father and trainer both wanted to happen rounds before. Cotto afterwards will say he couldn't even see where the punches were coming from, and he's never fought anyone like Pacquiao.

Watch the fight. Even if you don't like boxing, even if you've never enjoyed a fight. Manny Pacquiao has made me a boxing fan, shown a purity of sport I didn't know could exist. Choose one of his last three fights, and you'll see things no one but Pacquiao has ever done.

Watch the entrance to any fight, his entrance to Hatton, to De La Hoya, to Cotto: Manny is smiling. Fucking smiling, like a wedding day, ear-to-ear, exuberant, ebullient smile. Have you ever seen that before? Pick a fight and see the boxer, whomever it is, play loud, angry music as he walks up, frowning from the effort of seriousness, devoting his energy towards darker purposes, to hurting another man, to wanting to knock him out. Every single time I've seen anyone walk into a ring they've done so in a range that goes from solemn to vengeful. And yet here we have Manny, tapping gloves with fans, nodding towards people in the stands, grinning from the fun of it.

Now watch the Hatton fight. Manny is a leftie, his right hand never considered a worthwhile threat. But in preparation, his coach (the rightfully hyperbole laden Freddie Roach) and Manny developed a right hook to counter Hatton. Noticing Hatton telegraphs certain punches, Manny and Roach devise a strategy, you can see it clearly in the first knock down of the fight: Pacquiao sees a cocked fist and throws his own right hand while simultaneously ducking the punch Hatton showed. Pacquiao lands his right on Hatton's face and is immediately bent at the waist so quickly that Hatton doesn't even touch him, Hatton's momentum takes him to the ground. (the third picture is that exact sequence against Cotto, Pacquiao completely under his fists) It's amazing. Pacquiao sees an incoming punch, throws his own in retaliation, lands it, and is already out of the way as his opponent extends his arm. There isn't a fighter in history faster than Manny, but Manny isn't just world class fast, he's strong with knockout power in either fist now and technically sound and expertly coached and has body control that Olympian gymnasts envy. At the end of the first round against Hatton (the fight only lasts two rounds), Hatton tries at the bell to throw a roundhouse, Pacquiao completely ducks it, and for a split second after the bell rings Hatton looks at Pacquiao and just seethes, frustrated into rage because he can't even touch him.

Now watch the Cotto fight. Not to watch Cotto get dismantled, because though he does, he's an exceptional man fighting as hard as he can. Cotto doesn't deserve the beating he gets. In the first few rounds, before the knockdown in the 4th, Pacquiao evidences his uniqueness clearly: Pacquiao throws and gets in close, letting Cotto take some shots, seeing if he can take the hard punches, measuring the opponent. But he doesn't do it out of arrogance or to brag, he does it to test himself, to see if he can take a welterweight's heavy hands against his coach's plan, in the corner Freddie Roach tells him "Prove you can do it," and Manny does. Watch, Pacquiao gets hit and nods towards Cotto, comes in, puts his gloves up and lets Cotto unleash. Manny gets hit, throws his hands out from his sides, telling Cotto to fight, relishing the challenge. Manny lets his fist go, landing combinations, gets counterpunched, and tilts his gloves towards himself, telling Cotto to keep fighting. No one does that! You'll see fighters dancing or taunting, you will never see a fighter in the biggest fight of his life openly imploring his opponent to fight his best.

That's what it is about Manny, the Smiling Warrior, that captivates. He's infectiously joyous, a virtuoso so brilliant he's inspiring. Boxing demands devotion beyond normal capacity, even within that parameter Manny's fealty to the sport is breathtaking. Manny exists at the absolute limit of human capacity, but his miracle is the exultation with which he does it. He's not Jordan, doomed to a life of petty grudges and revenge in order to reach his pinnacle, he's something else entirely. Watching Manny Pacquiao in the ring, shimmering with energy, jubilant, is to witness a completeness of purpose - a totality of being - that's beautiful in its transcendence. You will never see anything like him again.

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