The story lines that dominated the news articles presupposed the public’s paltry interest in the fight. Manny’s diminished skills seen in his loss to Floyd Mayweather seemed to indicate he is no longer the exciting fighter he once was. This, plus his controversial statements referring to gays as “worse than animal” had turned off a significant segment of viewers. Can he still use the shoulder which needed surgery last year? Since he is now a congressman and running for senator, is he still excited to fight or is he in there just for a last payday?
To stir interest among the American audience, the promoter Bob Arum had shrewdly billed the event as the ‘No Trump Undercard’, in honor of the three Mexican boxers who were fighting for championships before the main event. This is a political dig on US presidential candidate Donald Trump’s aversion to Mexicans. Obviously, there was an undercurrent of politics in that night’s fights.
At 6 p.m. on the eve of the fight, Manny attended a bible study with about 200 fans and devotees. I had a chance to talk to his coach, Freddie Roach and I asked about the shoulder; “It’s fine” he replied. Does Manny think he needs to win to assure his election as senator? “A win is good.” Freddie, a man of few words.
On fight night itself, I felt my blood rushing and my heart beating fast. Although I’ve been a long- time boxing fan, I haven’t attended a live Pacman fight. I had watched all his previous mega-fights only on television.
I soaked in the sight and sounds which greeted me as I entered the arena. Similar to the trademark search lights scanning the sky at the start of all MGM films, there too were powerful lights beaming down to the seats, fanning up and around the crowd at different angles, casting electricity and vibrant energy into the arena.
Thousands of exuberant fans wearing Pacquiao T-shirts were chanting, cheering and whistling, many of them waving Philippine flags. At some point amidst the deafening din, the chants of “Manny, Manny, Manny” would morph into “Bradley, Bradley, Bradley”.
The proceedings followed the traditional steps of a world championship match: the singing of the boxers’ national anthems, the entry of Tim Bradley and then Manny, the naming of the judges and referee, and the introduction of the protagonists, their weights and fight records. Finally the bell rang to start round 1.
Manny immediately put on display his vaunted skills: effective aggression with quick right hooks and strong left crosses, easily winning the computerized punch-by-punch accounting and ring generalship with his fleet feet, keeping the right distance to land his shots, and positioning his body well, to assert control during the exchange of punches.
Bradley had his moments in the first five rounds, using quick combinations of jabs and crosses to stymie Manny.
Then Manny took over and after 12 grueling rounds, the two knockdowns of Bradley clearly won the fight for the Filipino boxer.
The fight had answered most of the questions. A reincarnated Pacman seemed to have emerged, his right shoulder was as strong as before, his hands were fast and sharp as ever, and most importantly he seemed to be enjoying the fight. He fought splendidly like the vintage Pacman of old.
At the post-fight press conference, Tim Bradley faced the media first. He was gracious in defeat, and was complimentary to the “better and faster” Manny.
I chanced upon his wife, Monica Bradley, whom Tim referred to as the pillar of their family, the source of his strength. What did you think of the fight? She replied, “It was a good fight. Tim did his best, he fought his heart out, but then Manny is Manny, what can I say, he was fast, mobile with very quick hands. But Tim acquitted himself, and I told him he should be proud of himself, he stood up to the challenge, and he should move on from here, he still has a good career ahead.”
Before Manny came up to the microphone, the prevailing mood was that no way should Manny retire after such a strong performance. Coach Freddie declared there are still two or three good fights left in him. But Pacquiao announced, “I am retiring because I promised my family and my mother, and I want to focus on serving my country.”
Several reporters tried different tacks to probe his sincerity or to persuade him to take on one more fight, but Manny stood his ground, although he admitted, “as for me, I’m 50-50. But I promised my family, and that’s my decision.”
Is this his last fight? The guaranteed purses were $20 million for Manny and $6 million for Bradley. Overheard from a Latino reporter at the press con, “if you dangle $30 million in his face to fight again, would Manny not take it?”
Three steps from me stood Marvin Somodio, Freddie Roach’s training assistant. I asked him how Manny managed to train while campaigning for the Senate. “Araw-araw ang training namin (we train every day).” You mean, he did not campaign? “The fight is the campaign.”
On the monorail ride to my hotel, I thought about the reality of Philippine politics; the blurring of the lines between entertainment and government leadership. There are movie actors, TV celebrities, entertainers and sport athletes in the executive and legislative branches.
Their easy path to politics emanate from the effective projection of hope and joy on the stages of their craft; their sympathetic portrayals on screen, their popular reporting of the news, the amusement they provide in a TV show, or their skill in the sports arena. Their performances which keep the teeming masses entertained and happy amidst the reality of a hard life seem to linger in their [voters] hearts as they step into the voting booths.
Pacquiao knows the minds of voters only too well.
It was exciting and skillful boxing that night. But for Pacquiao, it was not just a fight, it was a masterful performance.
I. Wilfredo Ver loves boxing as much as he loves golf.
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