by Fox Doucette
Welcome to another edition of What If?, answering questions you never knew you had:
Just a notch under two months from now, Manny Pacquiao takes on Floyd Mayweather to finally settle the argument of which long-past-his-prime fighter has the most left in the tank to win a fight that would have actually settled meaningful questions if it had happened ten years ago. The fight will be at welterweight, with a special Rooty Tooty Fresh N’ Fruity belt created by the WBC to mark the occasion.
This column is not about that. Rather, let’s turn back the clock to May 8, 2004. Manny Pacquiao had just fought Juan Manuel Marquez to a draw despite putting Marquez on the floor three times in the first round—the counter-punching style that Marquez would later use in his greatest victory over his hated rival established itself from the second round onward and became a regular feature of the series between the two men.
Because the fight was a draw, Pacquiao was denied the chance to put a world title belt around his waist at 126 pounds; after beating Fashan 3K Battery (what a name, huh?) in a tune-up fight in December in the Philippines that happened to be an eliminator bout for the IBF’s number-two spot en route to a rematch against Marquez, Pacquiao decided instead to challenge Erik Morales for the latter’s world titles at junior lightweight. Morales won by unanimous decision that was wider than the 115-113 on all three cards, a score that was tightened when El Terrible took a bunch of fool’s risks in the twelfth round and nearly got himself KO’d by playing to his opponent’s greatest strength.
So what if Pacquiao decided that getting bullied by a naturally bigger man (remember, Manny Pacquiao turned pro as a 16-year-old junior flyweight and in 2005 was still best known for his long title run at junior featherweight, the Guillermo Rigondeaux of his day as he matured through his twenties) was a sign that eight pounds above his best championship weight was a bridge too far? What if he went back down to campaign at featherweight and make his legacy there?
Well, for starters, that pulls a fight with Floyd Mayweather permanently off the table. Mayweather turned pro at junior lightweight and in 2012, fighting as a junior middleweight, manhandled the same Miguel Cotto who is a legit middleweight now and is the lineal champion at 160 after his win over Sergio Martinez. It’s not “laugh out of the room” ridiculous to suggest that Mayweather could be an opponent for Gennady Golovkin; nobody has even in jest suggested such a thing for Manny Pacquiao, who has never weighed more than 145 pounds for a fight (the downright Leonard-esque farce that was Pacquiao’s “junior middleweight world title” he ganked off Antonio Margarito at a 150-pound catchweight.)
So if not Floyd, then who? We begin with Manny’s resumption of his quest for the IBF 126-pound strap, as…
May 28, 2005: Manny Pacquiao KO1 Orlando Salido
Salido, who had fallen in his last fight against Juan Manuel Marquez in a failed attempt to get his hands on a unified featherweight title despite not having fought anyone of note to that point in his career, was enticed by the promise of a cut of the money to fight Pacquiao, who fought only three weeks after Marquez defended his title against Victor Polo. Manny wanted to force a rematch and settle the matter of why he was able to let Marquez back into that fight that he should have won widely a year prior.
There was some talk before the fight that Manny was a madman for fighting only two months after losing such a high-profile title fight, but Freddie Roach made it clear that he thought that Salido posed no threat to his man; after all, Manny fought a tune-up only three months after that first Marquez draw.
Salido was a game fighter, but Manny in his younger days and at smaller size could hit a 126-pound opponent like a heavy bag, and Manny’s power was simply overwhelming. This was the kind of fight that Pacquiao fans talk about like it should be the result of every fight from the Mayweather scrap to a time-machine-aided fight between Manny and Sugar Ray Leonard in his prime.
Salido, for his part, went back to the club scene in Mexico permanently humbled; the wrecking ball version of Salido we saw most recently in 2014’s Fight of the Year against Terdsak Kokietgym never came to be, nor did his demolition of a then-undefeated Juan Manuel Lopez in 2011. When you’re psychologically on the ropes and you get thrown in against a guy who can smash you, it can ruin your career. Orlando Salido fought a few more bouts before getting out of the game for good in 2007.
September 17, 2005: Manny Pacquiao W-SD12 Juan Manuel Marquez
Marquez had been toying with the idea of moving up to junior lightweight for a shot against Marco Antonio Barrera, but Barrera’s people decided instead to make their Mexican Independence Day weekend a unification bout against IBF champ Robbie Peden. With another fight still up in the air (there was some noise from the camp of the same Kokietgym mentioned above, whom Marquez would knock out in seven in the prime timeline in August 2006), when Manny Pacquiao’s people came calling offering a big Mexico-Philippines rivalry fight, a rematch with unfinished business, and an unholy amount of dinero, Marquez simply couldn’t say no.
The fight was a vicious back-and-forth affair. As in the men’s four fights in prime timeline, Pacquiao-Marquez II in this universe was a case of Pacquiao’s offense at times staggering Marquez, while at other times the man from Mexico City exhibited his superior defensive ability and ability to throw a counter punch from angles that left Pacquiao baffled. The fight sparked as much controversy from press row as it did on the boxing forums of the Internet; when the smoke cleared, and with Marquez having been dropped once in the seventh round, the scores were 113-114, 114-113, 117-110 (courtesy of Duane Ford knowing who buttered his bread), for your winner by split decision, Manny Pacquiao. Without the knockdown, this fight is a draw; the sour taste stuck in Marquez’s mouth for years afterward.
Because of the nature of this particular kink in the timeline, Marquez still held the WBA Super and IBF World title belts at featherweight, at least until Pacquiao got through with him. Pacquiao and Top Rank announced after the fight that the goal wasn’t going to be to move up in weight and try to do battle at 130 again; the Morales fight, still only six months in the past, taught them the folly in that. Instead, Manny would unify the 126-pound title and go down in history as one of the greatest champions in an old-school eight division, carving his name alongside guys like Willie Pep and Sandy Saddler and Naseem Hamed in the annals of 126-pound history.
March 11, 2006: Manny Pacquiao KO7 Terdsak Kokietgym
When Scott Harrison vacated the WBO featherweight title, the de facto status of that belt as a British title lapsed into a wide-open free-for-all. Now that Manny Pacquiao had two other organizations’ belts around his waist, it became a lot easier to convince the WBO to let that vacant title shift to the Far East, and a Philippines vs. Thailand contest was a juicy matchup. To goose the numbers, WBC “interim” titlist Humberto Soto was convinced to give the “true” WBC champion (and that’s as convoluted as it sounds) Takashi Koshimoto a shot, as Jose Sulaiman declared that the “interim” belt would go away win or refuse for Soto; he would fight for the real title or he would be stripped.
All of the above went down in Macao; Soto scored an upset victory by third-round TKO as a shot that found its way stateside onto SportsCenter dropped the Japanese champion. Pacquiao dominated Kokietgym in a fight that was never close; a similarly devastating right hook by the southpaw floored the Thai fighter and put him to sleep early that night.
Which, in turn, set up the ultimate showdown of ultimate destiny in the featherweight division, the one that would bring all four alphabet soup groups a champion by the same name.
September 30, 2006: Manny Pacquiao KO4 Humberto Soto
This one was never in any doubt from the word go. Soto had done well enough in crashing a fist onto the face of a titlist in a disputed sanctioning body’s hierarchy, but Manny Pacquiao had established himself as, at this point, one of the top five fighters in the world pound-for-pound in the Ring Magazine ratings. There was no stopping Pacquiao on this night; what he would lack in breadth of weights as a champion, he would more than make up for in depth by taking on all comers. Soto fell in defeat with such decisive force that the world was Manny Pacquiao’s oyster; the narrative one division down the scale began to shift, as fighters began to talk about using 122 as a stepping stone to fight the real guy in their weight range; it happens in boxing sometimes that an old-school eight division starts to use its gravity to move fighters up and down from the neighboring divisions the way that welterweight is doing in prime-timeline 2015 and what middleweight looks to do as Golovkin seeks opponents to feed his championship reign. It is with that in mind that Pacquiao chose his next opponent:
May 5, 2007: Manny Pacquiao UD12 Daniel Ponce de Leon
A funny thing happened on the way to greatness for Manny Pacquiao. Floyd Mayweather, who had just made public his feud with Bob Arum over Top Rank’s failure to pay Floyd the money he was due from his fights, decided to throw in his lot with Oscar De La Hoya in the promotion of their Cinco de Mayo superfight at junior middleweight. Floyd saw the potential in Manny Pacquiao, who was tearing up the world 30 pounds below Mayweather’s own weight, and decided to recruit Manny away from Top Rank to be, in essence, what Saul Alvarez would later become. Mayweather wanted a global audience for the biggest pay-per-view in boxing history, and figured that bringing in an Asian fighter would be perfect for that aim. Promising Manny a fair share of the pie, Mayweather and De La Hoya successfully turned the Filipino away from the man who had been bleeding him dry with oppressive and morally suspect fight contracts; it was a coup reported not only in the boxing media, but in the mainstream media, as a furious Bob Arum made a spectacle of himself over having his gravy train derailed before it reached the station; indeed, unlike in the prime timeline, Top Rank was completely frozen out of the take by Golden Boy Promotions.
Pacquiao was a co-feature on this particular night, but part of Golden Boy’s trump card was that they would promote Pacquiao as a featured attraction, giving him a great deal of negotiating leverage later on in his career. It was this, more than anything else in Manny’s career, that for the first time gave him the chance to, after twelve years in the sport putting on action fights, set the terms of his ultimate exit. This becomes relevant, because…
…Daniel Ponce de Leon fought like a demon rather than like the overmatched, puffed-up bantamweight that most including Manny Pacquiao believed him to be. Ponce de Leon floored Manny twice, once in the first, once in the third, and nearly got the fight stopped in Round 4. It wasn’t until he walked smack into a straight left, which took all the starch out of the Mexican, that Daniel Ponce de Leon started to look human, and that’s a dangerous thing to look against a strong-as-an-ox Manny Pacquiao.
While Manny didn’t get rid of the guy in front of him, he did unquestionably win every round from the fourth onward, and that was enough to get him the decision. A fight that set a record by attracting over three million pay-per-view buys and a worldwide audience never before seen in boxing, where so much of the sport’s fanbase watches for regional appeal, brought in more money than Manny Pacquiao had ever seen in one place, and what’s more, it brought him a fair cut.
Pacquiao would go on to fight anyone who mattered at 126, building a reputation as a stopper no matter who the opponent was and being called “Little Klitschko” for his single-minded dominance of one weight class.
Juan Manuel Lopez, Yuriorkis Gamboa, Cristobal Cruz…if there was a guy making a name for himself at 126, Manny Pacquiao beat him. Pac-Man retired in 2011, richer than he needed to be no matter what life threw his way, and moved into the world of Philippine politics and business. Sure, he was never an eight-division champion, and sure, he never fought Floyd Mayweather, but nobody cared at Canastota. Manny Pacquiao showed that an old-school approach to becoming the greatest ever at one weight, greater than Hagler at 160, greater than Leonard or Whitaker at 147, greater even than Willie Pep at Pac’s own weight class of featherweight, is just as viable a route to the Hall of Fame.
Of course, history and the Internet never did settle the question of whether Mayweather or Pacquiao was better pound-for-pound. Some debates just rage as sure as cockroaches surviving a nuclear bomb.
NEXT WEEK: It’s back up to the heavyweight division for some speculation this time, part of a three-part series on Cold War boxing. We’ll get to the Cubans later on, but we start by asking the question “What if the USSR never fell and the Klitschko Brothers got stuck behind the Iron Curtain?” The influence of the Soviet Union on the 21st century boxing landscape, from the heavyweight champs on down through the contenders in that same division to the most famous Kazakh not named Borat who’s tearing up the middleweight ranks right now, cannot be denied…but we’re going to deny it anyway. Stay tuned.
Fox Doucette covers Friday Night Fights for The Boxing Tribune and writes the weekly What If alternate-history series for this publication. His opinion column, The Southpaw, appears on Thursdays. Fan mail, hate mail, and apoplexy from Pacquiao fans even as I’ve cast their guy as the greatest featherweight of all time just because I said some nice things about Floyd can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.