The date for Manny Pacquiao's November 13th bout against Antonio Margarito is rapidly approaching, and as expected speculation is ramping up. Every ring observer is trying to forecast what could happen in one of the most anticipated fights of the year.
News has been leaking out from some sources that Pacquiao is distracted by politics and basketball; others scoff at the idea that this fight will even be competitive.
The cold, hard truth is that nobody knows for sure what will happen, and very few even have legitimate, reliable firsthand information coming from the training camps.
The people closest to the source are the promoters, trainers and the fighters themselves. But the first two are notorious for spinning or even fabricating information to fit their personal goals, and we all know that top-level fighters possess an almost irrational motivation and self-confidence that allows them to persist in situations where most of us would call it quits.
Even those who do know what has been going on can't forecast the future. That's why fights take place in the ring and not on paper. Just last week, a 33-year-old, 20-loss fighter named Gilberto Keb Baas won his first world title. No matter what people predict will happen, this fight is worth watching because it involves the sport's top-ranked fighter against a world-class opponent.
Amidst all the chaos and chatter, though, there are some interesting storylines to follow, and shrewd boxing observers will be watching to see how these important, lingering questions and storylines are resolved.
How Nonsensical is This "Distracted Pacquiao" Business?
If it weren't for the constant exploits of Floyd Mayweather, Jr., this "Pacquiao is distracted" storyline would be the closest thing boxing has to a tabloid headline. Everyone knows that Pacquiao is the better fighter and widely favored to win, so a lot of crafty people decided that perhaps adding some suspense could spice up the pre-fight speculation.
But anyone who actually believes this rumor doesn't know a thing about Manny Pacquiao or Freddie Roach. Pacquiao's political career is a direct result of his success as a boxer, and he wants to keep his political support high. A loss to Margarito could do irreparable damage to his public image in the Philippines.
As for playing basketball, it's not that big of a deal. He's extraordinarily well-conditioned, and if he weren't the most-followed fighter in the world nobody would even care about the basketball. There are tons of world-class fighters who do things like riding dirt bikes and motorcycles between matches.
Finally, Freddie Roach is so highly regarded because he trains his fighters to fight with the right strategy and the right mindset. He wouldn't let something like this slip under his guard.
This Fight is Intriguing Not Because of the Outcome, But Because of the Process
Las Vegas oddsmakers have the fight at 5-1 in favor of Pacquiao. These odds may be a bit too wide, but it's extraordinarily bold to expect anything other than a Pacquiao victory.
But there's a lot to learn about both fighters in this match.
The Primary Questions for Pacquiao:
1. How well does he handle the extra weight?
Pacquiao's small, 5'6" frame requires major nutritional intake just for him to meet, let alone exceed, the weight limit for this fight. We have grown accustomed to Pacquiao surprising us, and he'll definitely be in good condition, but is he still a special fighter at this weight?
2. He will handle Margarito's style, but how will he do it (and how effectively)?
An overlooked asset of Freddie Roach is his ability to craft a well-tuned fight strategy. He is always thinking a step ahead of the opponent, and we will see something new from Manny in this fight. Margarito is not a particularly versatile fighter--he has capable defense, but he is a swarming, relentless fighter at all times.
We know Manny will have some tricks up his sleeve, but what will they be? To keen boxing enthusiasts, this is a fascinating question with several possible answers.
Does he cover up and clinch to avoid Margarito's swarming attack? Does he land quick punches and retreat (and how long can he keep this up)? Does he give himself time to rest in between periods of high action? How much will he use lateral movement to evade Margarito? Is it possible (or wise) to bob and weave past Margarito's relentless attack? Is he capable of overpowering Margarito's strength somehow? How well will he conserve his energy to counteract Margarito's impressive stamina?
3. Will he win by knockout or decision?
Pacquiao is a crowd pleaser, and there's good reason to believe that he might avoid an early knockout, perhaps if only to make the fans feel like they didn't get totally cheated by the undercard. Margarito isn't Hatton, and he's crafty enough for Pacquiao not to take too many undue risks early in the fight.
However, Margarito (though he has only been stopped once and knocked down once in his career) is not an infallible opponent. He is not a defensive mastermind, and he's not particularly slick. One thing he does have, though, is an ability to come on strong later in the fight. This will raise an interesting narrative to see if or when Pacquiao can stop the Tijuana Tornado, who is fighting far closer to his natural weight than Pacquiao is.
The Primary Questions for Margarito:
1. Can he find a viable strategy?
This isn't condescending, but rather a serious question. It's hard to imagine three judges giving the unpopular and gritty Margarito a points victory, and he probably lacks the one-punch power and speed to knock out Pacquiao, so how can he win this fight?
It's a legitimate issue. Even at the higher weight limit, it's still not easy to see how Margarito could knock him out unless Manny makes a major mental error or two. Margarito is a smart and experienced fighter, but can he and Robert Garcia plan far enough ahead to anticipate Pacquiao's response and be able to counter accordingly?
2. How much damage will he do, and how many rounds can he win?
That being said, Margarito is not the kind of fighter who will get caught on the receiving end of a lopsided attack. He comes back swinging and will certainly do some damage. Margarito's fighting style is not one of particular physical gifts, but rather psychological ones--he thrives in a war of attrition by wearing down his opponent and responding aggressively to adversity.
Margarito comes on strong in the middle rounds, unlike most of Pacquiao's recent opponents. This could pose an interesting scenario if the fight goes that far.
That being said, Margarito did not look good against Shane Mosley, and though part of it can be justified by the fact that he had been caught with illegal handwraps just a short time earlier, that fight is still a big question mark in his otherwise impressive record.
3. Does he still deserve attention and redemption?
It's hard to say where this ranks among Pacquiao's big fights, but undoubtedly this is the biggest fight of Margarito's career. Many people could retire and live a good life with the earnings Margarito should make from this bout alone, but Margarito epitomizes the term "fighter" and I just don't see him walking into the sunset after this match.
Plus, he has a lot to prove. Margarito hasn't beaten a decent opponent since he was caught with the illegal handwraps, and he is a proud man. In the event he does continue fighting, his performance against Pacquiao will play a huge role in defining the trajectory of his career. People all over have suggested that he doesn't deserve this fight, and he has the chance to prove them right or wrong.
There is no chance that Margarito will be able to enter the ring with any illegal advantages this time, and if he performs well against Pacman, he will remain among the ranks of world-class fighters and get big fights: perhaps a rematch against Williams or storyline-filled second fight with Cotto.
It's hard to imagine Margarito fighting like Joshua Clottey and cautiously covering up for twelve rounds, but a worst-case scenario for him would be if he duplicates Hatton's performance. That could essentially spell the end of Margarito's career at the top of his sport.
And the big question: If Pacquiao wins (which will probably happen), where does he go from here?
Manny Pacquiao's career is a bigger story than this fight is right now. Pacquiao has said that he will fight at least one more fight if he wins this one, and the obvious first choice would be a match against Floyd Mayweather, Jr. ("Money" permitting, so to speak).
However if that doesn't happen, then a potential exciting matchup with Paul Williams could be Pacquiao's next bout. Anything is possible, and it wouldn't be unforeseeable to have that bout happen at Middleweight for another division's title, but that scenario would probably favor Williams far too much.
If Sergio Martinez beats Williams in their fight (on November 20th, one weekend after the Pacquiao-Margarito bout), then he might be the natural next opponent for Pacquiao.
Those are some of the most important things to watch for, and they will answer significant questions better than anyone's speculation. Like most fight fans, I will be watching attentively to see what happens in this showdown next Saturday, November 13th.