We will find out very soon whether the biggest fight of 2008, Oscar De La Hoya vs. Manny Pacquiao, is the circus act that critics have labeled it or an honest-to-God real boxing match.
There is no mystery about why Saturday's pay-per-view event is 2008's biggest: It features the best-known name in the sport, the ticket-seller extraordinaire De La Hoya, and its top pound-for-pound practitioner, the ultra-exciting Manny Pacquiao.
And there would be no mystery about its legitimacy, save two crucial variables: De La Hoya will be fighting Father Time just as much as he is fighting Pacquiao, and Pacquiao will be fighting a man from whom he started 2008 four weight classes apart.
It is primarily in those two questions: Is Pacquiao too small? Is De La Hoya too old?... where much of the fight's drama lies.
The two men will meet at 147 pounds, 17 pounds north of where Pacquiao started the year and 13 pounds south of De La Hoya's career high. De La Hoya will turn 36 soon, and has betrayed signs of slippage. Pacquiao is a prime 29.
Age and weight alone will not decide the fight, however. They will combine with a variety of strategic and genetic factors.
If Pacquiao wins, it will look something like this: The speedier Pacquiao employs adept head movement to avoid De La Hoya's jab, which controls range and sets up his knockout left hook. Once inside, Pacquiao unleashes quick combinations, mixing in body punches to slow De La Hoya down.
Pacquiao carries his formidable power to his new weight, so the blows do severe damage to De La Hoya, who has always taken a punch well, even against bigger men. When the combinations end, Pacquiao steps out at angles to avoid counters.
And when De La Hoya does land, the world finds out that Pacquiao, who himself has always taken a punch well, also can handle bigger men's shots. Late in the fight, De La Hoya, who has exhibited occasional stamina problems, is too worn down from all of this and his accumulated ring years to defend himself.
Is any of that credible? Most of it, at minimum, is not laughable. Some sharp journalists watching Pacquiao spar have seen evidence that it could happen.
The problem is, all of it has to be just right for Pacquiao to win. There are too many unknowns, such as whether Pacquiao can handle the shots of even a borderline elite boxer and naturally bigger man like De La Hoya.
And De La Hoya brings his own arguments to the fight.
Because Pacquiao focuses on offense, he is as hittable as a tee ball, and De La Hoya connected plenty against defensive wizard Floyd Mayweather last year. De La Hoya is a smart fighter, and if Pacquiao has some success, De La Hoya has shown the capacity to adjust; Pacquiao has become a much more technical boxer in recent years, but he still wins more with his physical gifts than his tactical decisions.
Bettors have made De La Hoya the favorite, as they should. But some very smart boxing minds believe Pacquiao will win.
If Pacquiao crushes De La Hoya, no longer will boxing be able to plausibly milk its biggest cash cow of the past decade. If De La Hoya crushes Pacquiao, it will be an easy-to-explain hiccup for hardcore boxing fans, but it could stilt his viability with neophytes who won't know any better how good he really is.
However it happens, no one will be surprised if De La Hoya wins; if Pacquiao wins, it will mean the birth of boxing's next big superstar, and his native Philippines, where he is worshiped more than Muhammad Ali ever was in the United States, will become the happiest place on the planet.
For the health of the sport, here's hoping it's a competitive affair where Pacquiao exceeds expectations, win or lose, and De La Hoya, win or lose, lives to fight another day free of stigma.
A circus won't do. De La Hoya-Pacquiao needs to be an honest-to-God real boxing match.
(A version of this piece originally appeared at queensberry-rules.com)
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