The promotional campaign for the fourth installment in the rivalry between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Márquez began in earnest last month, and if you haven’t heard about it, you aren’t alone.
Pacquiao and Márquez are two of boxing’s finest—the former a relentlessly aggressive hailstorm of odd angles and six-punch combinations, the latter a cerebral counterpuncher who has built his career on taking whatever his opponents give him and throwing it back with calm, brutal precision. Both are on the back ends of their Hall of Fame careers but are still firmly situated in the top five, pound-for-pound.
They are two of the very best at what they do, among the best to ever attempt it, and all three of their previous fights have been close, high-action affairs. It’s everything a boxing fan could ask for. And, for the most part, they don’t really seem to want it.
Officially, Pacquiao has yet to lose to Márquez. His record in the series stands at two wins with one draw, but a reasonable and sober case could be made for Márquez winning all three. Naturally, no one has been more insistent in this regard than Márquez himself. After an especially tense third fight last November, one that featured wild swings in momentum throughout and seemed to end with Márquez landing the better shots overall, he stormed out of the ring without giving an interview as soon as Pacquiáo’s name was called out as the victor in a tough majority decision.
Many of the sportswriters sitting ringside reported it the same way, and the heavily pro-Márquez crowd in Las Vegas jeered and heckled Pacquiao for the duration of his post-fight interview. But that decision, like the two before it, was controversial without being outrageous, uncertain but not indefensible. Had Márquez come out on the winning end of the two decisions that were given to Pacquiao—or been awarded all three—the opposition would have been just as vocal (read: irate), and they would have been equally justified in their opinions.
In just about any other era, boxing disciples would have gladly lined up for an extra helping of cartilage-altering conversation between these two legends. Of the 36 rounds now logged between them, only a handful could be definitively scored in favor of one fighter or the other. Given their history, a fourth meeting seems not only warranted but absolutely necessary in order to try to finally close the book on an increasingly contentious rivalry now eight years in the making.
Unfortunately, to even the most devoted, it also seems entirely superfluous. There is only one fight in the world of professional boxing that anyone cares about right now, one fight that anyone with even a peripheral interest in the sport would consider blocking off a Saturday evening for and paying 70 dollars to watch. And it’s one that moves a little further away from becoming a reality with every missed opportunity and rejected demand.
The phrase “Manny Pacquiao versus Floyd Mayweather, Jr.” has simultaneously been boxing’s most valuable trump card and the most insulting perpetual farce for several years now: a fight that would undoubtedly trample every financial record in the modern pay-per-view era and reestablish the sport as the subject of water cooler conversation for the first time in 20 years.
While Pacquiao-Márquez represents a relatively rare merging of two fighters who occupy the upper level of their divisional rankings, a Mayweather-Pacquiáo matchup, even as a purely theoretical exercise, is enough to instantly transform any other major fight into an afterthought.
The reason for this is simple: Until very recently, Mayweather and Pacquiao were the unanimous numbers one and two on any pound-for-pound compilation without a strictly contrarian agenda. Although the order has changed from time to time, following an extended stretch of inactivity or an especially impressive win by either fighter (or simply because of the analyst’s personal preference), there was generally no doubt that the next name on the list was a fairly distant third.
Pacquiao has begun to move down that list as of late, partly because noteworthy performances in September by middleweight champion Sergio Martínez and super middleweight champion Andre Ward, but mostly as a result of the almost complete lack of credible competition remaining for him, which tends to produce lackluster (if not completely lopsided) fights. With respect to the rest of the field within striking distance of welterweight, there’s just no one left for him to beat.
No one except Mayweather, anyway. The two boxers have so far exchanged insults and accusations, made preliminary agreements and then ripped their offers off the table, and sat by while their promoters bickered and balked over an endless string of contractual ultimatums. Each new proposal introduced by one team instantly becomes a deal breaker for the other. The objections are not always unreasonable, but fans have by now exhausted every reserve of patience and understanding for the motivations behind this extended standoff.
The real tragedy, however, lies in the fact that the ongoing disaster of the Pacquiao-Mayweather negotiations is in no way unique. It is simply the latest and most widely reported example of boxing’s unofficial policy of professional stalemate, a deeply troubling—if not altogether surprising—turn of events that fully exemplifies the current state of the sweet science in the 21st century.
If the most significant prizefight in two decades has any hope of happening, it will have to be done in complete violation of the institutional dogma that has made fortunes for a select few and held the sport hostage from nearly everyone else. Pacquiáo and Mayweather are no closer to meeting in the ring now than they were when this whole charade began, and both sides must shoulder a fair portion of the blame for that.
But they are merely operating within the rules of the game as it is currently constructed—a corrupt and fractured system which is under no real threat of extinction or reform, while the sport itself fades further and further into the background.
Be on the lookout for part two of this article in the coming weeks.