Requiem for a welterweight

November 20, 2013 6:21 PM

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Requiem for a welterweight

Manny Pacquiao may be broke, but is he broken, too?

After eight frustrating years, four controversial fights, 42 contentiously scored rounds, with over 500 punches landed from more than 1,800 thrown, after two grueling hours of opportunity under the spotlight, on Dec. 8, 2012, Juan Manuel Marquez finally landed the punch of a lifetime against Manny Pacquiao. It happened with just one second left in the sixth round of their mythic saga. Pacquiao charged forward to land one final blow before the bell, and instead added his own momentum to Marquez's immaculately-timed, coup de grace right-hand, which landed flush against Pacquiao's jaw. On TV, when the punch landed, Pacquiao's back was to the camera. The reverberations of the impact were only detectable through the sudden jolt of Pacquiao's wet hair on the back of his head.

But isn't this a staple of wrestling, meant to fool? Since the punch itself had landed with such comic book emphasis, the traction of the unfolding human drama, along with reality, became unhinged and, for an instant, suspended. In confusion and disbelief, many people watching around me in a New York bar laughed in horror. As Charlie Chaplin famously pointed out, from a distance, a man slipping on a banana peel or stumbling down a manhole is funny. It's something altogether different up close. And since Pacquiao had fallen face-first and remained motionless, almost fastened to the canvas, there were no cues.

Marquez was the first person in the world to understand the night was over. No matter how much anyone had paid to watch in the sellout crowd at the MGM Grand or the millions around the world watching on pay-per-view, they had to wait. We'd seen the punch; he'd thrown it. As the referee rushed over to the fallen man, time stood still, postcard-like, while Marquez gazed down at Pacquiao like an anxious, nervous kid staring at Christmas presents under a tree.

One of the oldest sayings in boxing, the first warning every aspiring fighter hears long before they've ever entered a ring, is that the most dangerous punch, the one to fear most, is the one you never see coming. While the cliché is certainly true at the start of a career, it rarely holds up toward the end. This is because almost none of the great fighters in history ever stopped after that punch — and the history of the sport suggests that few can ever escape it. Pacquiao, despite earning a reported $174 million since 2009 from boxing and endorsements deals, is no different.

Why? Because, of course, boxing's not so well kept dirty secret is that, financially, most fighters can never stop. No matter how outlandish a fortune they've earned inside the ring and out, most greats not only never get ahead, few can even manage getting out from under. They never put much distance between themselves and where they came from. With few exceptions, they all end up desperately needing one more payday. And then another. And then another. Most are forced to hang around so long their endings are consummated by the uglier, more sinister punch that they all saw coming a mile away. Joe Louis, at 37 years old, was never blindsided by the physical punches that Rocky Marciano landed to knock him helplessly out of the ring and the sport. No, the punch he never saw coming and what set him up for Marciano's right hand was debt — in his case, to the government. Louis owed the IRS $500,000 and had nowhere else to go and get it but back into the ring.

Nearly all the greats were forced to stick around for those last final beatings, the ones that did lasting damage to their souls as much as their brains. If "protect yourself at all times" is boxing's most vital rule to obey, surely the most devastating blow in the sport is the one you do see coming, the one you're simply helpless to escape its impact.

Why is it so many of boxing's greatest heroes — Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson — were forced to stare down this last tragic fate and await their inevitable descent into boxing's latest cautionary tale? In the so-called "red light district of sports," the only jungle where, as Don King's biographer Jack Newfield once pointed out, "the lions are afraid of the rats," why can so few great fighters walk away undamaged with any money in their pocket? Will Pacquiao be any different? And why, despite the millions, should we expect him to be? Maybe in the sport of boxing, "cautionary tale" is too generous a title for a fallen champion: They end up just another punchline.

For a minute there, Dec. 8, 2012 might have become boxing's equivalent of Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was killed. One second Pacquiao, the 21st century's most beloved fighter, was ahead on the scorecards and charging. The next he disappeared under Marquez's fist just as the bell tolled to end round six. At first, arrestingly, it wasn't clear just how far down Pacquiao might fall. The referee certainly saw enough of the damage up close that he never bothered to count. Then, it began to register on those watching ringside that they may have witnessed what amounted to a public execution in the ring. Pacquiao remained motionless, possibly lifeless, until his cornermen rushed the ring in tears, followed by a doctor. Marquez jogged away from his fallen opponent, fist aloft, leaping atop the opposite turnbuckle as the Las Vegas crowd detonated into hysteria, flexing his biceps in vindication for three previously contentious battles. Whatever battles Pacquiao had won in their three previous contests, Marquez had now, with perhaps fatal finality, won the war.

Death isn't without precedent in the ring. It happened again only recently, when boxer Francisco Leal died of a brain injury at the end of October. A week later, on Nov. 2, at Madison Square Garden, Magomed Abdusalamov's was so badly damaged after 10 rounds he suffered a blood clot in his brain that forced doctors to put him into a medically induced coma. Abdusalamov suffered a stroke soon after and, with the help of a machine, still fights to survive today from his hospital room.

But no one with Pacquiao's visibility has died, let alone in a fight of the magnitude he fought against Marquez, one broadcast around the world. The first widely televised ring death dates back to 1962, with Emile Griffith battering the life out of Benny Paret until he collapsed into a coma and died 10 days later. An even larger audience watched Duk Koo Kim endure 14 rounds of punishment from Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, only to succumb to brain injuries four days later. With reporters in press row parsing "lifeless" from dead in most of their ledes, it seemed possible that Pacquiao's name would be the latest name added to boxing's most sinister list.

"Yeah, he laid there too long for me," Freddie Roach told me this summer, back at his Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles. "He laid there too long for me not to move. I says to myself, ‘Is he fucking dead?'"

And Roach certainly wasn't alone in his reaction, based on the sound of Pacquiao's wife, Jinkee's, agonized screams from the front row in Vegas.

"I mean," Roach sighed, "it was scary. But, you know, he got up. He was fine. He talked to me clearly. You know, he knew what happened. And you know, that's part of life."

My first phone call after the fourth Pacquiao/Marquez fight was to filmmaker Leon Gast. Gast had been an extremely generous mentor and friend to me while making my first documentary about super bantamweight champion and Cuban defector Guillermo Rigondeaux, who had fought on one of Pacquiao's undercards in 2010. It was the first time I'd ever witnessed an entourage anything like the one that Pacquiao had following him around. It was said Pacquiao had an entire country behind him, but the sheer size of his mob convinced me he also carried a good portion of the entire Filipino population in tow (and on the payroll). Even then, Gast had pointed out that the entourage posed a far graver threat to Pacquiao's livelihood than any opponent in the ring. The Academy Award winning director of "When We Were Kings," a film on Muhammad Ali, a movie that culminated in the "The Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire, perhaps Ali's career-defining victory. Gast had been working for years on a Pacquiao documentary, similar in scope. Of course, Gast's documentary and most others omit the aftermath, Ali cruelly silenced and imprisoned in his body by Parkinson's disease. The film offered a coda where people discussed the consequences of Ali's career on his health, but it didn't let you see it.

Gast, like the rest of the boxing public, had made no secret of the desire to see Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. square off in a fight destined to serve as Pacquiao's defining moment. A week later, I interviewed Leon at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., where he's currently at work cutting the Pacquiao documentary. I asked Leon if the fight that now likely won't happen, the fight that disappeared when Marquez sent Pacquiao to the canvas, Pacquiao vs. Mayweather, could have been our generation's version of Ali and Foreman in Zaire.

"Bigger," Leon corrected, shaking his head. "There's no question in my mind it would have been the biggest, most important fight since Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought in Madison Square Garden. I was there at that fight back in 1971. I know how big it was. The Fight of the Century doesn't begin to describe what the energy was like to actually be there that night. Forget the money people throw around, Pacquiao and Mayweather had that kind of potential for something important.

"But now we're crying over spilled milk. Floyd doesn't need it anymore and besides, I'm convinced [promoter] Bob Arum was never going to allow that fight to happen had Pacquiao survived Marquez or not. But Pacquiao sure might still need it."

"So now you have to end the film with that fourth Marquez fight?" I asked. "Is that the ending for the film? Isn't that too much of downer?"

"Déja vu all over again," Leon laughed. "It's boxing. Muhammad Ali fought 14 times after Zaire. Fourteen times. And you know, that's exactly how these guys get fucked up. God help us, here we go again."

"Is the parallel that obvious?" I asked. "You see what's happening to Pacquiao as the same that happened to Muhammad Ali at the end?"

"Same old story. All of 'em on down. All the greatest — Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Ali, Tyson. All their careers ended with them either broke, busted up, or both. Ali had nothing left after Berbick and Holmes. Why did he take those fights in the first place? Nothing left. It's criminal he was allowed to take those fights in the first place. A medical board gave him a license in the state he was in? Forget about it. Totally criminal. And you know something, he got lucky after they were over. That licensing deal he was offered that he got millions off of? Ali was lucky. Without that deal, Ali was bust. As a country, our track record with these guys isn't pretty. Look at the rest of 'em in boxing. Where do they all end up? I just hope that after Marquez, Pacquiao doesn't get seriously hurt in his next fight. Or the one after that. I mean, he's one more knockout loss away from just becoming another name, just another stepping stone for whoever is on the way up. And for all this guy has done in the sport? I mean, how ugly is that?"

"Who knows? You saw what happened to Pacquiao after Marquez laid him out. Freddie Roach thought he was dead. He wasn't dead, but they'll still bleed him dry. To come back from that kind of loss and fight against a young, tough kid like [Brandon] Rios? That's a very precarious move right there. Not for anybody making it happen, of course, but for Manny. But then he can never stop fighting. They never can. Too many bills and expenses. The lifestyle destroys them as much as any opponent. And everybody with their hand in Pacquiao's pocket knows he can't escape. You know, for them, the more in debt the better. He has to keep going."

"From what I've heard? Taxes? Political campaigns? Women? Jinkee's political campaign? Gambling —"

"You left out the Church," Leon cut me off and moaned. "You have no idea what kind of tithe is going their way now that he's tried to clean up his act. Everybody's hand is out. Manny can't say no to anyone. The entourage. The charities. Lawsuits. Taxes. The fucking presidential run in the Philippines is coming up. Jesus. All those taxes on his real estate in Los Angeles and everything back in the Philippines. He has staff hired just to say no to people who come at him with open hands. Why do you think he has to keep borrowing those advances from Bob Arum? Even with all those massive pay-per-view paydays and he's borrowing money? Boxing is just such a ... it's a wretched sport."

And that was before Typhoon Haiyan. How many hands will be out now, and how can he refuse? Pacquiao has released a "statement to the people," saying he will "send help to those who need it most," and his adviser Michael Koncz told the Associated Press, "Absolutely, he is dedicating this fight to the victims of this."

Maybe if Pacquiao either dies or suffers permanent damage in the ring, fighting for his people, perhaps he'll end up even more bankable. Before all this is done, martyrdom might be the most convenient justification for the sum of far too many foul parts that surround Pacquiao's lasting legacy.

Pacquiao was born the fourth of six siblings on Dec. 17, 1978 in the town of Kibawae, in the Bukidnon province of the Philippines. Pacquiao ran away from home as a child, leaving the day he discovered life had gotten so desperate that his father had actually eaten the family dog. He lived off the streets, often slept in a cardboard box, and sold doughnuts for a nickel to survive. As a 14-year-old, Pacquiao moved to Manila and continued his fight out of poverty by turning to boxing. He had a solid amateur career, winning 60 of 64 fights. After the death of a close friend and fellow boxer, Pacquiao, at 16, still under 5 feet tall and several pounds under even the lightest weight permitted to compete as a professional, turned pro anyway. To make his 105-pound debut, Pacquiao later confessed to hiding weights in his pockets when he stepped on the scales. Nearly 10 years later, Pacquiao finally arrived in America. On Nov. 15, 2003, he knocked out future hall of famer Marco Antonio Barrera in the 11th round to begin one of the most mythic decades in the history of boxing.

In his next 20 fights, Pacquiao accumulated 10 world titles and became the first man ever to do so in an unprecedented eight weight divisions, from light-flyweight to junior-middleweight. He knocked out Mexican legend Erik Morales twice, avenged a draw against Marquez with two subsequent victories, retired Oscar De La Hoya on his stool, pulverized Ricky Hatton in two rounds, moved up in weight even further to batter Miguel Cotto into submission, sent Antonio Margarito to the hospital with a fractured orbital bone, then dispatched Shane Mosley and Marquez once more. The remarkable run finally ended with a highly controversial loss against Timothy Bradley in the summer of 2012.

Despite earning nearly $200 million during his brilliant career, Pacquiao always hemorrhaged money. Gary Andrew Poole's 2010 biography, "Pacman," laid out how Pacquiao's contracts were split: After his manager's took their 20-percent cut, his trainer Freddie Roach took 10 percent, strength and conditioning coach Alex Ariza shaved off a few more points. There were also training camp expenses, tax bills in the U.S. and the Philippines, and his boundless, ever-growing entourage, all guzzling funds. According to a 2009 New York Times article by Greg Bishop, "Team Pacquiao has perfected the art of dysfunction. The entourage consists of trainers, assistants to the trainers, advisers, assistants to the advisers, cooks, dishwashers, car washers, publicists, gofers and security." For each fight, Pacquiao also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars flying his entourage to Las Vegas, buying hundreds of tickets, covering hotel rooms, and providing spending money. In the Times article, Michael Koncz, singled out Pacquiao's Achilles' heel: "The downfall of Pacquiao, if there is one, will be his kindness and generosity. At some point, I fear that's going to catch up to him." Beyond Pacquiao's generosity, he reportedly squandered millions from gambling. That doesn't even account for his fleet of cars and extensive property holdings, including houses, condos, apartments and such an intense desire to give his money away to the poor he had to hire people simply charged with the responsibility to apologize and prevent him from throwing money at all the open hands spread out before him.

I flew out to Houston to interview George Foreman, one of boxing's rare success stories. What was Big George's secret? After the success of his signature grill (the Times reported in 1999 that the George Foreman Grill had already earned him in excess of $150 million) and a second reign as heavyweight champion, Foreman is reportedly now worth nearly a quarter billion dollars. Yet, before we could start the interview, with a note of gentle caution, George's son, George V, asked me to avoid any slippery questions with dates and names. "His head's fine," George V smiled reassuringly, "Pop's just getting a little older is all."

Then George V's father strolled majestically into his living room in a gray suit wearing Crocs. His infomercial smile beamed hospitality until it broke into sudden concern, "Please folks, I jus' ask you, don't make me go back too far in my memory. I don't like to be reminded some of my best fights was 40 years ago."

"Boxing is the number one sport in every man's mind," George smiled. "Being champion of the world meant a lot to me. For a short period. You're up. You're famous. You're rich. Then you lose," Foreman laughed. "You lose a boxing match and you crawl into a hole and there's hardly anything that can get you out of that hole. Then you're on the verge of ‘I don't care anything about life.' I know what success is and failure is and success was short lived. Some of us had all kinds of riches, but that didn't mean we found any kind of happiness. There's a loneliness to being the heavyweight champion."


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