Is God trying to tell Manny Pacquiao something?
On Saturday night in Las Vegas, the politician and newly re-energized Christian from the Philippines was a hitting machine, pounding his American opponent, Timothy Bradley, 28, into confusion and almost overt fear. Pacquiao, 33, might not have had the same electrifying foot speed he had in his best bouts and might not have thrown his combinations with the same intensity, but in Round 2, Pacquiao swung one of his red-gloved hands and hit Bradley so hard that the Filipino twisted one of the American’s ankles and fractured the other. When he returned to his corner, Bradley told his trainer about the injury but soldiered on. He took 253 Pacquiao punches in all, connecting with only 159. He would enter the postfight press conference in a wheelchair.
But it was Pacquiao who lost.
In the beginning — well, before the shocking scores were announced, indeed even before the Bradley match started — there had been much nervous intrigue around Pacquiao. It wasn’t about his readiness to fight. In the past several months, he had transformed himself religiously. He had always been religious — kneeling in his corner to cross himself and pray before and after each fight. To many of his fans, Pacquiao, who is a Congressman in the Philippines, had become something of a mystery man. His training camp, always full of eccentrics, became a continuous religious-revival meeting. Several members of his entourage even started calling themselves his disciples.
(PHOTOS: The Rise of Manny Pacquiao)
It doesn’t seem to be the start of a cult (though heaven knows the boxer has enough fervent fans to start one — even without divine directives). Instead, he seemed to be doing some kind of public penitence. Pacquiao has told interviewers that, to become a better husband to his wife Jinkee and a good father to their three children, he has given up gambling, drinking and other vices. Instead of all-night dart sessions and trips to the casino, he leads Bible-study courses. Religious leaders, including Rick Warren of the famous Saddleback Church, visited him in training camp.
In a gossip-loving conspiracy place like the Philippines, speculation is rife about what this all means. There is a lot of unease among his predominantly Roman Catholic countrymen about what type of religion Pacquiao is exactly following. (Warren, for example, is a Protestant preacher.) Is Pacquiao abandoning the Catholic Church? Has he been won over to evangelical Born Again theology (which isn’t really what the Pope teaches)? How would that affect his ambitions to be President one day? And would his dedication to memorizing scripture diminish his desire to knock out people for a living?
The religion talk didn’t help Pacquiao’s popularity with American sports fans. The couple of weeks before had found the Filipino pugilist in a press controversy like no other. After his remarks at a private Bible study had been used by a conservative blogger to score points against gay marriage, Pacquiao had to come out to defend himself against forces he couldn’t simply knock out with a punch. And while he clarified his opinions (he does not hate gay people, just gay sex — which he believes is a sin), the controversy became a distraction on the road to what his fans hoped would be a routine fight and victory.
So routine have they been that Saturday’s event had little of the prefight buzz of a typical Pacquiao fight. More important, it didn’t sell out. That could be at least partly because Bradley, who lives in Palm Springs, is little known outside of boxing circles. Even within the sport he is considered a capable fighter, but one without remarkable speed and power. The Pacquiao match is only the second time he has ever fought in Las Vegas. Apart from his family and friends, he doesn’t seem to have much of a fan base.
But Pacquiao too has lost some of his allure — even apart from the gay-marriage controversy. Many aficionados who saw his last fight, against old nemesis Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez, thought the Filipino did not deserve to win. Pacquiao was almost as battered then as Bradley was on Saturday night (though he did not require a wheelchair and still went on to sing at his once customary postbout concert). The Congressman too has had to deal with a few physical ills — a concern that was punctuated just before Saturday’s fight when Pacquiao went missing. No one could find the champion as the audience in the arena and those watching the telecast waited 30 minutes for the fight to start. It turned out he was doing exercises for his problematic calf muscles, catching everyone unawares.
The welterweight championship fight itself was good. Pacquiao pressed the action. Bradley, fighting better then he had ever fought before, boxed on the outside and was moderately successful in the middle rounds as he established his jab. When the men went toe-to-toe, Pacquiao seemed to find his old energy and delivered some painful blows but he also rested and held back his attack, throwing a few hundred less punches than is his habit. Pacquiao would start each round slowly, measuring his opponent for a minute and then releasing his hands, more or less, for the next 120 seconds. The combinations came in single digits, instead of double ones, as they did when he was younger.
Bradley was impressed, but not overly. “He was fast but he wasn’t blazing fast. Manny fought in spurts. He missed a lot,” the younger (and shorter) man said after the match.
At the end of 12 rounds, the scorecards were read, and two of the three judges gave it to Bradley. No one on press row had Bradley winning. People in the crowd looked at one another with stunned expressions — and then booed. It was the end of an era for Pacquiao — who had suffered his first defeat since 2005. Bob Arum, Pacquiao’s promoter, was fuming. About the judges’ decision, he said, “I have never been more ashamed to be a part of the sport of boxing than I am tonight.”
Pacquiao went to a corner and stood on the second rope and looked into the MGM Grand Garden Arena crowd, and to the heavens, and smiled, as if to mollify everyone, including his God. Like everyone who watched the fight, he was mystified by the ruling and would later say none of Bradley’s punches hurt him. When asked if he had won the fight, he replied, “No doubt.” At the press conference, he remained civil, polite and good humored. He laughed at what he clearly saw as an absurd result. “I respect the decision,” he said. “But 100%, I believe I won the fight.”
While the judges’ decision was inexplicable, some things are clear about Pacquiao’s future. A match with currently jailed Floyd Mayweather Jr. won’t be happening anytime soon, if at all. The public is disgusted and tired by the two athletes’ inability to make the fight happen, and both men’s skills are visibly on the wane. Pacquiao’s next fight will most likely be a rematch against Bradley on Nov. 10. As for the fighting Congressman of the Philippines, he will soon be visiting the Holy Land. Perhaps to better understand the Lord’s intentions.