Pacquiao is the greatest ... period

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Mark Kriegel

Mark Kriegel is the national columnist for He is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, which Sports Illustrated called "the best sports biography of the year."



At 8 a.m. Monday, just 33 hours removed from the most astounding victory of Manny Pacquiao’s career, Freddie Roach reports for his day job, tending to the fashionably ramshackle Wild Card gymnasium, where the world’s most famous trainer finds himself re-lacing a speed bag.

It was Pacquiao, he figures, who ruptured it while training for Antonio Margarito. The rubber bladders they put in these things aren’t what they used to be. Then again, Pacquiao did basically the same thing to Margarito he did to the bag.

What happened Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium is already the least appreciated feat in sports, unforgivably obscured by the voracious NFL news cycle. Now there are a few decent pro teams -- but not a single great one.

Pacquiao vs. Margarito

Pacquiao vs. Margarito

Manny Pacquiao dominated Antonio Margarito at Cowboys Stadium. Get complete coverage of the fight right here.

It’s not just football, either. There’s a conspicuous lack of greatness on the contemporary sports scene. The San Francisco Giants might’ve been a great story for a few weeks, but not a great team, not with Cody Ross batting cleanup. College football? You mean the sport where you need to cheat to be great? And don’t get me started on the BCS, which has done the impossible, making boxing’s sanctioning bodies look incorruptible by comparison.

So where are the great ones out there? Anyone remember Tiger Woods? Lance Armstrong? Brett Favre?

I’ll say this again: The other sports are mere metaphors for what boxing actually is. And even in the midst of its impossibly long and inexorable slide, boxing has again produced greatness, authentic and historic. There is no precedent for what Manny Pacquiao has now done, winning eight titles in eight weight classes.

“I don’t know,” says Roach, “maybe David and Goliath?”

Maybe. But David had distance and a slingshot.

Some context: Ten years ago, the New York State Athletic Commission sanctioned a welterweight bout between Arturo Gatti and Joey Gamache. Gamache was brutally knocked out in the second round, spent a couple of days in the hospital with a severe concussion, and never fought again. As Gatti entered the ring at 160 pounds – 14 more than Gamache – the commission was criticized for being negligent, even criminal. Still, the weight differential between Gatti and Gamache was less than what separated Pacquiao and Margarito – 147 to 164 – when they stepped into the ring. Oh, and by the way, Pacquiao was also giving away 6 inches in both height and reach.

There’s nothing to compare this to outside of boxing. After all, in most sports, rules exist to even the playing field.

“You won’t see anything like this again,” says Roach. “Ever.”

You won’t see non-heavyweights engaged in such an obvious, plain-to-the-eye size disparity.

More context: The most famous little man-vs.-big man fight (outside of the Bible) was Joe Louis-Billy Conn in 1941. The difference there was about 25 pounds. And though Conn was knocked out, he outboxed his opponent for the better part of 13 rounds.

Pacquiao-Margarito wasn’t Louis-Conn, of course. But it wasn’t Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard, either. Margarito was Margarito, which is to say, big and strong and busy. Still, Pacquiao didn’t have to get cute. That’s the anomaly here: The little man physically destroyed the bigger one.

What Pacquiao did to the speed bag can be repaired. What he did to Margarito probably can’t.

“I don’t think he’ll ever fight again,” says Roach.

One is tempted to bring up the notion of metaphorical justice here. In the days before the fight, a video surfaced of Margarito making fun of Roach’s Parkinson’s symptoms, a disease he contracted back in the ‘80s, with frequent use of his granite chin. Now, as Freddie re-laced the bag – a considerable achievement, given the tremors that run through his hands – Margarito was preparing to undergo surgery for a broken orbital bone below his right eye. But the trainer’s anger has given way to a kind of admiration.

“I have more respect for him now,” says Roach. “I thought he would quit. I knew he could take a lot of punishment. But not that much. He showed a tremendous amount of heart.”

Lots of heart, sure. But not so smart.

“His corner should be arrested,” says Roach, especially contemptuous of Margarito’s trainer, Robert Garcia. “Their job is to protect the fighter. They let him take a beating.”

When would you have stopped it? I ask.

“After eight,” he says, referring to the point at which Margarito’s left eye began to close. “At that point there was no offensive threat. He was still coming forward. He kept punching, but there was no power. He was over. He took punishment for no reason at all. If you ask a fighter if he’s OK, he’ll say yes all night long. It’s the corner’s job to make that decision.”

Pacquiao had a job, too. After 10 rounds, Roach reminded Pacquiao he had a responsibility to go for the knockout.

But this time, the fighter didn’t listen to his trainer. Disregarding Roach’s admonishment, Pacquiao carried Margarito for two more rounds.

More evidence of real greatness.

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