By Kieran Mulvaney
The history of boxing's greats is not just a history of great fighters, but of great rivalries, boxers who brought the best out of each other, who pushed each other to the limits.
In many ways, the most perfect expression of such rivalries is the trilogy. On most occasions, the third bout is required because the combatants have evenly split the previous two; the third is the decider, the final, emphatic piece of punctuation, the defining statement of superiority.
Manny Pacquiao has had such a trilogy. On March 19, 2005, he was cut, bruised and outpointed by Erik Morales, suffering a loss that prompted Pacquiao's trainer Freddie Roach to retool and rebuild his charge, developing him into more than the southpaw with the atomic left hand that he had been to that point in his career. Those refinements came to the fore in the rematch, when the addition of lateral movement and a newly-honed right hand caused Morales to succumb in the tenth. The rubber match was a blowout, Pacquiao destroying his rival, who went to the canvas in the third and stayed there, looking at his corner and shaking his head as if to acknowledge that enough was enough.
Now Pacquiao is about to join the select list of champions who have a second trilogy on their resume, when he meets Juan Manuel Marquez in the ring at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on November 12.
Their first encounter, in May 2004, began in breathtaking fashion, a Pacquiao straight left putting Marquez down in the opening round. Then another, and another. The third knockdown seemed to have finished the Mexican, yet somehow he rose to his feet.
"Manny Pacquiao is a storm. Juan Manuel Marquez hasn't ever seen anything like that," exclaimed HBO commentator Jim Lampley as the bell rang to end that explosive first frame.
"Who has?" asked colleague Larry Merchant rhetorically.
Watching the fight again six years later, it is jarring to see how raw Pacquiao still was at that time, a work in progress. Even as he dominated Marquez in that opening round, he did so crudely, chasing after him and flinging left hands with abandon. Marquez, the greater technician, gathered himself as the fight continued and began firing back with his own weapon: an overhand right. The success that Marquez found with that punch was also a testament to Pacquiao's crudeness, his leaving himself in position after throwing his left.
"Sometimes when you're fighting a southpaw," explains Roach, "they're suckers for right hands."
By the time the two fought again, three years later, Pacquiao had completed his Morales trilogy and was a greatly-improved technician. But it was the patented left hand that put Marquez on his back again in the third round, as Marquez moved to his right - and into the Pacquiao punch - to throw a shot of his own.
"I saw a perfect opening," recalls Marquez. "I went to land a left hook, and then all of a sudden, I'm getting hit." Far from discouraging him, however, Marquez insists the knockdown "made me more motivated. ‘What's happening here? This isn't going to happen again.'"
As with the first fight, the right hand was the Marquez weapon of choice, rocking Pacquiao early and hurting him badly in the eighth round. In a battle marked by more momentum shifts than the initial bout, Marquez did enough to win the fight on one judge's scorecard. But that judge was overruled by the other two, and Pacquiao escaped with a split decision win.
And that is the difference between this trilogy and many others. Marquez has not won either of the two fights thus far; the first was declared a draw, and would also have been a Pacquiao win had one judge not scored the opening round incorrectly. But each bout was so closely contested that ringside observers were divided as to who was triumphant, and Marquez clearly believes that on both occasions it was him.
"I've waited a long time for this fight with Pacquiao, because the first two I did enough to win but didn't get the decision," he has said. "This time there won't be any doubts about my victory."
Pacquiao, although typically restrained in his comments, appears irked by that assertion and keen to put the rivalry to bed.
"His statement that he was robbed and he won the first two fights, I can say that this fight will be the answer to that," he told reporters recently.
The difference between victory and defeat can be marginal, but the consequences of that difference can be profound. Ken Norton won one of three against Muhammad Ali but was convinced he had done enough to win them all and that, had he officially done so, the careers of both he and his more celebrated foe would have turned out very differently. Marquez feels the same way about himself and his vaunted rival.
"We thought we won the second fight," he says. "We won by two or three points. To have won those two fights would put me where Pacquiao is now."
In Pacquiao's eyes, however, where he is now is where he is going to stay, and his continued improvements - and the fact that the third bout will be at welterweight, where Pacquiao is now comfortable and Marquez, on his one outing at the weight, was not - will ensure as much. This time, he says, there will be no doubt.
"In the last three years, I think I changed a lot. My right hand has developed a lot. My movement, my balance, my power, and moving up to 147 pounds - it's going to be different."
A Legendary Trilogy's Final Act
By Kieran Mulvaney