By Kieran Mulvaney
Manny Pacquiao won Saturday night's welterweight championship bout in virtually all eyes - except those of the judges. Even Timothy Bradley admitted he'd have to review the tape to decide whether he'd won, and then he left the MGM Grand in a wheelchair. It was that kind of a night.
There was a feeling of the unusual about the evening almost from the beginning, the sense that anything could happen and probably would.
Guillermo Rigondeaux dispatched Teon Kennedy easily and emphatically enough, dropping him five times en route to a fifth-round stoppage to remain undefeated and retain his 122-pound title. So far, everything was unfolding to the script.
It turned out that the script was for an episode of the Twilight Zone.
In the next bout, unbeaten prospect Mike Jones was sleepwalking to a turgid points win over faded veteran Randall Bailey when, in the tenth round, Bailey uncorked a straight right that landed on the button and dropped Jones to his back. He got up, survived the round, seemed more embarrassed than badly hurt, and came out for the eleventh. Suddenly, as that round reached its close, Bailey unleashed an uppercut from hell, and Jones was out cold before he hit the canvas.
In the next bout, Jorge Arce tore into Jesus Rojas in the first round, dropping him in the opening 20 seconds; but in the second stanza, Rojas hit him with an unprecedented quadruple-foul: low blow, head butt, kidney shot, and a concluding shot to the temple as Arce doubled over in pain, all in the span of about two seconds. With Arce writing in the corner, unable to continue, the fight was declared a no-contest.
And then it was time for the main event. Except that it wasn't. Manny Pacquiao was missing.
It turned out that he had been watching basketball and so, because the game had just concluded, he was only beginning to stretch out his troublesome calves on a treadmill. Finally, the lights dimmed, the music played, the crowd roared, the fighters emerged, the anthems were sung, the ring emptied, the bell rang, and the fight began.
About the first half of the bout, there is little disagreement. After an opening round in which Pacquiao looked mildly out of sorts and challenger Timothy Bradley appeared confident, Pacquiao began landing hard left hands. Bradley withstood them, fought back and was willing to exchange, and he bobbed and weaved effectively to avoid the majority of Pacquiao's blows. But those blows that landed did so effectively, and Bradley emerged from the exchanges looking the worse for wear. Pacquiao was slowly taking the life out of a prime, undefeated opponent. He appeared to be on the way to his best performance since the night he defeated Miguel Cotto in the same arena in November 2009.
Where there is divergence, it concerns the second half of the contest. Seemingly deciding he could not win the kind of battle he had been waging, Bradley elected to box from the outside, focusing on his jab, and literally backing away whenever Pacquiao appeared ready to close the distance between them. To some observers, Pacquiao was continuing to make the fight, landing the more effective blows. And while Bradley was executing an understandable strategy, he was not doing it with any great effectiveness. To others, he was blunting Pacquiao's aggression, boxing smart, demonstrating that the Filipino did not know how to close off the ring against an elusive opponent, and, through effective counterpunching when Pacquiao did come in close, racking up points and gaining ground.
The first school of thought contained virtually every member of the ringside press, HBO's unofficial judge Harold Lederman, and most of the fans in the arena. The second included the three ringside judges.
The first score, from Jerry Roth, of 115-113 for Pacquiao, was shocking in its closeness. The second, from CJ Ross, of a 115-113 verdict in favor of Bradley, was stunning. Still, there was the assumption that the third scorecard, from Duane Ford, would confirm a split decision win for the Filipino. When it instead served to crown Bradley as the new champion, fans and media alike erupted in involuntary exclamations of disbelief.
In the post-fight press conference, promoter Bob Arum flirted with apoplexy before eventually deciding to embrace it with vigor, declaring that, "I have never been ashamed as much to be associated with the sport of boxing as I am tonight."
Pacquiao, who asserted acceptance of the decision but looked stunned, said that, "One-hundred percent I believe I won the fight." Yes, he said, he wanted the rematch, and the next time he would be a "warrior" and not allow the bout to last the full 12 rounds.
It was left to Bradley to defend the verdict and proclaim his victory, insisting that he had controlled the space and pace of the fight with his jab.
He did so quietly, from a wheelchair because he hurt his foot - possibly, he believed, broke it - after standing on, or tripping over, the foot of referee Robert Byrd. In the context of everything else that had happened on this strangest of nights, that didn't even seem unusual.