As we enter the second decade of this millennium, you don't have to be a hardcore fight fan to know the names Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez. They are two of the biggest stars in the sport, elite fighters who have both enjoyed the exposure of HBO's 24/7 series and participated in million-buy pay-per-view events.
In 2004, however, they were treasures for the hardcore fans only. Pacquiao and Marquez were two talented champions still under the radar and on the rise.
Pacquiao was slightly the more established of the two because he'd shocked Marco Antonio Barrera six months earlier, stopping him in 11 rounds to claim The Ring magazine's featherweight championship. On the strength of that win, plus alphabet title reigns at 112 and 122 pounds, the 25-year-old Filipino was making a name for himself in America and had climbed to No. 5 on The Ring's pound-for-pound list. But the 30-year-old Marquez wasn't far behind, rated 11th pound-for-pound. And while Pacquiao held the lineal championship, Marquez had two alphabet belts of his own at featherweight.
For the moment, though, both belt-holders still had questions to answer. Pacquiao's win over Barrera came about in part because the Mexican veteran had faced an assortment of distractions in preparation for the bout. So was Pacquiao really as good as he had looked that night in San Antonio?
And Marquez, though riding a 13-fight winning streak, was still seeking a signature victory. He hadn't yet done enough to step out from under the long shadow cast by his Mexican countrymen Barrera and Erik Morales.
"Our view of Marquez at that time was still colored by our long experience with Barrera and Morales," HBO blow-by-blow commentator Jim Lampley explained. "Marquez was number three in our minds, for a variety of reasons. Number one, he had been shut out of the great trilogy that was elevating the other two. Number two, he fought in a more calculated, measured style than either Morales or Barrera and therefore seemed 'less Mexican.' And three, he had not had a giant showcase in Vegas like this before. It was really the first time we were looking at Marquez in that kind of event. Pacquiao had already established himself as this dynamic force with his tremendous performance against Barrera."
"Pac-Man" had also established himself with the crowd at the MGM Grand. Though traditionally a pro-Mexican fight town, Vegas was falling in love with the Filipino. The arena was full of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans (not to mention a fair number of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans) and the building was absolutely deafening. "What an atmosphere!" Lamply exclaimed just before the opening bell sounded.
Pacquiao vs. Marquez was a tale of two fights, but not in the traditional sense, where the pendulum swings midway through. Rather, the first part of the fight, dominated by Pacquiao, lasted three minutes. The other fight, in which levels of domination by either fighter remain up for debate several years later, gradually unfolded over the next 11 rounds.
It was 89 seconds into the opening round that Pacquiao struck with his ridiculously fast southpaw straight left hand. It landed on Marquez' chin and dropped him on his rear. The Mexican was up quickly, but his nightmare was only beginning. Pacquiao landed four more lefts that Marquez couldn't avoid, then a fifth one on the button that put him down again with more than a minute remaining in the opening. There was no three-knockdown rule, and it was a good thing for Marquez, who was dropped heavily by a left along the ropes with 44 ticks left on the clock. Referee Joe Cortez was slow to move in and Pac-Man landed another left to the neck with Marquez partially on the canvas. Marquez collapsed on his back and looked finished, but he willed himself up at the count of eight.
"I thought the fight was over, for sure," reflected Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach. "But Marquez showed a lot of heart in there, and it surprised me. I never saw that in Marquez before, he was usually a pretty boring counter-puncher, but in that fight, he changed his whole way of fighting."
"I was conscious the whole time of what was happening," Marquez remembered. "One of the reasons I got up was because when I was down the third time, Pacquiao hit me again, and I said to myself, 'Make him pay for this.'"
Making him pay would have to wait; for the moment, surviving the round was the top priority. There were 30 seconds left to go and Pacquiao kept landing left after left. But Marquez refused to go down a fourth time. He made it back to his corner, bleeding badly from his nose and presumably in a four-point hole.
"Manny Pacquiao is a storm. Juan Manuel Marquez hasn't ever seen anything like that!" Lampley yelled.
"Who has?" responded his broadcast partner Larry Merchant.
"That round serves as a constant reminder of just how good Pacquiao was," Merchant told HBO.com five years later. "Nobody had ever done anything like that to Marquez. Pacquiao's power is almost not like any other power we've seen. Because it's left-handed, they just don't see the damn thing coming. You can't find a sparring partner to mimic that."
Nevertheless, Marquez had a plan and the poise to execute it, and the result was one of the most stirring recoveries/comebacks in boxing history. (In fact, Roach told HBO.com, "It was probably the best comeback since ... maybe ever.") The savvy Mexican boxer probably lost the second round, but it was close and though he still couldn't avoid Pacquiao's left, he was at least countering it effectively.
In round three, Marquez started piling up points of his own. He controlled the pace. He punched to the body. He began to slip his opponent's laser-like left. And he landed with both hands, whereas Pacquiao was mostly a one-handed fighter. The third round belonged to Marquez. The fourth was close one way or the other. The fifth was Marquez's best yet; the action picked up, Marquez snapped Pacquiao's head back with a sensational straight right, and the Filipino developed a cut on his right eyelid. The sixth belonged just as clearly to Marquez, who seemed to hurt Pacquiao at one point with a right hand.
But Pacquiao wasn't ready to fully concede the momentum and let his entire lead evaporate. The seventh and eighth rounds were tense and closely contested. Pacquiao connected with a straight left in the ninth, his best punch perhaps since round one. Pac-Man also mixed in a right uppercut, and then got slightly the better of a thrilling exchange in the final 30 seconds of the round. The 10th round followed a similar pattern-tactical early, turbulent late, with Pacquiao probably edging it.
But just when Pacquiao seemed to be wresting control, Marquez enjoyed one of his best rounds of the fight in the 11th. He landed a straight right, then a right uppercut, then three more right hands. It was one of the few easy-to-score rounds of the night.
"I have to be honest," Marquez recently said when asked what point in the fight he felt he'd figured Pacquiao out. "I came into the ring overconfident because I thought Pacquiao was easy to hit and didn't hit hard. So he caught me in the first round. But after that, from the second round on, I think I was in control of the fight and also I wobbled him several times."
In the 12th round, however, it was Pacquiao who succeeded in wobbling his foe a bit, landing some of his most explosive left hands since the opening round. Marquez was right there, punching back every time, but Pac-Man appeared to pull out the stanza and, to a slight majority of ringsiders, pull out the fight.
But only one of the judges felt that way: John Stewart, who had it 115-110 for Pacquiao. Guy Jutras scored it 115-110 for Marquez, giving the Mexican 10 of 11 rounds after the opener. And Burt Clements split the difference, scoring it 113-113.
"In a way, I think all three scorecards are correct," Lampley reflected. "If you favor the tactical counter-puncher, then that scorecard for Marquez is intelligible. If you favor the sheer violence and the dynamic impact of hard punching, then the scorecard for Pacquiao is intelligible. If you prize both equally, then the draw scorecard is certainly intelligible. It's a statement on how subjective our sport is."
Importantly, Clements made the first round 10-7 for Pacquiao, whereas the other two judges and nearly every observer agreed it was a 10-6 round. Had Clements made it 10-6, Pacquiao would have won a split decision.
"I'm disappointed [with the decision]," Pacquiao told Merchant in the ring afterward. "I should have won this fight. I thought I was going to knock him out [in the first round], but there was not enough time ... There should really be a rematch, so they will really know who is the best between the two of us."
A rematch came eventually, but not immediately. Marquez balked because he wasn't happy with the purse offer, took some minor fights, and lost a decision in Indonesia in 2006 to Chris John.
"I don't have any regrets whatsoever about my career decisions," Marquez told HBO.com. "I decided to go to Indonesia to fight Chris John, and it's a fight I thought I won."
Marquez bounced back, though, defeated Barrera in 2007, and finally got his rematch with Pacquiao in '08, after Pac-Man had spent the intervening four years warring three times with Morales and once more with Barrera, becoming an international superstar. The rematch was again almost too close to call, with Pacquiao scoring a key early knockdown and winning a split decision by a single point.
But Marquez again shook off disappointment and became the world lightweight champion in his next fight, pretty well confirming future-Hall-of-Famer status.
"It turned out getting up from that third knockdown against Pacquiao wasn't just a turning point in the fight, it was a turning point in Marquez' career," Merchant explained. "He was a guy who fell through the cracks because he was that rare pure boxer from Mexico, while Morales and Barrera were in effect fighting to become the heir apparent to Chavez. Marquez's toughness and resilience had always been masked. We had never seen that. We saw it against Pacquiao. And in a way, the second round launched the second act of his career."
If this draw launched the second act of Marquez's career, it also stands out as a launching pad of sorts for Pacquiao.
"This fight, combined with beating Barrera, propelled Pacquiao to winning over the toughest audience out there, which is Mexican fans," Merchant said. "They came to say, in effect, that he's a Mexican. They were adopting him."
It wasn't just the Mexicans who were adopting Pacquiao. It was all fight fans. Whether you thought Pacquiao won this fight, lost this fight, or deserved the draw that he got, Pac-Man Fever was officially sweeping the boxing world because he was emerging as not only an elite talent, but an elite entertainer as well.