by Kieran Mulvaney
Be sure to also read a 'Day After' fight update at InsideHBOBoxing.com and don't miss the fight replay Saturday night at 9:30 PM ET/PT on HBO Sports.
Juan Manuel Marquez was reeling. His face was swollen and bruised. His broken nose was streaming blood. He had ended the previous round on the receiving end of a furious Manny Pacquiao rally. And now, as the sixth came to a close, another Pacquiao left hand had him hurt, and backing into a corner.
And then it happened.
As Pacquaio leapt forward, Marquez uncorked a beautiful short counter right hand. Pacquaio didn't even see it coming, and the combined force of the punch and his forward momentum exploded on his unprotected chin. At that moment, the bell sounded to end the round, but it was too late to save him.
Pacquiao dropped like a stone, face first, to the canvas, his head lying beneath the bottom rope. Referee Kenny Bayless began the count as the arena erupted in unison, but it was immediately evident that there was no way Pacquiao was going to reach his feet before ten. He lay there, immobile, as Bayless abandoned his count and waved the fight over.
Manny Pacquiao was out cold. Juan Manuel Marquez finally had the victory he had craved, and he had delivered it in emphatic style.
And we have our Fight of the Year.
HBO's Jim Lampley had earlier prophesied that this fourth meeting between the arch-rivals might go one of two ways. Perhaps the two old warriors now knew each other so well that they would cancel each other out, and the fight would resemble Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier II, a relatively pedestrian affair by the standards of the battles that came before and after it. Or it might be more like Ali-Frazier III, the Thrilla in Manila, by which time the two greats had slowed just enough that they were less able to avoid each other's blows and thus wound up producing arguably the greatest heavyweight title fight of all time.
In the event, it was undeniably the latter, so much so that, for all that some had questioned whether we needed to see a fourth installment in this rivalry, by the time it was all over there was already talk of a fifth.
"Why not?" said promoter Bob Arum. "Have you seen a more exciting fight in years?"
The atmosphere was intense from the outset, a capacity crowd of 16,348 seemingly dominated by Marquez fans that sang along to their fighter's entrance music and booed their hero's nemesis as the Filipino made his way to the ring.
But although sentiment in the media room all week had been that Marquez had the edge and the momentum, that his counterpunching style would once more give Pacquiao fits, and that the Pacman's perceived decline in skills and speed would prove fatal, it was the man from the Philippines who began the contest more brightly, moving in and out, finding his range and landing straight left hands.
When Marquez did land in the early going, it was with a left hook; rarely his weapon of choice against Pacquiao, the fact that he was deploying it to some effect ironically underlined the success Pacquiao was having in cutting off the ring, moving right and landing his southpaw left.
The rounds were close, the boxing skilled. Each man sought to find openings where they existed, and to create them when they didn't. Jabbing was largely an afterthought, as Pacquaio sought to dart in with his left hand and Marquez moved to counter with straight rights and the aforementioned left hook.
The third was settling into a similar pattern when Marquez launched an overhand right. It flew through the air in an arc like a missile, landing with perfect precision on Pacquiao's jaw and knocking him down. It was a strong punch and a solid knockdown - the fifth of the four-fight series, but the first scored by Marquez - but Pacquiao displayed the hint of a wry smile before standing up. He recovered in a fourth round that was more cagey and tactical, and then in the fifth, he landed a straight left that sent Marquez backward and down. Whereas Marquez had been measured following his knockdown of Pacquiao, Pacquiao smelled blood, and the fifth ended with him teeing off on Marquez, landing straight left after straight left.
This was epic stuff: two experienced, exceptionally skilled fighters, both destined for the Hall-of-Fame, tied together like Ahab and the whale, destined to pursue each other through the years until one or both could pursue no more. Each man feinted and slipped punches, came back with short combination counterpunches, and then retreated in the face of counters from the other. And mixed in with the skillful boxing were pockets of explosive violence. At no stage did the crowd cease roaring.
As the sixth round progressed, it felt as if the end might be near, albeit not in the manner that unfolded. Marquez was struggling now as Pacquiao pressed his advantage, but the Mexican never lost belief, never lost composure or concentration, and when Pacquiao overreached, he struck.
"I threw the perfect punch," said Marquez, with what may actually be understatement.
"I felt that for the last three rounds, he was going for the knockout," the victor continued. "I knew I could be knocked out at any time. But I also knew, after I knocked him down, that I could knock him out."
Indeed he could. And did.
"I got hit by a punch I didn't see," admitted Pacquiao.
Pacquiao and Marquez had fought each other tooth and nail, across eight years and 36 rounds, with so little to separate them that equally valid cases could be made for either man to have won all three. Their fourth fight was the first to have a concussive, conclusive ending. Marquez, after one disputed draw and two disputed defeats, finally had his win. And with it, he had won the rivalry.
Unless, of course, it continues. Unless, there is a fifth and perhaps even a sixth fight.
In the co-main event, after his promoter 50 Cent had descended from the rafters on a harness while singing his hit "My Life," Yuriorkis Gamboa survived a knockdown, and administered two of his own, to defeat Michael Farenas in a super featherweight contest. Mexico's Miguel Vazquez totally outfoxed and outboxed Mercito Gesta of the Philippines, to inflict the first defeat on Gesta's record and retain a lightweight title. And Javier Fortuna outworked a game Patrick Hyland to win a decision in the opening bout of the broadcast.