Oscar De La Hoya – Manny Pacquiao: Keys To The Fight, Part I

(Please join us all week long for daily De La Hoya/Pacquiao coverage, leading up to a live blog Saturday night. Today: How the two men stack up in some of the areas that will decide the fight’s outcome.)

Maybe Manny Pacquiao is too small; maybe Oscar De La Hoya is too old. Maybe Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach, who once trained De La Hoya, will help his current pupil dissect his one-time pupil; maybe current De La Hoya trainer Nacho Beristain, who twice trained Juan Manuel Marquez to the brink of defeating Pacquiao, will help De La Hoya to the promised land.

A win for either Pacquiao or De La Hoya Saturday night is predicated on a great many things, some physical and some mental. Let’s start with an evaluation of the physical components, two of which will prove particularly influential, then tomorrow delve into the more mental components.

godzilla_wikipedia.jpgSize. Ah, size, one of the two central mysteries of De La Hoya-Pacquiao. One man, Pacquiao, started his career at 107 pounds and fought for the first time at 135 pounds in June. The other man, De La Hoya, started his career right at 135 and has fought as high as 160. The day before the fight, both must weight 147.

If you leave it there, it becomes fairly absurd: De La Hoya should, by all rights, slaughter Pacquiao. Yes, Pacquiao and his team argued that since Pacquiao walks around between fights at about 150, so 147 isn’t that far from his natural size. Yes, there were some who thought De La Hoya would struggle to get down to 147, a weight he hadn’t made since damn near the April showers of 2001. But even under that scenario, Pacquiao was going to weight 150 or so at most come fight night, and De La Hoya was going to rehydrate up to about 160. That’s another 10 pounds advantage to the man who didn’t need any more of an advantage.

Neither man, however, left it there. De La Hoya looked like he was on weight months and months before the fight began, and has said Beristain even jumped on him because he’d been hovering at 145 recently. Pacquiao, at around the same time, was tipping the scales at around 153, which means that, all things remaining constant, it would be Pacquiao who would rehydrate to the higher weight come fight night. Suddenly, the size gap didn’t seem so insurmountable. That is, until the scale read 155 for De La Hoya on a recent episode of HBO’s “24/7” series, and Pacquiao reportedly weighed in at 141. Now, who will weigh more fight night is a total mystery. Which, maybe, is how the promoters want it, because a little trickeration to fuzz up the answer to the question about whether the size difference is very pronounced eliminates one of the major arguments about whether Pacquiao can win, a point of skepticism for fans to that point.

Despite that mystery, the size issue almost surely will work to De La Hoya’s advantage, not Pacquiao’s. He’s been the bigger man his entire life, and a fighter who’s coming up in weight is at his most vulnerable when he’s just arrived at it. And don’t forget that De La Hoya, at 5’10 ½” and with a 73″ reach, has a four and a half-inch height advantage and six-inch reach advantage. De La Hoya used to use his height and length to keep the fight exactly where he wanted against smaller opponents back when he fought in the lighter weight classes, and two smaller men who had success against De La Hoya recently had not done it the way Pacquiao will have to: Floyd Mayweather had gradually proved himself at higher weights and was both taller and longer than Pacquiao, while Shane Mosley also had a couple fights at a higher weight to test out how he’d do and even had a reach advantage over De La Hoya.

old man and child.jpgAge. Ah, age, the other primary mystery of De La Hoya-Pacquiao. Pacquiao, at 29, is right at his physical prime. De La Hoya, at 35, has shown signs of slippage. Pacquiao is today considered the best fighter on the planet, right now, of any size. De La Hoya is alternately thought as a guy just inside the top 20 or way out of it, loser of three of his last six, albeit against top competition.

I’ve met no one alive who thinks that a prime De La Hoya loses to a prime Pacquiao at 147. Even Pacquiao’s trainer believes Pacquiao has a chance in large part due to De La Hoya’s age. Because of some hits to the Golden Boy’s reputation over the years, and because of those three losses in six fights, and because he’s been a part-time fighter over the past four years, people forget, I think, how good De La Hoya once was. In 1997, as part of its annual poll of the best pound-for-pound fighters alive, De La Hoya finished first. Roy Jones, Jr. was already on the scene. That should tell you something. In 1996, 1998, 1999and 2002, De La Hoya placed second among the poll’s knowledgeable boxing writers.

But that was six years ago. Six years is the age difference between the two, and in boxing, that can be a lifetime. Pacquiao began his career just three years after De La Hoya, when he was just 16, and he’s racked up a lot of miles in the wars he’s waged. In 2007, it looked like the hard living and hard fighting had started to catch up to him — he didn’t fight with his typical unquenchable fire. But this year, he’s looked unbelievably fresh. It’s clear now that 2007 was an anomaly.

Even if you still consider De La Hoya an elite fighter — and I do, placing him at #15 on my list of the pound-for-pound best, owing to competitive showings in those losses to some of the best fighters of the past decade — the age advantage is a huge one for Pacquiao. It is not that De La Hoya can’t “pull the trigger,” as Roach claims – he pulled the trigger plenty in his last fight against Steve Forbes. It’s just that, this isn’t prime De La Hoya, and it affects him in subtle ways. It is prime Pacquiao. That matters more now than some mythical match-up.

5815-BulletTrain.jpgSpeed and power. It’s hard to judge the relative speed and power of Pacquiao at 147, because nobody ha seen him fight above 135. There are some unknowns about De La Hoya’s speed and power these days, too, but they’re less pronounced.

Some took it as a sign of De La Hoya’s diminished power that he didn’t knock out Forbes, fighting at 150 when the outer limits of his viability as a title contender was 140. I don’t think those people had paid much attention to Forbes’ career. Forbes fought at 150 for the entire season of “The Contender,” and he placed second in the reality show, never even going down thanks to his excellent defense and sturdy chin. Andre Berto couldn’t hurt Forbes in the fight after De La Hoya’s, either. In his last three wins, De La Hoya only has one knockout, over Ricardo Mayorga, and he slaughtered the guy that two past opponents, Mosley and Fernando Vargas, had trouble hurting; the other De La Hoya win was over Felix Sturm, who was one division too high for De La Hoya at 160. De La Hoya’s power hasn’t changed much, if any. His speed may have. He was fast enough to connect on Mayweather, something few had been able to do. But he didn’t look particularly swift against Forbes; it’s hard to say if age was the reason or if it’s that De La Hoya was focusing on slower power shots over faster blows. De La Hoya says he’s faster than ever at his current weight. I’ve seen no independent verification of that.

At 130 and below, Pacquiao’s speed was ungodly. Nobody could match his hand speed; Marquez only had luck with counterpunching Pacquiao because of his exceptional timing. Pacquiao looked to me like he slowed a little when he moved up to 135, but he still would be faster than just about anyone in that division. His power was extraordinary at 130 and below, twice knocking out the previously-unknockoutable Erik Morales. His power also remained impressive at 135, although maybe it, too, was slightly diminished; he landed an incredible volume of punches on David Diaz, previously stopped by the bigger but not as naturally powerful Kendall Holt, and it took nine rounds for Pacquiao to drop Diaz. Whatever decline there was, Pacquiao’s combination of speed and power at 135 was astounding and more than enough to establish him as the most dangerous-looking opponent at his ne
w division. Independent accounts suggest that Pacquiao has suffered a pronounced drop off in speed as he has moved up in weight, but that his power has been above expectations, maybe better than ever.

Based on what we know, I’m operating on the assumption that, between the two, Pacquiao will be significantly faster than De La Hoya and De La Hoya will punch harder. There’s simply no way of knowing how this will play out in the ring, so I’m going with an educated guess.

crossing-the-finish-line.jpgStamina. De La Hoya has suffered from career-long stamina problems, although he appeared to temporarily overcome them against Forbes, which he said was the result of being less tense. Pacquiao has never suffered from any such condition. Overlooked in Pacquiao’s repertoire of physical gifts is that he has a freakish reservoir of stamina. I’ve never seen Pacquiao look tired, ever. In the 12th round, his punches always appear to have as much steam as in the 1st.

This category’s a wipe-out in Pacquiao’s behalf, but there’s a bit of a hypothesis going around that De La Hoya stopped throwing his jab against Mayweather not because of stamina, but because of an old injury. De La Hoya suffered a torn rotator cuff years ago that he’s never had fixed with surgery. He’s admitted that it has been a problem in fights at times. But I’m not sure I buy the theory that it was a factor against Mayweather. If that’s the case, why did he throw his jab consistently against Forbes? One would think the injury would have gotten worse over time, but if it suddenly got better for the Forbes fight, then that also points to De La Hoya’s team having come up with a good remedy for it. I don’t expect it to be a factor. The real issue here is that if anyone gets tired in the fight from anything other than accumulation of punches, it will be De La Hoya, not Pacquiao.

Thing_vs_Juggernaut_page_by_JPRart2.jpgPunch resistance. De La Hoya and Pacquiao both have shown serious chins. What we don’t know is what Pacquiao’s chin will be like at 147, because he can have all the speed, power and age advantage in the world, but if he can’t handle getting hit with De La Hoya’s left hook — and one will land, eventually — then it doesn’t matter.

De La Hoya’s lone knockout loss came at a weight too high for him and looked to me like the result of a crazy-perfect liver shot, although some think he gave up because he didn’t want to keep fighting Bernard Hopkins that night. Whatever the case, De La Hoya can take a punch. That’s his track record.

Pacquiao was knocked out a couple times early in his career, but those are most likely the result of problems making lower weights and general inexperience — it’s not uncommon to see fighters in countries where boxers’ careers start as 16 have a couple early knockouts on their record. As an elite fighter, Pacquiao hasn’t been knocked down or out, and an elite fighter is what Pacquiao is now and has been for a long time.

At most, save those exceptions, Pacquiao and De La Hoya have been momentarily stunned. The difference is, De La Hoya’s chin is a proven commodity at 147. Pacquiao’s isn’t. Until there’s some evidence that De La Hoya’s chin has been weakened by weight drain, and until Pacquiao shrugs off one of De La Hoya’s left hooks, De La Hoya has the edge here.

(Tomorrow: Keys to the fight, part II.)

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.