No exaggeration: There is a boxer on this planet so popular that when he fights, rebel wars in his homeland halt and crime drops to zero. Boxing fans around the world, in addition to a rabid Philippines following, know this fighter, Manny Pacquiao, to be among the top handful of most exciting boxers today. Some think he’s also the best. I say he gets a chance to prove he’s the best Saturday night.
His opponent is the limited David Diaz, the weakest of the lightweight (135 lbs.) belt-holders. Diaz is tough, and a former Olympian, but he’s Pacquiao’s choice of opponent for a reason — he’s basic, he has a title belt, he can make Pacquiao look good and he’s beatable. Even with those limitations, Diaz is among the top fighters in his division, and beating him would be a noteworthy achievement for Pacquiao, who is making his debut in yet another weight class.
The only intrigue of note is whether Pacquaio, who started his career at 106 lbs., has gone one weight class too far, and if cutting corners on training, as Pacquiao reportedly has, will have any deleterious effect on his performance. It is a subject worthy of some additional examination.
Everything I’ve said before about Pacquiao, I still think: He’s one of my favorite fighters. He’s one of the best — second-best, by a hair, to Joe Calzaghe, the consensus light heavyweight (175 lbs.) champ. And he plays with fire with his outside-the-ring distractions, which he cut back on for his fight earlier this year against Juan Manuel Marquez but which returned for his fight with Diaz.
With an intoxicating mixture of speed and power, of stamina and an almost total inability to be hurt by big punches, Pacquiao has beaten not only Marquez but the other top Mexican icons of his time, Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales. Granted, I think Marquez won their fight in March, but the fact remains that his record reads five wins, one loss and one draw against that trio. Jumping weight classes should not be the lone factor in determining a fighter’s greatness, but it’s one measurement, and that Pacquiao will be shooting for success in a division about 30 pounds north of his pro debut speaks to the fact that the Pacman is some kind of fighter. Nike loves him. The president of the Philippines loves him. I don’t know anyone who isn’t crazy about him, really, and I count myself among his fans, even though I’ve had some critical things to say about him from time to time. (Hey, Pacman — a rematch with Marquez is still the best, richest and most important fight you can make, so snap to it.)
Pacquiao’s status as a national icon, and his limitless energy, means that there’s a lot of Pacman to supply and demand. This is where he rolls the dice on occasion. Not literally; word is, he’s cut back on his gambling habit. Instead, he has busied himself with other non-boxing adventures. He spent some down time recently scuba diving, then releasing sea turtles into a bay with the government of the Philippines. He got his own stamp. Et cetera. When trainer Freddie Roach wanted him in training camp, he took his sweet time getting there. Even his most fanatical devotees would be hard-pressed to deny that Pacquiao fights up or down to the perceived level of his competition. He’s pulled out wins over inferior competition even at a 75% training pace, but he reportedly took Morales lightly in their first fight, reasoning that if he destroyed Barrera and Barrera beat Morales, he would beat Morales easily. Didn’t work out that way, even though he avenged his loss twice when he trained correctly. Word is, he doesn’t take Diaz, a heavy underdog, that seriously.
His allegedly trained poorly despite the fact this is not a meaningless fight. It’s his first test at 135, for one, a division I now consider boxing’s best. For another, while the majority of boxing observers now consider Pacquiao the world’s best active fighter of any weight, there are a few holdouts. Me, for one. ESPN, for another. Quoth ESPN The Magazine from the June 30 edition: “Manny Pacquiao could take sole ownership of pound-for-pound honors with a win over David Diaz on June 28.” If Pacquiao beats Diaz without controversy, I also will move him to number #1, at least until July 26, when my #3, Miguel Cotto, could move to #1 with a win over Antonio Margarito in a mega-fight between two of the top welterweights (147 lbs.).
The ball, then, is mostly in Pacquiao’s court. But Diaz is in the game. He’s exactly the kind of fighter that isn’t wise to underestimate. Morales, in a farewell fight following his second loss to Pacquiao, picked Diaz for the same reasons Pacquiao did, and Morales got beat. In 2006, before Diaz-Morales, Jose Armando Santa Cruz was beating Diaz for nine rounds and Diaz knocked out Santa Cruz in the 10th in a dramatic rally. His toughness, aggressiveness and unwillingness to give up are his primary traits as a boxer. He is unexceptional or worse in every other category. He is abysmal — I mean it, abysmal — on defense. In March, Ramon Montano (15-4-2) hit him at will, even though Diaz won in the end. He has been knocked down — by Morales — and out — by Kendall Holt. He is a stern puncher, not a powerful one, with about a 50/50 knockout rate. That Diaz is a title-holder and a successful boxer getting a career best payday is a testament to what pure drive can do for a human being. (Diaz won his title because it was stripped from Joel Casamayor and he was the “interim” champion at the time because of his win over Santa Cruz, but he got to that point and kept it with that pure drive.)
I don’t, by the way, fault Pacquiao much for picking Diaz as his debut opponent at lightweight, even if I think he should have picked Marquez. Diaz is a perfectly acceptable test opponent at a new weight — a little dangerous, but not too much. Even better, his style is suited for Pacquiao. I’m sure Pacquiao never wants to see another counter-puncher again after his troubles with Marquez. Pacquiao would rather out-quick and out-punch an opponent who comes straight at him, which Diaz will do. I think it’ll be a good scrap for as long as it lasts, but unless you’re a diehard Pacquiao fan, it isn’t worth $50 on pay-per-view. And here’s why…
My prediction: Pacquiao is gonna knock out Diaz in the middle rounds. Tough as Diaz is, Pacquiao is plenty tough himself, and way better overall. He should be fairly easy pickings. Figure it this way: A very faded Morales — there were reports that his ears rang with every punch — almost beat Diaz, even though Morales had moved up from 130 lbs. exactly as Pacquiao is doing. Pacquiao’s roughly in his prime. I don’t know if Pacquiao’s power is going to carry as well at 135, and his trainer, Roach, has questioned whether it will. But Pacquiao should have more than enough for Diaz’s poor noggin. The quicker he gets Diaz out of there, the more convinced I will be of Pacquiao’s lightweight experiment.
Confidence: 90%. I do think Pacquiao picked a bad man and the wrong time to slack off on his training regimen, not that there are many ideal times or people with which to do it. If Diaz, a natural lightweight, hangs around, he could give a tiring Pacquiao fits. I still expect Pacquiao to win that kind of fight, just not by knockout. Making weight has sometimes been a problem for Pacquiao in the past, too, but he’s moving up to 135 so he can do it more comfortably, so that shouldn’t be an issue here.
My allegiance: Gotta go with the Pacman, not that I wouldn’t be happy for the likable Diaz in pulling off the sure-fire upset of the year.