So continues our marathon coverage of the biggest fight of the year, pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao against junior welterweight champion Ricky Hatton, culminating in a live blog of the bout Saturday. Tonight — keys to the fight part II, with a focus on the mental, strategic aspects of the combatants. Previously — keys to the fight part I, with a focus on the more physical elements of the fight. Tomorrow — a note on the undercard, plus the final preview and prediction.
(The Brain, of Pinky And The Brain fame, wants us to contemplate the mental side of things. Let’s.)
Offense. Once upon a time, Manny Pacquiao was a one-dimensional offensive fighter. It sure was some hell of a dimension, though. No one could figure out his little hopping straight left to the head, delivered from a southpaw stance. Sometimes he would set it up with a jab, and that was as close as he came to a second dimension. The Pacquiao of today looks nothing like the Pacquiao of 2005. His primary weapon is still that left cross. But he has a right hook. He has an uppercut. He works to the body. He can counterpunch. He’s the total offensive package. Hatton has always had a fairly varied attack. His preoccupation is landing a left hook to the body, but he has a good straight right hand, and after sealing away his jab in hibernation for a few years, he brought it back in his last fight, against Paulie Malignaggi, to great effect. He’s never been much of a counterpuncher, if I were looking for a weakness. Bob Arum, Pacquiao’s promoter, says Hatton is hopeless against southpaws, but there’s not a big body of evidence to suggest that; Luis Collazo, Arum’s evidence, was also bigger than Hatton and is trickier than most.
What separates them is how they attack. Pacquiao likes to dart in and out, or, once inside, land a shot and turn and land a shot and turn. Hatton historically has wanted to get inside and stay there — pressure, corner, maul, assault, tie up and reset. Hatton fought a little more on the outside against Malignaggi, although that probably had something to do with Malignaggi tying him up every time he got close. The only fighter in years who has been able to dull Pacquiao’s offense at all is Juan Manuel Marquez, a master of timing, spacing and counterpunching, but Pacquiao still connected plenty. The only fighter in years who has been able to dull Hatton’s offense at all is Floyd Mayweather, Jr., a defensive wizard and immaculate technician with cosmic physical speed who outmuscled Hatton in clinches to an unprecedented degree but still got hit more than usual. The clash of offensive styles is one of the most enticing aspects of this match-up, from an entertainment standpoint. Both men are first and foremost offensive fighters who want to be pressing the attack, just in different ways. In this category, they are about even.
Defense. Defense has taken a backseat for the vast majority of Pacquiao’s and Hatton’s careers, but lately, that has changed. In his last two fights, Pacquiao’s defense has been excellent. Much of it is the choices he makes on offense. He used to leave himself wide open when he charged in, but now, as mentioned, he attacks and moves, attacks and moves. He blocks punches and moves his head better than ever, too. As with many of these categories, Hatton has had three eras — on the way up and when he had just made it, the middle stagnant years and now, the era where he is trained by Floyd Mayweather, Sr. In the second era, the only defensive maneuver Hatton had was to turn to different angles after finishing an offensive sequence. In the first and third, he showed head movement, too.
What I wonder about is the yardstick by which we have lately been able to measure the defense of both men. In his two most recent fights, was Pacquiao’s excellent-seeming defense exaggerated by how slow David Diaz was and how weight-drained Oscar De La Hoya was? In his last fight, was Hatton’s excellent-seeming defense exaggerated by how scared Malignaggi was of throwing punches for fear of injuring his brittle hands? I think the defensive improvement of both is real. I just don’t know how their respective defenses will look when pitted against offensive machines like each other. These are pretty accurate punchers, Pacquiao and Hatton, who often make good defenses look bad. I suspect no matter how good each are defensively these days, there are going to be a lot of punches landed on both boxers Saturday night. As with offense, I think this category is relatively even.
Trainers And Strategy. Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s trainer, is the best there is right now. He sees fights and how they’ll play out with remarkable foresight that borders on precognition. He’s transformed the once-raw Pacquiao into a substantially complete fighter, and Pacquiao shows constant signs of improvement. Mayweather, Sr. is no Roach, but he’s for real. He guided his son’s early rise, trained Oscar De La Hoya in some of the fights where he was at his best and closed up holes in the defense of Chad Dawson during a brief stint training him. He excels at teaching defense, improving technical ability and enhancing speed. Hatton says Mayweather has taken his trademark ferocity and sharpened it, giving him combination punching and more. Still, Roach is the better overall trainer, and this is just Hatton’s second fight with Mayweather compared to Roach’s career-long alliance with Pacquiao. The trainer edge goes to Pacquiao.
I don’t think Pacquiao’s strategy is going to be much different than it ever is. Asked about his strategy, he wouldn’t say much, but noted, “People know my style — in and out, in and out…” Hatton has said Pacquiao’s predictability is one of the reasons he’ll unseat the pound-for-pound boss. Strategy-wise, I wonder about what Hatton will do. He sounds like he thinks he can outbox Pacquiao, and Diaz — a Pacquiao foe who tried to outbrawl Pacquiao — thinks it’s his only way to win. But given the dynamics of the fight, I have to think he’s better off making it a rough, mauling affair. Hatton’ likely to have the strength advantage. Pacquiao is untested against a body puncher of Hatton’s magnitude. Pacquiao really got taken out of his game earlier in his career against the only mauler-type fighter he’s ever really fought, Agapito Sanchez. Maybe Hatton thinks he can box his way in, and there’s some evidence that he’s capable, even though he’s no Marquez. What gives me pause about thinking he will is that Pacquiao’s speed is going to be huge in this fight, and because he can counterpunch now, Hatton’s going to have to take some serious fire to invade Pacquiao’s personal space unless, perhaps, he makes things messy. Pacquiao says he’s been working on fighting on the inside, but I don’t know if a skill he’s ever had to use, and as sponge-like as he has been in absorbing Roach’s lessons, one fight is a pretty quick turnaround on that fast-food order, to mix my metaphors. He doesn’t have the advantages on the inside that Mayweather did, either. The answer to these strategic issues is arguably THE key to the fight.
Mindset. I just don’t have any serious questions about either man’s fighting heart. I wonder how much better each of them would be if they had fewer regular outside-the-ring distractions — partying for Hatton, being a renaissance man/national icon for Pacquiao — but once they get in the ring, they fight until they have nothing left. They are both immensely mentally strong, and they both have taken this fight incredibly seriously, so even the outside-the-ring distractions are minimal from the standpoint of how they’ve trained. Hatton did get flustered against Mayweather, Jr. when the referee appeared to be partial to Mayweather, and Pacquiao did get flustered against Sanchez. That’s about the only knock you can find on either’s willpower and concentration. Here we have yet another wash.
The Referee. In virtually every Ha
tton fight, the referee is a very important man. For most of his career, he has clinched excessively, he has sometimes hit low, and he’s just generally a rough dude. The only exception was last time out, when Hatton didn’t do any tying up at all. But for the most part, he’s an effective and honest inside fighter. It’s simply those grey areas where he skirts the line between being dirty and being an upright albeit mean customer up close that make the referee important. Ideally, the referee will weed out the worst offenses but let Hatton do his business inside.
The referee for this fight is Kenny Bayless. Some think he is the best referee in the world. I say he’s right up there with Steve Smoger, my personal choice. Bayless managed the Pacquiao-Marquez rematch, and he warned Marquez for low blows but never deducted a point. I thought it was the right call. Bayless also managed the Hatton-Malignaggi fight, and if anything, I thought he should have warned Malignaggi more for excessive holding. I think he’ll let Hatton fight his fight, although he might issue some warnings; Bayless likes to stay out of the way. If anything, Bayless is an advantage to Hatton — there’s no doubt in my mind that Joe Cortez hurt Hatton’s chances of beating Mayweather, Jr. by cracking down on him hard, although Mayweather almost assuredly would have beaten Hatton regardless. This time, I see no such impediments, although Cortez’ history hadn’t suggested he’d do what he did, either.