The Stakes Of Manny Pacquiao Vs. Antonio Margarito

So continues our marathon coverage of one of the biggest fights of 2010, Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito on Nov. 13. Before: the debate over purchasing the pay-per-view. Next: the keys to the fight.

This fight Saturday is not the fight anyone asked for from the pound-for-pound best boxer alive. Manny Pacquiao tried, and his promoter Top Rank tried, and network titan HBO tried, to give us that fight Saturday night. Pacquiao compromised — all but caved, really — on the drug testing regime Floyd Mayweather sought but had no rational basis for demanding during the first round of negotiations in the winter. But Mayweather, the next-best fighter of his generation, still said “no.” It’s never been clear why the greedy Mayweather was so disinterested in what would assuredly be the richest boxing match of all time, but cowardice, legal troubles for his uncle-trainer and a rising apathy toward the sport that made him a star are theories, each unflattering in their own ways.

So instead, we get this fight: Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito. It is a poor substitute. Margarito is best known within boxing circles for his role in one of the more prominent scandals in recent years when, one night in 2008, he went from a fan-favorite top-5 pound-for-pound fighter to a man busted with plaster-loaded gloves and knocked out by Shane Mosley. He hasn’t recovered since, as a competitive fighter or as a popular one, although he has his backers and remains popular in his homeland of Mexico.

That alone, though, does not tell the tale of Pacquiao-Margarito. There are other storylines that make this fight what it is.

Pacquiao’s Stardom

Since the last time Pacquiao fought, his star has risen still. He has become one of the two boxers, along with Mayweather, to truly transcend the sport. In the past week, he has been featured on 60 Minutes (the only two segments for the program this Sunday were President Obama and Pacquiao), Jimmy Kimmel Live (where he sang a duet with movie star Will Ferrell) and HBO 24/7 (the popular, critically acclaimed documentary/marketing series). Since Pacquiao fought in the spring, he ran for an won election to Congress in the Philippines. A couple weeks ago, he campaigned for the Senate Majority Leader in the United States, Democrat Harry Reid, at Reid’s request. Before the week is over, we will no doubt see features on Pacquiao in the New York Times and other publications.

Although Margarito’s troubles have been featured prominently on HBO 24/7 — to the program’s credit — Pacquiao’s tale has outshone them in every way. Pacquiao is at a level right now where he could fight anyone and it wouldn’t matter: So long as he keeps winning, so long as he’s a boxer and a congressman, he will be the center of attention. In that sense, any Pacquiao fight is a story merely because Pacquiao’s in it.

But if Pacquiao falls short, per friend-of-the-site severuck below, the stakes are also high. Trainer Freddie Roach has told Pacquiao that if he loses in the ring, he suffers politically back home.

Margarito’s Redemption?

No matter what Margarito does the rest of his career, the night in 2008 where Margarito was busted with those bad hand wraps will follow him around. The only issue is how MUCH it will follow him around.

There are many who suspect that Margarito probably cheated in other fights, besides the attempt to cheat against Mosley. There is a volume of anecdotal evidence to that effect. But because he wasn’t caught red-handed (OK, well, he sorta was), nobody really knows for sure.

Were Margarito to defeat the greatest fighter in the world — even an allegedly poorly-prepared, too-small greatest fighter in the world — it would increase the chances that almost his entire career wasn’t fraudulent. After all, it’s no easy feat to beat the best fighter in the world. It’s not the kind of thing a fraud is likely to do.

Top Rank, HBO and Margarito have been pushing the redemption that awaits Margarito if he wins. The tar of scandal won’t ever be scrubbed clean from Margarito, but beating Pacquiao would go some measure toward his redemption.

Eighth Weight Class

Pacquiao will be shooting for a title in his eighth weight class, junior middleweight, a marketing angle mentioned in the omnipresent commercials for Pacquiao-Margarito. Those commercials are trying to sell you on a historic achievement that would require several asterisks.

First, when it comes to historic accumulation of belts, Pacquiao already has topped everyone who has ever laced up gloves. The only championship belts that reflect anything like the era when there was but one champion per division is the lineal championship, aka the belt won from the man who beat the man who beat the man who first held it (with vacancies that can be filled only by the two best fighters in the division squaring off). Pacquiao has four of those belts in a career that began at junior flyweight. No one else has ever won four. This is a closed question. Pacquiao is the king here.

In order to arrive at eight belts, you have to include those belts and those proliferated by sanctioning organizations like the WBC, WBO, WBA and IBF. That gave Pacquiao five chances per division to obtain a title, as opposed to just one. To his credit, he usually beat very good fighters to obtain the belts, but some of them were obtained against lesser men. For instance, the lightweight belt David Diaz ceded to Pacquiao was a belt he obtained because the sanctioning organization decided to strip the belt from one fighter and give it to Diaz instead. Diaz never won the title; he inherited it. Likewise, Miguel Cotto won his welterweight title by defeating Michael Jennings, as terrible a challenger for a vacant belt as any in years who might not have even been a top 50 welterweight.

The chicanery of the sanctioning organizations really knows no bounds. Such is the case with Pacquiao fighting for a junior middleweight belt. The WBC installed Margarito as its #1-ranked fighter despite the fact that he has a total of one win in the division, against Roberto Garcia, who might not have even been a top 50 junior middleweight, and before that bout Margarito hadn’t fought as a junior middleweight since 2004, and he lost. No rational person would consider Margarito the #1 junior middleweight.

Furthermore, Pacquiao’s achievement is watered down more by a catchweight of 150 (or 151, depending on what you read) lbs. This is a junior middleweight fight, technically, because it’s over 147 lbs. and under 155 lbs. But fighting at a contracted weight below the maximum at least modestly diminished the achievement.

That Pacquiao is fighting at all in an eighth division is impressive (although it is not an unprecedented climb in weight). If anything, that’s the achievement of this fight, not winning a belt that would have been given him by some sanctioning organization virtually no matter who he took on.

Good Fight, Maybe

Given that Pacquiao is one of the most exciting performers in boxing, if not THE most exciting, and given that Margarito was in any number of Fight of the Year contenders prior to his troubles, some expect this fight to be a tremendous brawl.

That perspective depends somewhat on assuming that Margarito’s knockout loss to Mosley, and his subsequent boring performance against Garcia,  were anomalies. For a fight to be truly excellent, it must be competitive. Currently, Margarito is somewhere between a 6-1 and 5-1 underdog. The numbers have been moving in Margarito’s direction a bit more, no doubt in part because HBO 24/7 does a tremendous job of hyping fights as competitive whether they are or not.

But even if he’s not competitive, should Margarito fights more like his old self (coming forward relentlessly, throwing a ridiculous volume of punches) and less like the Margarito who beat Garcia (jabbing from the outside, throwing only a moderate number of punches) then the fight will at least guarantee a sizzling offensive performance from Pacquiao. Pacquiao’s last opponent, Joshua Clottey, largely refused to engage, apparently fearful of being knocked out. It was why Pacquiao was in a rare, somewhat boring bout.

Big Fight

Top Rank’s Bob Arum predicts that more than 1.3 million people will buy the fight and 70,000 will attend in person at Cowboys Stadium. Arum has a knack for overly optimistic assessments. Pacquiao-Clottey did significantly worse than he predicted on pay-per-view, although it still did well, and while the announced attendance of that fight was 50,000, many of those were giveaways; the real number was closer to 35,000, still an impressive number.

Any fight that features Pacquiao is going to do big business. Margarito retains a sizable fan base among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. The fight should do pretty well. Its numbers will suffer at least somewhat from a sizable contingent of hardcore fans that have vowed not to purchase the bout because of their opposition to Margarito, and maybe from a hangover related to the failed attempts to make a bout with Mayweather. But Margarito is a bigger attraction than Clottey, Pacquiao is a bigger attraction now than he was earlier this year and I’d be surprised if the fight didn’t do 1 million buys.

It is commonly argued that Margarito was the opponent who stood to make Pacquiao the most money, which is why he was chosen as a replacement for Pacquiao. That’s not entirely clear, either. A third bout with Juan Manuel Marquez would, I expect, do better. The two men have produced two classic bouts in the past, so hardcore fans would be rabid in anticipation. Marquez carries none of the taint of scandal Margarito carries, so there wouldn’t be any boycotts. Marquez is a bigger name because he fought Mayweather in a bout that tallied 1 million pay-per-view buys and was featured on HBO 24/7. And Marquez has also engendered the loyalty of Mexicans and Mexican-American fans.

This fight with Margarito makes TOP RANK more money. Marquez is promoted by rival Golden Boy. Top Rank hates Golden Boy, and would have to split money with them in a way that it doesn’t when it puts two of its own fighters in against each other.

Long-Term Harm?

Even if the bout does well, it stands a chance of hurting the image of boxing. The image of boxing outside the sport is very important — in order to expand its fan base or do truly big bouts, it needs to attract new viewers. When people think of boxing as “corrupt” or “shady” or what have you, they are less likely to support it. So far, Pacquiao-Margarito hasn’t done the damage I anticipated in its contribution to the bad image of the sport, because of how Pacquiao’s story has overshadowed the sordid Margarito tale.

We’ll see how much the sordid Margarito story becomes a focus this week, since many of the big mainstream news organizations still haven’t weighed in on the fight as they almost certainly will.

Then there’s what comes afterward. Although contributor Corey Erdman has made the case that a Margarito win would be good for boxing, I’m only convinced that it wouldn’t be as bad as it feared. It still would be potentially negative for Pacquiao, one of boxing’s only two transcendent stars, to suffer a loss. And then Margarito would step into the spotlight more than he currently inhabits it, which could lead to a lot of people saying, “Wait, the guy who beat Pacquiao was a cheater?”

Boxing as a sport is not bad at cashing in, making decent money, in the short-term. It’s the long-term planning, the long-term ramifications, that it sucks at. We’ll see if this fight falls under a long-term knock on boxing.

What’s Next

A high-profile win often leads to an even bigger fight. But there is no obvious bigger fight for whoever wins Pacquiao-Margarito.

Margarito would have options for fights that could sell among hardcore fans, but unless a vast swath of Pacquiao’s stardom was conveyed upon Margarito with a win, no fight of his would be likely to do major, transcendent numbers — except a rematch with Pacquiao. There is no rematch clause, but because Pacquiao would still figure as Margarito’s biggest money-making opponent, it would have to be likely should Pacquiao continue his boxing career.

It is not a given that Pacquiao continues his boxing career, win or lose. His mother has insisted he retire, and in his culture, elders’ demands are supposed to be respected. Pacquiao has openly talked about politics as his “job,” and speaks of boxing in the past tense.

Arum has mentioned Marquez as a potential future Pacquiao opponent, but Top Rank and Golden Boy are still likely to hate one another. A Miguel Cotto rematch is another option, but that was a one-sided fight that few want to see again, so it wouldn’t sell very well. Maybe by the middle of next year one of the good young junior welterweights will have materialized as an option, people like Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander, but it’s unlikely to be a bigger fight than Pacquiao-Margarito.

The only fight Pacquiao would almost certainly stick around for is Mayweather. But Mayweather, besides all his other issues with avoiding Pacquiao, now faces a potential jail sentence on charges of domestic violence. The best chance of that fight happening — if Mayweather even can overcome all his problems — is Pacquiao looking lackluster against Margarito, since Mayweather has a tendency of going after opponents who aren’t at their peak.

On the other side of Pacquiao-Margarito is an empty room. And to misappropriate a metaphor from HBO’s Jim Lampley from last weekend, it might be a darkened one.

About Tim Starks

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