At their respective peaks, the appeal that Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. shared wasn’t merely that they were the best in the world. It was that they were so brilliant at what they did, they went beyond “doing something as well as a human being can do it” to “almost superhuman.” When Pacquiao treated Ricky Hatton like a grand piano he shoved off the roof of a building, his speed and power were shocking, even frightening. And when Mayweather stopped Diego Corrales, he did so in a performance that was the boxing equivalent of pitching a perfect game.
One of the things that made the thought of those two fighting so drool-worthy once they stepped into the same welterweight division as one another, was that, at the time, both looked unbeatable by anyone, absent someone shipping a time machine into the past to, say, someone or the other who went by the name “Sugar Ray.” Any other opponents would have been massive underdogs. And against each other, we’d have found out what happened when unbeatable met unbeatable — like the best answer to the paradox about an irrestible force vs. an unmovable object, which is, if there is such a thing as one, there can by definition be no such thing as the other.
After Saturday, when Mayweather had a tough fight against Miguel Cotto that he won but made him look more like a spectacular human boxer than someone favored by Olympian gods, the dynamic has shifted. Pacquiao, too, is coming off a fight that made him look decidedly human, a near-loss to old rival Juan Manuel Marquez. Mayweather and Pacquiao are still the best in the world. It’s just that, now, they are vulnerable — which changes how we ought to view them going forward, and how we ought to view them in relation to each other.
It is perhaps premature to declare Mayweather especially vulnerable. He said after the fight that he had a hand injury, and was also sick the final week before the fight. That could be an exercise in excuse making, but it might explain what happened Saturday. And perhaps Cotto is to blame. He did, after all, deliver arguably the best performance of his career. He slowed after the middle rounds, did Cotto, but he certainly wasn’t the overall faded boxer some feared he would be after a career of exceptionally brutal fights. When world class fighters put on world class performances, they’ll give even the ultra-elite of the sport an authentic challenge.
Whatever the reason, Mayweather’s wings couldn’t keep him hovering as high as usual Saturday. Opinions vary to the degree Mayweather beat Cotto, with the Los Angeles Times’ Lance Pugmire going so far as to declare Cotto the winner by one round, and the occasional stray boxing writer (yours truly, for instance) catching hell for scoring it a draw; some had it as wide as the judges did, but many more considered it pretty to very close, in the order of eight rounds to four for Mayweather or even seven to five. While CompuBox is a tool for measuring the sport rather than the end-all, be-all, the punch numbers (as friend of the site beccapooka pointed out) were “unheard of” for a Mayweather fight, which tells part of the story about Mayweather’s sudden humanity. Mayweather routinely lands close to 50 percent of his punches, but was at just 26 percent against Cotto, while Cotto was a relatively close 21 percent. Mayweather is a cool customer under pressure, but his body language, for the first time I can remember, was bad during stretches of the fight. He even had to bleed his own blood.
Or perhaps the display of humanity isn’t very sudden. Mayweather is 35, and is fighting once a year these days. Even an athlete with the genes and work ethic of Mayweather is bound to slow down, and this was the third fight in a row — Shane Mosley, then Victor Ortiz, now Cotto — where Mayweather was more stationary. His fans will say that this is a purposeful maneuver, designed to create more exciting fights. But this is the same boxer who has spent his career mocking the very concept of exciting fights where both men get hit a ton, going so far as to turn his nose up at classics like Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo II. Mayweather is still exceptionally fast. But I doubt he’s more inert these days by choice. And a jail stint that begins in June isn’t going to do him any favors on that account, either.
The first exhibits of Pacquiao’s humanity also didn’t just surface against Marquez. From the time he moved up to lightweight against David Diaz to the time he beat Cotto himself, Pacquiao was virtually untouchable; in the exception to that trend, I fully buy the notion that Pacquiao willingly took Cotto’s punches early in that fight so he could test his punch resistance against a bigger opponent. Some saw vulnerability in Pacquiao against Joshua Clottey; more jumped on board when he faced Mosley; and the bandwagon about Pacquiao’s decline got pretty full after Pacquiao met Marquez last fall.
This return to Earth for boxing’s leading men comes with a tinge of sadness. They might never fight one another, and now if they do, they will be meeting at a time when unbeatability isn’t on the table. That needn’t be all bad. When Pacquiao’s slide begin to rear its head, I lost interest in Mayweather-Pacquiao. But now that Mayweather might be showing a hint of his own decline, Mayweather-Pacquiao becomes once more a potentially competitive proposition. Even better, it might now be a more thrilling contest than it would’ve been two years ago, just in terms of sheer action potential. We’ve seen this phenomenon before, when two boxers who have crossed over the hill delivered better fights than they were otherwise. The “Thrilla in Manila” benefited from older and slower versions of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier being forced to slug it out to win. Ali-Frazier III’s legacy isn’t threatened by Mayweather-Pacquiao, of course, but there are parallels.
And here’s the other good thing about this phenomenon. Now that Pacquiao and Mayweather have both had their vulnerability exposed, it’s easier to imagine someone besides each other beating them. That adds spice to other match-ups. Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley next month already has this new sheen in a fight that might otherwise draw yawns from hardcore fans — Bradley fights in an ugly style and is widely unknown outside that hardcore audience, but there is drama in the potential that Pacquiao might actually (gasp!) lose.
We might have to live with Pacquiao and Mayweather never fighting each other. But what happened Saturday night made that easier to swallow.