So continues our marathon coverage of one of the biggest fights of 2012, Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez 4 on Dec. 8 on HBO pay-per-view. Previously: the undercard, previewed; why the fight matters. Next: a TQBR roundtable.
No matter their weight, no matter their age, no matter whether they're fighting at featherweight in 2004 or welterweight in 2012 — no matter how much things change, Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez stay precisely the same for one another. Pacquiao has grown more versatile in the ring, defying his essential nature as an explosive dynamo to become something more nuanced. Marquez has grown more aggressive in the ring, defying his essential nature as a thinking man's boxer to become an action hero like his rival Pacquiao. Since they first met, Pacquiao has become boxing's biggest U.S. star and its best fighter, only to lose both. Yet for all Pacquiao's adventures, every time he comes back to Marquez, the exact same fight is waiting for him.
This is the fight, though, this fourth fight, where I think one thing changes: Marquez finally beats Pacquiao. No more draws. No more disputed split decision losses. The two have been evenly matched for their entire rivalry, but all signs point to Marquez finally being just better enough to get the elusive win.
Usually, here at TQBR we break down the keys to the fight in extensive detail. But so little has changed since last time that it doesn't seem worth it. Pacquiao will still be faster, Marquez will still be the better counterpuncher. Marquez will still be the older man (age 39), Pacquiao will still have distractions outside the ring.
Yet some things are different from that pre-fight analysis. Marquez was a drastic betting underdog for Pacquiao-Marquez III because the previous occasion where Marquez had moved up to 147 pounds, against Floyd Mayweather, he was bullied in a scene something like the playground maneuver where the bigger kid holds his hand on the smaller kid's head, and the smaller kid swings punches that fall a foot short. Instead, Marquez grew into the weight class when he fought Pacquiao there, be it via legitimately training his body for the move or by hiring sketchy trainers to get him there sketchily. The fact remains, Marquez's size was't the liability it was widely thought to be.
Marquez had one fight since he last met Pacquiao, a bout against Serhiy Fedchenko where he looked a little shaky in spots yet won easily. But that might have been a style issue, as Fedchenko wasn't prone to engaging with Marquez as Pacquiao has been. Pacquiao has had one fight, too, a disputed loss to Timothy Bradley where he started strong, like vintage Pacquiao, and either relaxed or didn't have the necessary stamina to close strong.
The trend of recent Pacquiao and Marquez fights, be they separate from on another or in Pacquiao-Marquez III, is that Marquez has been the hungrier of the two fighters. Marquez fights still like a man with a chip on his shoulder, except for in his strange, periodic 12th round disappearing acts that arise from overconfidence. Pacquiao doesn't seem to want to hurt anyone, perhaps because he has struggled to reconcile boxing with his devout Christian faith or because he's just a nice guy. What's more, he never really took chances against Marquez or Bradley, when a little extra effort might have sealed the deal with fewer uncomfortable questions afterward.
In every Pacquiao-Marquez fight, Pacquiao succeeds in the rounds when he disregards Marquez's counterpunching and simply outworks him. Pacquiao's activity has helped win over judges in the three fights, but it comes with a price: Marquez has always been able to rattle Pacquiao with his power, to cut him up, to bruise and lump his face. Going to war like that might make Pacquiao smack his gloves together when he has stretches of zeal for trading punches, but Marquez has always had a way of mitigating those "happy warrior" impulses. Other fighters have hurt him. Marquez hurts him and confuses him. It saps his confidence and his willingness to charge forward into hell.
It's been years since we saw the Pacquiao who once fought with such all-consuming fire. In each fight, he appears to enjoy the endeavor less. He has made a show of taking this fight super-serious this time, of changing up his training habits to emphasize speed over power, but ultimately he's still been the same old half-distracted Pacquiao. Besides, what's more speed going to get him? He's already faster than Marquez. And when he tries to come up with a new game plan, like last fight where he started off as the counterpuncher, Marquez just adjusts again. Even if Pacquiao did have some secret plan to finally beat Marquez, I'm not sure how well it would work based on past strategic shifts. I say Pacquiao beats Marquez definitively if and only if he sells out, throws pain out the window and commits to throwing and landing more punches no matter how much Marquez hits him back.
I'm not convinced Pacquiao is willing to do that. And as Pacquiao's phsyical assets decline, the desire gap between Pacquiao and Marquez grows more important. I also think Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach has a point when he hints that the Las Vegas judges might feel like they "owe" Marquez one, after a few questionable decisions that went the other way. Stylistically, judges tend to favor Pacquiao's preference for coming forward over Marquez's preference for doing damage while backing up, but that slight psychological effect on the judges could be all Marquez needs.
Based on recent form, Marquez — who deserved the victory over Pacquiao last time, too — will finally get the official win. He knows he'll need to be aggressive enough to win over the judges, and unlike the previous two, Pacquiao never hurt him the third time, so the penalty is not the same for Marquez being overly aggressive. And if he gets that win, boxing's greatest rivalry will read in the record books less like a series of close fights where Pacquiao came out on top, and more like a rivalry where each man won, lost and tied. Marquez would, finally, not be an admirable runner-up. He would be the man who finally toppled the most fearsome enemy of his career.