The gift and the curse of Pacquiao’s popularity


“I’m not really a boxing fan,” the guy working at Champs Sports in Times Square told me as I tried on a Manny Pacquiao sweatshirt. “But I never miss one of Manny’s fights.”

Anyone else you make it a point to watch?

“Well… Floyd Mayweather,” came the not-so-surprising replay.

I still think we’re going to see Mayweather fight Pacquiao at some point, when Floyd’s good and ready and thinks the deck is stacked in his favor.

For now, we’re left with Pacquiao, a star unlike any we’ve seen in the sport since Mike Tyson. Pacquiao has the crossover success, the mainstream recognition and the reputation of being the best fighter in the world. What you’re seeing now is akin to LeBron James’ “King of All Media” tour before his free agency: Kimmel, cover of Time Magazine, the brilliant 24/7 series. He’s possibly the most merchandisable boxer ever, with a huge display in Champs’ window.

Cover boyThat’s why my new friend at Champs buys all of his fights – Pacquiao is appointment television. He’s everywhere, he’s culturally relevant, and his fights keep you in the loop.

And as a boxing apologist, it makes me uneasy. I’m the sort of person that has difficulty forgetting what lies down the road in order to enjoy what I’m seeing now. As a Duke alum, it’s great that their program is as powerful as ever, but what happens when 63-year-old Mike Krzyzewski calls it quits? That may be 20 years from now, but it still hovers over me.

Similarly, after Pacquiao is gone, which could happen relatively soon, what does the sport have? What bankable fights exist once Pacquiao takes up residence in the oval office – or whatever equivalent they have – in the Philippines? There are talented fighters, but the sport has not done well with creating marketable stars or fights.

It’s why I almost feel like the short-term rush of a successful Pacquiao promotion almost sucks the air out of the sport long-term. His fights market themselves at this point, but I feel as if the sport uses him and a relatively unreliable Mayweather as crutches. We waited all year for Pacquiao-Mayweather to come along and save us, and when it didn’t, you look around and realize that there simply haven’t been very many good fights this year.

For now, we have a fight more compelling than people might have expected, myself included. HBO’s 24/7 series, excellent as usual, paints a picture of a distracted and busy Pacquiao against a driven Margarito, eager to reclaim the status in the game that he possessed before being busted with illegal hand wraps before fighting Shane Mosley.

Pacquiao’s handlers themselves express their various concerns on 24/7 and in the media, insisting that his duties as a congressmen in the Philippines have siphoned his attention away from training camp. In addition, trainer Freddie Roach has long maintained that he never wanted Pacquiao to fight Margarito, who’s considerably bigger.

While these laments somewhat hold water – most fighters don’t leave camp to meet with the President of the Philippines, and Margarito weighed in six pounds heavier than an alarmingly light 144-pound Pacquiao today – it’s hard to believe this is anything other than propaganda, akin to a staged skirmish at a weigh-in.

Pacquiao doesn’t have to be huge to fight his fight, and it’s not like he hasn’t shown the ability to filter through distractions in the past – like in March, when he was running for Congress.

Meanwhile, Margarito is presented as a man on a mission, so driven that he decided only to take money from sponsor Affliction if he won the fight. Margarito will get a purse of 3 million dollars (!), and a victory would go a long way toward proving that a long string of impressive victories aren’t a function of Plaster of Paris hand wraps, while setting up a likely rematch.

In a fight most of us wanted about as much as the flu, Margarito turns out to be the perfect villain juxtaposed against the eminently likable Pacquiao. Margarito’s hackneyed redemption tale was overshadowed by his pathetic mockery of Roach’s Parkinson’s, which was likely a heavy-handed attempt to sell the fight in the “time-honored” tradition of the sport.

At this point, though, Pacquiao sells by himself by virtue of what he has become. 24/7 remains a solid marketing tool, as evidenced by my non-boxing fan girlfriend’s piqued interest in the fight after she watched all 4 episodes tonight. Your mom might even want to see Pacquiao’s fight after watching him sing with Will Ferrell on Jimmy Kimmel’s show.

And she’ll probably see Manny win. While I guess the chance exists that Bob Arum bit off more than he could chew by throwing his cash cow in with a dangerous and vicious Margarito, I see Pacquiao getting off his punch a lot more effectively.

The fact that Manny may end up giving up as much as 20 pounds in the fight is sobering, but Margarito is sort of like a boxing zombie – plodding forward, wearing people down with his reach advantage and sheer power. Pacquiao will exploit Margarito’s lack of defense and foot speed the way Shane Mosley did, and though I don’t think he’ll be able to hurt him enough to stop him, I expect him to win by decision.

And my advice for tomorrow would be to enjoy Pacquiao while you can.

Topping the billboard chartsRetirement talk has begun to float around Pacquiao, who has plenty of money and has bigger fish to fry at this point, with his political career. Just like the Rock with professional wrestling, Pacquiao will soon realize he simply doesn’t need to fight much longer. He has his political career, and probably an acting career. Mayweather won’t be around forever either, due to a mix of apathy and insanity.

Where does boxing go from here? Tough to say. You have lifers like Lou DiBella talking about getting out of the sport because of the inherent negativity. And though there are still compelling fights, you have to get someone to watch something that isn’t Pacquiao, just like the NBA had to figure out in 1999 how to get people to check for a league that no longer involved Michael Jordan.

Which brings us back to Champs, where I pointed out HBO’s Paul Williams-Sergio Martinez billboard across the street to the kid helping me. I told him how much I was looking forward to attending the fight next week, a rematch of last year’s Fight of the Year candidate, and I let him know that he wouldn’t regret checking that fight out.

His voice trailed off as he said, “Yeah, I’ll check it out…”

There’s no way he’ll check it out. But at least because of Pacquiao, he’s watching boxing at all.

For now.


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