Pacquiao's Rise and Boxing's Leap Back Into Mainstream Relevance

Manny Pacquiao is leading the charge to make boxing relevant to the mainstream once again. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Manny Pacquiao is special. Boxing fans know this, and we've known it for years. Even those ancient days of 2008, when Manny started the year still competing in the 130-pound division (he most recently fought four classes above that limit), we knew he was special. At the time, though, he was boxing's secret, fighting and defeating the Hall of Fame-bound likes of Juan Manuel Marquez, Marco Antonio Barrera, and Erik Morales.

Now, Pacquiao is a sensation, a media darling across the globe, and the sort of rarity that hasn't come along in almost two decades, since Oscar de la Hoya turned pro in 1992 after an emotional gold medal win for the United States in the '92 summer games in Barcelona. He's a fighter people like and care about past our little sewing circles.

He's a fighter able to attract the likes of "60 Minutes" and Time Magazine. Manny's merry march into the mainstream has been quiet by boxing's usual mainstream standards in the States. Where Floyd Mayweather Jr. trash-talked and barked his way into some headlines, the troubled man behind the winning smile has been more the story over the last six months, and as we all know, boxing is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. Manny Pacquiao is not infallible or anything, but I don't think there is any questioning that as it stands right now, he's boxing's leading man, the hero to Mayweather's contemptible villain.

How did he do it? By fighting. While Mayweather has mostly barked since 2007, fighting just twice, Pacquiao has been piling up notable wins that at one time seemed unthinkable for him. Hardcore boxing fans will have reservations with one, some, or all of his recent, star-making wins over Oscar de la Hoya (old and drained), Ricky Hatton (overrated), Miguel Cotto (past his prime), Joshua Clottey ("can't win the big one"), and Antonio Margarito (didn't deserve the fight).

But one thing is certain: People like Manny Pacquiao. People care about who he is. And for a boxer, that's become something special by itself. Pacquiao is a guy who represents some of the really good stuff that can come from watching boxing. You see two men go into a ring, and generally one wins, and the other loses. Pacquiao has been winning, and he's been doing so in dominant fashion. But whether it was breaking the face of Antonio Margarito over 12 punishing rounds, knocking Ricky Hatton out in two ruthlessly efficient rounds, or forcing a tired Oscar de la Hoya to quit on his stool, Pacquiao has won with class, dignity, and grace.

Casual fans or the curious may not have watched all of his recent fights, but I bet whenever someone unfamiliar did tune in, they were impressed not just with his clinical thrashings of the opposition, but with the gracious man behind the whirlwind punches. I have watched fights with all degrees of boxing fans and non-fans over the last few years as so many of my Saturday nights have been taken up by the sweet science, and I can say without lying that to a person, man or woman, Pacquiao has impressed them not just in the ring, but with his bubbly personality. Mayweather, on the other hand, has impressed everyone with his skills -- and then they want him off of the TV once he starts talking.

Right now, Pacquiao and his promoters at Top Rank are trying to turn boxing into a mainstream product again. It's admirable, long overdue, and seems well-planned. While most of us (the longtime fans, the enlightened few) feel that Manny's May 7 fight with Shane Mosley is a mismatch at this stage of their careers, the fight is selling. Three hours after the ticket windows opened on Monday, 16,000 seats were sold for the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The fight, carried by Showtime pay-per-view in association with CBS, is going to not just look for mainstream acceptance by trying to get a few plugs on SportsCenter, but with an aggressive campaign designed to sell the fight to those who don't yet know they're big fans of Manny Pacquiao and of boxing. It's everyone's hope that the salesmanship is effective. Given Manny's track record, I think you can be positive about this scenario.

This has not happened overnight, though in a way it seems even to us like it has. One day we all expected the usual HBO "24/7" treatment leading up to the big night, and the next day the boxing business in the United States turned damn near upside down with the bust-down-the-door announcement that Showtime and CBS had gotten into the main event game.

Boxing is changing. The trick now will be to sell Manny-Mosley, which seems off to a good start with the early ticket sales being stunningly successful, and then to infiltrate that potential new fanbase with more and more fighters. There's no reason the world can't get to know and love many of the fighters in the sport. There are a lot of great stories in boxing that I think would interest the general public. It's a colorful sport with roots that go deep into American culture.

The sport faded for a good while. There were even the fools, from Joe Sixpack to the ESPN talking heads, who would tell you it was dead. We've known better than that, but we also didn't pretend there weren't problems with the sport, or that there still aren't. In five years, we might look back on "the dark years," which may be ending as we speak. If they are, the man up front with the brightest light, leading us out of the cave, is Manny Pacquiao. That 130-pound dynamo from days of yore.

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