For this viewer, there was something more unsettling than exhilarating seeing Manny Pacquiao reduced to a quivering fawn courtesy of Juan Manuel Marquez' utopian right hand. Marquez earned his career-defining triumph in a classic trial by fire. But there was a somber pall cast as we witnessed the end of the Pacquiao era and a fighter we've gotten to know so well through 24/7 and other mediums, one who conveys himself as an affable gentleman, disposed of so mercilessly.
Another dagger came in the news that Larry Merchant, HBO's resident poet-Shaman, will no longer be functioning in his regular role, perhaps to return for guest appearances on special occasions in the future. While I can't wait to hear which of the latest modern mediocrities reminds Max Kellerman of Tommy Hearns, Merchant's exit leaves Shaq-sized twenty-threes to fill in his wake. Kellerman, with youthful exuberance and generally solid insight, falls far short of the Merchant standard. Honestly, who doesn't? Merchant melded blunt honesty with deft wordplay and the literary flourish of a once highly-acclaimed newspaperman. He never pandered to the audience, fighters, promoters, or his broadcast partners. If a fight turned into a constipated waltz, Merchant found ingenious ways to decry it as such. Merchant never sold fights, he just called them.
As times changed, great fighters fought less frequently and careful matchmaking became the new norm. Merchant evolved into the de facto voice for a growing legion of cynical fans. His post-fight interviews turned into grand inquisitions as he badgered fighters with cautious styles and belittled the selection of inferior opponents. He famously declared to a hostile Floyd Mayweather Jr.: "I wish I was fifty years younger, and I'd kick your ass." These tense encounters were a minor part of Merchant's contributions. Pre-fight soliloquies captured the essence of boxing's transcendent capabilities. In a sport with far greater implications than balls going through nets and baskets, Merchant gave the fight game the gravitas it deserved.
Merchant had a mischievous sense of humor. One week after Pacquiao's dubious loss to Tim Bradley, Merchant quipped, "If you need a conspiracy, Pacquiao went into the fight having revealed that he gave up womanizing and gambling for religion. And how do you think that went over with the Gods of Las Vegas?" Merchant had no use for the bogus sanctioning outfits with as many meaningless trinkets as their sordid imaginations allow them to concoct. He had no desire to witness glorified executions that result from the dastardly machinations between championship racketeers and the opportunistic promoters who ennoble them. In an era of masturbatory commentary designed to promote brands and cajole viewers, the curmudgeonly iconoclast never shied from scathing critiques of boxing's most powerful entities.
Merchant favored fighters who were willing to get hit and take chances to close a show. He criticized fighters cruising to lopsided points wins over hapless foes (see Mayweather-Carlos Baldomir). But Mayweather wouldn't have to scour the archives long to find countless examples of Merchant praising him as a once-in-a-generation talent and the best fighter in the sport. Merchant understood the gap in class between Mayweather and his would-be rivals as much as anyone. Going into the biggest event in boxing of the past decade, Mayweather's 2007 bout with Oscar De La Hoya, Merchant didn't mince words: "By all that is holy in boxing, Floyd Mayweather is supposed to win."
It is fitting that Merchant's retirement comes on the heels of a brutal destruction of one of the generation's best. Pacquiao embodies the style that Merchant fancies, unrelenting offensive aggression with modest regard for self-defense. Smelling the blood of a wounded Marquez, Pacquiao launched himself face-first into a terse right-hand bomb. In an instant, the deified icon and world-class athlete became a fragile human being like the rest of us. Inconceivable words flashed through our heads: "Is Pacquiao dead?" In the form of that perfectly timed counter, Marquez delivered a stark reminder that more than legacies are at stake when two men square off in the ring. Pacquiao was soon alert and smiling, in great spirits considering he had been violently stripped of his consciousness just moments before. The image of Pacquiao lying prone, twitching ever so slightly, lingered on.
The boxing community has several types of naysayers. There are honest cynics, in the vein of Merchant, who call bull when it's warranted. Then there are overly negative, know-it-all, revisionist historians who somehow manage to mold every happening into evidence that supports their entirely subjective, and often wrong-headed, worldviews. Pacquiao's knock-out brought out the latter. Simple physics suggest Pacquiao's fourth fight with Marquez has no bearing on what transpired in three past fights, nor does it have any relevance in assessing what a mythical Pacquiao-Mayweather fight would have resembled. Yet one needn't have looked far to find assertions that, finally, proof was here. Apparently it should be accepted doctrine that Marquez clearly won the first three fights and Mayweather was always Pacquiao's superior and would have dispatched him with little effort.
When Pacquiao pounded Oscar De La Hoya into submission, he became a genuine superstar and boxing forums were inundated with well-intended yet somewhat ignorant opinions from rabid, mostly ethnic-based fans, there not to engage in reasoned discussion but to extol their national hero in nothing short of superhuman terms. Pacquiao eventually emerged as a foil for Mayweather. Mayweather, a supreme technician who uses the science of boxing to its' maximum effect, is a natural hero for "hard-core" boxing fans. They claim to recognize Mayweather's subtle genius in ways less knowledgeable fans don't. Many a boxing blog's comment section devolved into a cyber battlefield for these factions, the pro-Mayweather aficionados, certain of their righteousness and eager to educate, and the Pacquiao fans, blinded by nationalistic pride and unconditional love.
I always presumed Mayweather would have beaten Pacquiao. That was my opinion. But the Mayweather fans, some of them posing as objective journo types, irk me a lot more than the Pacquiao contingent. My self-confidence being intact, it doesn't really perturb me to read statements from anonymous internet commenters along the lines of "Pac-man is best fighter of all time!!!" despite my strong disagreement with that statement. I do, however, take umbrage with the Mayweather partisans who cloak themselves as impartial jurists, snobbishly denigrating and dismissing one of the best fighters of the era.
Pacquiao's spectacular defeat did nothing to erase what he accomplished prior to that. His incredibly classy response in the aftermath, along with how he handled the preposterous decision against him in the Bradley fight, showed strength of character to match his incredible run in the ring. If you're a Mayweather fan, so bothered by the irrational and often irritating Pacquiao loyalists to the point it's colored your opinion of Manny, then by all means, rejoice. The curtain's been pulled back and a charlatan exposed.
But for anyone actually interested in recording some kind of objective history when it comes to Manny Pacquiao, in the tradition of great truthsayers like Larry Merchant, we should be celebrating the reign of one of boxing's best fighters and mourning his tragic downfall at the hands of fate and Juan Manuel Marquez.