(Note: To find out how Manny Pacquiao could beat Floyd Mayweather, click here for part two of this article.)
It's been a long and winding road--and not the pleasant, bittersweet kind that Paul McCartney used to sing about. But finally, we're here. Mayweather vs Pacquiao is upon us at last and, five years past its sell-by date it is still the best fight possible in the sport of boxing.
Breakdown of Mayweather's underrated body punching
And now I find myself faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of devising gameplans to beat two of the sport's most unbeatable fighters. Mayweather's indefatigability is more absolute--obviously. The man has never lost, and he's rarely even looked less than impressive. In 47 fights, he's established himself as the winningest fighter in boxing today. Pacquiao, of course, has losses on his record--three of them via knockout--that render the concept of his vulnerability more concrete. And yet even detractors can acknowledge that Pacquiao was well ahead on the scorecards and firmly gripping the initiative when he was felled in his most recent and most definitive loss, a cold knockout at the hands of Juan Manuel Marquez.
So how in the world can these men be beat? Let's first look at Pacquiao, the man with the scars on his resume, before planning for the unprecedented task of defeating "Money May" in part two. It's the big one, folks. Steel yourselves, and let's dive in.
Conveniently, there are three details that I consider crucial to Mayweather's chances in this fight. To steal an Al Bernstein motif, these are Floyd Mayweather's "keys to victory," in order from least important to most.
3 - Cancel lateral movement
2 - Attack the body
1 - Either lead with combinations, or counter Manny mid-attack
Now let's go through them one by one. You'll find, as we discuss these points, that each and every one of them play together, combining to make up a simple, subtle gameplan perfectly suited to the concise arsenal of Floyd Mayweather, boxing's premiere minimalist.
#3 - Cancel Lateral Movement
If Pacquiao has one skillset that could truly bedevil Mayweather, it's his footwork. Never an orthodox mover, Pacquiao is nonetheless ruthlessly effective with his angles.
Side-to-side movement isn't dangerous in and of itself, but the fact is that, when a boxer moves to the side, his opponent must turn to face him. It is in this moment of reaction, while the opponent turns but before he can set his feet to throw, that Pacquiao lands some of his most devastating shots. For a fighter like Mayweather, who relies on keeping the initiative in most of his fights, he cannot afford to spend all day letting Pacquiao lead him around by the nose.
Riddick Bowe provided a solid blueprint for the cancellation of lateral movement in his first fight with the aggressive counter puncher Evander Holyfield--who in his prime wasn't unlike a right-handed, heavyweight version of Pacquiao.
Bowe stymied Holyfield's attempts to take angles with short, backward steps, circular punches, and preemptive movement. In this GIF, you can see him clubbing the swarming Holyfield with short hooks and uppercuts. When Holyfield tries to roll and step to his right after landing a right hand, Bowe stops him short with a low left hook. When Holyfield tries to circle to his right again in response to a series of hard right hands from Bowe, Bowe stays tight and turns with him, constantly trying to "look at Holyfield's ear." In other words, Bowe ensured that Holyfield couldn't outmaneuver him by making certain that he never lost sight of him in the first place, all while working to keep Holyfield out of punching positions himself.
And when Bowe needed a rest from this kind of ruthless, short-range fighting, he did precisely what Mayweather should do to Pacuiao: tied his man up, caught his breath, and waited for the referee break. Mayweather is unlikely to keep the Pacquiao pace, but if he can stifle his angles and fight only in short bursts, he should be able to keep the bout at his preferred speed and intensity.
#2 - Attack the Body
The body assault will be absolutely essential for Floyd. We'll get more into this tomorrow, but you probably already recognize that Pacquiao's chances in this fight are highly dependent on stamina. That lateral movement we talked about in point #3 requires lots and lots of constant, unpredictable movement. While Mayweather is the king of slow fights, Pacquiao is the kind of fighter who throws everything he can at the opponent to see what sticks.
There's also the fact that Manny Pacquiao's defense is much better than he's usually given credit for. For all the talk of Manny being an offense first fighter, Compubox still has him ranked among the elite when it comes to defense, with opponent's only landing 25% of their punches, compared to Mayweather's 18%, which isn't bad when you consider that Pacquiao often throws upwards of 50 or 60 punches per round.
Pacquiao's defense is effective, but it is limited. He benefits from a tight high guard, and the fact that he rarely sticks around in front of his opponent long enough to be hit. A mixed body attack would defuse the advantages of his approach and render him more hittable over the course of the fight.
To catch punches on his gloves, Pacquiao needs to turn and twist his body, and move his arms to ensure coverage in the right areas. And as fighters like Miguel Cotto have learned, even the tightest guard can't protect you from everything. When the defense is shifted to cover one area, another area is invariably exposed--the forearms and elbows just aren't large enough to cover the entire torso and the head.
Juan Manuel Marquez has always had success attacking Pacquiao's body, but even more so in their third and fourth fights, both of which Marquez won--or should have. And those body shots set up punishing blows to the head for the same reason--if the head shots can draw the arms away from the midsection, then the body shots can draw them away from the chin. More on that later.
Manny's been hurt to the body before--most notably by the vicious liver shots of Antonio Margarito--but fight-ending damage isn't really the point here. Mayweather's a more-than-capable body puncher himself, but the chances of him stopping Pacquiao on body shots are pretty slim. The chances of him hitting Pac's body, however, and consequently slowing the fleet-footed Filipino down over the course of the fight, are much better.
A body attack also plays beautifully into the last point. To borrow a phrase from my Heavy Hands co-host Patrick Wyman, punches such as the left hooks thrown by Margarito above allow a fighter to attack space, rather than a specific target. The circular nature of such a blow, and the fact that it is thrown to the body, rather than the more easily moved head, makes it very difficult to avoid completely. Even if Pacquiao manages to block the punch, as he does several of Margarito's punches in the GIF above, he is trapped momentarily in place by the arc of the punch itself, further hampering his angular movement.
Manny Pacquiao is no longer Manny Pacquiao if he's slowed down and pinned in place.
#1 - Lead with Combinations, or Counter Mid-Attack
This is the single most important factor in Floyd's favor, and the only one that might constitute a change from his usual approach. You see, Floyd Mayweather is often touted as the greatest counter fighter of this era, and as skilled as he is on the counter, that's really not his style. Mayweather is an out-fighter of the classic mold. More Muhammad Ali than Archie Moore, so to speak--neither of whom Mayweather has surpassed, no matter what he tells you.
What this means is that Mayweather is at his very best leading, not countering. Pot-shotting with his jab and lead right, leaping in and out with this left hook--he's a sharpshooter, and a crack shot at that.
Thing is, Pacquiao's a very skilled counter puncher himself. Opponents who chase him are almost guaranteed to run into either his right hook, affectionately nicknamed "Manila Ice," or some tightly circular iteration of his dynamite left hand.
He's also a superb combination puncher, another area in which Mayweather is sometimes lacking. In prolonged exchanges, Pacquiao does exceptionally well, thanks in part to the sheer variety of his offense, and those unpredictable angles we saw at the start of the article.
So how does Mayweather avoid these treacherous waters? Well, sticking to his roots is one way. From the outside, his feet moving beneath him and his straight punches flicking out like two twin cobras, Mayweather is very difficult to hit. As you can see in the GIF above, Pacquiao has been outboxed before, most notably in his third fight with Marquez. Like Marquez, Mayweather can avoid Pac's counters by not overcommitting on his punches. Marquez's short jabs left him balanced and stable on his feet, unlikely to run into the Pacquiao's sneaky hook.
Mayweather doesn't typically throw long combinations, but he would do well to put at least two or three punches together at times, both to dissuade Pacquiao and to break open that defensive shell as we saw in the last section. Again, it was Juan Manuel Marquez who used this tactic brilliantly in he and Manny's fourth contest, establishing the left hook to the body and then using the level change and weight shift associated with that punch to distract Manny from a beauitful overhand right that put him on the canvas in the third round. We're unlikely to see anything as dramatic as this from Floyd, but occasional combinations, mixed with his usual supply of pot-shots, will aid his overall goal of slowing Pacquiao down and forcing him to think about Mayweather's intentions, rather than the other way around. He who holds the initiative wins the fight.
There will be times, however, when Mayweather must counter Pacquiao. If Marquez's knockdown of Pacquiao is an indication of the value of leading with combinations, then surely the knockout from that fight is a good example of the kind of counter with which Pacquiao tends to struggle.
When Mayweather counters, this is how he needs to do it. His normal approach is to defend a committed punch, often with his go-to shoulder roll, and then to counter. Doing so would only give the dynamic Pacquiao a chance to move away or initiate further offense. And as we noted above, engaging in an exchange with Pacquiao is a very dangerous proposition.
The counters that hurt Pacquiao are the ones thrown during his attack. The moment Pacquiao commits his weight to the rushing jab, Marquez slipped and plastered him with a right hand, taking advantage of Pacquiao's single-minded offensive focus, and using the Filipino's relentless forward momentum to his advantage. Mayweather is not usually the type to counter mid-attack--which is the main reason I call him a boxer rather than a counter puncher--but he would be well-advised to stick Pacman with a few interruptive punches come Saturday night.
So, that's the sum of it. As you can see, all of these tactics are merely pieces in a larger puzzle. By canceling Pacquiao's lateral movement, he will help to slow his offense. The body shots he can use to achieve that goal will slow Pacquiao further, while setting up potentially damaging shots to the head. And the more of those sniper shots Mayweather can land, the more doubt he can instill in the mind of a man most opponents have found to be absolutely fearless.
For an in-depth, technical breakdown of Mayweather-Pacquiao, check out this week's episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. Hosts Connor Ruebusch and Pat Wyman give their three keys to victory for each fighter, and discuss the style matchup between these two great boxers.