Artwork by Gian Galang
The unkind hand of father time forced this fight into being.
When Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao were at the height of their powers, when the rest of the world was ready to dub the bout the saving grace of boxing, the participants didn't want it. Now, on the eve of the Fight of the Century, we wonder not just how the two archrivals will match up, but how these two imposters would match up with the real Mayweather and Pacquiao of five years ago.
The realization came to Pacquiao first, for he was the first to lose. A suspicious split decision loss to Timothy Bradley was forgivable, but a knockout loss to his old rival, Juan Manuel Marquez, did untold damage to Pacquiao's image. The vision of Pacquiao laid out, face down on the canvas is what remains burned into the mind of anyone who saw it or even watched the highlights.
The rumors swirling have Pacquiao plagued by money issues and repeated cramping in the legs, those legs which had enabled him to box with such mobility in his best days. In keeping step with seemingly every successful boxer in history he has found himself with huge bills in backdated taxes, and has taken to fighting in Macau in order to save on the taxes he would be forced to pay in Las Vegas. While he bested Bradley in a rematch, Pacquiao has already fought the best men out there not named Mayweather, and now is forced to stoop to bouts against Chris Algieri and Brandon Rios where he has little to gain.
Mayweather's epiphany seemingly came a little later. Perhaps in the moment at the end of the first round of his most recent bout, against Marcos Maidana. Mayweather pulled his head back from a jab, ready to launch that counter right hand he is so famous for, and instead ate Maidana's right which followed. Mayweather's reflexes, distancing and timing had critically failed him. For the rest of that bout he resorted to jogging around the ring and simply tying Maidana up any time it looked like the two would be forced to exchange blows.
But this wasn't always the case. From 2008 to 2011, these men not only ruled the roost, they obliterated any challenge to their twin thrones; Pacquiao with his speed, power and overwhelming combination work, and Mayweather with his wicked reactions, venomous counter punches, and grey tactics in tie-ups.
In Pacquiao the master trainer, Freddie Roach has chisseled a beautiful two-fisted hitter from a block of solid, dirty power. Pacquiao transformed in the course of a couple of years from a left hand centric power puncher into a complete offensive and defensive combination boxer. And it all began by developing Pacquiao's right hook.
Traditionally, the battle of southpaw versus orthodox—variously called Open Guard and Open Stance—is one of strong straights with the rear hand from both fighters, because the lead hands get in the way of each other. In recent decades, the lead hook has become more important in this kind of engagement, particularly as a counter. Against Ricky Hatton, who repeatedly loaded up his left hook and telegraphed his intentions against both Pacquiao and Mayweather, Pacman was able to time the right hook beautifully.
But Pacquiao's counter right hook is at it's best when it is flying over a jab. It is these short counter hooks which do the real damage to a fighter's equilibrium, not the ones he sees coming. The angles presented when jabbing at a southpaw make the counter right hook akin to being hit over the back of the head while reaching out to grasp something.
Here Cotto is stunned by the counter blow, turns, and is knocked down by the classic Pacquiao low-high combination which follows.
The right hook is a phenomenal building block as well. If the opponent crouches forward as it connects, or keeps his glove tight to his head, the right hook pulls him forward onto the left uppercut. This was the punch which hurt Miguel Cotto time and time again in their bout.
Finally, the right hook when it connects on a guard, or behind the guard, may be hooked onto the forearm and used as a handle. This allows Pacquiao to bring in a left or two, and step out to his right side while pinning his opponent in place or physically pushing them in the opposite direction to prevent them from following.
Pacquiao's jab is notoriously inaccurate, and this is significant only because it is one of the statistics which the men crunching the numbers for the broadcast like to track. When a southpaw fighter and an orthodox fighter are jabbing at each other, their lead hands occupy the same path. There is a lot of what the old timers called “crossed swords”. To land jabs in this kind of match up requires some crafty set ups.
Pacquiao's jab seems to be largely a set up for other things though. He throws it to get the opponent parrying with their lead hand so that the next time he steps in, looking as if he means to jab, he can swing the arm around in a hook and catch them. But more often, Pacquiao likes to convince his opponent in the first round that they are going to have a jabbing match. When they start jabbing back, he's slipping to the outside of their arm and delivering the simultaneous left straight counter. With the opponent's weight moving onto them, these are the ones that really hurt.
Another characteristic of Pacquiao's is that, though he is an outside fighter, he goes to the body with pleasing frequency. The classic Pacquiao high-low-high is a standard in every fight he has. To see that in full effect watch the highlights from his bout with Antonio Margarito. Count the number of times he throws a left straight or hook to the body and then bobs back up with a right hook to keep Margarito honest.
The most significant point to note in Pacquiao's game is his movement. He not only throws combinations, but steps or weaves off of the line of attack after every single one. Even in the upper echelons of boxing, the cardiovascular conditioning combined with mental discipline to pull that off in the later rounds of a contest is as rare as hen's teeth. After every single salvo, Pacquiao will step, and his opponent will have to turn to face him as he comes in again. This cuts down on counter punching opportunities and gives Pacquiao free shots on an opponent. Curiously, this is also why many of Pacquiao's bouts seem poorly filmed—with the camera often directly behind one of the participants, an angle which all good productions avoid using.
I have written extensively on the subject of Pacquiao's use of angles in footwork to change the length and dynamic of his punches in the past in Manny Pacquiao: The Man Who Reinvented Boxing.
The problem is that because Pacquiao chooses to carry his hands low—beneficial for power hitting and reducing the telegraph on blows which would normally begin directly in front of the opponent's eyes—he often gets hit while stepping off. When stepping to an angle the opponent has to reach a little to connect, destroying the power he would get when hitting directly in front of him, but Pacquiao's motion into the strike amplifies its force.
Here Pacquiao is able to turn back and roll with the strike in time, but Cotto landed a good amount of these hooks as Pacquiao disengaged after lighting Cotto up with a combination.
Threading the Needle
Floyd Mayweather, meanwhile, has never worked in the lengthy flurries that Pacquiao favors. Instead preferring to make a good go at a hard shot, then either falling straight into a tie up, or angling off to avoid a return. Through brilliant use of distancing, Mayweather is able to limit exchanges and draw reaching jabs out of his opponents. The kind of one-jab-at-a-time feelers which Mayweather can allow to fall just short and then shoot over the top of them.
Notice how the opponent jabs, it falls short, and as he is stepping in to follow the counter hits him square in the face. I cannot stress enough how perfect a fighter's grasp of distancing must be to pull this off. Once or twice, maybe, but to be able to set these up through twelve rounds is ludicrous and requires constant adjustments.
Mayweather also utilizes a trick that Roy Jones Jr. mastered in order to make this trap more appetizing to the opponent—presenting a false sense of distance. A fighter cannot see his opponent's feet, only his upper body. Mayweather (and Jones) will lean slightly forward at the waist, allowing the opponent to think they are close enough to hit, then lean way back, allowing the blow to fall short and keeping them in perfect distance when they return.
On offense, one of Mayweather's best techniques is a simple one which he has invested countless hours in, while others continue to overlook it. It is one which also had untold effects on the career of the great Sugar Ray Robinson, the body jab. A simple, thudding jab to the solar plexus. It's not a snappy arm-jab, the feet provide the power as Mayweather drop-steps into it. If the aim is right and the step is correct, the opponent feels an iron bar has been placed between he and Mayweather.
Notice how the body jab also sets up the left hook beautifully. Mayweather jabs the body, feints to the body again and immediately leaps in with the left hook. If the opponent's right hand begins to droop for even a moment to deal with the body jab, he puts himself at great risk. Mayweather even suffered a similar effect when Shane Mosley jabbed the body a few times. Mayweather got upset about not being completely untouchable and as he began to deal with the relatively harmless body jabs, a right hand cracked him over the head and put him on wobbly legs. He easily tied Mosley up, of course, and it was soon back to business as usual—but if you can make it work on Floyd Mayweather, you know if has tremendous offensive value.
That left hook off of the body jab brings us to a key point—Mayweather is masterful at making punches look like other punches. In the case of his left hook, he keeps it in tight until the last possible moment, when the elbow flares out and he slaps in a circular punch rather than a straight one.
This gif attracted some attention in recent weeks, notice how Mayweather keeps his elbow flush to his side, turning his shoulders as if to throw the right straight, then allows his arm to fly out, circumventing Guerrero's left hand.
In reality, much of Mayweather's A game doesn't apply as well against southpaws, and that might be something to do with the reason he didn't fight one between Zab Judah in 2006 and Victor Ortiz in 2011. It seemed that Mayweather was looking to test this area of his game, perhaps in anticipation of the Pacquiao match up, when he booked fights against southpaws Victor Ortiz and Robert Guerrero in recent years.
The shoulder roll isn't such a big deal in a southpaw versus orthodox match up, though Zab Judah utilized it extensively in his career in order to land that thunderous left uppercut.
Normally the lead hand in an open guard engagement is kept in the way of the opponent's lead hand, or looking to slap their lead hand away and sneak a short jab through.
But Mayweather has always enjoyed the right hand lead. Against Guerrero and Ortiz he used it beautifully, performing a v-step in and out with his right foot after throwing, perfectly positioning him to weave out and throw the right hand again.
I am not in the business of pretending fighters are perfect. Both men have significant areas of lesser strength and it is worth considering how they match up. For Pacquiao, it is not only concerning how often he takes a punch to land his flurries, and as he steps out after them, it is worrying how easily he is tied up. Mayweather is notorious for what I call “fighting in the grey areas”. You could call it fouling, but that turns it into a moral debate and an argument about what you think of the man rather than a discussion the legitimate threat of these skilfully administered techniques.
Firstly, Mayweather will constantly dive for the opponent's hips after a blow or as they step in. Against Ricky Hatton, Mayweather retreated and used a right hand into a weave for Hatton's hips to land a heavy blow and then immediately tie the brawler up. Once Hatton started using his hands to fight off the clinch attempts, Mayweather would batter him with punches again. When the opponent wants to punch, Mayweather will clinch. When the opponent tries to push him off, Mayweather will get back to punching.
In the first clip, Mayweather lands a right hand and dives straight into a clinch—the old punch 'n' clutch. In the second, Hatton tries to keep Mayweather from clinching and eats punches as a result.
Mayweather will pull down on the back of his opponent's head, then chuck him under his armpit and turn to start hitting again. A classic Archie Moore and Joe Louis technique.
And if an opponent wants to tie up with Mayweather, he's excellent at hitting off the cross face—a very rare ability requiring a pull-and-push double action which most fighters can't co-ordinate effectively.
And, of course, against a particularly aggressive opponent, Mayweather is always happy to project his elbow and allow them to run onto it.
Readers could get upset that I am bringing it up, but frankly Mayweather's work in what could be called the wrestling aspects of the match is what makes him so unique. Adrien Broner can do an amazing Floyd Mayweather impression on the outside, the problem is that when Broner is hurt or tired, he takes a pasting. When Mayweather feels uncomfortable for even a moment, he'll tie up, the referee will eventually break him and his opponent apart, and the slate is scrubbed clean on that exchange.
I have written at length about these tactics used by James Toney, Archie Moore and Floyd Mayweather in Wrestling Practice with Floyd Mayweather.
Against Cotto, Mosley, Margarito and other fighters who you would hardly call clinching specialists, Pacquiao was tied up on every attempt. And this brings us on to referees. Both men have mysteriously—well, not mysteriously, this is boxing after all—found themselves in with referees who rule clinches to their advantage. Mayweather is allowed to grapple for extended periods in his bouts, Pacquiao is rescued by the referee every time his opponents tie up. Such is the difference that the official can have on a bout.
Watch for the tie ups and the shoving, if Pacquiao cannot do anything about them, he stands to take a beating.
An interesting note on Mayweather, the defensive master, is that there is a notable hole in his shell. No guard is completely safe, even if Mayweather's tremendous success in the shoulder roll has you questioning that. The side on stance presents a bladed edge to an opponent who will clumsily struggle to land right hands, bouncing off of Mayweather's shoulder and arm.
What is worth noting is that to a fighter who is working in combinations, the kidney punch is available. The elbow must be flared and the punch must be thrown from close enough in than the forearm doesn't connect on the Philly Sheller's elbow, but it's there. Mayweather's father suffered dozens of these in his otherwise dominating performance against Jose Baret. Technically, it is an illegal blow, but much of what is illegal in boxing is only illegal if that particular referee doesn't care for it. George Foreman brought many men to a stand still with a beautiful right hook to the kidney.
More interestingly is Mayweather's high right hand. When under fire, Mayweather's right hand goes all the way to his temple. This means that there is space underneath and inside of his right elbow which some of his opponents have had good success exploiting. Miguel Cotto is a tremendously dexterous hooker and was able to go inside of and under the elbow alternately at points in their bout.
But more interesting to this fight is Mayweather's getting nailed with the southpaw left hook at a surprisingly high percentage while sharpshooting against Victor Ortiz and Robert Guerrero. If you give importance to all the nonsense about fighters getting dropped in camp, this is also the blow which Zab Judah supposedly dropped Mayweather with, though it's best to not get caught up in that stuff.
It is, and always has been, the left straight of Pacquiao which fascinates me. For so long Mayweather has picked off his orthodox opponents' left hand with his right palm. Against a southpaw left straight, that rarely cuts it. And if you start ducking down to the elbow side, Pacquiao starts setting traps.
The left straight to the solar plexus, which frustrates Mayweather so much when it is simply a jab from orthodox fighters, really might be the keystone punch here for Pacquiao.
As with any fight, there's all manner of other considerations. I don't make predictions because I'd be lying to you if I pretended I have any idea of how any fight will play out beforehand, but it is worth talking about the ageing process of a fighter. They say power is the last thing to go, but that's not strictly true.
From an ageing perspective, expect Pacquiao to get the worst of it. He relies on his blistering hand speed and footwork, but can already be seen to be physically slowing in his most recent bouts. He's still fast enough to beat the breaks off most, but it's undoubtedly leaving him. Meanwhile Mayweather's reaction based counter punching, waiting just on the edge of range as he did against Marquez, is just as attribute based. We saw his judgement of his own speed and distancing critically fail him a couple of times against Maidana.
But Mayweather also has such strength inside the clinch and in the static counter punching. While the pull right hands are a feat of speed and reactions, the shoulder rolls and catch-and-pitch counters are things that can be carried late into a fighter's career with few detriments. Many, like Archie Moore, James Toney, and Jersey Joe Walcott, simply got better with age and practice.
Also significant is the ludicrously large ring that Mayweather gets his opponents to agree to, reportedly up to twenty-six feet while Queensbury rules only allow twenty feet as the upper limit for heavyweights. Pacquiao is not a great ring cutter at the best of times, preferring opponents who will come to him—as perfectly demonstrated by Antonio Margarito. Furthermore, there's the choice of referee, both camps will have their preference and objections, and his attitude to the clinch will have an enormous effect on the outcome.
The Man Who Has Already Won
Finally, it is worth noting that the man who has won the rivalry is already Floyd Mayweather, regardless of whether he wins or loses against Pacquiao. By delaying the fight he has not only allowed Pacquiao to slow down, and to reduce his ask on percentage of the purse, Mayweather has also made millions which he might not have otherwise made.
Most boxing fans don't give a damn about technical clinics, they watch Mayweather because of his undefeated record, to see if someone can “shut him up”, to be there for the first time someone whoops him. He isn't a heavyweight, and he isn't a knockout artist, and that's both of the most important criteria for being a pay-per-view smash taken off the table. The undefeated record, and the old Jack Dempsey / Tex Rickard tactic of fighting foreigners to move two national communities into action, have left Mayweather sleeping atop a Scrooge McDuck-esque pile of millions upon millions of dollars. If he had fought Pacquiao, the toughest fighter available, at an earlier date and had lost, the fights with Canelo, Marquez, Guerrero, Ortiz, and Maidana wouldn't have carried half of the weight. For all the criticism of his behavior outside of the ring, it must be admitted that Mayweather is a genius in business.
Fight of the Century? Not too difficult, we're only fifteen years in. But I would hazard that this stands to be one of the most significant bouts since the Four Kings era of the middleweight division, or even the Muhammad Ali era at heavyweight. When it comes to the two finest fist-fighters on the planet, it is always going to be a case of better late than never.
See more of the Gian Galang's amazing art on his website.
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