I want to put this in no uncertain terms: Manny Pacquiao is the fighter who should be remembered as defining this generation of boxers.
Yes, he's lost a couple recently, and no, he's not undefeated. His incredible winning streak beginning in 2005 was broken, but you have to pick your fights really carefully if you want to stay undefeated forever (and use that fact alone to sell tickets to fights).
No, I hope that Manny Pacquiao will be remembered for the paradigm shift in strategy and technique which he brought to the boxing world. There has never been a southpaw as adept in the use of angles to create punching opportunities as Pacquiao. There might not have been any boxer to date with the same understanding and discipline in footwork.
Pacquiao demonstrating his perpetual foot motion. He keeps turning Bradley and improving his ring position.
In reality though, ten years from now we will probably see his incredible results written off as a purely athletic feat rather than a strategic or technical one, and nothing will change at all.
So What's New?
Manny Pacquiao is something special. A southpaw volume puncher with the footwork and angling of an orthodox fighter who has had to learn every trick in the book. Why is that so strange?
Well, southpaw fighters are born into the fight game with a natural advantage. Their left hand—the one which is easiest to sneak through the guard of an orthodox fighter—is their power hand. All they need do is step their lead foot outside of the opponent's lead foot, bring their left shoulder in line between their opponent's shoulders, and throw a left speed ball at the opponent's chin, chest or guts.
An orthodox fighter spends his entire career fighting and training with other orthodox fighters. He is accustomed to stopping shorter, weaker left jabs with his glove, and circling towards the opponent's left hand to mitigate the threat of their right. Everything that an orthodox fighter is most practised in only serves to make him an easier mark for the southpaw left straight.
And that was, for the most part, as far as we had come. The first southpaw to have any real success in boxing was Lew Tendler, who gained a fearsome reputation for his great left hand and little else. Today, most southpaws are all about using the lead hand to back hand jabs and slap at the opponent's lead hand, then lower the boom with the powerful rear hand.
You get the occasional southpaw who has a great southpaw right hook (an inconsistent but surprising punch) but many of them lack dexterity in their left hand, like Victor Ortiz. We're a hundred years on from Lew Tendler, and most of our southpaws are still minimalists in the amount of tools they bring to the table.
To make out that Pacquiao was a complete break with this trend would be a lie. Pacquiao was the epitome of a one handed southpaw. He was awkward to deal with, had a shotgun left straight, and knocked a lot of people out. But he was still just another one trick pony.
Once he started to fight the calibre of fighter who could actually deal with that, Pacquiao started having trouble. Enter Freddie Roach and the so called Manila Ice.
This was the name that Roach gave to Pacquiao's lead hook... after he taught Pacquiao to use it of course. Roach had an excellent lead hook during his time as a boxer, and had learned under Eddie Futch who trained dozens of great hookers (Joe Frazier being the most glaringly obvious example). The mechanics of the lead hook are exactly the same on a southpaw but the important point in transposing the hook is its context.
Roach taught Pacquiao to look for opportunities to land his right hook, not just to use it in flurries as a space filler between left hands. Against Erik Morales, particularly in the third fight of their trilogy, Pacquiao's right hand looked sublime. As Morales circled repeatedly away from Pacquiao's well publicised left hand, he ate an unexpectedly stiff right time and time again.
Each time Morales looked to step outside of Pacquiao's lead foot, the right hook did him in.
But what really changed Pacquiao was that he and Roach didn't keep his new power right in reserve for when his opponent was fleeing from the left. They built a game around setting it up, placing it and creating opportunities to land it as he would for his left straight. And this is where we start to talk geometry...
Power as a Relationship Between Objects
If you want to hit someone hard, you want to place them in front of your punching shoulder. You want them circling towards that side, or your want to get out to the side of them (accomplishing the same sort of angle). Want to hit someone with your right? Get them circling into it or move out to your left.
Shortening the path of the technique in this manner creates a shorter flight time and allows one to punch through the object rather than at it.
You can play around with this on a heavy bag – start swinging it from side to side, then try your left hook as it swings towards your left, feel like a Greek god, then try the same left hook when the bag is swinging right. You will notice a vast difference in the impact. .
Real life punching power is a relationship between two fighters, not simply something that an individual possesses. One man can possess strength and speed, giving him enormous potential power, but if he hits his opponent moving away, that is halved.
The Basic Angles
To land that nap inducing left straight, Pacquiao would need his opponent circling towards it (which, knowing about it, they obviously wouldn't), or he would need to step out to his right, placing the opponent in front of his left hand.
Watch any southpaw with a good left hand to see this in action. But to see it with more polish, watch his left straight against Oscar De La Hoya. Pacquiao steps his lead foot outside De La Hoya's, gets his left shoulder on De La Hoya's center-line, and lands the left straight.
Often he would do this while checking De La Hoya's left hand, and then circle out. The circling out took Pacquiao away from counters, but also allowed him to follow up with another combination, while De La Hoya was turning.
Notice that Pacquiao has lined up his left foot and shoulder with De La Hoya's centreline. His head is outside of De La Hoya's lead shoulder in relative safety.
Notice the exact same slight angle being used, with or without pivoting out afterwards, in this video. HBO's commentary team quipped that this bout was “Death by 1,000 left hands."
Here is a nice instance of that same pivot in action again against Miguel Cotto. Angles are not an offensive or defensive practice, they are both. Both the left straight and the pivot are set up by stepping the lead foot outside of the opponent's.
Pacquiao pivots off, then comes back in as Cotto turns to face him.
With his improved right hand, fighting Pacquiao is a “pick your poison” scenario. Pacquiao's opponents are still a lot more willing to give him the right hand. The left hand is still their main concern and against a southpaw, the lead hands create “crossed swords” and get in each other's way most of the time (hence Pacquiao's famously inaccurate jab).
When opponents begin the standard jabbing while attempting to step outside of his lead foot (in hopes of landing their right straight as a mirror image of what Pacquiao would do with his left) Pacquiao's counter hook flies over the top.
More often than that, though, Pacquiao will use his left straight to step his left foot up almost level, then step out to his left with a right straight. It's a power jab which snaps the opponent's head back if they come in on him after his left straight. It places their head near his right shoulder so that he has amplified power, and it allows him to escape with his side step to the left after the combination if he wants to. Here's a textbook example from his bout with Antonio Margarito.
Notice how on both occasions Pacquiao gets out to his left and snaps Margarito's head back with a nice rising punch.
The 1-2-1 (jab, left straight, jab) while getting out to the left is a staplePacquiao combination. While he doesn't take the power angle (to his opponent's left) with the left straight, the weaker left straight sets up a powerful right jab or hook. This brings us on to one of the truly beautiful wrinkles in Pacquiao's game.
Here it is against Timothy Bradley.
Here is a quick diagram demonstrating the difference between the southpaw right hook as a counter to the opponent's movement to outside the southpaw's lead leg as against Morales (left), and as a lead from inside the opponent's lead leg as in the above gifs of Bradley and Margarito (right).
The Reverse Angles
The angles we talk about in boxing work in two ways. You can shorten the punch, allowing you to punch through the target and normally hit harder. Or you can lengthen the punch, which obviously makes it slower but is pretty unexpected and can loop around opponents' guards.
Pacquiao's left hand is at it's most volatile when his opponent is in front of his left shoulder – in the sights of the cannon as it were. If Pacquiao's opponents see him getting outside of their lead foot they know it's coming.
Here's the beauty. Pacquiao can step the other way. He can hit equally well with both hands from both sides of the opponent, and while moving to those positions.
Take Pacquiao's beautiful long left hand against Ricky Hatton. Notice that Pacquiao steps out to his left, lengthening the path of the left hand, but loops it around where Hatton's right hand should be. It's longer, and slower, but it's almost completely unexpected. Pacquiao had been landing his right hook as he stepped in that direction all night. He changed it up and landed a full left handed swing with nothing in the way.
Here's a quick diagram depicting the difference in length between the southpaw left hand thrown from outside the opponent's lead leg (left), and from inside (right):
Pacquiao loves to get to this angle to fire his left hand nowadays. He does it especially well along the ropes. Notice below how against both Hatton and Cotto, rather than pinning them to the ropes and going in head on, he steps off to his left and lands a hard left as they turn.
But Pacquiao will also use a left straight to step inside the lead leg, setting up his right. In every single round which Pacquiao fights, he will land or attempt a snappy left straight while stepping to the left with his left foot. It's not always a power punch, but it's the complete opposite to the expected step to the outside and pivot. It has come to be one of those movements that you could see in silhouette and know that it was Pacquiao performing it, so familiar is it to those who have seen him fight.
Notice how Pacquiao brings his left foot up with his left punch, squaring up and placing himself to the left, ready to land his right hand.
Here he combines his left with a step to his left side, turns Hatton around, then steps to the inside of Hatton's lead foot again and lands a right hook which wobbles the Brit.
It's the same with Pacquiao's right hand. He can get out to his right side, lining up his left, and as the panic sets in and the opponent starts trying to correct the way that they trained for, he'll throw in a right hook.
Using that same example of a brilliant left straight against De La Hoya, Pacquiao follows with a long right hook from outside of De La Hoya's lead leg, looping it around De La Hoya's guard.
This, more than anything, is why I rate Manny Pacquiao as one of the finest boxers I have ever seen. He could have been a great fighter with just the standard southpaw tropes, but he learned every trick an elite orthodox fighter would be forced to, transposed them to his southpaw stance, and confused the hell out of everyone he fought.
Where most southpaws can get by creating the one angle for the one punch, Pacquiao can and does angle off to either side, with or to set up a punch from either hand.
While I have poured praise of Pacquiao's method, we must talk about the first Bradley match briefly. While the match obviously displayed some questionable judging (thank you, Keith Kizer for your hands off approach to dealing with corruption and incompetence over the last decade), Bradley did show some effective answers to Pacquiao throughout.
Pacquiao, like any fighter, is still limited. He is a movement-based fighter who likes to be followed. It's part of why he's done so well against men who dwarf him. He gets them to chase, he hammers them with a combination and he angles off before they can touch him.
What Pacquiao is not good at is cutting off the ring. When he is forced to chase, Pacquiao throws himself off balance with his left hand. He can get extremely wild, as he did when he got knocked out by Juan Manuel Marquez who was floundering at the time. If you chase a good counterpuncher, you're normally going to get hurt.
It all comes back to balance. When you start throwing your head forward, past your hips, you have a long way to bring your hips under you or pull your head back before you can start moving your feet in any direction other than wildly charging forwards.
Bradley didn't chase Pacquiao. He didn't play the part of the bigger man, and he didn't try to fight too much. When he did stand in front of Pacquiao, the combinations came in and Bradley got lit up. What Bradley did, and what his corner told him to do, was step back when the left straight came in.
Pacquiao cannot cut off the ring at all well, so Bradley almost always had room to step straight backwards. When he did, Pacquiao would often miss, overextend, and eat a counter. They weren't always great counters, and Pacquiao's offence seemed more productive over the course of the fight, but he was showing a chink in the armour and exploiting it.
I don't know how many more good fights Pacquiao has in him. His calves, which obviously play a huge role in his mobility based boxing, have been a cause for concern for a while, and he seems to have slowed down a little. But he put on a boxing master class against Brandon Rios at the end of last year, with none of the wildness which plagued him through his previous two bouts.
This weekend we get to see if Timothy Bradley can stick to his game-plan more effectively, adopt a new strategy, or walk away as a curious but forgettable footnote on Pacquiao's legacy.
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