At the MGM Grand: Juan Manuel Marquez Robbed in Vegas

Juan Manuel ‘Dinamita’ Márquez, who can now legitimately claim to be the greatest Mexican fighter of his generation, made use of every last bit of his skill and ring savvy to regale boxing fans with the performance of a lifetime. But the satisfaction that such a performance should have earned him dissolved into disappointment upon hearing the judges’ bizarre verdict. Two days removed from fight night, and the electricity and excitement of having witnessed epicness unfold before my eyes have begun to give way to reflection and analysis. And so anger yields to resignation and a more nuanced perspective.

On November 12, Las Vegas found itself invaded by people from opposite sides of the globe, who happen to share similar cultural circumstances. Both the Philippines and Mexico were once Spanish colonies. Both countries maintain a strong sense of nationalism and community, in part because of the difficulty of being unable to graduate from ‘developing country’ status. Boxing has increased a sense of unity amongst the peoples of these proud nations. The people live through their heroes, dream of relevance on the global stage, and every once in a while, they vicariously enjoy greatness through the means only sports can provide.

The MGM Grand Garden Arena fills early on Saturday, but throughout the undercard the audience remains, for the most part, uninvolved, saving its energy and lung power for the night’s feature attraction. During the preliminary bouts, random chants of ‘Márquez, Márquez’ and ‘Manny, Manny’ slowly rise up, only to quickly die away. As the main event approaches, image and sound interact in shameless emotional manipulation. The crowd responds precisely as the event’s architects dictate, pre-fight protocol orchestrated as a rising crescendo culminating only upon Michael Buffer’s infamous inquiry. Think of it as managed emotional combustion.

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Boxing being the most primal of competitions, this is entirely fitting. The sport combines the intellectual and the primitive sides of the brain. Boxers and trainers plan and study for the opponent, they analyze and dissect styles. But in-ring execution depends largely on physical attributes: brute force and speed bring about violence and hurt; reptilian reflexes keep attackers at bay or serve to counterattack. All the while, fighters feed on emotion, the perennial enemy of reason.

Is it supremely ironic or entirely sensible to find such humanity and authenticity at the gravitational center of Las Vegas? This city of illusions, with the faux classical architecture, the ersatz monuments and the stand-in celebrities bills itself as the ultimate get-away, where visitors are encouraged at every turn to forget where they came from and who they are. As they say, ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.’ Here it’s about the freedom to be something you’re not, to be an illusion, because if you let go of long-held inhibitions and act accordingly, can you really say you are still the same person?

And so Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Márquez showed up at their date with destiny to find out if after more than seven years since their first meeting they were each still the same person. The arena and the audience within welcomed them not with open arms, but with coats of arms in the forms of homemade banners and posters and flags worn as capes. Sports are, after all, the modern version of warfare: chants of support have supplanted the battle cries of old that welded armies together. Soldiers and sports fans alike paint their faces with the colors that represent their people; vuvuzelas blare instead of horns or trumpets. But it takes only the ringing of a lone bell for the two warriors to march forth into battle.

Witnessing a boxing fight in person is entirely different from seeing it on television. Being at the venue provides the chance to look at the entirety of the fighters’ bodies as they go to work. The importance and intricacy of footwork has to be seen live to be truly appreciated. Moreover, the screen is a filter: by looking at something on television, we are immediately detached from it. But watching in person two fighters strike at each other makes the contest painfully real. The punches are hard, the blood is real, the deformed faces and flat noses are gruesome. Boxing, like war, is impersonal when looked at on a screen. You have to see it live to fully acknowledge its unforgiving savagery.

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As the fight transpires, the arena behaves like a creature that lives and breathes, grander than the sum of its parts. It feeds on violence, and it reacts to every move and every punch. The action in the ring precedes by a millisecond the reaction from the fans. The creature can instantly feel when damage has happened, and the reactions –cringing in pain, shouting with joy — extend through the stands like a tidal wave. It’s as if those cheering are directly punching those that agonize over the damage inflicted on their hero. But in a rivalry such as this one, in which the action flows constantly back and forth, the next shift in momentum is never far away.

I remember the tension of the first round emanating from the ring and enveloping the whole arena. Cheers and chants broke out, but unconvincingly, the audience tense and unsure of what was happening or about to happen. The pre-fight shenanigans are a thing of the past. This, round one, happening live in front of you, is real. Mistakes will be severely punished. Distractions are for the foolhardy, the immature. The stakes are higher than ever in this ultimate chess match.

Conversation after round one between a Mexican lady, mid-20s, sitting next to a guy who must’ve been her father:

Her: ‘What do you think? What did you see?’

Him: ‘I’m not sure. He looks strong, but that fucker Pacquiao could knock him out, he’s an oldie.’

During the first few rounds, Márquez seemed cautious, but he was in fact executing his strategy. He had to be careful; he knew from the first two fights that he could not allow himself to be drawn into any reckless exchanges and risk being knocked down again. But while he was there to counterpunch, he also initiated the action when it suited him. Throughout the night, he would land beautiful uppercuts from the outside, followed by left hooks or hard right hands. And when countering Manny, he effectively launched his right cross over Pacquiao’s incoming left.

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As the fight moved to its middle stages, Manny gained confidence, slowly but surely. At times, he drew Marquez into violent exchanges. He appeared to win most of these, but there weren’t enough of them. However, each Manny left-cross elicited a loud ‘Boom!’ from the Filipino fan sitting behind me. It seemed like he saw those left-hand bombs coming even before Márquez did.

In the middle rounds, Pacquiao had the look of someone in deep water, his head barely above the surface. A guy long used to being whatever he wanted to be in the ring was forced to revert to a previous, simpler version of himself. The rounds kept piling up and Márquez asserted himself and his cunning strategy more and more. He took away Manny’s aggression by keeping him honest with powerful counter rights. If Manny was going to win this one, it would have to be just like old times, with the cannon-like left and the left only. Thus, Márquez could comfortably focus on evading and countering that single weapon remaining in Pacquiao’s arsenal. Sometimes the left hands shot wide, sometimes Márquez moved away from them, and sometimes he ducked. Pacquiao kept trying, but he didn’t succeed very often.

Before the championship rounds, a moment I will never forget: sensing Márquez slowly taking over and believing he was pocketing rounds like so many coins spit out by a slot machine, the Mexican crowd started singing, mid-round and a capella, a traditional Mexican song: “Cielito Lindo.” The romantic lyrics and lively melody have nothing much to do with boxing, but the act of singing this song is a nationalistic expression of joy. Mexicans sing “Cielito Lindo” when they feel happy and proud to be Mexican. The strains of the song echoed in the arena like a surreal soundtrack to the unexpected triumph unfolding before us.

By the time the fight was over, Márquez had taken Pacquiao to grad school, and clearly, they both knew it. Márquez looked jubilant, yet satisfied. He hadn’t been knocked down, always a worry with him, and had done exactly what he planned to do. Manny dropped to his knees in his corner, like he does after every fight, to pray and be thankful; but when he rose up, he looked like someone who had just gone through hell. This was telling in itself: if Pacquiao knows one thing, it’s what it feels like to win. But his expression and body language betrayed his feelings that, strangely, yet undeniably, tonight was not a winning night.

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The audience knew too. In the stands, the Mexicans cheered loudest and more often because they had more to cheer about. Their guy landed the cleaner, crisper punches. They knocked back Manny’s face and transfigured it in the slow-motion replays between rounds, drawing applause and cries of joy. The Filipinos tried to get into a winning spirit, but they, like their fighter, got something entirely different from what they expected.

There are reports on diverse media outlets of Bob Arum shutting up reporters who dared pose questions regarding the scorecards at the post-fight press conference. But such are the ways of those who wield power. Boxing promoting companies, being businesses with quasi-monopolistic market power have more in common with fascism than with democracy. You will see the fights they decide to put on and you will like them. You will buy into the hype and you will be thankful you are offered anything at all. If reality interferes with the pre-approved plot, they will interfere in turn to the best of their abilities. And if you dare question their decisions or methods, you will be promptly shut out of the conversation.

Ironically, the big winner on November 12 is Floyd Mayweather Jr. He will surely open as the betting favourite if a super fight with Pacquiao ends up happening next. Having seen Pacquiao’s inability to handle the style of Marquez, Mayweather may be thinking the time is finally right to get in the ring with him. Everyone’s dream match for pound-for-pound supremacy, while not nearly as tantalizing as it was a few days ago, may be closer than ever.

But that is fodder for next week’s and next month’s blogs and chatrooms. Right now it’s still about Juan Manuel Márquez accomplishing something almost no one predicted he could do at this stage of his career. He prepared like never before and overcame age and weight obstacles to put on his greatest performance yet. He mastered Manny’s style and made a statement: regardless of all the accolades, and the multi-million dollar bank accounts, and the entourages, and the celebrity status, Manny is not invincible. And Juan Manuel Marquez is still one of the best in the world, pound for pound. He did himself, and Mexico proud. And not the judges, or HBO, or Bob Arum or anyone else, can take that away from the great Dinamita.

–Rafael Garcia

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