By Eric Raskin
The fight ended. The decision was read. And then the questions started flying.
Boxing fans have eternal reverence for the sport’s past, but there’s nothing they love more than fantasizing about the future. Within moments of any major fight ending, the attention shifts immediately to those two little words: “What’s next?”
Nobody knows yet what’s next for Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez following their controversial 12-rounder on Saturday night at the MGM Grand. Both men deserve a vacation, and neither is likely to sign any contracts or make any announcements before the year is out. But we have some preliminary thoughts on what might be on each fighter’s radar:
1. Marquez again: Freddie Roach said after his man had his hand raised amidst a storm of boos that as reluctant as he is to try a fourth time to solve the Marquez puzzle, he feels a certain obligation to do just that. Despite going 2-0-1 against Marquez, Pacquiao still hasn’t beaten him convincingly. He has plenty to prove in a fourth fight. And you know for damned sure that it isn’t going to be boring.
2. Floyd Mayweather: Yes, Pacquiao-Mayweather lost some luster on Saturday, and no, it no longer feels to the general public like a pick-’em fight. But it’s still probably twice as big financially as any other bout in boxing. There is incentive to get it done. The question is whether Pacquiao and his people now feel, as most of the public does, that it’s a fight he’d likely lose.
3. Timothy Bradley: The undefeated junior welterweight belt-holder doesn’t bring the cachet of Mayweather or Marquez, but he’s respected throughout boxing and was being lined up as a possible spring opponent for Pacquiao if the Marquez result had been more definitive. He’s still out there as a Plan B if for some reason neither of the two Plan A’s work out.
4. James Kirkland: If the goal is to get Pacquiao’s momentum back on track, then Kirkland just might be the perfect opponent. The Texas slugger is red hot after a stirring win over Alfredo Angulo, and he’s a bigger, slower fighter, just like the recent opponents against whom Pacquiao could do no wrong. There will be some who fall into the “Kirkland is too big and strong” trap, putting Pacquiao in position to prove them wrong and dazzle them in a way he couldn’t against Marquez.
JUAN MANUEL MARQUEZ
1. Pacquiao again: Marquez wondered aloud after Saturday’s fight whether there’s anything he can do to win over the judges against Pacquiao, and he has every right to be frustrated. But if a lucrative fourth opportunity to get that elusive win over the biggest star of his era comes along, how is Marquez going to say no?
2. Erik Morales: In this era’s equivalent to the Leonard-Hagler-Hearns-Duran rivalry of the ’80s, Pacquiao has fought Marquez three times, Morales three times, and Marco Antonio Barrera twice, while Barrera has fought Morales three times and Marquez once. The only matchup missing is Marquez vs. Morales. “El Terrible” isn’t as close to his prime as Marquez is. But his 2011 career comeback showed he’s closer than most people thought, and that might be good enough to make the fight viable.
3. Brandon Rios: Marquez is still the lineal lightweight champion of the world, so if he can get his bulked-up body back down to 135 pounds, he has a title to defend. Can anyone think of a more thrilling lightweight matchup than Marquez vs. Rios? It could either be a classic passing of the torch from one Hispanic hero to another or a riveting example of a legend staving off Father Time. Either way, it’s impossible to envision anything short of a Fight of the Year candidate.
4. Retirement: It was Marquez himself who used the “r” word (technically, “retirada”) at the postfight press conference. He appears to be financially set after Saturday’s $5-million guaranteed purse, and if he never fights again, he goes out on a sympathetic high note. Clearly, he’s still capable of competing at a pound-for-pound level, so walking away won’t be easy. But Marquez defied conventional wisdom with his performance in the third fight with Pacquiao. Maybe he’ll defy it again as his final boxing act.