Photos: Will Hart
by Eric Raskin
If there is such a thing as a “normal career trajectory” in boxing, neither Manny Pacquiao nor Chris Algieri is on it. Pacquiao won a major title at age 19, was an ex-champ by 20, skipped over two weight classes, and became an unexpected overnight sensation in America in his 35th pro fight. Algieri spent the first six years of his career toiling in obscurity, was granted a chance to get sacrificed to a name fighter on HBO at age 30, scored a massive upset, and in his very next fight landed a pay-per-view main event halfway around the world against an international icon. Neither Pacquiao nor Algieri followed any kind of carefully crafted blueprint. There was no precisely plotted progression from prospect to contender to champion. They just took the opportunities when they came.
Two years ago, there were cries from numerous corners for Pacquiao to quit the sport. One year ago, Algieri admits that he was himself on the verge of quitting the sport. Their HBO PPV headlining clash on Saturday, November 22 (9:00 PM ET/6:00PM PT) at Cotai Arena in the Venetian Resort in Macau, China stands as proof of the value of perseverance in boxing—whatever your career trajectory.
You know Pacquiao’s story. He’s been to the top of the pound-for-pound lists, won a congressional election in his native Philippines, and alternately charmed and irritated you with his karaoke singing. More recently, he’s been on the receiving end of one of the most violent one-punch knockouts in boxing history at the hands of rival Juan Manuel Marquez and returned with a slightly modified style to outpoint Brandon Rios and Tim Bradley. His record stands at 56-5-2 with 38 KOs, the quality of the names behind those numbers unequaled in post-millennial boxing.
Algieri’s story is the one with which you are probably less familiar—and it’s the sort you don’t hear often in the fight game. He grew up in an unbroken middle-class home on Long Island and obtained a bachelor’s degree from Stony Brook University and a master’s from the New York Institute of Technology. He became a professional kickboxer, compiling a 20-0 record before moving on to the more lucrative world of pro boxing, where, wouldn’t you know, he has compiled a 20-0 record. The first 19 fights were nothing to get overly excited about it; in fact, through 18 fights, Algieri was so frustrated with his inability to land a meaningful bout for impactful money that he was ready to give up on boxing and make full-time use of his education. But then he secured a fight on ESPN2, won it, got a shot at popular bruiser Ruslan Provodnikov on HBO, and rallied back from two first-round knockdowns and a grotesquely swollen right eye to win a split decision.
Algieri jumped from AAA ball to the big leagues and doubled off the wall in his first at-bat; in only his second plate appearance he’s being asked to deliver with two outs in the ninth inning of World Series Game 7. It’s a leap that could throw a man for a loop. But Algieri is nothing if not capable of defying surface expectations.
“He hasn’t missed a beat so far,” observed veteran HBO blow-by-blow broadcaster Jim Lampley. “There’s nothing about the experience that appears to have thrown him off or intimidated him. It appears that he loves the process, loves the publicity, loves being interviewed, loves the camera. Everything I’ve seen from him, going back to the buildup to the Provodnikov fight, shows me poise and self-assurance.”
Pacquiao’s Hall-of-Fame trainer Freddie Roach is doing his part to test that poise and self-assurance. On the 24/7 episode building toward Saturday’s 144-pound catchweight fight, Roach said of comparisons between Algieri and Pacquiao’s previous opponent Bradley, “I don’t think that Algieri’s even in that class.” Roach continued to do the trash-talking that Manny refuses to do: “[Algieri] runs a lot. He says he boxes, but he runs, he runs away … We will chase him down, we will catch him. He’s in over his head.”
In the literal sense, it’s Pacquiao who’s in over his head—looking up at least four or five inches at Algieri during stare-downs on their press tour. With a measured five-inch reach advantage and young legs with plenty of spring, there’s no mystery as to what approach Algieri will take when the bell rings.
“I’m tall for the weight class,” Algieri said last week—a true statement despite the fact that he’s more junior welterweight than welterweight. “I’m not built to go in there and stand in front of a man and trade bombs. Why would I do that? I’ve got length, I’ve got reach, I’ve got speed. I’ve got footwork and defense.”
Other than the length and reach, those are some of the same qualities Pacquiao has shown—particularly in his last two fights. Somewhat like one of his most famous victims, Marco Antonio Barrera, “Pac-Man” has subtly reinvented himself after gaining fame as an offense-minded marauder. “He’s more of a boxer, more tactical, and a little less risk-oriented than he was before,” Lampley noted. “And it makes sense. He’s fighting in a weight class where his power doesn’t blow people away the way that it used to. This was the smart way to keep extending the Pacquiao experience.” But is it the smart way to fight Algieri, who can’t out-wallop Pacquiao but might just be able to outbox him?
A related question should be asked of Algieri, who has just eight knockouts among his 20 victories: Can he win without making Pacquiao feel at least a little sting? The unabashed avocado enthusiast is assuredly not going to knock Pac-Man cold with one punch the way Marquez did. But does he need to at least transfer his weight to the front foot in a committed enough way to earn Pacquiao’s respect if he’s to pull another upset?
The closer this fight gets, the more people find themselves asking questions. When it was first signed, the general reaction was that Pacquiao was being granted a rare soft touch. But the passage of a couple months’ time, in combination with the way Algieri comports himself, has allowed doubt to creep in. This could prove to be a stylistic nightmare for Pacquiao.
But then again, has any opponent ever found Pacquiao not to be at least a little bit nightmarish?
Algieri dug admirably deep to defeat Provodnikov. To beat Pacquiao, he might have to dig all the way to China.