Ambition is the fuel by which great boxers are driven, and that trait certainly shines through in WBO welterweight king Manny Pacquiao and challenger Chris Algieri.
Just two fights ago, Algieri was headlining an ESPN2-televised card from his hometown of Huntington, N.Y. There, he defeated Emanuel Taylor in a hard-fought 10 rounder. Many wrote off his chances when he challenged WBO super lightweight titlist Ruslan Provodnikov and those who still believed at the opening bell had good reason to doubt once he suffered two first-round knockdowns and the beginnings of a horrific swelling over the right eye. But Algieri, despite possessing very little power, managed to pound out a split decision win over the Siberian and that compelling performance has lifted him to a fight with Pacquiao, seven pounds north and light-years beyond where his career path was expected to be at this point.
Pacquiao is not without goals either. Two fights removed from a one-punch KO against arch-rival Juan Manuel Marquez in a fight he was winning handily, Pacquiao sought to avenge a controversial loss to Timothy Bradley this past April. With doubts about his ability swirling freely, "The Pac Man" performed better than he had in years while Bradley vainly tried to produce an unlikely knockout instead of using his skills to score a second victory. Pacquiao's efforts paid off handsomely as he won a wide unanimous decision and put himself back on the map in terms of how he might fare against another rival in Floyd Mayweather Jr.
While the fight everyone wants to see may well not happen -- mostly due to Floyd's reluctance -- Saturday will witness a potentially fascinating exercise in ambition. Which man's is the stronger? And who will come out on top if the action gets rough? Pacquiao is a 7-1 favorite.
Statistical factors that might sway the contest include:
Calming The Storm: Pacquiao used timely punching to turn back Bradley, who is nicknamed "Desert Storm." Averaging 46.9 punches per round -- far fewer than the 65.8 he averaged against Rios and the 62.6 he logged in the first Bradley match -- Pacquiao out-landed Bradley 198-141 overall, 50-32 jabs and 148-109 power and connected on a far higher percentage of his blows (35%-22% overall, 23%-11% jabs and 43%-32% power) to register a critic-silencing decision victory. Even Pacquiao's jab -- an underwhelming weapon in the past -- did the job as he averaged 18.2 attempts and 4.2 connects per round to Bradley's 23.9 and 2.7 respectively. Bradley tried very hard to reverse the tide by averaging 52.2 punches per round, but Pacquiao's skills and motivation were more than enough for the task.
Using His Assets: At 5-foot-10 Algieri is the tallest opponent Pacquiao has faced in some time. In fact, only the 5-foot-11 Antonio Margarito and the 5-foot-10 1/2-inch Oscar de la Hoya were taller than the articulate New Yorker, and in terms of schooling he may well be the most intelligent fighter Pacquiao has ever faced. He has a bachelor's degree in health care science from Stony Brook University as well as a Masters from the New York Institute of Technology.
That intelligence has been channeled to his boxing. Knowing he doesn't have one-punch power, Algieri smartly has utilized incredible volume and lateral movement to forge his undefeated record. In winning the title from Provodnikov, Algieri averaged 82.8 punches per round to Provodnikov's 64.7 and his jab was particularly busy (47.2 thrown, nearly twice the 24.7 junior welterweight norm) and effective (9.2 connects per round was nearly twice the 140-pound average). Despite his Basilio-esque swelling Algeri never lost heart and the result were wide gaps in connects across the board (288-205 overall, 111-41 jabs, 177-164 power; 29%-26% overall, 20%-12% jabs, 41%-38% power).
Negative Splits: In long distance running this term defines an athlete who can run a faster pace in the second half of a race than during the first half. For the most part, Algieri brought this concept to boxing. Consider:
In decisioning Curtis Smith over eight rounds, Algieri averaged more punches in the last four rounds (93) than the first four (90.5) while Smith's pace decreased from 71 to 64.5. The connect gaps during the two halves grew from 60 overall (134-74) and 53 power (118-65) to 89 overall (138-49) and 78 power (118-40). The result: A commanding decision (80-72 twice, 78-74).
The same scenario played out against Raul Tovar, whom Algieri out-pointed over eight. Tovar surprised Algieri by counter-punching rather than tearing inside as the New Yorker expected and his selective punching paid dividends in the first four rounds as he trailed by just 67-61 (total) and 44-21 (power). But Algieri, though his pace slowed from 91 per round to 82 and Tovar's increased from 53.8 to 56, still gained strength down the stretch as he out-landed Tovar 74-43 (total) and 45-23 (power), leading to scores of 78-74 and 77-75 (twice). The pace might have slowed, but the negative splits came in the number of connects he produced in the second half.
Algieri's stamina also served him well against Bayan Jargal. Jargal went punch-for-punch with Algieri (he trailed 851-814 in total punches and led 425-397 in power shots) and he increased his pace from 67 over the first five to 95.8 in the final five. Though Algieri was given a dose of his own medicine, he responded by being much more accurate. Though he accelerated from 72.6 per round to 81.4 in the last five, he out-landed Jargal 143-134 (total) and 98-97 (power) to capture a hard-earned but more lopsided than thought 98-92, 97-93 (twice) decision.
The pattern continued in two more of his recent fights:
* W 10 Jose Peralta -- First half: 93.6 punches per round, 151-135 overall connect lead; Second half: 122.6 punches per round, 220-107 overall connect lead
* W 10 Mike Arnaoutis -- First half: 94.2 punches per round, 60-41 overall connect lead; Second half: 97.2 punches per round, 94-33 overall connect lead
In his two most recent fights (his toughest tests to date), that trend didn't hold quite as strongly. Against Emanuel Taylor, Algieri's output in the first half was 65 punches per round, a noticeable drop from his usual standard, but he still led 99-61 in overall connects. But in the final five rounds, Algieri raised his output only slightly (66.8 per round) and Taylor actually out-landed him 74-70. Worse Yet, Taylor out-threw Algieri 83-66 in the final round and out-landed him 21-17, the fourth time in five rounds he had done so.
Against Provodnikov Algeri's pace dropped from 86.5 punches per round over the first six to a still-healthy 79 in the final six, out-landing his foe 158-101 in rounds 1-6 and 130-104 in rounds 7-12. Given the injuries and adversity Algieri faced, the face that his motor still ran strongly is a major plus.
While the Taylor fight was a jump in class, the Provodnikov fight was another and there he did much better in terms of his pacing and his second-half effectiveness. Will that occur as he takes another quantum leap up against Pacquiao? Provodnikov, Taylor, Peralta & Arnaoutis, nowhere near the combination punchers that Manny is, landed 36% of their power shots.
Prediction: Stylistically, this is a dangerous fight for Pacquiao because Algeri knows what he is and he doesn't deviate from it. He's focused, well-conditioned and extremely intelligent. He doesn't care whether the crowd boos as long as he's piling up the points. His three-and-a-half inch height and five-inch reach advantages will be critical to his success, as well as getting off to a quick start.
The big question for Algieri is whether he has enough of a punch to earn Pacquiao's respect, especially since he was considered a light hitter at 140, much less 147. If he can sting Pacquiao enough to make him think twice about coming in, a monstrous upset is a distinct possibility.
The guess here, however, is that Pacquiao, who still has an eye on a potential Mayweather fight, will want to prove that he is still a viable force. The possibility exists that he may score his first KO since stopping now lineal middleweight champ Miguel Cotto in the final round five years ago, but the mostly likely result will be a Pacquiao decision win. It won't be easy, but he'll find a way to get the job done.