Photos by Will Hart and Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
So great had been the sense of anticipation, so prolonged had been the build-up, so numerous had been the false starts and cruel teases, that there remained a sense of disbelief even as Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather finally entered the ring at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night, five long years after they had initially been expected to do so. The surreal atmosphere was heightened by the fact that the arena was filled with polite enthusiasm rather than the raucously partisan screaming that might have been expected given what was stake – a consequence, perhaps, of exorbitantly high prices attracting a different kind of crowd from the usual found at a prize fight.
But then the ring emptied of everyone except fighters and referee, and with only seconds remaining before the two greatest fighters of their generation would finally engage in combat, a roar washed through the venue, building to a rapid crescendo like a wave gathering pace and then hurtling toward shore.
It would not be sustained.
Forty-seven minutes later, after 12 rounds of frequently skillful but rarely truly captivating action, the roar was largely replaced by boos, as a rabidly pro-Pacquiao crowd expressed its feelings toward the defensively brilliant if frequently frustrating tactics of Mayweather. The jeers continued throughout Pacquiao's post-fight interview with HBO’s Max Kellerman who, as the Filipino stood dismayed at having lost a clear unanimous decision, pressed him on why he hadn’t done more to counter a Mayweather strategy that had been eminently predictable.
“I thought I won the fight,” said Pacquiao – even though the 116-112 scores in favor of Mayweather that were handed in by Burt Clements and Glenn Feldman were surely as close as could reasonably be handed in. (The third judge, Dave Moretti, saw the contest wider, at 118-110.)
“He didn’t do anything. He moved all the time,” protested Pacquiao of Mayweather’s elusiveness, which belied once again the many obituaries that have been penned of the American’s famed footwork. “It’s not easy to throw punches if he’s moving around.”
But, as Kellerman countered, it was entirely foreseeable that Mayweather would fight in such a way, given the frequency with which he had done so in the previous 47 wins in his still-unblemished professional career. Indeed, it is one of the sporting certainties in life that, after a few rounds in which he sizes up his foe and at the end of which that foe’s fans feel their man is within a shot at victory, Mayweather will pull away and dominate down the stretch.
So it was on Saturday night. Mayweather (48-0, 26 KOs), began the bout working behind a jab, taking advantage of his greater reach and height to keep Pacquiao at a distance that was to his liking, looking to land a chopping right hand when the smaller Filipino managed to close the gap and, when that didn’t work, wrapping him up tightly. In the opening frame, Pacquiao looked a little lost, but the second was closer, as the eight-weight title holder began to find his range. The third frame was the first that could reasonably have been scored in his favor, the crowd exploding as Pacquiao scored with a flurry while Mayweather was against the ropes and again with a short right hook. The fourth was clearly his and was arguably his best round of the night: a straight left hand sent Mayweather back into the ropes, and as he covered up, Pacquiao unloaded a fusillade of punches before stepping back, resetting as he accepted that Mayweather was easily weathering the storm, before catching him again with a hook before round’s end.
Mayweather, unhurt by the assault but looking to establish his dominance, came out for the fifth in a more assertive mode, working a hard jab in front of a straight right hand, and sliding away along the ropes every time Pacquiao (57-6-2, 38 KOs) showed signs of setting his feet for an attack. Pacquiao regained the initiative in the sixth, a strong combination punctuated by two straight lefts followed by another combination with Mayweather’s back to the ropes. Again, Mayweather’s guard was high, and he shook his head to underline he was unhurt and unaffected; still, if Pacquiao’s punches weren’t landing cleanly, they were at least to some extent landing and scoring.
That would not, however, be the case for much of the rest of the fight. Slowly, surely and with increasing authority, Mayweather took control of the contest, working his jab to keep Pacquiao at bay and landing straight right hands to remind his opponent not to rush in with abandon. By the eighth, the battle was being waged at the distance that the taller American wanted, and the Filipino increasingly struggled to make an impression. Punches fell short of Mayweather’s retreating torso, and on those occasions when Pacquiao feinted his foe to the ropes or into the corner, Mayweather had more often than not slipped away before he could unload. There were moments of hope: a clean hook that landed in round nine, a straight left in the eleventh. And there was no question that Pacquiao was attempting to force the action. But Mayweather’s long, spearing jab kept him increasingly at bay, and his elusiveness left Pacquiao increasingly reluctant to commit. One moment in the tenth was especially illustrative: after backing Mayweather into a corner, where just four rounds previously he would have seen an invitation to attack, now he saw only doubt, and he paused and contemplated his options long enough for Mayweather to have moved away and for the moment to have been lost.
The American stepped up the pressure in the eleventh, waking toward Pacquaio and firing big right hands behind his dominant jab, and although Mayweather eased off the gas in the twelfth – perhaps enough to score the final frame for his rival – there could have been little doubt as to the result when the final bell rang.
If Mayweather-Pacquiao was one of the most anticipated events in boxing history, its place in the pantheon will likely be negatively affected in the future by the fact that it was one of the more forgettable big-time clashes. It will not be recalled with the fondness of Ali-Frazier, Ali-Foreman, or Hagler-Hearns, any more than Mayweather himself will be as adored as any of those warriors. But as much as the blame for the underwhelming way in which the bout unfolded will be laid at Mayweather’s technically brilliant but viscerally unstimulating style, the punch stats underlined the emptiness of Pacquiao’s claim that he was responsible for all the offense.
Indeed, Mayweather actually slightly out-threw Pacquiao, by 435 punches to 429, and landed at a far higher percentage. In total 148 of his blows found their mark, including 67 of 267 jabs and 81 of 168 power punches. Mayweather, contrary to appearances, was carrying his part of the offensive burden; the difference was that he landed many of his punches on the back foot, and slipped away from Pacquiao’s own blows. Indeed Pacquiao’s success rate was anemic: he landed just 81 total punches, a paltry 19 percent of his output.
Mayweather was magnanimous in victory.
“My hat’s off to Manny Pacquiao,” he said. “I see why he’s one of the guys at the pinnacle of boxing. He’s a tough competitor. He’s a very, very awkward fighter, so I had to take my time. Manny Pacquiao is a true champion, and we both did our best today.”
Of his own future, he reiterated a view expressed earlier in the week that his career has but five months remaining.
“My last fight is in September,” he stated. “Then it’s time to hang it up. I’m almost 40 years old.”
He rarely looked like it on Saturday night. And while his departure from the ring may not elicit the wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanied the exits of more adored fighters, it will leave a giant void of talent that will likely remain unfilled for many years to come.