Saturday, June 9, 2012

Requiem for a Welterweight

I seldom write about sports. I lack interest in baseball, football, basketball, soccer, or golf. But I make an exception for two sports: horseracing and boxing. Both were favorites of my grandfather, who put himself through law school by boxing. His name was Manny P. and he was the father figure in my life. He was born today, June 9th, so it seemed an ideal way to celebrate his birthday by attending his favorite sport tonight: boxing. Another Manny P -- Manny Pacquiao -- was defending his WBO Welterweight Champion title against his undefeated opponent, Tim Bradley.

I studied clips of both fighters’ past bouts, discerning their fighting styles. Pacquiao lacked grace and true boxing style, but had an extremely effective strategy. He brought speed and a pair of fists that were like pistons to the ring. From the opening of the first round of his fights, Pacquiao’s lightning-fast fists would pound his opponent, who would shield his face and begin the match on the defensive. Some of Pacquiao’s shots from his wild blitzkrieg would land on their target, disorienting him. Few opponents had a chance to regain the offensive. By the time they were able to counterpunch, their heads were probably spinning from all the blows. Bradley, in his fights, was a more polished boxer. His punches were more varied and executed with more grace. He did not resemble any of the great boxers, but his style was more traditional, more professional. Unlike Pacquiao, he exhibited great defensive skills, ducking and weaving so as to allow few of his opponent’s blows to land on him. (To be fair, Pacquiao was mostly on the offensive and seldom needed to call on defensive skills.).

Although both fighters weighed in at 147 lbs., Bradley was more muscular and appeared larger. He had longer arms, affording him wider range, and this, I felt, could be his key to an upset victory, if he were smart enough to study Pacquiao’s previous bouts, as I had, and adapt his style to compensate for Pacquiao’s strengths. Bradley liked to stay close to bring maximum impact to his jabs. What he needed to do was step back, take advantage of his range and let Pacquiao tire himself out as his piston punches failed to connect. Then, Bradley need only come in with an occasional right hook that would reach Pacquiao’s jaw. In short, stay out of range, wear down his opponent, and hit him as often as he could. If he could do this, he would also gain a psychological advantage, placing Pacquiao on the defensive, a position to which he was unaccustomed.

Bradley is black and Pacquiao is Hispanic, and I observed there was no question the blacks in the audience were rooting for Bradley while the Hispanics cheered on Pacquiao. Most people (90 percent in an HBO poll) expected Pacquiao to win. At the weigh-in, Bradley tried to intimidate Pacquiao, acting like a bad boy in the hood, getting within less than an inch of his face, dodging in and out. Pacquiao stood still, grinning. He appeared cocky and complacent, while Bradley later described himself as “hungry”. I recalled Shakespeare’s words from “Julius Caesar”: “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look... Such men are dangerous.”

I knew the outcome would be determined in the first round. If Bradley followed my strategy, he could pull off an upset and become the new Welterweight Champion. If he did not take advantage of his longer range and continued his strategy of staying close to his opponent, Pacquiao would win. I watched, waiting to see Pacquiao’s lightning-fast piston fists pound away. If Bradley’s gloves rose to cover his face, placing him in a defensive posture at the outset, then I knew he would join the long list of defeated contenders. But when I saw Bradley step back and swing at Pacquiao, I knew he had done his homework. I watched him put Pacquiao on the defensive for the first round and could tell from Pacquiao’s face he realized he was not in the same fight he thought he had entered. Bradley kept Pacquiao on the defensive for most of the night and made him work for his title. By the second round, the complacency had subsided from Pacquiao’s face, replaced by anger and a determination to win. Indeed, Pacquiao showed some strong offensive moves in later rounds. But it was too late. Bradley had trained long and hard for the fight. He began determined. Lean and hungry men are dangerous.

The fight lasted all 12 rounds and many were surprised when a split decision by the judges declared Bradley the winner. Not me. I felt he deserved to win. He used brains and brawn. It was a good fight. Grandpa would have enjoyed it. 

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