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An American in Manila: Watching Pacquiao-Cotto from the Philippines

"The National Fist" Slams His Way to His Most Convincing Victory

Manny Pacquiao, the Pambansang Kamao ("National Fist") of the Philippines, beat the living tar out of the very tough amigo Miguel Cotto on Sunday afternoon, November 15, 2009, keeping a skein of big victories intact and once again upholding the pride of an entire nation of more than 90 million people.

The fight was held on a Saturday night in Las Vegas. With the 16-hour time difference, it was already Sunday in the Philippines. I watched it on the slightly-delayed broadcast over the GMA TV network, one of the two ratings gorillas here.

I was going to go to Araneta Coliseum, the historic venue in Quezon City (on the eastern fringe of Manila) where "The Thrilla" between Ali and Joe Frazier was fought in 1973 during the Marcos regime. The old place is still there, a hubbub of activity many days of the year. The best seats were about $10 US.

I was warned off. Too many crazy people there, I was told. You know everyone will be out of control. Well, from my observations, Filipinos haven't embraced the Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic version of drinking that was part of my cultural training. If someone starts to get "lasing" here, ie drunk, he or she is quickly tended to by several friends and relatives and not allowed to turn into the stumbling beligerent that's not hard to find in many other parts of the world.

But the traffic is truly horrible in that part of the city, so I saved the 10 bucks and watched it on the tube. There is a tacit policy here to limit TV commercials to 18 minutes per hour (compare that to 16 in the US), but GMA went for the glory during the fight. They showed part of the undercard, frequently jamming 20+ commercials into 10-minute breaks between rounds.

Too Many Commercials Here, Too
During the main event, the producers tried to walk the line between maxing their revenues and ticking off their viewers. Some of the breaks were as short as five minutes, but others ran as long as 10. It was very tiresome. This is a country in which at least half the people can't dream of spending the equivalent of $10 on entertainment, so GMA had a captive audience.

As the US networks have learned the hard way, antagonize people for enough years, and once those people have the means to seek alternatives (ie, cable channels), they will. GMA and its major competitor, ABS/CBN, have ratings ranging from the low to the high 30s--remember those days, CBS, NBC, and ABC? They won't keep them if they keep this crap up. Around the fifth round, I forgot how fortunate I was to be seeing this fight almost live free of charge. As a prop for my story, the blatant and ceaseless onslaught of commercials was useful. Personally, I hated it.

In any case, this nation does come to a full stop when its Fist fights. Boxing has been a big sport here for a long time, and there have been many distinguished Filipino fighters. None of them approached Pacquiao's current fame. As Manny's trainer Freddie Roach (whom Manny now calls his "master" out of respect to his skills) said recently, Manny is a once-in-a-generation fighter.

His place in history should ultimately be alongside Ray Robinson among non-heavyweights in history. He is now the most famous fighter since Muhammed Ali, even if the spirit of the times is not that of the revolutionary 60s and thereby not conducive to creating the transcendent world figure that Ali was.

Besides, Manny's much too modest to transcend his sport. Odds on him spouting "I'm the greatest" or "I shook the world" wouldn't be offered in Vegas or anywhere else. Boastful pride--one of many things they call "kapal ng mukha" here--is simply not the Philippine way.

Back to those commercials, you can't get away from Manny on TV. He appears in commercials for beer, an ibuprofen variant (helpful if you've had too much beer), shampoo (to help wash away that hangover), and I can't remember what else. His mom, an emerging media star, appears in some of the commercials with him. He makes guest appearances on popular shows. More recently, he's become a TV sensation in the US and was on the cover of Time Magazine.

Philippine politicians compete with one another for front-row seats, and fly into righteous indignation if their 15,000-mile round trips to see him fight are questioned. The least casual fight fan in the Philippines knows more about his left hook than most serious fans elsewhere. Pacman is the most famous word in the national language today. The Pambansang Kamao has become the Pambansang Obsesyon.

Another Big Guy
He seems to be utterly unaffected by the hubbub, whether involving the 20-plus security-guard detail he requires in his Philippine home, the brush fires that broke out between Roach and his Philippine managers over where he would train, or the ceaseless media crush that followed him from his arrival in Los Angeles in the days prior to the fight.

As with the De La Hoya fight, Pacquiao was fighting a bigger man with Cotto. But Oscar was too old and clearly debilitated by making weight in his fight with Pacquiao. Cotto is younger than Manny, and despite Roach's pre-fight bluster about the difficulty for Cotto in making the agreed-upon weight of 145 pounds, the Puerto Rican star made it without having that sallow look that followed De La Hoya into the ring.

There was much commentary during the weigh-in about how Cotto didn't look like the bigger man after all. Manny wore his 144 pounds easily, looking neither bulked up nor worn down. But once in the ring, Manny looked like an oversized lightweight to me, compared to a taller, bulkier Cotto. I hate to say it, but I still get the impression of an overachieving Evander Holyfield when I see Manny take on ever-bigger guys in the ring.

Maybe I saw too many of his early fights, in the bantamweight and featherweight days. Certainly, he has improved over the arc of his career more than anyone in memory. Ali was great even as a 18-year-old Olympian; Joe Frazier, George Foreman, even the egregious fight-stealer Ray Leonard all arrived on the scene fully-formed. But Manny was raw and undisciplined, even if incredibly exciting, as recently as three years ago.

This time out, Manny was introduced immediately to Miguel's brutish left jabs, which made me think he must have had Larry Holmes train him somewhere along the way. No doubt they made Manny and Freddie think, "oh boy, it's going to be a long night if he doesn't knock this nonsense off pronto." Cotto took the first round and made Pacquiao seem smallish and tentative. But Cotto didn't hurt him.

Pacquiao seemed to gain confidence, in fact, realizing that Cotto's jabs stung but that hey, he could handle them. He belonged at 145, maybe 147 next time. Manny started landing all manner of jabs and hooks, with one sweet left uppercut thrown in. Cotto threw a few punches that approached the lowish realm, and Pacquiao pointed this out, but Miguel is a classy guy and not a dirty fighter.

The first three rounds were an even match between two really good fighters, each of whom could punch and each of whom could defend himself. Oh yeah, Pacquiao did knock Cotto to his knees in the third round, but it didn't seem that serious to me. Cotto still looked like the stronger fighter to me.

What Just Happened?
Manny, being the actual man in the ring against Cotto, apparently thought differently. He went against all expert opinion in the fourth, taking a rope-a-dope strategy for a few seconds and setting a snare into which Cotto gladly blundered. Everyone knew that Manny had to stay off the ropes in this fight. When he first planted himself there, I thought he was tired and desperate.

Apparently not, because he suddenly turned into one of the great counter-punchers in history and floored Cotto, hard, with an uppercut for the ages.

Why did Manny hit the ropes? Did he consciously borrow one of the greatest tactics in history from The Greatest? Did Freddie prepare him to do this in a certain situation? Or was he just getting knocked around a bit by the bigger man, found himself in a jam, and punched his way out? Maybe he'll tell some day. It was a great moment in boxing history.

The only suspense during the rest of the fight was whether Manny would get careless and let Cotto land a big one. Manny's dramatic improvement over the past several years shows his keen intelligence, non-oversized ego, and earnest ambition to be great. But he still showed some impatience in this fight. When Cotto started to backpedal and box in round eight, it was clearly his way of trying to avoid a knockout. Manny took it as an insult, urging Cotto to bring it on and veering too close, too often to within range of the Puerto Rican's big left hook.

But Miguel was done. After the fight, he said he had hurt his shoulder in the eighth round, and I believe him. He is not one to make excuses.

Freddie's the Man
But this is where Roach's taunting of Cotto's trainer Joe Santiago as "immature" revealed its merit. This fight should have been stopped after the eighth round; if not then, then definitely the ninth. It was turning into a bloodletting and the kind of beating from which people don't recover. Cotto, of course, wanted to soldier on.

His corner finally tried to stop the fight after the 11th, but Miguel went back out anyway. Well, this is where the trainer has to physically get in the way and tackle the guy if necessary. I saw a wonderful counter-example several months ago when Roach, training another Filipino fighter, simply refused to let him go out there after it was clear he wasn't going to win and he was going to get hurt badly. Freddie was almost crying at the time, but he knows what happens to guys in the ring.

Now I hope Manny can avoid what seems so inevitable. So few fighters, even (and maybe especially) the great ones, make it out of this game fully intact. Manny is at the peak of his powers now. His ability to move up in weight class and remain effective, even improve, has exceeded that even of the great Roberto Duran. A $20 million+ payday is looming if he fights Mayweather. My hope is that his next fight will be his last. Quit when you're on top, kid. You've proven everything you ever need to prove.

Please don't make this generation's young people have to explain to their kids that you were the best there ever was, the way I've had to explain this to my disbelieving kids about Muhammed Ali.

(Follow the author at www.twitter.com/strukhoff)

More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.