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March 13, 2010

Big Fight Preview: Manny Pacquiao vs. Joshua Clottey, “The Event”

by Matt O'Brien

This Saturday, March 13th, pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao will step into the ring to make the first defense of his WBO welterweight title against world-rated challenger Joshua Clottey. The bout, titled simply “The Event”, will take place in the amazing $1.2 billion Dallas Cowboys stadium and promises to provide some fireworks for the expected 45,000 plus crowd.

It’s difficult to know where to begin with Manny Pacquiao. Perhaps no fighter in recent memory has consistently raised the bar on his own performances like the Filipino super-star. As the challenges and the challengers become bigger, so he gets seemingly stronger, quicker, and wiser with every foray into the squared circle. The Pac-man hasn’t just been winning his recent fights – he’s barely lost a round in his last four outings (winning every one by K.O).

Pacquiao has been rewarded for his efforts by being named as the 2009 fighter of the year by the Boxing Writers Association of America – collecting the award for the third time in four years – as well as being named as the fighter of the decade, ahead of a list of boxing greats that included Floyd Mayweather Jr., Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley, Joe Calzaghe, Marco Antonio Barrera and Juan Manuel Marquez. Depending on who you believe, Pacquiao has also been crowned as a ‘World’ champion in either seven or five separate weight classes, making him one of the most decorated boxers in history.* Even in an era with more titles than a tin of alphabet soup and more weight divisions than a woman’s weekly slim-fast club, that is an accolade worth treasuring.

Ominously for his opponent this coming Saturday, Pacquiao seems to get better every time he gets into the ring. Beginning as a scrawny flyweight with big fists, maturing into a super-bantamweight banger with dynamite in his left hand, and under the tutelage of Freddie Roach developing into a two-fisted, fleet footed assassin – one of the most remarkable aspects of Pacquiao’s assent is his seemingly limitless capacity to learn, grow and adapt as a fighter. ‘Master’ Roach has refined, tweaked and added to the arsenal of his ‘finest work’ to deliver a truly rounded practitioner in the noble art. In the early going of his most recent outing, under fire and taking heavy shots from a bona fide powerful welterweight, Manny simply took the opportunity to reveal yet another feature in his expanding armoury: a rock-solid, cast-iron chin. After putting up a valiant yet brief early argument, Cotto was dropped, demoralized and finally dismantled by a man who is quite simply in the best form of any fighter of his era.

The Filipino super-star is riding the crescent of a wave so high it’s hard to envision anything other than his arm being raised in victory. Yet it would be foolish to completely discount his African opponent. The big, strong world-class Ghanaian is super confident of victory going into the biggest fight of his life. He looked ripped and ready weighing in bang-on the division limit of 147lbs, smiling broadly at the attempted stare-down ritual.

Matched skill-for-skill with the champion, it is clear Clottey finishes as a clear runner-up. Yet the weigh-in may have highlighted precisely why Clottey cannot be counted out of this fight completely. The African is a huge welterweight, likely to come into the ring on fight night close to the middleweight limit of 160lbs with a weight advantage of at least 10lbs. He is the first opponent that the Pac-man has faced over 140lbs who has not been forced to make concessions to his usual fighting weight (Miguel Cotto was forced to agree to shed an additional two pounds and defend his title at a catch-weight limit of 145lbs, whilst Oscar de le Hoya reduced himself to a fighting weight his body had not seen in seven years).

In many ways Clottey is typical of the former great-African fighters he will tonight attempt to emulate: he enters the ring with a no-frills, well rounded style based on solid fundamentals and a tight defence; he does everything very well without doing anything superbly, and his main assets are his incredible strength and seemingly bullet-proof chin. In short, he is the epitome of a high-risk, low-reward opponent: dangerous without being fantastic; world-class without being world-famous.

He has competed consistently at the top of his division, losing only three fights to the best the welterweight division had to offer, and always in controversial circumstances. He was disqualified against Carlos Baldomir for repeated head clashes in his first defeat way back in 1999, in the eleventh round of a fight he was winning clearly on all the scorecards. Most ringsiders agreed Clottey was on the end of a very bad refereeing decision in that fight, and should have come away with the victory. He made an excellent start to his WBO welterweight title fight with Antonio Margarito in 2006, taking control over the first four rounds before suffering injuries to both his hands. Despite damaging injuries that would have convinced many lesser fighters to quit, Clottey gritted it out until the final bell, losing a unanimous decision. Then, in his most recent outing, Clottey also faced the same opponent that his Filipino rival faced in his last outing: Miguel Cotto. The African fighter lost a close split-decision that night, although I had Clottey winning the fight by a couple of points. Many of those present at ringside also felt that Cotto received something of a gift from the judges that night, and the Ghanaian fighter deserved the victory.

So an argument can be made that Clottey has never really been fairly beaten as a professional fighter. Certainly no one has ever dominated him or knocked him out in the way that all three of Pacquiao’s previous foes had already been prior to stepping in the ring with him. If Pacquiao is to dismantle Clottey in the same way he did Cotto, Hatton and De la Hoya, he will be doing something that has never been done before. To win the fight, of course, doesn’t require a spectacular highlight-reel finish, despite what we have come to expect from the Filipino.

And herein may lie the deciding factor in this fight: can Pacquiao hurt Clottey, and how does he react if he cannot? If Pacquiao finds he can hurt the Ghanaian, the fight is as good as over – the Pac-man’s killer instincts and speed will not let him recover. Where the danger lies for Pacquiao though is if he cannot hurt the African fighter. And all the evidence from Clottey’s career, coupled with his significant size advantages means there is a serious chance of that happening. Should this happen, Pacquiao’s subsequent strategy thereafter may determine the victor in this fight.

There is no doubt the Filipino has the speed and the skills to outbox Clottey en-route to a comfortable points victory, but problems may emerge if Manny insists – as he has tended to do in recent fights – on pursuing a kayo victory. Against Cotto for example, he elected to stay on the ropes, taste the Puerto Rican’s power and give his opponent a chance he shouldn’t have had, if Pacquiao had listened to his trainer and stayed in the centre of the ring. In this instance, such machismo would present a serious recipe for an upset, because it would allow the challenger to press his advantages in size and strength that he really ought not to be allowed to take advantage of against a fighter as skilled and fast as Pacquiao.

Manny Pacquiao has shown in recent times that he can be a devastating puncher and one of the finest pure finishers the game has ever seen. What he may need to show this Saturday evening is that being the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world also means using your better judgement, staying disciplined and above all else getting the ‘W’ on your record. Despite assurances of his fighter to win by K.O, Pacquiao’s brilliant trainer Freddie Roach no doubt has a contingency plan should the African withstand his fighters biggest bombs. Should Pacquiao listen to his trainers better judgement, stay off the ropes and utilize his huge advantages in foot speed and combination punching, we should once again see his arm being raised in victory after a spirited battle from the challenger.

It says here then that Pacquiao, boxing smart, can win a wide unanimous decision or possibly even force the referee or his corner to rescue the challenger from further punishment in the championship rounds after an accumulation of blows, in another fantastic display of sweet science from the game’s finest practitioner.

*Editors note: Manny Pacquiao has won one of the four world titles recognized by the international boxing hall of fame (WBC, WBA, WBO, IBF) in five separate weight categories. He also won recognition from The Ring magazine as a world champion in two further weight classes after he defeated the fighters recognized as the de facto undisputed champions in those divisions without there being a ‘Big Four’ title on the line (these were victories over Marco Antonio Barrera at featherweight and Ricky Hatton at junior welterweight, respectively).   

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