Four years ago, in the very same ring where he scored a crushing second-round knockout over an opponent many thought would give him the challenge of his career, Manny Pacquiao lost a decision to Erik Morales.
Morales was one of the most entertaining fighters of his time, but never once were “Morales” and “all-time great” ever used together in the same sentence.
In 2005, Pacquiao was a good and exciting but hardly great fighter. After Saturday’s K.O. of Ricky Hatton, though, he stands atop the boxing world, even with the heavily hyped return of Floyd Mayweather Jr., who had been a near-unanimous choice as the world’s top fighter prior to his untimely retirement in June 2008.
Mayweather Jr. unretired on Saturday and said he’d fight Juan Manuel Marquez in July, but he’ll have to defeat Pacquiao if he wants to be regarded as the best after Pacquiao decimated Hatton at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Pacquiao knocked Hatton down twice in the first round and then knocked him cold with a crushing left hand that may have been the best punch of his career late in the second round. Hatton fell face first and laid motionless for several minutes as the arena erupted.
If the Pacquiao Era hadn’t started with his decimation of Oscar De La Hoya in December, it began with a straight left that left promoter Bob Arum squealing.
Arum has promoted many of the game’s finest fighters, including Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler. Arum was so ebullient after Pacquiao’s devastating victory, he was comparing Pacquiao favorably to Ali.
“I promoted Muahmmad Ali and the best Ali I ever saw was the one who fought before he was forced to take a sabbatical for 3½ years,” Arum said. “That was the best Muhammad Ali. He had phenomenal speed and he had terrific reflexes, but he sure as hell didn’t have the explosive power that Manny Pacquiao has. … He was a great, great fighter, but there has never been a fighter with the same combination of speed and explosive power as Manny Pacquiao.”
It was hard to argue with any superlatives hurled Pacquiao’s way after the finest effort of his career. He picked apart a guy who was 45-1 coming into the fight and who was the linear super lightweight champion, making Hatton look like an upstart amateur.
Pacquiao was far too fast and far too strong for Hatton, who fought his entire career as a 140-pounder. Pacquiao, who began at just 106, hurt Hatton with nearly every shot on Saturday.
“Before the fight, a lot of people were saying I’m small at 140 and Ricky Hatton is bigger than me,” an unmarked Pacquiao said. “I didn’t put that in my mind.”
Ever since that disappointing loss to Morales, Pacquiao has made a transformation that has turned him into a superstar and has old-school boxing experts talking of him as an all-time great.
He barely squeaked out a victory over Marquez 14 months ago, but his trainer, Freddie Roach, said it would be no contest if they were to fight now.
“He’s a different now than he was [when he lost to Morales],” Roach said. “He’s not that guy. He’s a different guy. If he fought Marquez right now, I guarantee you he’d knock him out in three rounds. I’m telling you. I know that’s a bold statement, but he’s a much better fighter than the guy who fought those guys.
“Something clicked inside of him. I can’t pinpoint it. He’s just a different guy.”
Pacquiao isn’t a guy who simply goes to the gym to shed pounds to make the weight. He uses his training sessions as a classroom and takes a studious approach to improving himself.
Roach worked diligently with him to improve his right hook and on Saturday, it was his key punch. Hatton would cock his left as he went to throw it, a sign for Pacquiao to unleash his right hook, which he did in devastating manner.
He hurt Hatton with a combination that began with a right hook about 90 seconds into the fight, sending the British star spaghetti-legged in the corner. As Hatton’s many fans in the sellout crowd of 16,262 sang “There’s only one Ricky Hatton,” you had to wonder if Hatton somehow thought there might have been two Manny Pacquiaos the way punches were raining down upon him.
Hatton wasn’t in Pacquiao’s class, though he might have beaten him a few years ago. Pacquiao and Roach now form the best team in boxing as Pacquiao has developed his game to a point where he compares favorably with any man alive.
“What I am watching is something that is astounding,” Arum said. “Usually when a world championship-caliber boxer reaches the top, he can be good for a number of years. But most of the time, there is no improvement. This young man improves every single fight.
“He’s doing things he didn’t do two years ago. He’s doing more things and he’s doing other things he didn’t do before. His defense is tremendous and his reflexes now are tremendous. I have never, ever in more than 40 years – and I say this without hyperbole – I have never seen a fighter combine speed and explosive power the way he does.”
Boxing now needs a Pacquiao-Mayweather fight. If it occurs, it could be the most significant fight in the sport in decades.
But Pacquiao doesn’t need Mayweather to affirm himself as one of the sport’s greats. Pacquiao answered that question plenty well in the ring on Saturday.