Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Manny Pacquiao vs Ricky Hatton Preview

Jeff Pryor takes a look at this Saturday night's mega-fight between Filipino Manny Pacquaio and Britain's Ricky Hatton.

Photos © Ray Kasprowicz

The other day I was talking to a young Filipino woman, recently home from a visit to see her mother, who still lives among the islands of the Philippines. Inevitably I asked her if she was a fan of Manny Pacquiao, and inevitably she said she was, though not like her mother and everyone else who lives in the country. She didn't tell me anything you haven't heard before, mentioning how things shutdown when he fights and that no one is out and about. However, I perceived a reservation in her.

What I sensed, talking to this young lady, perhaps in her mid thirties, while she told me, in what would seem to be almost an understatement, that "he is almost like an icon there", was that she didn't entirely understand the phenomena of Pacquiao's massive appeal in her homeland. The reason, I would guess, is that she has been Americanized, for lack of a better term. Living in New York, and all it's diverse accouterments adds to you as a person, just as it strips away some of your personal regional or cultural identification.

To Filipinos, I believe that in addition to his affable personality and talents in the ring, Pacquiao embodies what is considered a model countryman. Religious, humble and hardworking, Pacquiao takes these attributes that most among the islands aspire to, and combines them with a hard luck story that so many there can relate to.

The parallel is that in boxing, Manny Pacquiao embodies what we as fans wish all our pugilistic stars were. Fast and flashy, powerful and explosive, a fighter through and through, but also someone who seems like a genuinely good guy you can root for.

Across the ring from him this Saturday night is a similar man, who like Pacquiao is emblematic of his U.K. compatriots. Blue collar, plain spoken and cheeky (in more ways than one if you caught the first episode of 24/7), you'd have no trouble envisioning Ricky Hatton atop a stool at a pub in Manchester easily chatting with anyone who happened to lighten the load alongside of him.

Inside the ring his toughness and tenacity, will and withering attacks, combined with his good humor make him another nice guy who fans can easily get behind.

The question becomes; if nice guys finish last, which of these two likable lugs will create some ill will in the ring?

Niceties aside, both gentleman do their business with a killer's attributes that bely their rosy personalities. Though he finds it somewhere under that boyish grin and quite spoken demeanor, Pacquiao's intensity and warrior attitude seems to come in the form of focus and slow burn ferocity.

Hatton seems to have genuine angst that he channels for his fights and the wisecracks and jokes die out like a an amateur night stand up routine as he enters the squared circle, grim and determined. Hatton like a caged beast, Pacquiao like a cagey hunter.

Each is a hurting machine.

Which machine is finely tuned and ready to spit out fire from bell to bell?...

As the song says, "There's only one Ricky Hatton", though he may wish there were a few more to help him try and corral the darting whirlwind that is Manny Pacquiao. The foot speed and movement of the Filipino, along with how Hatton adjusts to it, is probably the key to this matchup when all is said and done. Before we get into that I think the bouts that frame this matchup also provide a vital clue to which man is truly at the height of their game.

Last time we saw Ricky Hatton he was on his way to dominating Paulie Malignaggi in a largely uneventful bout which had Malignaggi's corner throwing in the towel after eleven one sided rounds. Hatton performed well and seemed to mix in a little more skill under the tutelage of Floyd Mayweather Sr.

Though the pride of Manchester seemed improved from his uninspiring and almost disasterous performance against Juan Lazacano earlier in the year, he also appeared to only have to deal with a diminished Malignaggi. This Malignaggi was one who threw markedly less punches than in his successful bouts, one who seemed too uptight to fight over the first half and content to survive down the home stretch. In short, a Paulie Malignaggi whose brief rise had already begun to be eclipsed by successive lackluster performances against Herman Ngoudjo, the rematch with Lovemore N'Dou and finally culminating in his listless performance against Ricky N'Hatton... er, Hatton. The question is, how much of the performance was a rejuvenated Ricky Hatton and how much was a dejuvenated Malignaggi (that's right, I just used a morphological pseudoword).

Last time we saw Manny Pacquaio in the ring he was on his way to dominating Oscar De La Hoya in a largely uneventful bout which had De La Hoya's corner throwing in the towel after eight one sided rounds. Pacquiao performed well and seemed to mix in a little more skill under the tutelage of Freddy Roach.

The real story was that thirty eight of Pacquio's then fifty two fights had been fought at a weight of 122lbs or lower and there he was fighting an A-lister at 147lbs. On that evening back in December Oscar had no answers for Pacquiao's withering onslaught, but, was it due to the questions Pacquio was posing or due to the inevitable slide that the Golden Boy has been staving off these last few years. Pacquiao looked every bit as amazing, as De La Hoya looked dead and drawn. So when dolling out credit, one is cautious in heaping it on Pacquiao too liberally. His last win over Marquez was ten pounds lighter and debatable, his victory over Diaz dominating, but assured and his win over De La Hoya was astounding, but augmented, by father time.

When the bell rings it's a fresh start for both. While the signposts of their earlier fights point the direction, neither will win or lose based on what's come before, only on what is in their paths on the night they are face to face, punch for punch.

I would expect Hatton and Pacquiao to provide freewheeling action early, but over the first several rounds, as Hatton realizes that Pacquiao's foot speed is his real barrier to winning, he will fall into the familiar Hitman pattern of jumping in with a punch or two and then clinching and grappling, looking to manhandle the presumed smaller man. As it happens Manny stands 5'6" to Ricky's 5'7", and enjoys a two inch reach advantage over the Brit. Contrary to conventional wisdom on this one, I'm not so sure size matters.

If Pacquiao's elite stretch at 126-147 has proven anything, it's that he is adaptable to master brawlers, master boxers, and everything in between, and I'd imagine that after a round or two of wrestling, Pacquiao will crank up the movement, and begin strafing Hatton as he comes in, elusively darting away after popping his foe in the beer chute.

While I think ultimately Pacquiao makes Hatton fight on his terms, no doubt Hatton will have his moments, and his toughness, grit and determination will offer him opportunities to change the fight, perhaps with a withering body attack.

I suspect there is a small weakness in Pacquiao, that like a fissure in a glacier, is easily bypassed in the grand scheme of things, and is rarely stumbled upon, but exists none the less, there waiting for the right set of circumstances to claim it's victim; it is a cap on his tolerance for pain. Early in his career he succumbed against lesser opponents, he writhed on the stool against Morales as they tended his gashed eye and when Barrera sucker punched him in the 11th round of their rematch, Pacquiao slumped against the ropes stunned and hurt as a point was taken from his opponent, small examples, but an opening nonetheless for the punishing punches of Ricky Hatton.

Each man has strengths and weaknesses that you could argue offset or set them apart. The long and short of it is this; 50-50 sounds about right.

A fog of vague uncertainty lingers over both fighters due to their previous opponents liabilities. The size differential hangs there too, as does the question of speed, both hand and foot. Whether Hatton's new trainer will make the brawler a boxing brutalizer or will Pacquiao's continual refinement raise him to a soaring new level.

In a fight with so many variables, unanswered questions and unknowable circumstances the only thing we can say for sure is that the intrigue for such a bout is enormous.

One of the best moments in any anticipated fight is that fleeting moment just after the opening bell sounds and the two men walk out to meet each other. In the viewer who has envisioned the matchup, speculated on it's outcome and imagined the best possibilities and promise of something to remember, there is a distinct feeling as this moment passes and the initial volleys are thrown; Finally... we shall know what this is, and who the better of the two will be proven to be.

It is in that moment that a fight passes forever more from what might be, to what is. By the end, the tally is rung up, our sports history logs another entry and for now the questions are answered.

Two nice guys, two proud nations and a thousand questions meet in the center of the ring Saturday night.

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