A total joke. Earlier this year, that's what I thought of Oscar De La Hoya fighting Manny Pacquiao. In the first half of 2008, in separate bouts, De La Hoya and Pacquiao were 20 pounds apart, and that's just the beginning of what was flawed about the bizarre concept.
I'm less sure of it being a total joke now. For one, it's going to be the biggest fight of the year by far, and in a year that has had as many missed opportunities as it has successes, that's redeeming. For another, what once appeared to be a complete mismatch increasingly has taken on the look of what could be a pretty good scrap, in part because of exceptional hype and in part because both combatants have allegedly trained in such a way as to minimize the size gap.
But it isn't enough. For De La Hoya-Pacquiao to be an honest-to-God good event, things have to turn out a certain way.
What's wrong with the fight, as I said, starts with size. And it's not just limited to the recent past. Pacquiao's first recorded weight as a professional was 107 pounds, back in 1995. De La Hoya's first recorded weight as a professional in 1992 was 134 pounds, which is about what Pacquiao weighed this June in his lightweight (135 lbs.) debut, and De La Hoya has fought as high at 160 pounds. That is a major, major difference. One man has always been much bigger than the other, and it's hard to underestimate the effect that has on their respective bodies, even though both have to weight no more than 147 pounds at the weigh-in Friday.
Competitively speaking, both men should be fighting opponents their own size. Pacquiao should be giving a rematch to lightweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez, or fighting another opponent in the deep lightweight division, or taking a smaller step up in weight to fight junior welterweight (140 lbs.) champion Ricky Hatton. De La Hoya shouldn't be building what could turn into a four fight streak of taking on smaller men, and instead should be fighting people like Antonio Margarito, or if he wants more winnable bouts, at least taking on the similarly-sized Shane Mosley and Sergio Mora.
But money talks. There's nobody Pacquiao and De La Hoya can fight outside of each other where they can make this much cash. Some small percentage will be tuning in because of the circus aspects of this bout, to see if the pint-sized Pacquiao can upset the bully De La Hoya, or to see if De La Hoya can pulverize his little opponent. The distinct possibility that Pacquiao could be badly hurt has been a running criticism of the match being made.
Money talking, it just so happens, isn't inherently a bad thing. There are legitimate reasons this fight will sell, outside of morbid curiosity. Pacquiao and De La Hoya both have considerable fan bases, and Pacquiao's fan base, while divided about the fight, largely wants to see their man prove everyone wrong. It is a remarkable storyline: Pacquiao has always fueled the hopes of a nation, but it's impossible to say just what kind of ecstasy would erupt in the Philippines if he won. As Filipino fighter Nonito Donaire told me last week, some people in the Philippines suffer from a lack of confidence, and Pacquiao boosts their self-esteem. A tiny Filipino upsetting a much larger opponent who happens to be the biggest name in the sport? I don't think you could come up with a more inspirational scenario for the people of the Philippines if you tried.
It also has the "best versus the biggest" angle going for it. Pacquiao is unanimously the top fighter on the planet of any size. Some still consider De La Hoya an elite fighter himself, but mainly he's the most recognizable name among active boxers in the world. When Floyd Mayweather fought De La Hoya, there was less drama in the "biggest versus the best," because Mayweather was the easy pick to win that fight. Instead, for De La Hoya-Pacquiao, the best will have to be better than ever to beat the biggest. It's a more interesting dynamic, in a way.
A boxing match that does brisk business in 2008 is a welcome development, and De La Hoya-Pacquiao should do brisk business. I'd guess it gets about a million buys domestically, even in this economy. There have been other profitable bouts this year, but in the category of pay-per-view successes, 2008 has been a step back from 2007. That's not a good trend, but the hows and whys are the subject for another day. At any rate, De La Hoya-Pacquiao should go some ways toward making up lost ground.
And lastly, there's evidence to suggest that the size gap won't be as big as some, myself included, originally feared. The reported weights of both Pacquiao and De La Hoya during training camp have fluctuated dramatically. De La Hoya at one point reportedly slipped all the way down to 145, which is shocking considering that some thought he'd have trouble making 147 after years of fighting at a higher number. At around the same time, Pacquiao was hovering at about 153 -- meaning that there was a chance that come fight night, Pacquiao could be the heavier man, owing to the likelihood that Pacquiao would rehydrate to a higher weight than De La Hoya could. Now, there is reason to be suspicious of these reports. Recently, on the 24/7 documentary show hyping the fight, De La Hoya's scale read 155. Pacquiao, on one recent day, reportedly weighed 141. Whatever the true weight of each man, there are independent reports that Pacquiao has looked like he's maintained his power at the new weight, and old doubts about whether De La Hoya will be weight drained, along with whether he is merely too old for a young gun like Pacquiao, all point to a more competitive bout than I originally imagined.
That's what this fight needs to be: A competitive affair. Why?
If Pacquiao gets blown out early, it will be egg on the face of boxing. All the critics who thought this was a circus, a dangerous gamble, will be proven right, and boxing's reputation will take another hit. De La Hoya will come out looking like a coward who picked on too small an opponent, which could hurt public opinion of him that's already seriously divided in the world of hardcore boxing fans. Pacquiao's rep may not suffer so much, since he's the one coming in with the apparent disadvantage, but for neophytes, should the first time they lay their eyes on Pacquiao he gets plastered, they won't exactly be clamoring to see him again, because they won't know any better.
If, on the other hand, Pacquiao stomps De La Hoya, it's a better outcome but one that has its own down side. If I was nominating someone I want people to think of when they think of boxing, purely for in-ring action, Pacquiao would be one of my leading candidates. No one who I've shown his fights has come away with anything but an enhanced love of boxing, because he fights with such ferocity and even his most boring fights to date have been far better than the average night of fisticuffs. Pacquiao's outside-the-ring activities, like his charity efforts in the Philippines and his courteous treatment of his opponents, all present a nice image (especially since he's reportedly dropped some of his, shall we say, bad habits, such as cockfighting). But Pacquiao can't match De La Hoya in the superstar category, not yet. And make no mistake; if De La Hoya loses this fight by anything other than the closest of decisions, it will almost assuredly be the end of his superstar run. Losing to a man who recently weighed 130 pounds would be the nail in the coffin of any notion that De La Hoya remains among the elite. And boxing without De La Hoya, absent an obvious replacement for the kind of attention and revenue he's brought in over the last decade or so, is a bleaker place than we probably realize.
Whatever the result, the winner probably fights Hatton next, ensuring another "super fight."
But a competitive fight this week avoids all the pitfalls of suffering reputations and boxing looking ridiculous. So for all the usual reasons -- I just like great fights, after all -- and for a few unique ones, here's hoping this one-time "total joke" turns into a "pretty good scrap."
(Tomorrow: Keys to the fight, part I.)