Saturday, November 19, 2011

Smokin' Joe and the Pacman

FILAM STAR (November 18, 2011) 1
Two words can sum up two recent events in the boxing world: “tribute” and “controversial”. “Tribute” is reserved for the late, great heavyweight “Smokin’” Joe Frazier. “Controversial” is for Manny Pacquiao’s close shave with three-time adversary Juan Manuel Marquez.

First to Joe Frazier. The former heavyweight champion passed away last November 7 due to liver cancer. Frazier’s name will live forever in boxing folklore. It will always evoke the image of a relentless, lionhearted fighter who didn’t know what the word “retreat” meant. The short-statured Frazier exuded tenacity and determination with a sizzling left hook to match. No matter the outcome, anyone who fought Smokin’ Joe knew they had been in the fight of their life.

Frazier’s boxing career was characterized by boom-and-bust cycles. From winning a gold medal in the 1964 Olympics, to being the first boxer to defeat Muhammad Ali in 1971, to being obliterated by George Foreman in Jamaica in 1973, to beating quality heavyweights like Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis, to losing to Ali in their second New York fight and in their third meeting in the famous “Thrilla in Manila” contest, Frazier had seen it all as a boxer from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.

But what is central to the narrative of Frazier’s career was how he was publicly regarded by his arch-nemesis, Muhammad Ali. Ali would eventually apologize for labeling Frazier as an “Uncle Tom,” as a black man who obsequiously did the white man’s bidding. This image was contrasted to the iconoclastic Ali, who was then a man of the cultish, black power separatist entity called the Nation of Islam.

According to Ali, the callous name-calling he subjected Frazier to was done under the guise of fight promotion. As much as Ali tried in his post-boxing years to explain that his trash talking, verbal abuse of Frazier was really not how he felt about the Philadelphia prodigy, Frazier found it hard to find ground for reconciliation with Ali as he harbored anger and bitterness towards “The Greatest”. It is said that in the last few years of his life, Frazier found it in his heart to forgive Ali and put an end to their long-running, rancorous rivalry. Yet, this paled to how great Frazier was as a fighter. All the downturns and adversities he suffered will never devalue his place in the pantheon of great boxers.

Frazier was known for his unyielding attack style in his fights. However, that same headlong style got him battered repeatedly. As one boxing writer once wrote, Frazier preferred to lead with his face. He was also willing to take three shots to land one. Manny Pacquiao has a somewhat similar style and approach, although I would give him more credit for having some semblance of defense, something that eluded Frazier.

I was unsettled by what I saw in Pacquiao’s narrow escape against Juan Manuel Marquez last November 12. It’s all too easy, almost expected, as a Filipino American to join the Filipino chorus in singing praises to the Pacman’s latest victory. It is as if nothing about Pacquiao’s boxing ability had changed. And maybe it hasn’t. But after watching him struggle mightily against Marquez, it was clear that something about Pacquiao was not quite right.

It’s a gut feeling, but it seemed Pacquiao wasn’t himself that night in Las Vegas. Marquez, on account of his strong performance, could and perhaps should have won the fight. All patriotic camaraderie aside, his third meeting with Marquez was not Pacquiao’s finest hour. It is an open secret that Pacquiao is dangerously vulnerable against effective counterpunchers such as Marquez, or Floyd Mayweather for that matter. This was pretty evident in the fight.

Pacquiao was very un-Pacquiao like as he was hesitant at times and off-target with many of his punches. Of course, Pacquiao may have simply had an off night. Boxing being what it is though, I am concerned that age is beginning to slow him down a little. Could this be Floyd Mayweather’s strategy, to wait for Pacquiao to get old? At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, I have to ask if a 38-year old Marquez can do what he did recently to Pacquiao, how would Mayweather, a far more skilled and faster fighter than Marquez, fare against what increasingly looks like a past-his-prime Pacquiao? Just some reality food for thought, Pacman fans.


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