A Whole New Fight Game

Title fights on ESPN? A looming cross-sport megafight? Welcome to boxing’s new landscape.

“You gotta show me something.”

Late in a fight, when one boxer is getting pounded and limped through the last round, a referee will say this to a fighter begging for another chance.  ESPN’s Teddy Atlas said it as the tenth round began, with Jeff Horn needing to prove to the referee that he should stay in the ring.

This summer, the same could be said of boxing itself.  Boxing, well past the golden days and constantly fighting talk of the sport being dead on its feet, has title fights on a major channel.  The first of those, Manny Pacquiao vs Jeff Horn, showed us something.  Horn won the title with a furious final three rounds, and a controversial decision that seemed to ignore who walked in with the belt.

People immediately complained about the decision.  Teddy Atlas got so angry that, after equating the decision with the existence of participation trophies, he hit a decibel level that prompted an interesting reaction from his broadcast partners.  There will almost certainly be a rematch, likely by the end of the year.

Coming in, nobody gave Horn much of a shot.  A local guy with limited fight experience, it seemed like Pacquiao was taking a fight he could easily win in a place where he could make a lot of money.  From the opening, Horn was aggressive, as underdogs often are.  The difference is that this guy didn’t fade.  As the night went on, Jeff Horn just kept coming.

When Pacquiao looked like Manny Pacquiao again in the middle rounds, he kept coming.  After the ninth, with a crater on the right side of his face where an eye would normally be located, the referee considered stopping the fight.  In the tenth, Horn kept coming, followed by another aggressive eleventh.

Horn went the distance Saturday night.  Both fighters were bloody and exhausted.  By Olympic standards it might not have been the Sweet Science, it was not a defensive showcase or a tactical battle.  It was a reckless, crazy brawl between a great champion and an upstart fighting in his hometown.  The underdog won a decision that underdogs tend not to win, and that became the story of the fight, but Jeff Horn earned his rematch with Manny Pacquiao.

Neither fighter was knocked down, but both exchanged some extremely hard blows.  Pacquiao was in control of the action for the bulk of the fight, which in fairness is generally the criteria on which boxing is scored, but it could be said that the best moments of the fight belonged to Jeff Horn.  Horn was the one who was the aggressor throughout, and while there was more flash and effort than clean punching in his charges he fought like a champion.

(AP Photo/John Pye)

Of course, superlatives aside, the consensus is that Pacquiao seemed to have earned the win and the judges got things wrong.  While judges do not have to adhere to a specific handbook, there have been pretty clear criteria on which they have always scored fights in the past.  While Jeff Horn provided a lot of thrills and gave Pacquiao all he could handle, by all of those criteria Manny Pacquiao should have retained his belt.

For one, beating the champ has typically required something more than just going the distance in a close fight.  Champions are generally awarded, for lack of a better word, bonus points for the belt they brought to the festivities.  Pacquiao, not just a champion but one of the finest of his generation, was not given that bonus.

Moreover, Manny Pacquiao landed more clean shots than Jeff Horn did.  A higher percentage of his punches hit the target.  He was better defensively.  He was better statistically.  By the eye test they fought to a draw at best, but some of the worst damage done to Pacquiao was through accidental headbutts, so that’s another checkmark on his side of the ledger.

It should be noted, then, that the only way Jeff Horn would ever get in a boxing ring with Manny Pacquiao again was going to be through a controversial decision.  Looking for justification of Horn’s victory, that’s as far as it needs to go:  It means we get to see another fight.

For years, in fact for decades, boxing had been in a sort of self-imposed exile from the rest of the sports world.

Pay-per-view matches and subscription cable took title fights off of regular television, relegating big fights to bars, big parties, and eventually “who’s buying this fight?”  The money’s good, fighters collect purses that you just can’t deny, but the buzz around boxing has died down steadily for that entire era of the sport.

Tyson’s fights were events.  Foreman’s comeback was a happening.  Roy Jones Jr. was a phenomenon; breakout HBO star before Tony Soprano.  Each pound-for-pound champion seemed to be just a little less of a big deal than the one before.

We don’t have to wait until next week to see this fight replayed on a pay channel.  It was shown live, by the channel that still airs the ranking sports news show of the day, on a holiday weekend.  Even one of the undercards involved a belt changing hands.  This was a Pay Per View kind of a card, and one that lived up to the billing.  Even the introductory fight involved Shane Mosley Jr. fighting a Brisbane local who inexplicably entered the ring in a sombrero like a lost Punch-Out character.

The main event was a bit of an all-out brawl, which is of course the most visually pleasing kind of fight.  That is, until the fighters start bleeding, and bleed did they ever.  A pair of incidental headbutts opened up cuts on Pacquiao’s head that just gushed.  Horn’s right eye was a disaster area for the last few rounds.

Boxing’s ongoing death has been often placed on the lackluster heavyweight division, but really it was just leaving the general sports conversation.  Fights only matter now when they’re big fights.  Belts had been rarely awarded on accessible television.  What’s more, boxing’s corner has been occupied recently by another fight sport, the bombastic MMA.

That fight sport rivalry has taken center stage recently as well, as last night’s return comes not long after Floyd Mayweather agreed to his upcoming fight with Conor McGregor, MMA legend.  Mayweather occupies a strange place in the sports culture.  His excellence in the ring is unquestioned, but his style fails to entertain people and his personality can be best described as controversial.  He’s a defensive fighter, one of the best boxers in any era when it comes to not getting hit by the punches of other people.

This was, through no fault of anybody’s, a longstanding problem for boxing.  When the pound-for-pound best fighter on the planet is hard to watch and has few peers, it can be difficult to create the kind of headline fights that boxing has always thrived on.

The Mayweather-Pacquiao fight took altogether too long to arrange, and was destined to disappoint because of Mayweather’s insistence on not turning his face into ground chuck for the purpose of making all of us smile.  He won a tactical, defensive masterpiece that was boring because, again, it turns out even boxers aren’t massive fans of getting punched in the face.

So now that the obvious chance to make Floyd a star has finally passed, he’s going to fight McGregor.  As Saturday night showed, the irony is that Pacquiao would have made the much better match for an MMA fighter, as Pacquiao will get in a brawl if you let him.

In other words, expect the coming megafight this August to be boring, tactical, and defensive.  Expect Floyd Mayweather to avoid being punched in the face very well.

The good news is that we’re suddenly talking about boxing again.  The very idea of that fight has brought boxing fans out of the woodwork, all of us suddenly borderline offended that people dare suggest a great MMA fighter could take down this boring boxer fight fans have never been thrilled about.  In that way maybe it’s finally Floyd’s chance to be a decorated champion and be appreciated by the sporting masses.  People who like boxing are finally rooting for that plodding, strategic style.

Likewise, we never seem to appreciate Manny Pacquiao until he loses a stupid decision.  American boxing fans weren’t necessarily sold on him until he “lost” to Timothy Bradley in 2012, at which point sports discussion became the Pacquiao fan club.

Appropriate, then, that he should get another chance for us to all be outraged for him after his megafight with Mayweather fizzled.  That loss was seen as predictable, and the end of Pacquiao as a draw.  This loss makes us want to see the rematch as soon as the fighters can recover enough to have it.  Timothy Bradley was part of the announcing team for ESPN in this fight, in a convenient twist, but Pacquiao-Bradley was on Pay Per View, as was the sequel.

The days of the sweet science being on top are of course long gone.  The top talent isn’t going to reach the levels of fame that Ali or even Tyson did, and if football thinks it has a problem with concussions, boxing wishes it could be in that position.  Reputations have been tarnished, preferences have changed, more options have emerged in the sporting world.

Boxing seems to finally be recognizing that and getting off the mat.  It’s re-joining the mainstream world of sports, begging for that one more round.

We were scheduled for twelve rounds.  ESPN, national television and as close to a network as boxing seems likely to get for a while, got twelve.  Horn’s last three rounds were symbolic.  Boxing wants one more shot.  We collectively said okay, ­but you gotta show us something.  Pacquiao and Horn responded by saying on with the show.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.