When the sixth round ended, Manny Pacquiao did a half-pirouette toward his corner, raised his eyebrows like a happy emoticon and beamed a smile that couldn't be hidden by all the blood in his mouthpiece. Everyone who saw it knew that he knew at that moment that he was going to win the fight. Not that his partisans had any doubt. The MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas roared like never before. "Let's go, Manny!" reverberated again and again as the crowd demanded that their champion finish off his opponent and win glory for the Philippines.
The 12-round welterweight battle between Pacquiao and Miguel Angel Cotto of Puerto Rico had been one of the most anticipated fights in recent boxing history, a sport that has been in short supply of anticipation lately. And it did not disappoint, what with the momentum of the zero-to-hero legend of Pacquiao. Indeed, Cotto, the reigning welterweight champion, was pegged as the 5-1 underdog two days before the fight, though he came in with the power that everyone expected him to deliver. Most unofficial scorers gave him the first round.
But he was still up against Pacquiao, the phenom from the Philippines who had risen through several weight classes to win six titles in as many divisions. At the end of the night, Pacquiao had his seventh. After the referee stopped the fight in the 55th second of the 12th and final round, Pacquiao became the new welterweight champion of boxing by TKO. He had knocked down Cotto in the third and fourth rounds, even as the Puerto Rican had traded tough blows to the head and body with Pacquiao throughout the early going. By the end of the sixth round, however, after Pacquiao's punches came at him from unexpected places, Cotto saw his power diminish. His defenses came down and his face became the recipient of so many blows that his handsome mug was unrecognizably swollen by the time the fight was over. Cotto spent the last couple of rounds dancing away from Pacquiao, who at times simply dropped his arms in frustration that no fight was going on.
Nevertheless, the ferocity of most of the fight lived up to its promise, with Cotto valiantly persevering into the final round even though his corner had advised him to throw in the towel at the end of the 11th. And it was a celebration for Vegas, which saw its large community of immigrant Filipinos buoyed by hundreds of others who flew in from the Philippines to cheer on their champ. The city had been abuzz with Pacquiao's presence the week before the fight. Pacman, as he is called by his fans, is a crossover hit. In the world's capital of gambling, almost everyone, from cab drivers to bartenders to street people, was talking about the big fight and why Pacquiao was going to take it. "I know I'm Puerto Rican," said a woman on the plane over from New York, "but I love the Pacman." The rowdy rivalry between the two island peoples (appropriately abbreviated P.R. vs. R.P., Puerto Rico vs. the Republic of the Philippines) did its fair share to rev up excitement in a town that is used to ethnic marketing (note the billboards for visiting superstars from South Korea, north Africa and Israel, alongside those of Bette Midler and Carrot Top). On fight night, national flags were worn as athletic costumes, though the big money men were still accompanied by towering escorts in body-tight metallic lamé and slave-ankle stilettos. Some traditions never change.
The fight has left boxing fans hungry for more which is good news for the sport's promoters. The trouble, however, is that they have only one Manny Pacquiao to go around. The roster of exciting talent is thin. The two matches before the main event in Vegas had interesting names in them (Julio Cesar Chávez Jr., son of the famous Mexican fighter, was one; Yuri Foreman, a Belarussian-born Israeli boxer now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., was another), but they were anemic and not just in comparison to the electric battle between Cotto and Pacquiao. For now, the Filipino fighter says he is going to spend time with his family. He is also probably going to try his hand at politics again. So boxing, besieged by the continuing rise of Mixed Martial Arts, may need more saviors quickly.