Near the end of every calendar year, boxing fans and pundits a like look back and attempt to determine who was the sport’s top fighter. Sometimes we are faced with the difficult task of dissecting multiple fighters’ accomplishments over the last year to decide who best represented the sport by fulfilling two key criteria. The first being that they challenged themselves against the game’s best, and the second being that they fought on a big enough stage to warrant the attention of the pugilistic world. Without a doubt the fighter of 2009 is Manny Pacquiao, who seared his brand of pugilism on the collective consciousness of the American sporting public with a pair of brilliantly devastating performances against two of boxing’s best.
While 2009 was Pacquiao’s year, the truth is that his latest campaign began in December of 2008. In that month, boxing’s current box office and pound-for-pound king fought the former face of American boxing, Oscar de la Hoya. What followed was an eight round pummeling, that saw the six-division champion beaten from pillar to post by a whirling dervish of fistic energy. Using a combination of exceptional speed, an unpredictable arsenal of punches, and fight-changing power, Pacquaio was able to bruise, batter, and ultimately break de la Hoya. Oscar, who had only been stopped once before by long-time middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, was now slumped in his corner between rounds and made the decision to call it a career on his stool. With that singular image, a swollen eye, sagging shoulders, and a look of dejection on Oscar’s face, the torch was passed from the ‘Golden Boy,’ to the ‘Pac-man.’
Manny would not disappoint, but he would have to wait. Pacquaio’s historically staunchest rival, Juan Manuel Marquez, would begin 2009 with a bang. After following Manny to lightweight with a win over Joel Casamayor last year, Marquez would take on Juan Diaz in February. The following action packed nine rounds eventually saw Marquez take command and knockout the former lightweight champion. At this point many were making the argument that Marquez should be considered the top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, supplanting Pacquiao atop boxing’s mythical rankings. Manny, despite having defeated Marquez in 2008, was in need of a win that would erase all doubt as to his place in pugilism.
Enter Ricky Hatton, the once-beaten junior welterweight champion. Hatton, who was defeated by then welterweight champion Mayweather at 147 in 2007, had moved back down to his weight and reeled off two dominating performances against Juan Lazcano (UD 12), and current titleholder Paul Malignaggi (TKO 11), becoming the first man to stop the teak tough Brooklynite. The stage was set as boxing’s two biggest draws would come head-to-head in Las Vegas.
What many thought might have been an exciting clash of styles, ended up becoming one of the most emphatic victories of Pacquiao’s career. From the first bell on it was clear that Hatton did not have the speed, mobility, skill, or power to keep up with his Filipino foe. In the first round, Hatton, who had stood up to the power of Kostya Tszyu, would visit the canvass twice. While Manny controlled the second round, it appeared as if Hatton had found his footing, and would be able to weather the storm. Then it happened, a Pacquiao jab just missed Hatton, who moved towards his left exposing his chin, with perfect timing Manny fired a lightning fast left cross that shattered Ricky’s chin. As Hatton fell to the floor it was clear that the man from Manchester had been separated from his senses thanks to the most spectacular single punch of Pacquiao’s career. With the win Manny claimed his fourth lineal title, and sixth belt in as many weight divisions, but more importantly Pacquiao reaffirmed his standing as the sport’s mythical king.
Without a doubt the rise of Pacquiao, combined with his financial troubles, forced former pound-for-pound kingpin Floyd Mayweather back into the sport. Floyd would secure a fight with Juan Manuel Marquez, the then penultimate fighter in the world, at what was supposed to be a 144 pound catch weight fight. Floyd came in at 146 and proceeded to embarrass the game, but severely undersized Marquez, in a performance that some found impressive but many others found shameful. Still there were those who argued, despite Marquez clearly fighting two-divisions higher than he should have, that this win should automatically install Floyd as the sport’s number one man.
Pacquiao would silence these critics once again with a timeless victory against then reigning WBO welterweight champion Miguel Cotto. The two were to meet at a catch weight of 145 pounds, with Manny now making a second trip to welterweight to fight arguably one of the top three fighters in the division. Cotto, who’s only blemish came against the now tainted Antonio Margarito, had rebounded with two wins, including one against divisional stalwart Joshua Clottey. This fight, unlike the de la Hoya encounter, would see Pacquiao face a fast, powerful, and skilled welterweight in his prime. Once again pundits believed that this fight would be a nip-and-tuck affair, very few could honestly see Manny dismantling such an accomplished fighter.
While the first three rounds seemed to confirm the belief of many that this fight would be close, save for a flash knockdown of Cotto in the third, the fourth round saw Pacquiao take control and never look back. Utilizing his frenetic arsenal of punches, Pacquiao was able to land a crunching uppercut on Cotto’s chin, emphatically planting the Puerto Rican on his back. While Cotto survived the round he would not survive the fight. Increasingly reluctant to engage, Cotto would begin to retreat as Pacquiao surged forward. Finally, in the twelfth round, the referee did what Cotto’s corner could not, and mercifully ended the fight. With the win Pacquiao captured his seventh title in as many weight divisions, and left no doubt that he is not only the fighter of the year, but may very well be one of the greatest fighters of all time.
Next year could be an even bigger year, if a proposed clash with Mayweather does come to fruition. If it does not come to pass that Manny will meet Mayweather, it is without a doubt that the twelve month run from de la Hoya to Cotto is one of the best this sport has seen, and is certainly worthy of all the praise that has been bestowed upon Pacquiao this year. Between the big names, emphatic victories, and far reaching impact he has had on a sport, without a doubt this was the year of Pacquiao.