When Michael Buffer read the scorecards Saturday night in boxing's worst robbery in a major fight since Pernell Whitaker and Julio Cesar Chavez fought to a "draw" in 1993, I was sitting beside a columnist for PhilBoxing.com, a news site that often reads like the Manny Pacquiao Ministry of Propaganda. We were six or seven rows back from ringside, and when it became clear that Timothy Bradley Jr. had been declared winner by split decision over the heavily favored Pacquiao, my companion shot out of his chair and shouted: "WHAT'S HAPPENING? WHAT'S HAPPENING?? THIS IS MADNESS! WHO IS THAT GUY WHO DID THIS?"
That guy (and girl) were Nevada State Athletic Commission judges C.J. Ross and Duane Ford, who each scored the fight 115-113, seven rounds to five, for Bradley. Or, if you choose to believe the whispers that swept through press row at the same time as a chorus of boos filled the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, "that guy who did this" might not have been the judges. According to a conspiracy theory that had been floated and workshopped and all but perfected in the two minutes it took to walk from the arena to an adjacent banquet room for the post-fight press conference, "that guy" was Pacquiao's promoter, Top Rank CEO Bob Arum.
This sounds far-fetched — and it is — but not much more far-fetched than the possibility that three professional judges who also happen to be human beings with eyeballs connected to optic nerves connected to non-lobotomized brains could watch that fight and believe that Bradley won. Or that it was even just a close victory for Pacquiao. There didn't seem to be a single reporter on press row who gave the fight to Bradley, and if there was, he or she must have been too ashamed to admit it. I overheard HBO boxing analyst Max Kellerman saying he scored it eight rounds to four for Pacquiao, and that he thought doing so was being generous to Bradley. Ten rounds to two, nine to three, and even 11 to one in favor of Pacquiao were more common spreads among journalists who covered the fight. So when people tried to understand why Pacquiao lost a fight where he landed 82 more power punches than Bradley and 12 more jabs while connecting on a much higher percentage of his blows, it's no surprise that foul play came immediately to mind. Anyone who searched for a rational explanation for this result was bound to come up empty. After that, what's left but whatever cloak-and-dagger machinations you care to imagine in a sport controlled by a handful of powerful promoters with varying agendas and overseen by a patchwork of ineffectual state athletic commissions?
In the week before the fight, separate stories in the Philippine Daily Inquirer likened the fight-ready Manny Pacquiao to a ninja, an eagle, and a Lamborghini. When he exchanged combinations with Bradley in the middle rounds of their bout Saturday, those comparisons actually didn't seem so overheated. In rounds four, five, and six, when Pacquiao staggered Bradley with flurries of hooks, uppercuts, and overhand lefts, you might have been able to convince me that Pacquiao was part sports car, part bird of prey, and part shinobi assassin. It started late in the fourth, when Pacquiao fought off the ropes and landed a thudding, overhand shot that didn't land clean on Bradley's chin or cheek or nose, but struck him just beneath the ear with such force that it knocked him off balance. From there, Pacquiao unleashed a fusillade of punches while bounding from side to side around Bradley. The combination of glancing blows and a flush right cross to the chin sent Bradley stumbling back toward the center of the ring, where he sprained his ankle trying to recover his balance. Pacquiao kept the pressure on Bradley, who survived by holding Pacquiao against the ropes and refusing to let go until referee Robert Byrd forcibly pried the fighters apart. Bradley was wobbled and hurt in similar exchanges in the fifth and sixth as well, and he dazedly lurched back to his corner after each of those rounds.
The fighters traded combinations at other points in the match, but the most meaningful punches in the fight landed in those violent middle rounds. And nearly all of them were landed by Pacquiao. Late in the fight, Bradley seemed to shift to a far more defensive strategy. He had tried to pick his spots and counterpunch throughout the fight, but after Pacquiao hurt him, Bradley's game plan looked more like a full-scale retreat. Bradley galloped in circles around the ring while Pacquiao smacked his gloves together in frustration and chased him. There's no telling how much Bradley's injured ankles limited him in this fight, but they certainly didn't prevent him from running. It looked like survival mode, like Bradley just wanted to go the distance. On occasion, Bradley would spring forward and throw a jab or a one-two combination to little effect, then leap out of range. And even with Bradley doing everything he could to avoid going toe-to-toe with Pacquiao, Manny still managed to land a handful of clean power shots that seemed significant enough to win rounds. Pacquiao did appear to take stretches off late in the fight — he didn't pursue Bradley like he was hell-bent on knocking him out. But Bradley is not slow and I'm not quite sure how Pacquiao could successfully cut the ring off against a quick, agile opponent whose primary concern seemed to be escaping further harm. And besides, by the time the late rounds began it was hard to imagine that anyone in the building really thought Pacquiao needed to catch Bradley, since he had dominated the fight until then. When the final bell rang, I scanned the crowd for Filipino senators and celebrities, and saw Jeremy Renner — The Bourne Legacy was shot in Manila — sitting among them. There wasn't a glimmer of concern in their faces, because Pacquiao had obviously won. Then Bradley was declared champion.
I was so confused by the decision that after the fight, I went back to my room and bought the pay-per-view replay (same $55 price tag as the live fight!) from Top Rank's website. Brian Kenny was calling the fight for Top Rank, and he was more pro-Bradley than anyone I had spoken to at the fight. When I watched Buffer announce the decision again, this time on the screen of my laptop, I heard Kenny explain: "That was won fair and square, in the ring." The point, I guess, was that Bradley, by moving away from Pacquiao and throwing 398 jabs into the air, had somehow outboxed Pacquiao.
But I have seen Manny Pacquiao get outboxed — Juan Manuel Marquez did it in many of the 36 rounds he's spent in the ring with Pacquiao, although it was never quite enough to earn Marquez a decision. And Bradley's performance Saturday night hardly resembled the way Marquez fought in any of his three fights with Pacquiao. For starters, Marquez never ran. He stood a step out of Pacquiao's range, waited for him to attack, and timed his shots to interrupt Pacquiao's barrage. This is a perilous way to fight a boxer as fast, powerful, and unpredictable as Pacquiao, and that's probably why Marquez was knocked down four times in their trilogy. But even though Marquez ate his fair share of Pacquiao leather, his ability to weather Manny's storm and land his own precise counterpunches allowed him to do something Bradley never did — hurt Pacquiao back. That's why Marquez is still considered Pacquiao's toughest opponent and Bradley is just the beneficiary of boxing's most recent travesty.
The disputed decisions in Pacquiao's last two fights — a November victory against Marquez and Saturday's loss to Bradley — lead to a suspicious place for the conspiracy theorist set of boxing fans (which, I presume, is the majority of them). Why would boxing's powers that be deny Marquez the victory that many believe he deserved in November, then turn around and rob Manny with Saturday's decision?
Here's the conspiracy theory that rippled through the boxing media Saturday night. We're never going to know if it's true, and it might be complete hokum. But damn, does it make sense in all the right twisted, paranoiac ways.
Top Rank promotes Manny Pacquiao. He is the second most bankable fighter in boxing, after Floyd Mayweather. But because Pacquiao has fought more frequently than Floyd over the past five years, he has generated more overall money than Mayweather. Pacquiao-Marquez III generated $11.6 million in ticket sales and 1.4 million pay-per-view buys. The Bradley fight didn't even sell out the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and it's expected to do lower pay-per-view numbers — largely because Bradley doesn't have much of a following — but when all the revenue is added up for Saturday's fight, Pacquiao will have once again made Top Rank many millions of dollars.
In recent years, Arum and Top Rank have become somewhat notorious for their reluctance to make big fights with boxers promoted by other companies. Part of this is due to bad blood between Top Rank and the sport's other leading promotional company, Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Productions. But rivalries aside, business is always better for Top Rank when they schedule a pay-per-view fight between two Top Rank stars. That way, once the fighters receive their guaranteed purses and negotiated percentages of the TV revenue, the rest of the pie goes straight to Top Rank. If Top Rank were to stage a fight in conjunction with Golden Boy or another major promoter, the company's earnings would essentially be cut in half. This is believed to be why Bradley was never considered a likely opponent for Pacquiao until last year, when he left his former promoter and signed with Top Rank. It's also one of the reasons why a fight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather has never been made. Even though Mayweather-Pacquiao would create the biggest payday in boxing history, Top Rank and Mayweather's team would have to split that payday and the resulting profits might not exceed what Top Rank can make by pitting Pacquiao against an in-house fighter, even if the opponent is nowhere near as talented or famous as Mayweather.
Top Rank prefers to match Pacquiao with its own fighters, but Pacquiao has beaten nearly every credible foe (Miguel Cotto, Joshua Clottey, Antonio Margarito, Shane Mosley, and Marquez were all with the company when they fought Pacquiao) in Top Rank's stable in recent years. According to the conspiracy theory, Pacquiao's loss to Bradley solved the problem of finding Manny a November opponent. Instead of force-feeding the public a fourth Marquez fight, Top Rank can stage the Pacquiao-Bradley rematch, and they can reasonably expect the fight to generate greater profits than the first one, since Bradley's public profile will grow and boxing fans will be keen to watch Pacquiao attempt to set the record straight with a knockout. Additionally, boxing trainer and analyst Teddy Atlas has suggested that with Pacquiao's contract with Top Rank ending in 2013, the fighter may choose to leave the company next year. This would allow Pacquiao to negotiate his own promotional deals like Mayweather does. By doing so, Pacquiao would presumably be able to claim a much fatter slice of the earnings pie from his fights. According to this tributary of the conspiracy theory, Saturday night may have been Top Rank's way of sending a message to Pacquiao: If you choose to leave next year, you might be doing so with two fresh losses on your record, and Mayweather might decide he no longer has to prove that he can beat you.
Are the powers that be and their backstage plots real? Your guess is as good as mine, but imagining them is one of the secondary joys of boxing fandom. Trying to understand the promoters' motives and anticipate their next moves is almost as much fun as watching Pacquiao overwhelm an opponent or Marquez pick apart a fighter one sharp counter at a time.
I think that's why, when Bob Arum stood behind a podium and faced the press after Saturday's fight, he was given a surprisingly warm reception. These were, after all, the same cynics who had just been muttering about how Arum was probably to blame for the Bradley decision. But boxing writers and hard-core fans understand that the game behind the scenes is as important as the sport inside the ring, and it was hard not to admire the way Arum played the moment at the press conference.
"I've never been as ashamed of the sport of boxing as I am tonight," were the first words out of Arum's mouth. He defused the anger in the room by calling the Bradley decision one of the worst he's ever seen, comparing it to other controversial decisions like Pacquiao-Marquez III. Arum said that this result was far worse — "unfathomable" — and admitted that as angry as he was in the moment, he stood to "make a lot of money off the rematch." He mixed righteous indignation and candid talk about business with a Yiddish-peppered rant about how old, incompetent judges make everyone feel like schmucks, "and nobody likes to feel like a schmuck." The room was laughing at his sarcasm, even though moments before, many of the people who were now enjoying Arum's irascible charm had been kvetching about how he must have masterminded the entire debacle. And that's really the beauty of Bob Arum, the man who famously once told reporters, "Yesterday I was lying; today I'm telling the truth." Twice a year, it seems like Arum is involved with something that makes everyone who cares about boxing feel like a schmuck, and every single schmuck among us just keeps coming back for more.