The War Report: Halfway up, halfway down (Week 26, 2017)
Even for the average sports fan, there was really no other choice but to watch boxing on Saturday night. With no other significant sporting event going on and ESPN shown in just about every bar across America, it was a great opportunity for the sport to reintroduce itself to the potential fan, and with Manny Pacquiao fighting for the first time off pay-per-view in 12 years, Top Rank had a novel idea in premiering its new series with the network.
Generating big ratings, it’s likely that people who don’t watch boxing regularly were the majority of the viewership. By the end of the first round, it really didn’t matter if they knew who Jeff Horn was either. His determined style quickly forged an interesting fight against an aged legend who built a career on excitement. It wasn’t exactly an all-out brawl but constant spurts of effort from Horn mixed with the counterpunching capabilities of Pacquiao added to the drama. Blood was drawn from both men but the more renowned fighter bled more. Horn made it a dogfight by hitting in the clinch, often times getting Pacquiao in a headlock and getting rough with the forearms but it two accidental headbutts gashed both sides of Pacquiao’s scalp. His blood was just a photogenic accessory, however, especially while Pacquiao flashed a moment of his former self in the ninth round, in which he changed the shape of Horn’s face and momentarily had him reeling. Pacquiao couldn’t get the knockout but, with the Australian toughing it out in front of his home crowd, the fight stayed compelling all the way through.
With low expectations, the fight over-delivered and, based on the post-fight reaction, it was clear this event was a success before the numbers even came in. It’s not often when celebrities or pro athletes publicly voice their opinions on a fight but that was the social media trend on Saturday night. It’s a clear sign of the event’s reach. If not all, most of the takes disagreed with the controversial, unanimous decision in favor of Horn and, when boxing already suffers a stereotype of being corrupt or inept, it’s never a good topic of conversation after a solid fight on a huge stage. It almost makes the decision easy for that potential viewer to not take the extra step further and follow the sport closer. On the other hand, for boxing aficionados, the result shouldn’t have been a huge surprise because they’ve likely found that middle ground of acceptance when it comes to boxing’s constant incompetence.
Just hours earlier, those same diehard boxing fans saw Robert Easter Jr. and Denis Shafikov take part in an exciting, competitive title fight but the lopsided scores stole the headline and sucked the air out of the fight that transpired. It’s not to say Easter didn’t do enough to defend his IBF lightweight title and deserve the win but the two scores of 120-108 were a gross portrayal of what really happened. Fighting in Easter’s hometown of Toledo, Ohio, Shafikov had no chance without a knockout and none of his efforts were noticed by the most important people in the room. Earlier, on the same Bounce TV telecast, another mishandling of scores ruined a good fight between Jamontay Clark and Ivan Golub but these two examples are mere footnotes compared to what happened after Horn -Pacquiao – as it was sucked into the mainstream topic of conversation for the world to see.
Outrage seems to be the desired disposition in today’s mainstream sports media and its ringleader Stephen A. Smith went full throttle in the post-fight discussion on ESPN after Horn-Pacquiao. Smith, who showed his neophyte knowledge of boxing before the fight, when combing over Horn’s past opponents, was disgusted with the outcome and, rather than figuring out how or why the scores were determined, the dead horse of it being a robbery was beaten to a pulp for close to an hour. Remarkably, the official round-by-round scorecards were never broken down on air and the fact that Pacquiao had trouble with an unknown contender wasn’t convenient enough to broach. As the uninitiated viewer looked on, was the new venture he or she saw worth the time and effort going forward? Was it something that compelled a boxing fan of old to return?
The tone of the aftermath would’ve been much different had Pacquiao gotten the victory and, instead of remedial hot takes echoing through the mind of potential viewers that night, they would’ve gone to sleep with the memory of a fight that was worth their time. Instead, boxing went ahead and tripped on its own foot during the celebration. Rearing it’s ugly heads were the sport’s redundant issues. While there was no discussion of fixing the problem (something even the full-time boxing media fails to do), the narrative was quick to be outraged and, like a bull seeing red, the mainstream went full steam ahead on a story pretty much tailor-made for its output.
Pacquiao, who is a part-time prizefighter nowadays, looked every bit of his 38 years. In his 68th professional fight, the “Pacman” noticeably lost a step, wasn’t quick with his usual sharp counters and basically allowed Horn to will a victory with sheer effort. With several close rounds in a competitive fight, a robbery this was not, especially when the result won’t keep Pacquiao from getting another opportunity at a payday. Perhaps Pacquiao knew that as he took the loss graciously in the moment, even though he believed he won the fight. It wasn’t the first time this happened to him either but maybe Pacquiao had it coming this time around, as he joins a large club of fighters who’ve fought too long with nothing left to prove.
Forever on his record, Pacquiao will have a loss next to the name of Jeff Horn but, like many fights throughout history, you’re going to have to watch it in order to get a full grasp of what happened. Many, this writer included, will continue to believe Pacquiao won after watching the fight again and again but that shouldn’t take away from a satisfying fight. Perspective is important, when following boxing, and so is patience when sifting through the important details. That said, looking at the whole scope of the event, halfway up, halfway down and all-around, this wasn’t an circumstance to crown the best welterweight in the world, rather an appealing way for boxing to get some limelight. That goal was certainly achieved but the unsuspecting viewers are unaware of all that. In the end, they got a confirmation that boxing has failed to change its ways and, even though they got a taste of how exciting the fight game can be, in the moment, whether or not they’ll be back for more remains to be seen.