The life cycle of a champ

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If silence had a name, it was probably stuck in the open mouths of a thousand stunned spectators inside a mall theater one particular Sunday afternoon in December.

Just moments ago, the revitalized crowd cheered as their icon pummeled away at a ghost he had failed to bury several times in the past, the roar getting louder as punch after punch pushed the familiar nemesis to the ropes. And then, just as the crescendo reached its peak, a sudden quiet muffled the theater.

For a split second, it seemed that some law of physics had vacuumed every bit of sound off the venue and left everything dead mute. And then, as the wide screen flashed the reason for the sudden silence and replayed the moments that led to it, the sound came back—initially in waves of murmurs, that gradually rose into questions.

“What just happened? Could this be real?”

Those were the only two questions asked by most everyone—from the lanky security guard badgered by ticket holders who could not find their seats, to the family of three halfway through their popcorn and the couch analyst loudly annotating the fight.

Manny Pacquiao, on the floor, motionless. All it took was one punch from rival Juan Manuel Marquez, and the boxing equivalent of a telenovela came to a crushing, unexpected and definitive end.

Shock gave way to concern when Pacquiao, the world’s only eight-division champion, failed to stir after several minutes on the floor. And concern gave way to palpable relief when the boxing hero finally got up.

“I got careless,” Pacquiao later told journalists and television reporters. “I did not see the punch coming.”

Exactly a week after, the guy tipped to carry on the legacy of Pacquiao climbed the ring in a Houston arena, brimming with optimism despite the obvious burden of a nation’s hope weighing down on his shoulders.

But Nonito Donaire Jr., the one they call “The Filipino Flash,” took all those expectations and wielded it as a weapon against Mexican warrior Jorge Arce, throwing devastating punch after devastating punch until his left hook found its mark at the end of the third.

Down went the gutsy Arce. Up went the spirits of a nation.

“I knew after Manny Pacquiao’s loss, I had to come up with something big for the Filipino people,” Donaire told reporters.

It was the fourth win in a busy 2012 for Donaire, a feat that underscored his value as the next great pay-per-view superstar in the world boxing scene. It also cemented his claim as one of the sport’s legitimate superstars. In fact, immediately after pole-axing Arce, big names were floated as the next possible foes for the technically gifted fighter.

But while Donaire proved ready to take on the mantle of hero worship from Pacquiao, it seems that thoughts of retirement are farthest from the mind of the Sarangani representative.

In fact, when Pacquiao came home after his devastating loss, the first words he uttered during a press conference were those that everyone hoped for:

“We shall rise again,” he vowed.

That, plus the contrasting fate of both fighters set the stage for an intriguing 2013.

For both fighters, the question is, what now?

Both fighters have a ton of options before them. But for each, there is one fight of great significance that needs to be made.

For Manny Pacquiao, it is a fifth fight with Marquez.

Forget their first three bouts. Team Pacquiao must now look at the fourth fight as the first of their rivalry. It had a definitive finish. It was action packed. And it set up a rematch so huge, even Pacquiao-Mayweather, a fight that was always in limbo anyway, slipped into temporary irrelevance.

Trainer Freddie Roach had earlier wanted a rematch to happen immediately, telling reporters that setting up Pacquiao for a tune-up fight was “unnecessary.”

But several things have happened since then, including Marquez telling a boxing website that he was no longer interested in a fifth fight.

“I think for me, there is no point [in staging a fifth fight],” Marquez said. “We already achieved the desired result.  Why do it?  So I asked several people, several friends (whom) I have around me and they told me not to do it, that there is no point in a fifth fight.”

Of course, those were the exact same words Pacquiao had said after the third bout. And yet No. 4 came to fore. Money talks in boxing. And it can convince a satisfied Marquez to climb the ring and do the whole thing all over again.

Before that fifth fight happens, though, Pacquiao has to settle some matters. There’s the election coming up in May, and his wife Jinkee and brother Rogelio are both running for public office.

And then there’s the possibility of him fighting someone other than Marquez before getting back to the ring against his nemesis.

Brandon Rios and Robert Guerrero have been tagged as possible opponents for Pacquiao. Of the two, it is Rios (31-0, 23 KOs) who has Roach’s attention.

“I think Rios is a compelling fight,” Roach told reporters. “He’s action packed. He’s an aggressive, young kid. He talks a lot of smack and sells tickets.”

“It will be a very competitive fight,” Roach said. So competitive that the Hall-of-Fame trainer is “a little worried about that fight.”

“It’s the young versus the old,” he said.

Of course, there’s another voice of reason trying to factor itself in in the whole equation, and it’s coming from one who has Pacquiao’s ear most of the time.

“I know he is still capable of fighting but for me, he has nothing to prove,” said wife Jinkee in an interview with USA Today. “He already has eight belts. He can retire—stop—any time. I want him to stop now. But he has the last say. Boxers risk their lives; some end up in wheelchairs. I don’t want that to happen to Manny.”

Jinkee went hysterical after the knockout against Marquez and was caught on TV trying to get to her man as he lay unconscious on the ring.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen him like that and I was scared,” she said.

For Donaire, the future is more clear-cut.

His 4-0 sweep in 2012 became the toast of the boxing world, with every award-giving outlet naming him the Fighter of the Year.  He has reached that point in his career when he can pick opponents and headline pay-per-view cards.

Donaire will fight on April 13 in Radio City Music Hall in New York.

And that opponent will be undefeated Cuban and former amateur sensation Guillermo Rigondeaux.

The fight that most want to see though is that against Abner Mares, the WBC Mexican champion. But conflicts between the two fighters’ promotional outfits forced the cancellation of talks—after much online and social media preening.

The two super bantamweight champions have generated so much intrigue that Golden Boy Promotions offered Top Rank Chief Bob Arum $3 million to hold the bout.

GBP handles Mares while Top Rank promotes Donaire. Both outfits are fierce rivals and it is their enmity that people point to when doing an autopsy on the collapse of Pacquiao-Mayweather talks.

“I think both fighters, Abner Mares and Nonito Donaire, deserve to make the most money out of this fight,” said GBP chief operating officer Richard Shaefer. “I’m willing to put up an offer to Bob Arum to provide the services of Donaire. I am willing to offer them $3 million.”

GBP boss Oscar De La Hoya later joined the challenge, firing a post on his Twitter page that said: “Let’s see what excuse Bob Arum will come up with now. I’m sure Nonito will agree that $3 million is a lot of moolah.”

Still, the fight didn’t materialize. And Donaire will do a lot of heavy lifting PPV-wise when he faces Rigondeaux, who isn’t a hot sell just yet despite his stellar Olympic career.

For Donaire, though, the tougher challenge is to establish himself in the same way culturally as Manny Pacquiao has. While the Pacman has embedded himself in worldwide pop culture, Donaire has a lot of catching up to do before he can be acknowledged as Pacquiao’s heir apparent.

Maybe it’s Donaire’s upbringing, his having been raised halfway around the world, that makes Filipinos’ acceptance of him vastly different from the way Pacquiao is adored.

But he’s young and he has a lot of potential. After the Rigondeaux fight, Donaire plans to take a break as his wife prepares to give birth to their first child.

In the meantime, the Filipino public waits with bated breath as their revered icon of choice plots his comeback, hoping to rise from the rubble of a crushing defeat and quelling the need, nay even the mere thought, of an heir apparent. •

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