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Friday, October 30, 2009

Pacquiao to test credentials for crossover stardom

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Muhammad Ali had it. Ken Norton did not. Sugar Ray Leonard had it. Thomas Hearns did not. Mike Tyson had it. Lennox Lewis did not. Oscar De La Hoya had it. Pernell Whitaker did not. Manny Pacquiao?

The question spikes Pacquiao’s date with Miguel Cotto on Nov. 14 at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand with a potent shot of intrigue that turns an already-interesting fight into a potential game-changer for the boxing business.

Can Pacquiao cross over and capture the public imagination in a way that makes the casual fan stop, talk and pay to watch?

Crossover stardom is hard to measure. Like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when asked about another business in the red-light district, however, I know it when I see it. I’ve seen it in Pacquiao for years, or at least since he climbed through the ropes in 2005 smiling like a kid on a playground swing and then talked referee Joe Cortez out of a mid-round stoppage for a nasty cut in a fight he lost by decision to Erik Morales.

Pacquiao is genuine, vulnerable and dangerous all at once. The mix is as compelling as it is unlikely. The way in which it is expressed can also be as different as Tyson, the looming train wreck, and De La Hoya, the well-appointed luxury suite.

What I’m not sure of, however, is whether Americans care. A wise friend bet me that Home Box Office won’t generate as much pay-per-view income for Pacquiao-Cotto, Filipino-versus-Puerto Rican, as it did on Sept. 19 for Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Juan Manuel Marquez, American-versus-Mexican. It was a lousy fight, but the pay-per-view milestone, one million customers, is a big victory for Mayweather, much bigger than his one-sided win over Marquez. My friend’s contention is that Americans want to see American fighters.


Maybe, Mayweather’s pay-per-view triumph says exactly that. If so, then Pacquiao will be more like Pele than a De La Hoya. There is plenty of international kick in that. But Pele, a Brazilian, is as popular in America as soccer is or never has been.

In an internet-connected world turning into a global village, however, I’m betting that Americans have begun to notice Pacquiao. His promoter, Bob Arum, introduced a conference call Wednesday by saying that Pacquiao-Cotto is generating interest he hasn’t detected since Leonard, Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran put some buzz in to the 1980s. The reason, Arum says, is the emergence of Pacquiao’s crossover appeal to people who measure everything they know of boxing by what they remember about Ali.

“I’m just noticing it now,’’ Arum said a few weeks ago during a visit to Cotto’s training camp in Tampa.

Arum said he was in a fashionable Manhattan restaurant, the Monkey Bar, when a couple of celebrity diners, broadcast journalist Charlie Rose and editor Norman Pearlstine, talked about Pacquiao as though he were an emerging market.

During the conference call, there was talk that Pacquiao is poised to become one of history’s five best. Argue over three or four, but Ali would have to be one of them, in large part because of his larger-than-life role in the culture wars of the 1960s and ‘70s.

“Ali was a proponent of a political position and also became a spokesman for the civil rights movement at the time when it was really emerging,’’ said Arum, a former promoter for the iconic ex-heavyweight champ who Friday at his home in Phoenix celebrates the 35th anniversary Friday of his 1974 victory over George Foreman in Zaire. “Ali had a tremendous political impact, particularly his stance on the Viet Nam War. When he came back to fight, people just idolized him.

“Manny does not have that major political statement because he is not controversial. But he is engaged in politics in the Philippines. Everything that he does is pro-humanity, so he is rather loved in the Philippines, the United States and all over the world. …I have never seen anything like the adulation that he is treated by Filipinos all over the world. That is something that even Ali never even really had.’’

For Arum’s generation and my own, Ali’s politics echo down through the decades. In the ring and out of it, Ali’s timing was perfect, although I will forever blame him for Floyd Mayweather Sr.’s poetry. A bygone era wanted a rebel and it got one in Ali.

In a current era plagued by uncertainty heightened by a troubled economy, Pacquiao, surrounded by worshipping fans when he arrived in Los Angeles from Manila a few days ago, is also a man for his times. He is a lousy interview. He doesn’t say much. But these are noisy days. Everybody seems to have a web site or talk show. It would be easy, if not redundant, to just be another noise maker. While the rest of us talk and write about what we should do, shouldn’t do, won’t do and might do, Pacquiao reassures with action. He looks like somebody who knows what to do. Imagine that.

In the final accounting, however, I’m not sure it will matter. I’ve watched Ali interact with the public at various times and places in Phoenix. Parkinson’s has silenced him. The rhyme, the original rap, is gone. But it doesn’t matter. He never fails to attract a crowd, including kids who think Viet Nam is a neighborhood restaurant that specializes in Asian fusion. They don’t care or don’t know if Ali stood against a controversial war.

They just see somebody who, at 67, is as genuine as he was when he was 27. He can’t hide that.

Neither can Pacquiao.


· Kudos to light-heavyweight Chad Dawson for dedicating his Nov. 7 rematch against Glen Johnson in Hartford, Conn., to slain UConn football player Jasper Howard. “One of the things that Chad is behind, as well as all of my fighters, is keeping violence inside the ropes,’’ promoter Gary Saw said Thursday. “We have T-shirts that say that. It’s on the web site. If they want fight or feel violent or whatever, then let them to lace up the gloves. Real men wear gloves.’’

· More Dawson: The 27-year-old might be a star in waiting. Eventually, the plan is for him to be a heavyweight. “He will absolutely be the heavyweight champion,’’ predicted Shaw, who first might have him drop back down to super-middleweight for a shot at the Super Six tournament title if – as expected – retires Taylor withdraws. Dawson’s eligibility for Taylor’s spot hinges on negotiations with HBO, Shaw said.

· And Pacquiao’s regimen includes getting hit with a stick while doing sit-ups. The idea and the stick comes from Thailand, where trainers use it to toughen up their fighters. “It deadens the nerves so you can absorb a punch better,’’ Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach said. Although Pacquiao has employed and apparently enjoyed the training method for years, Roach concedes he is not altogether comfortable with the tactic. “If somebody is going to hit me with a stick, they better bring a big one,’’ Roach said.

Source: http://www.15rounds.com/pacquiao-to-test-credentials-for-crossover-stardom-103009/

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