Monday, Dec. 8, 2008 | 2 a.m.
From the moment the two men agreed to fight, Manny Pacquiao’s handlers had been trying to psyche Oscar De La Hoya out of his game.
Pacquiao’s team included trainer Freddie Roach and promoter Bob Arum, veterans of the business with decades of experience and expertise, both well aware of the value a psychological edge can carry.
Little did they suspect mind games would play a negligible role in this fight. It turned out to be a purely physical affair in which De La Hoya’s faded power and diminished reflexes stood no chance against their man, the sport’s best all-around boxer in any weight class.
Even so, their efforts figure to pay dividends as Pacquiao’s profile becomes higher yet, as he takes on boxing’s biggest names in the megafights of next year and beyond.
An early clue that Pacquiao’s camp was aiming for De La Hoya’s head in more ways than one came during an open workout last month at Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, Calif. Each visitor to a Pacquiao training session was issued a sticker to wear as a badge for the day reading, “Mexicans for Pacquiao.”
The actual ethnic background of the visitor was irrelevant, of course. Team Pacquiao was simply gloating about its recruitment of an assortment of well-known Mexican boxers — including Julio Cesar Chavez senior and junior, Jorge Arce and others — to pledge their allegiance to Pacquiao in the fight despite De La Hoya’s Mexican heritage. It was also a nod to Pacquiao’s reputation for defeating Mexican champions in the ring.
The slogan, “Mexicans for Pacquiao,” became a rallying cry even after De La Hoya fired back by trotting out his own parade of Mexican champions — including Ruben Olivares, Pipino Cuevas, Chiquita Gonzalez, Juan Manuel Marquez and Oscar Larios, among others — at the final prefight news conference last week at the MGM Grand.
Unfazed, Arum dismissed that roster of names as behind the times for failing to support the Filipino fighter.
“So many of those guys are long in the tooth,” Arum said. “All the young Mexican fighters are with Manny, because he fights like a Mexican. The older guys came to Las Vegas because they got a free trip.”
It was also at the final Las Vegas press gathering that Arum reprised a speech he had used at earlier publicity stops, including one at the Statue of Liberty, designed to prod Americans into backing his boxer. Pacquiao, after all, remains an exotic if intriguing figure among sports fans who are not hardcore boxing loyalists, a dynamic talent with a name that’s hard to spell and difficult to pronounce if you haven’t heard it uttered out loud.
Invoking World War II and weaving General Douglas MacArthur’s famed “I shall return” maxim into his narrative, Arum made an impassioned case for Americans to rally behind Pacquiao as well.
“After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese troops invaded the Philippines and the U.S. troops fought together with the Philippine troops to resist the Japanese invasion,” Arum said. “After the battles of Bataan and Corregidor the American troops were forced to surrender, but the Filipinos never, never surrendered. For three long years they fought the Japanese in the Philippines to a standstill.
“At the end of the war, when MacArthur returned as he had promised, the Philippine troops were still in the field fighting the Japanese. That fighting spirit of our long-term allies is what Manny represents.”
In the ring, Pacquiao would attack De La Hoya with a mixture of smarts and aggression, Arum said in a prescient analysis.
Following Roach’s strategy with precision, Pacquiao picked his spots in the early rounds Saturday night at the Grand Garden Arena, determined to avoid falling into any trap De La Hoya might have been setting. Pacquiao acknowledged he felt flashes of De La Hoya’s power in the early going, but those were short-lived, and he went on to dominate the rest of the fight.
With Pacquiao holding a 97-21 edge in punches connected during the combined sixth, seventh and eighth rounds, De La Hoya’s cornermen bowed out before the start of the ninth.
As everyone in attendance was aware they might have witnessed an unfortunate ending to a splendid career, the postfight festivities had the feel of a retirement dinner, although the guest of honor had been sent to the hospital as a precautionary measure.
“I’m grateful to De La Hoya, (for) what he did for boxing,” said Angelo Dundee, who served as a special advisor during De La Hoya’s training camp.
For once, Bernard Hopkins was almost at a loss for words, unsure whether to address De La Hoya’s career in the past tense.
“Oscar De La Hoya had a hell of a career,” he said.
Roach was more assertive: “He’s had a great career, but I’d like to see him retire because I think it’s over,” he said.
Arum offered an eloquent postscript.“If in fact this was Oscar’s last fight, we all have to remember what he did for boxing, what a shining light he was for the sport, and how he created interest in the sport, and how he really helped the sport for so many years,” Arum said. “If he retires, God bless him, and thanks for all he did for the sport of boxing.”
Oh, and all that stuff about Mexicans? Nothing personal, said Manny Pacquiao, who still considers De La Hoya his idol.
“It’s not about Mexicans and Filipinos,” Pacquiao said. “It just happened that in my time there were a lot of Mexicans in my division. It’s not my ambition to fight all the Mexicans. I love Mexicans.”