Boxing has been called a dying sport, but don't be shocked this fall if water cooler talk returns to the "sweet science."
With a hatful of well matched major championship fights slated for the next several months on regular and pay cable television -- in the wake of Kelly Pavlik's thrilling knockout win in late September over Jermain Taylor to take the middleweight title, there is Juan Diaz vs. Julio Diaz for the lightweight crown, Joe Calzaghe vs. Mikkel Kessler for the super-middleweight belt and Floyd Mayweather vs. Ricky Hatton for welterweight honors, among others -- the sport should provide compelling action before year's end.
If you were to ask a boxing aficionado whom he most looks forward to watching in the ring, the most likely response would be Manny "Pac-Man" Pacquiao, 28, the whirlwind super-featherweight (130 pounds) and 2006 Fighter of the Year.
Pacquiao (pronounced "PAC-ee-ow") is set for a rematch against the legendary Marco Antonio Barrera in Las Vegas on Oct. 6 -- Pacquiao scored a dominating 11th round knockout win in their first fight -- and my $49.95 for the pay-per-view telecast already sits next to the telephone, as should yours.
Why the fuss? Pacquiao, a national hero in his native Philippines, with a career record of 44 wins, 3 losses and 2 draws with 35 knockouts, is an all-action fighter with shocking power for such a small man. He is the only man to K.O. both Barrera and the recently retired Erik Morales, two surefire Hall of Fame fighters.
Freddie Roach, the former lightweight contender who runs Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles, trained Mike Tyson in the twilight of Tyson's career. He claims Pacquiao, his current star pupil, has more explosive power for his size.
"The dents Pacquiao makes in the heavy bag, the pop it produces -- people stop working out and just watch him," says Roach. "Without a doubt, pound-for-pound, he's the best puncher in the world today."
And what most often puts the "ow" in Pacquiao is his signature left cross. Recently, in an effort to become a more knowledgeable couch potato, I set out to find out what put the pop in this punch.
It's a boxing cliché that punchers are born, not made. In reality, Pacquiao packs his wallop with a one-two combination of physique and technique, or so Don King might put it.
"People think it's the Mr. Universe-types who can punch, but that's not true," says veteran trainer and ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas. "It's the wiry guys like Pacquiao who tend to be the destructive punchers. They get better leverage into their shots."
Atlas notes that a strong punch starts with a solid foundation of bent knees and feet shoulder-width apart; any wider or narrower and the boxer can't maximize his weight shift into the punch. "A punch starts at the feet and ends up at the hands," says two-time Boxing Writers Association of American trainer of the year Dan Birmingham.
Indeed, Roach points to Pacquiao's strong legs as his key power source, not his hands, which are relatively small and, less surprisingly, injury-prone.
What they lack in size, Pacquiao's hands make up for in speed, adding velocity to his punches' force.
Trainers speak of putting "snap" in a punch; the first snap comes from the shoulder, the last from the fist itself. "Your palm starts facing your own face, and on impact it's facing the floor," says Roach. "When you can turn over the hand quickly before impact, the punch just explodes. And Manny's turnover is very quick."
It's the punch they don't see coming that knocks out most fighters: The boxer with just one worrisome punch rarely troubles elite opposition.
The younger Pacquiao often went "left-hand crazy," and Roach has worked to vary Pacquiao's attack, particularly to add pop to his key set-up punch, the right jab.
"If you have a good jab and can sting a guy for a tenth of a second," says Birmingham, "that gives you the time to get that cross home." Or, as Atlas puts it: "To use military language, a bomb may have power, but it has no value unless you have a means of delivering it to the target."
Left in the Dust
Pacquiao's left-handedness places him in a very small minority of boxers.
His opponents train against southpaws, but no sparring partner can replicate Pacquiao's attributes, and the fact that his power punch comes straight from the left side (as opposed to a right-hander's hook) gives him a distinct advantage come fight night.
"Ninety percent of the fighters you'll face will be right-handed, and Manny's punches come at you from a slightly different angle," says Roach. "That helps his power a bit, too."
Heart and Soul
Punching power can be a blessing or a curse. Big punchers can get worn out or disheartened when they don't score an early knockout.
"A guy who knows he has power can depend on it too much, not just physically but mentally," says Atlas. "When you're not prepared to deal with the resistance of your opponent, the air can go out of your balloon."
And that, says Birmingham, is what impresses him the most about Pacquiao.
"He's got one of the biggest wills in boxing, which I think speaks a lot to his power," he says. "It's not just his technique, which is really good. He fights with such tenacity. He has the intensity that can wear guys down and eventually take them out."
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Evan Rothman is a freelance writer living in Staatsburg, N.Y., and senior writer for
Golfweek. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Men's Journal and other leading publications.