ARLINGTON, Texas —When Jesus returns, he will surely return to the 50-yard line of Cowboys Stadium, descending bodily on the fog-machine-assisted sun rays streaming through the windows just above the mighty Ford logo, but below the American flag.
We had a dry run Saturday night. Manny Pacquiao, the Jesus of boxing, made an appearance, and it's doubtful anyone more Jesus-like will pop into Cowboys Stadium this year, considering the preponderance of drunk Texas rednecks who congregate there. Too dangerous. Manny had been summoned by Pope Bob Arum to publicly vanquish Satan, who'd assumed the form of Antonio Margarito — a Tijuana-based, black-haired, goateed, heavy metal-blasting, handwrap-loading badass. The devil, it turns out, wears an Affliction shirt.
The press center, where we all had to pick up our press credentials and where much of the fight crowd was staying, was the Gaylord, a huge, garish convention center, hotel, and Charlie Brown-on-ice showcase located 30 minutes outside of Dallas, in the middle of nowhere. It was a very Texan kind of place, which is how I will hereafter refer to things that I don't understand. The Gaylord reflected a particular Texan obsession with enclosing the outdoors, boasting a huge glassed-in atrium, where you could see the sun but at the same time enjoy a temperature-controlled space and many bad restaurants. The mallification of nature. I saw Guillermo Rigondeaux, a Cuban fighting on the undercard and one of the best amateur boxers of all time, being interviewed by a TV crew while sitting under a gazebo next to a place where you and your kids could eat a Charlie Brown-themed breakfast. And there was Juan Manuel Lopez, a ferocious featherweight champ and one of the world's most reliable knockout artists, strolling out of the gift shop with some Lifesavers, smiling. A very banal atmosphere full of very violent men.
The first of the 10 undercard fights began at 5 p.m. We killed a couple hours at the Tecate "V.I.P." tent in the parking lot, a place full of loud house music, plastic dancing girls, and mortification, before heading in around 4. Cowboys Stadium is a glass spaceship from the future. My 4-year-old self would have been very pleased with the knowledge that one day, Jesus — a very nice man who can kill you with his bare hands — would ride his futuristic spaceship to the plains of Texas, just to entertain people.
Boxing tends to be a niche sport. Even top-tier pro fights are routinely held in small venues in front of a couple thousand fans. To see gleaming Cowboys Stadium — with its monstrous hi-def screen and its army of workers, the whole place bristling with TV cameras and thousands of seats laid out on the field the Cowboys use — was to get a brief taste of what boxing once was: big time. Manny Pacquiao is still big time. The other fighters of the world walk in his shadow. Lots of boxers have "Team [Fighter Name]" jackets made up for their trainers and their entourage. If you see someone wearing a "Team Smith" warm-up jacket, you can be pretty damn sure that person is a close personal associate of boxer Smith. But "Team Pacquiao" t-shirts and hoodies and tracksuits were everywhere. Those four pale, skinny Brits in matching red "Team Pacquiao" jackets weren't any more a part of Pacquiao's team than you were a Chicago Bull when you first put on Air Jordans. As unremarkable as that is for most sports, in boxing, it's a feat. Most guys can't claim a brand that transcends their own gym. Pac transcends his own hemisphere. Neither you nor I have ever been to Manila. Yet here we are.
The undercard was full of competitive fights. This would normally be a stroke of luck, but on this night it was nearly unbearable. A string of quick, one-sided knockouts would have been preferable, just for the sake of getting to Jesus's appearance faster. Enthralling though it was to see two flyweights dipping and dodging each other like a choreographed Hollywood fight scene for eight rounds, it all seemed very pedestrian knowing what was waiting for us. I missed half of one fight getting coffee, and half of another getting pizza; the most important thing was to be alert, hydrated, and well-fed for the main events.
I was sitting in the very last press row, about 17 rows back from the ring on the floor. An aisle, packed with the rich folks who could afford $500-plus floor seats, ran directly behind our row. At 6:30, a commotion: Manny Fucking Pacquiao himself was strolling down the aisle right behind us. There he was, the familiar face, the familiar mustache and goatee, wearing jeans and a black Versace shirt, without any entourage, just stone cold walking down the aisle. Fans swarmed him. He stood there a good five minutes, and must have posed for 25 pictures. But he never said a word. And he never smiled. And his eyes never sparkled. For a man about to fight a championship boxing match, he looked thin, ghostly, and flat. Finally he just kept on moving, leaving a pack of fans in his wake.
That was unsettling. Not the sort of triumphant, buoyant Pacquiao you'd expect. Still, he wasn't fighting for four more hours, so who cares? The undercard had fallen into a brief period of mismatches. Jose Benavidez, a fantastically talented 18-year-old with long arms and devastating, spanking body shots, TKO'd a protesting Winston "The Reaper" Mathis in the third round, after dropping him twice with hooks to the liver in the first. Mathis should have been grateful for the stoppage. Mike Lee, an ostentatious Notre Dame boy and boxing's Great White Hope of the moment, was unfairly placed on this card for just his third pro fight, thanks in large part to being a Notre Dame boy and a Great White Hope. He's not really that good yet. He fought a noticeably awful 0-2 bum, and though Lee flexed his muscles like a tough guy after his first-round knockout, this fight was the most useless of the night, by far.
HBO began its pay-per-view at 8. If you bought it, you got your money's worth. The big screen periodically showed helicopter shots of Cowboys Stadium itself, which had the effect of making you feel like a very small part inside something very, very massive. Brandon Rios (whom we saw hanging around the Gaylord press room earlier that day, looking like a skinny punk with a touch of acne and star tattoos down his forearms) tucked his elbows close to his body, walked forward throwing hard hooks, and stalked his way to a relentless fifth-round TKO. Guillermo Rigondeaux — who'd be much more rich and famous today if he'd only managed to defect at age 21, rather than age 28 — wasted his most high-profile fight yet by taking off the final six rounds and coasting to a split decision. Rigondeaux has hundreds of amateur fights and two Olympic gold medals and just looks like he's gotten damn bored with boxing. He's a masterful counterpuncher, but stoically refuses to attack; a typical Rigondeaux fight would feature him circling his intimidated opponent for five rounds, waiting, and then knocking him down with a countering right hand to the body. Which is exactly what happened on this night, but his opponent, Ricardo Cordoba, got up, and the two spent seven more rounds just eyeing each other. Rigondeaux should either up his punch count to keep easily bored pro fans entertained, or just move on to a new field altogether. He'd make a great DJ, I bet, with those fast hands.
Mike Jones, an undefeated Philly fighter, had snagged the fight just before Pacquiao's, against Jesus (not the real one) Soto-Karass, who's a prototypical Mexican fighter: straight ahead, always throwing hard, not elusive, tough as shit. Jones is talented, but not quite ready for prime time — his legs are a wee bit gawky, his hands are fast but wild, his punches are imprecise, and he was noticeably nervous, bouncing and jumping sharply backward unnecessarily. In the second round, Jones backed Soto-Karass up against the ropes and threw a preposterous number of punches at him; probably more than 50, almost a full minute of punching, left-right, left-right, nonstop. Of course, most of them didn't land. And while it was great to watch, Jones had totally punched himself out, and spent the next five rounds getting bullied, stalked, and thwacked in body and head by Soto-Karass. The straight-ahead, no-frills, always-coming-forward Mexican style often gives problems to slicker U.S. fighters who are used to relying on hand speed and fast feet to win and who only belatedly discover that some guys just keep fucking coming, and punching, their forward lean bringing weight behind every punch even when they're tired, no matter how many times you hit them. Jones managed to get his breath back and remain competitive in the last couple rounds, but Soto-Karass, blood streaming down his face, clearly won the fight; he was robbed by the judges, who gave it to Jones in a majority decision. To fight that hard for 10 rounds and then lose would make a reasonable man cry. I don't know whether Soto-Karass is reasonable or not.
The stadium was fucking packed. Forty-one thousand, but it looked like 70. Loud, drunk, hollering rednecks competed with ecstatic flag-waving Filipinos and an equally loud (but smaller) contingent of flag-waving Mexicans. Nelly came out and did two songs, for some reason. Later for you, Nelly. Jesus is coming.
* * *
Margarito entered the ring first. It had been briefly fashionable in the run-up to the fight for the boxing cognoscenti to give him a chance to win. In truth, he had none. Margarito is long-limbed, and he hits hard, and he's very tough. He has beaten some of the world's very best welterweights into bloody messes (even without putting plaster in his hand wraps). But, as Pacquiao's trainer Freddie Roach said the day before the fight, he's comparatively "slow as molasses." And speed kills. That's it.
Pac came out. "You're the best! Arounnnnnnd! Nothing's gonna ever take you down!" declared his intro music. Pac has earned the right to have any corny intro music he wants. The atmosphere in the stadium was, indeed, what I imagine the second coming of Jesus would garner in Dallas. Very Texan. As the two men disrobed in the ring, it became clear that Margarito was much bigger than Pac. Taller, yes, but bigger all over, and with a reach advantage that would have been lethal against a slower opponent.
The fight began, and it went as we all knew it would. Pacquiao is not as slick as some fighters, but he's busier than just about anyone; he throws seven-, eight-, nine-punch combos with regularity, and he never, ever gets tired. It's not immediately apparent how hard he's hitting; he's a small guy, and lots of his shots in the first two rounds just looked like pokes, until Margarito's face sprouted a horrific bruise the size and color of a cooked steak directly under his right eye. Pac rotates his shoulders and dips and rolls and thereby presents ever-changing angles to his opponent. He can drop punches onto your head from 350 degrees around you; they might come from anywhere except directly above. On top of his flurries and weird angles and speed, he's precise; it looked like his glove had a magnet, and Margarito's face had another magnet, and the two couldn't bear to be apart for long.
Margarito tried to keep a tight, high guard and jab, which is about the best strategy anyone could have come up with for him. And he did land a fair number of punches, backing Pac up on the ropes and punishing him several times, and even nearly dropping Pacquiao with a left hook to the body in the sixth round. Pac is tough, but he's small, and he has short arms, and he had to take punches to give punches, and punches from Margarito hurt, even if you're Jesus. But Pacquiao's speed and accuracy allow him to split high-and-tight defenses with ease, punching you in the face while your defense is in its tightest position, which must be terribly frustrating as well as brain damaging. You could see Margarito's head exploding backwards with every shot, and he'd acquired a cut under his eye on top of the already-horrific and worsening bruise, and now his other eye was starting to close as well, leaving him 75 percent blind while fighting the best fighter in the world. Not an enviable position. But then, that's what Satan gets.
Margarito lasted all 12 rounds without falling down. Good for him. It should've been stopped in the 10th or 11th round, but nobody really cared enough about Margarito's health to make it happen. Pac got his easy decision, over a world-class fighter who is absurdly larger than he is. No one was surprised. Everyone was vindicated: Margarito's dirty past was cleansed with his own blood; Pacquiao will sit atop his throne as the best fighter of his generation, on the right hand of Sugar Ray Robinson.
After the fight, we waited and waited and waited for Pac to show up at the press conference, held in a hallway in the bowels of Cowboys Stadium, next to a couple of loud, rumbling buses. While we were waiting, we saw a familiar face: Pacquiao. That is, the "Manny Pacquiao" we'd seen walk behind our row at 6:30. He was, in fact, just some dude — with no apparent official connection to Pacquiao — who looked exactly like Manny Pacquiao. I wondered why he'd chosen to stand and patiently pose for dozens of pictures without, at any point, saying, "I'm not him," or, "I get this all the time, but..." or even flashing a wry smile. Maybe it's what he does for fun. Or maybe that man is Pacquiao's dark spirit — the unsmiling, unhappy, empty part of Pacquiao's soul, cast off to wander the earth so that Pacman himself can be pure and good, an unblemished champion.
Finally, Pac showed up to the press conference. He apologized for being unable to sign any autographs, due to the fact that his hands were painfully swollen from beating on Antonio Margarito's face. He is a man of few words. But good ones. "My concern as a fighter..." he trailed off for a moment. "I want people to be happy. That's all."
Jesus: not very Texan at all.
Top and bottom photos courtesy Getty Images via the The Wall Street Journal