“They call this a dream fight. A good dream? A bad dream? An exciting dream? Let's find out,” said legendary sports writer and HBO commentator Larry Merchant, sitting ringside before the first bell at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, fifteen years ago today,
On December 06, 2008, Manny Pacquiao set himself on the path from the Hall-of-Fame to the status of an all-time great when he firmly placed Oscar De La Hoya into retirement. It was a dream come true for the Pacman. And a nightmare to watch for fans of De La Hoya. But maybe it was also a sigh of relief for the six-division champion that it was finally over.
On a fall afternoon in 2007, Larry Merchant sat down with ESPN writer Dan Rafael, discussing a wide variety of topics in the world of boxing. The focus was primarily on Oscar De La Hoya, who was boxing's most well-known box office attraction at the time, and who he could be facing next. Somehow, someway, Merchant had the imagination to drum up the idea of De La Hoya taking on Pacquiao.
“Pacquiao would be in his prime, Oscar way past his trying to make a weight he hasn't made in almost a decade,” Merchant said to ESPN in 2007. “In the spectrum of the kind of fights you could have, it's a fun event. Manny is shorter, but he's a left-handed puncher. Oscar would be the clear favorite to win and Manny would be the underdog, but all of their fans would have to watch it. It's about creating an event. That's an event.”
At the time Merchant had this proposition, Pacquiao was fighting at junior lightweight and still hadn't won a title in the weight class. De La Hoya had previously fought Floyd Mayweather at junior middleweight for the WBC 154-pound championship. And the fight he wanted was a rematch with Mayweather.
Turn Back The Clock, It's May 2008
In May 2008, as a way to prepare for a second encounter with the defensive wizard and a possible move back to welterweight, De La Hoya faced off against former IBF super featherweight titleholder Steve Forbes in a 150-pound catchweight bout. The 1992 Olympic gold medalist didn't look spectacular against the smaller Forbes, and while he won almost every round, there were signs of the Golden Boy's deterioration.
In the summer of 2008, Floyd Mayweather announced the first of what would be numerous retirements. With the closing of one door, another opened.
With Mayweather no longer an option, De La Hoya and his team produced another event signing to fight Pacquiao. As we've seen this past year, events and great fights are not synonymous. In the case of De La Hoya's fight with Pacquiao, the thought was the event could be promoted as a fight with another pound-for-pound star, similar to the match with Mayweather.
“There was only one fight which truly got people talking, some with excitement, some with skepticism,” said former CEO of Golden Boy Promotions, Richard Schaefer, to ESPN in 2008. “It's not just a fight. It's truly an event. It transcends the sport in a way I have never seen before, including Oscar's fight with Mayweather. This is a fight between superstars who have captured the imagination of their people and beyond, the two most popular fighters in the world. It's this kind of event that will have boxing on the front pages. The world will be talking. Bob Arum and I had our work cut out for ourselves on this one, but we did it.”
Before the match with De La Hoya, Pacquiao engaged in another all-time classic technical war with rival Juan Manuel Marquez. The fighting politician won a disputed razor-thin split decision in one of the best fights of 2008. He followed up the battle with Marquez by taking apart David Diaz at lightweight to win the WBC title and officially becoming a five-division champion.
With Mayweather now retired, it was Pacquiao who was considered the best fighter in boxing.
Using hindsight to look back at Pacquiao's chances against De La Hoya, all the variables were in place for the dynamic southpaw to walk away with a victory. Some fans and pundits picked the Filipino to win, but others lambasted the fight as nothing more than a mismatch.
Pundits Thinks Oscar Will Be Too Big For Manny Pacquiao
“Both guys are legitimately great, but it's like a handicapped match,” said former ESPN host and current DAZN boxing commentator Brian Kenny when De La Hoya-Pacquiao was first announced. “Why is Oscar, who is like 5'10 ½, going against a guy who is like 5'5ish? What type of shot will people give Pacquiao?”
Longtime writer Tim Smith echoed Kenny's sentiments in an article for the NY Daily News months before the bout.
“It was a ridiculous thought that De La Hoya should have immediately dismissed,” Smith wrote about De La Hoya's choosing to face Pacquiao. “Of course, he can beat Pacquiao. It will be like beating his little brother if he had one. But shame on De La Hoya and his reps for picking on the little man and not trying to secure a fight with a good big man such as Antonio Margarito or Paul Williams.”
The De La Hoya-Pacquiao fight carried over a few noteworthy storylines.
In 2006, Pacquiao signed with Golden Boy Promotions out from under Top Rank. This, of course, led to a lawsuit and Pacquiao having to return a signing bonus.
De La Hoya was trained under Freddie Roach, Pacquiao's longtime trainer, for his fight with Mayweather. Also, De La Hoya brought in Nacho Beristain, Juan Manuel Marquez's trainer, for the fight with Pacquiao.
Roach wasn't shy about letting the public know that his time with De La Hoya gave him confidence that Pacquiao would be victorious. A pair of sparring sessions with Puerto Rico's Ivan Calderon, a former strawweight and light flyweight champion, gave Roach an indication that De La Hoya is ripe for the taking.
According to Roach, Calderon, who is also a southpaw like Pacquiao, had his way with De La Hoya in sparring.
Nonetheless, with Pacquiao moving up two weight classes to meet De La Hoya at 147 pounds, it was incumbent on him to seize the moment in front of him despite any perceptions of him or his opponent.
“This is my greatest challenge,” Pacquiao told ESPN. “When I take that walk to the ring to fight Oscar, I will carry all the people of the Philippines — the entire country — on my shoulders. I promise I will fight with all of my heart and that I will give everything I have.”
It is rare for a fighter to put on what is often labeled a virtuoso performance. A plethora of factors must be aligned, including the opponent being somewhat compromised, having a stylistic advantage, or being in two different stages of your respective careers.
When it comes to showings on the pay-per-view platform in the 2000s and beyond, very few were as close to flawless as Pacquiao's over De La Hoya.
To quote Antony Starr, who plays Homelander on the adult superhero show The Boys, “It was perfect. Perfect. Everything. Down to the last-minute details.”
It was evident from the beginning when the first left hand landed and then was immediately followed with a right hook that Pacquiao not only had a chance of winning, but winning big.
Pacquiao's strategy consisted of countering De La Hoya's jab with a split entry left hand. The Filipino landed a lead left hand with the accuracy of a jab while keeping the six-division champion turning. De La Hoya found himself unable to keep up with Pacquiao's movement, with the difference in hand and foot speed looking gargantuan from the start.
De La Hoya hadn't fought at welterweight in over seven years before taking on Pacquiao, last fighting at the weight against Arturo Gatti in March 2001.
Shocking to many, De La Hoya came in at 145 pounds at the weigh-in. On the night of the fight, HBO recorded De La Hoya at the welterweight limit of 147, one pound less than Pacquiao. Indeed, the weight likely played a factor, but it was later revealed through a recent tell-all documentary on De La Hoya that he was drinking heavily throughout his training camp.
If We Only Knew–Oscar Admits He Boozed Hard In Camp
“It starts in training camp,” De La Hoya recalled to Entertainment Tonight. “I'm training for Manny, and keep in mind it's three months before the fight, OK? I was getting beat up by sparring partners. At one point, during training camp — maybe midway — I decided it was over for me. I can't take this. I'm getting beat up so much. My body doesn't feel right. I started drinking during camp.
“I start drinking and drinking, and I'm not caring anymore. My whole career, I'm always focused. Always determined, 100 percent. But this time, I just felt like it was over.”
Strangely enough, compared to Pacquiao, De La Hoya looked lethargic, with his punches having little to no snap, yet he still displayed glimpses of effort.
For various reasons, they had extended amounts of inactivity before their clashes. Their performances could be attributed to the level of their opponent. However, in the case of Charlo, De La Hoya would throw more punches against Pacquiao (402) than he did against Canelo Alvarez (398).
Even at his most vulnerable, De La Hoya refused to lie down. He would have to be put down.
In the seventh and eighth rounds, Pacquiao almost did just that. Seeing that De La Hoya's will was wilting, Pacquiao fired a volley of blows while De La Hoya languished on the ropes near his corner. Barely holding on by grabbing onto the ropes and last-second salvos at the ten-second mark, De La Hoya managed to avoid the canvas.
“Manny Pacquiao is annihilating Oscar De La Hoya,” said then HBO commentator and sports broadcast legend Jim Lampley remarked. “Pacquiao is making De La Hoya look old, slow, and ineffectual as though he is a sparring partner.”
Right next to him, Merchant would add that Pacquaio reminded him of another fellow all-time great with his performance.
“Some of us wondered if Manny Pacquiao would become the Henry Armstrong of this era. Right now he's looking like the immortal Armstrong.”
Oscar De La Hoya Stays On His Stool
After eight rounds, De La Hoya and his corner decided it was best to end the fight, refusing to come out for the ninth round. The fight was over. The end of one boxer's career and the ascension of another's to superstardom began. The beginning and end of a career was a fair trade.
Looking back, it's easy to dismiss Pacquiao's win over De La Hoya as a young man beating an old man.
The fight was the passing of the torch, a new era in the sport that has only recently come to a close.
Surprisingly, De La Hoya has yet to return to the squared circle, and that's probably for the better. A fight between the two in their primes could have looked different. Still, Pacquiao's advantage over fighters who have converted from southpaw to orthodox has been established in his bouts with De La Hoya, Marco Antonio Barrera, and Miguel Cotto.
Pacquiao's showing against De La Hoya is a testament and an example of a fighter recognizing and taking hold of a chance to prove their greatness. As seen in today's era, opportunities often don't come more than once.