Pacquiao vs Barrera took place 20 years ago tonight. Quantifying someone's worth in a sport like boxing can be challenging. One of the true measures is how long they stay in the hearts and minds of the public. Few fighters have been quite as beloved or enamored by general audiences over the past two decades as Manny Pacquiao.
His 25-year-plus career was/is like a tsunami that crashed into the boxing world as a series of waves, some bigger and more impactful than others.
When he first arrived on the shores of America, Pacquiao surprised many by upsetting Lehlo Ledwaba on two weeks' notice to capture the IBF super bantamweight title in June 2001. But it would be a move to featherweight to challenge Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera that would signify the beginning of a rivalry with a group of fighters from Mexico that would be the first major wave in Pacquiao's career.
Marco Antonio Barrera is a fighter who wasn't afraid to rebuild.
After a right hand by Junior Jones put him flat on his back at the Ice Palace in Tampa, Florida, followed by another knockdown on the ropes, resulting in disqualification and the loss of his WBO super bantamweight title, it would have marked the beginning of the end for most fighters. Although improved, Barrera failed to get revenge in a rematch.
Look Back at Pacquiao vs Barrera: Barrera Arc Leading Up To First Pacquiao Fight
Even then, Barrera was determined to keep moving forward, leading to a chapter of his career that can be considered his peak. After two years of staying busy in 1998 and 1999 and winning back the WBO 122-pound championship, Barrera landed a grudge match with rival Erik Morales. Famously, Barrera wouldn't walk away with a victory in their first historic all-time great encounter; however, public opinion was that he deserved to win.
Barrera's performance catapulted him into a fight with Naseem Hamed, earning him widespread notoriety for soundly defeating the showboating British knockout artist. A rematch with Morales followed in 2002 in more of a technical battle than the first. Barrera, this time, would be the one to get the judge's favor, winning the WBC and Ring Magazine featherweight championship. Much like Morales declined the WBO 122-pound title after their first fight, Barrera would do the same in not taking the WBC title.
With a renewed ability showing that he had the capacity to adjust and further his skillset to both brawl and box at an equal level, in 2003, Barrera was widely viewed as one of the best fighters in the world pound-for-pound and the lineal featherweight champion.
Barrera was rated as high as the number three spot in Ring Magazine's pound-for-pound rankings before stepping into the ring with Pacquiao and was a four-to-one favorite to win. The featherweight champion was also prepared to take on a southpaw as three of his previous five opponents fought in the left-handed stance: Kevin Kelley, Enrique Sanchez, and Hamed.
Often forgotten were some of the issues Barrera faced leading into Pacquiao vs Barrera one. In 1997, following his rematch with Junior Jones, Barrera underwent brain surgery to treat a genetic condition that caused malformed blood vessels. This was kept hidden from boxing officials for 16 bouts, and was required to pass a neurological exam by the Texas Boxing Commission to be cleared to fight Pacquiao.
Also, a fire forced the then two-division champion out of his training camp in Big Bear, California. Barrera didn't exactly have a perfect training camp leading up to the Pacquiao clash. But perfect and training camp rarely go hand-in-hand in boxing.
As one of boxing's best fighters and, at the time, most popular pugilist out of Mexico, Barrera could have gone in many directions rather than taking on Pacquiao. A fight was proposed against WBC super bantamweight titleholder Oscar Larios but was turned down by Barrera due to their relationship.
Pacquiao Wasn't Yet Pacman
“Pacquiao was an unknown,” Barrera told ESPN Deportes. “I remember the situation very well because I was asked if I wanted to fight ‘Chololo' Larios, who is from Guadalajara, or Manny Pacquiao. But ‘Chololo' is my friend, my brother…how could I fight with him?”
On his end, Pacquiao had one of the more productive and intense training camps. Recognizing the opportunity in front of him, the Filipino took every measure to ensure he would be ready and willing to leave everything in the ring against Barrera.
“So that Barrera fight, look at how I threw punches from the first round to the 11th round,” Pacquiao recalled to FightHub TV in 2019. “I didn't feel tired. I had the same speed, the same combination, the same punches the whole fight. In that fight, I worked every day for 36 rounds.”
On the night of the fight, on November 15, 2003, at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, a changing of the guard would occur with a new star materializing in brazen fashion, from Pacquiao vs Barrera.
Of the various strands of Pacquiao's personality, the element that endeared fans to him the most was his jovial attitude toward fighting. In spite of marching toward a ring in front of a crowd that was apathetic toward him, the Filipino carried an ear-to-ear grin with him.
Pacquiao was almost childlike on his way to the ring, likened to the family dog finally being let loose to go outside. (EDITOR NOTE: Oh no, I thought with that dog reference…).
He wanted to be there. He had waited for this moment and was ready for it.
“Ninety-five percent of the audience at the Alamodome was Mexican,” said longtime sportswriter for Reforma, Diego Martinez, to Ring Magazine, of Pacquiao vs Barrera 1. “I think that was the fight that changed boxing and made Pacquiao a legend.”
The fight began with Barrera boxing on the outside, using his jab and throwing to the body. Barrera, however, was attacking almost as a way to test what was in front of him, not necessarily based on what Pacquiao was doing. Referee Laurence Cole is infamous for being one of the more vexing in the sport, and in the first round, a knockdown was called against Pacquiao after he landed a straight left hand that left him off balance. The fraudulent knockdown would be the only bright spot for Barrera all night.
By the way, here is the video link to the original HBO feed.
Although Barrera had turned himself into a hybrid boxer, he was still left-hand dominant, fighting in the orthodox stance. He had a good right hand, but it wasn't as pronounced as his left. And against Pacquiao during Pacquiao vs Barrera, anything less than an elite right would have disastrous results.
In the first 30 seconds of the third round, Pacquiao landed a lightning-quick left hand right on the chin that sent Barrera down on the seat of his pants. Barrera stayed seated for a few seconds as a nod of recognition could be seen on his face that he was caught and a long night was ahead of him.
Pacquiao proceeded to assault Barrera, doing everything he could to get a stoppage, during Pacquiao vs Barrera. Any moment Barrera fired back, Pacquiao famously put his hands in the air as if welcoming the challenge of combat. From this point, it was clear that Pacquiao wasn't just a meer title defense, and the crowd favorite was in for a war.
“There are probably some in this arena who didn't really know who Manny Pacquiao was or what his chances might be against Marco Antonio Barrera,” Jim Lampley said on commentary for HBO. “Now they know! As Pacquiao tries to go ahead and finish Barrera right here in the third round.”
The most appropriate way to describe the remainder of the Pacquiao vs Barrera match is relentless. Pacquaio was unrelenting round after round with no signs of slowing down.
The southpaw dynamo threw an average of about 76 punches per round during Pacquioa vs Barrera, with a few rounds crossing over 100 with an average of 28 landing. It was a two-to-one advantage for Pacquiao as he continually steamrolled his opponent in each stanza.
The then 29-year-old Barrera grew frustrated at times as Pacquiao's determined and unyielding attack resulted in a few clash of heads. In the seventh round, a cut over Barrera's eye irritated the Mexican star, and he retaliated with a headbutt to the chest of Pacquiao.
In the ninth round of Pacquiao vs Barrera, a point was deducted from Barrera for hitting on the break. That punch would be his most impactful of the fight. No matter what transpired, there wouldn't be a cut, a clash of heads, or a faux knockdown stopping Pacquaio.
In the 11th round, Pacquiao intensified his onslaught. Barrera went down from sheer exhaustion after a series of blows and attempting to hold Pacquiao. After a final blitz of strikes against the ropes near Barrera's corner, one of the Mexican champion's cornermen entered the ring to stop the fight.
The brutal ending for Barrera during the first Pacquiao vs Barrera fight was juxtaposed with the jubilant excitement across the ring of Pacquiao and his team celebrating.
“A superstar emerges in San Antonio,” Lampley announced at the conclusion of Pacquiao vs Barrera. “Filipino star Manny Pacquiao annihilates, destroys, and embarrasses' the great Marco Antonio Barrera.”
RING Title Went To Pacman Off Pacquiao vs Barrera Win
The Pacquiao vs Barrera victory would garner Pacquiao his second lineal championship. While no boxing organization title was on the line, the Ring Magazine and lineal titles still held towards Pacquaio's achievement of later becoming boxing's only eight-division champion.
It goes without saying that when Pacquiao is first eligible to enter the International Boxing Hall of Fame, he'll get in on his first ballot. His accomplishments are vast.
In fact, should he have chosen to retire in 2008 before he went from boxing star to mainstream superstar, he had already earned his ticket to Canastota.
Pacquiao's most prominent financial and mainstream run would take place at welterweight; however, his win and performance over Barrera at 24 laid the foundation for his status as an all-time great. It was the first of nine fights against the Mexican trio of Barrera, Morales, and Juan Manuel Marquez.
“This is a fight that will shake up the boxing world,” Larry Merchant said after the fight.
It's doubtful Larry Merchant or anybody could have estimated the impact and set of events that Pacquiao's win over Barrera would set in motion. In hindsight, Pacquiao vs Barrera was a tentpole moment for the sport for one of the fighters that would define a generation.