LAS VEGAS -- His face vanished. How jarring, even to the verge of creepy. We were at a boxing match involving Manny Pacquiao at the MGM Grand and then came a whoosh too brisk to process and suddenly we could not see his face.
I mean, come on. We always see that face. We have seen it through 23 U.S. bouts across 11 years in four states and eight venues and 15 wins in a row across seven years, not to mention in untold ads. Whether squinting to punch somebody or taking a punch, that face stays forever five-plus feet above the ground, atop Pacquiao’s small but statuesque frame, a face in ubiquity, the global face of boxing, the runaway most-famous face among the 103 million faces in the 12th-most-populous nation, the Philippines.
Now the face went away, pressed down against the canvas, out of sight for one minute, more than one minute, maybe close to two minutes. Really? Please, help us comprehend. Most recent time knocked out: September 1999, in southern Thailand, before anybody over here even knew his name. Now a rugged fourth-time opponent with his own bloody face and rearranged nose and trouble breathing and lagging five-round score, Juan Manuel Marquez, landed a crushing right counter with one second left in the sixth, and Pacquiao toppled forward, and you didn't have to worry for his life to feel goblins on the premises.
It ... just ... felt ... weird, not seeing that face. The face went absent and the shrieks went present: from his wife Jinkee at ringside, to the boxing sorts wondering if Pacquiao exits here at age almost-34, to the Mexican fans joyous through the MGM Grand complex, to the vehicle taking Pacquiao to the hospital for the just-in-case concussion check-up.
One second, we see the face as usual, closing out another winning round, backing Marquez into the corner, making people wonder how much longer Marquez could withstand the speed of the onslaught, and the next second, we don't see the face at all. One second, we have five-plus rounds full of flurries in the best of the four Pacquiao-Marquez bouts, with knockdowns on both sides in the third and fifth rounds, and the next second, we have enough surrealism that even a man who has seen everything reports shock. "Of course, everybody was stunned," said promoter Bob Arum, who turned 81 on Saturday. "It wasn't a shock that the fight could end in a knockout and that Manny could get knocked out. But that way was a shock."
It surely shocked any of 16,348 spectators, from Magic Johnson to 50 Cent to front-row onlookers Mitt and Ann Romney to the loud pro-Marquez throng, and it absolutely would have shocked television viewers in the Philippines, where they always tell you that during Pacquiao fights, the streets clear and the crime disappears and only the dogs and cats walk around outside. Well, even the dogs and cats must have cringed in the Sunday midday. Manny Pacquiao was in a boxing ring, but we couldn't tell it was Manny Pacquiao, just some guy sleeping on his stomach. Not since he turned up at trainer Freddie Roach's Los Angeles gym in June 2001 and wowed Roach with the firecracker snap on his punches had anyone seen him in this posture, at least in public.
"I got hit by a punch I didn't see," Pacquiao said after awakening, while calling himself "careless," while Roach praised the punch as "by design" and not-lucky and said, "He set us up well. I was a little surprised he could pull that off as hurt as he was, but he pulled it off." And once Pacquiao went face down, the sight proved so bizarre that a bout supposed to quell questions about the rivalry wound up unspooling a bushel of questions about the future.
Will he retire? It's hard to imagine he would conclude this glorious run with his face down.
Will there be a fifth fight? It's hard to imagine there will not be. "If you give us a chance, we'll fight again," Pacquiao said. "I was just starting to feel confident and then I got careless."
Will this fight from Saturday night someday join the long list of bogus sporting events muddled in doping revelations? Marquez absolutely deserves such speculation given his hiring of the trainer Angel Guillermo Heredia, the Balco trial prosecution witness who supplied athletes in other sports with performance-enhancing drugs. "I was very intelligent fighting," Marquez correctly said through an interpreter, "and I was putting my intelligence into it," even as both Pacquiao and Roach concluded his power had improved from previous bouts, and at 39.
"Age doesn't matter," Arum said in the eternal boxing circus. "Look at me!"
Somehow, a sport with aging stars in wane wound up with the bout of this year and a fresh look at next year. Somehow, as a round wound down to its final second and Pacquiao plumbed for more swaying of the judges when he might have stayed clear, his face wound up facedown. Somehow, a fight seemingly headed one way -- "I didn't think it was going to last that much longer," Roach said logically -- went about-face. Somehow, a crashing right born from Marquez's will and cunning and sense of injustice at previous decisions met with Pacquiao's face.
And so a punch that might have traveled two inches by Roach's guess and less than a foot by Arum's made a famous face undergo a shocking invisibility we had never seen.