LAS VEGAS — Against a backdrop of confusion, contradiction and controversy, Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez will step into a boxing ring here Saturday night.
Fight fans hope they go toe-to-toe. That would be fitting, because everything else in their sport seems to be doing the same.
Friday brought the announcement that MGM Grand Garden Arena is sold out. That's 16,000 seats, with a live gate that Top Rank Promotions estimates to be worth $10.6 million. That would put the average ticket price at around $660.
Healthy sounding event, right?
The likelihood that this fight will top the previous Pacquiao-Marquez pay-per-view sell of 1.3 million adds to this considerably. That's at a price of $60 to $70, depending on whether you want to pay for high-definition.
The financials show a picture of a sport with rosy cheeks.
But then, about the same time as the sellout announcement, a Purdue professor with a background of credibility in documenting the sport released a statement that said it will take more than a great Pacquiao-Marquez fight to pick boxing, as a whole, off the canvas.
"Boxing is no longer on this country's radar," said Randy Roberts, author of four books on the sport. "It often gets buried on top American websites under 'Other Sports.' "
This huge boxing show, the type that dominates all corners of the MGM, is sharing the stage this week with the rodeo. Cowboy boots and cowboy hats decidedly outnumber sombreros and tattoos. The piped-in sounds that usually fill the halls with rock and rap are singing from a different saddle this week.
"I want you to love me like my dog does, baby; When I get home, I want you to just go crazy.… He don't play dead when I want to pet him."
This will be the fourth Pacquiao-Marquez fight. That in itself is confusing. They have fought 36 rounds and nobody still seems to know who is the better fighter. It remains too close to call. It also remains open to question, after all this time, how many actually care. A sold-out live gate and the big projected pay-per-view buy says there are many.
If you take the judges' word for it, Pacquiao has the slight edge. He knocked Marquez down three times in the first round in their first fight and the sharp pencils at ringside called it a draw — one for Pacquiao, the other for Marquez and the third dead even. Then Pacquiao won the second and third meetings in close decisions and Marquez dominated the aftermath with his whining about being robbed.
The new wrinkle in the ever-present yapping leading up to Pacquiao-Marquez 4 is the performance-enhancing-drug issue. Sadly now in sports, PED is an acronym as common as RBI. It is the era of being guilty until proven innocent. For that cynicism, we can thank Barry Bonds, Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong, among others.
Boxing has thrown its hat in the steroid ring of late too. It talks pharmaceuticals as much as punches. And, interestingly, the finger-pointing is coming this time from the Pacquiao camp.
Floyd Mayweather Jr., never one to let facts get in the way of a rant, has accused Pacquiao of being a doper, saying the Filipino got bigger and looked stronger as he fought in heavier weight categories. Pacquiao sued for slander. Mayweather ducked depositions for a year or so. Then, a few months ago, the judge ruled and Mayweather delivered a $3-million check to Pacquiao.
Now, with pictures of Marquez all over the Internet, showing him with biceps that would make a longshoreman proud, the tables turned. Pacquiao's Hall of Fame trainer, Freddie Roach, who occasionally stumbles on his own honesty, admitted he had no hard facts, but he did have suspicions about Marquez.
The buzz continued when the man entrusted with Marquez's conditioning program, Angel (Memo) Heredia, referred proudly to his pupil as a "hulk." This is the same Heredia who once admitted to investigating authorities that he had acquired PEDs for athletes. Now, he implies, his training techniques are more along the lines of dumbbells and sit-ups.
Roach and Pacquiao say they welcome the new girth. They hope that means that the counter-punching Marquez will become a gunslinger, but slower on the trigger. Or, as Pacquiao says, "Maybe that means he will fight…now he will go toe-to-toe."
The Nevada State Athletic Commission did not drug test either fighter in the lead-up to the event, saying both were veteran boxers above reproach.
They will fight at the welterweight limit of 147 pounds. Pacquiao, nine days from turning 34, will bring in a record of 54-4-2. Marquez, 39, is 54-6-1.
At Friday's weigh-in, the PED controversy was addressed immediately by interviewing broadcasters. The confusion and contradictions remained. Marquez, indeed, looked sculpted, but weighed only 143. Pacquiao hit the 147 number right on the head.
This is boxing. On fight day, expect more chaos, probably well before either gets into the ring.