The first two installments in the rivalry between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez-who will meet for the fourth time on December 8 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas-were marked by explosive surges intermittently disrupting steady craftsmanship. In 2004 Marquez climbed out of a three-knockdown deficit by stringing together stretches of dominance, only for Pacquiao to produce enough bursts in the latter stages of the bout to salvage a draw. In 2008 Marquez again showcased himself as the steadier practitioner, but Pacquiao interrupted his rhythm with enough blows that either discombobulated or tore flesh to escape with a close decision.
The explosiveness Pacquiao produced in those encounters reached rarefied air during breathtaking dilapidations of Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, and Miguel Cotto. But that run ended three years ago, and the 33-year-old hasn’t notched a knockout since. Moreover, for the first time in their rivalry, Pacquiao failed to put Marquez on the mat—or even on wobbly legs—during their rubber match. Consequently, while both fanbases squabbled over the result in each of their three bouts, the squabbling was far more resounding last year from the Marquez side. They had a point that most pundits agreed with: Marquez replicated the second performance, without suffering any knockdowns.
Pacquiao’s controversial loss to Timothy Bradley seven months later fit neatly into his recent trend of diminishing returns. While most observers thought he deserved the victory, it was far from an overwhelming display of firepower. And despite Jim Lampley’s euphoric cries every time a salvo was hurled in Bradley’s vicinity, Pacquiao struggled to make solid contact throughout the second half of the bout, much less hurt his slippery opponent.
To be sure, Pacquiao is still an outstanding offensive fighter. He still has abnormal hand speed accentuating an unorthodox delivery of blows that can fool even the most savvy of fighters. He still has unique footwork that can keep an opponent who may think he’s well-adjusted unsuspecting of what’s coming next. His toughness is still impenetrable, and the excellent opposition he’s faced over the last year must be factored into any perceived slippage. But looking at the larger trend—including an oddly reticent performance against Shane Mosley—and we can safely conclude that signs of aging are there.
Marquez, 39-years-old and nearly two decades into his professional career, has obviously lost a step or two himself. The last few years have featured heavier legs, making the task of tracking elusive opponents increasingly difficult. There’s now a clear vulnerability against movement, and the fleet-footed will give him fits. But amazingly, his offense is still majestic. He unravels combinations, practically from any position, with video game fluidity. Lead uppercuts often lead to left hooks to the body. Left hooks to the body are often followed by overhand rights that are accompanied by more uppercuts. Employing Cirque Du Soleil balance, he counters his opponent’s attacks in ways that are impossible for them to predict.
With Pacquiao’s sliding power and Marquez’ craftmanship intact, the Mexican icon may be poised to notch an elusive (official) victory over his rival. But Pacquiao’s growing wisdom has offset some of his drifting athleticism, and against Bradley, his defense succeeded where his offense failed. Eye-catching blows against Pacquiao are more difficult to come by these days, so while he’s less of a threat to separate Marquez from his senses on December 8th, he’s more of a threat to win some of the quieter rounds.
Nevertheless, after we saw how well Marquez handled weight gain last year and, to an extent, defy oddsmakers, the only shock in this fourth installment would be an ass-kicking from either side. Marquez is still considered the hefty underdog, but that’s now a comfortable role, and his battles with Pacquiao have increasingly been fought at a comfortable pace. With age and experience between the two combatants has come a degree of predictability that wasn’t there years ago. And predictability tends to favor Marquez.