Context Makes Fights: Mayweather-Pacquiao
Let’s examine this hypothetical matchup and discuss the pitfalls to using classical boxing logic to predict the outcome…
The classic mantra “styles makes fights” humbles our tendency to under-analyze fights and primes us to expect the unexpected—just because one fighter appears better than the other (based on previous fights) doesn’t mean their fight will be easy to predict.
Examples include Muhammad Ali’s difficulties with Ken Norton (March 1973; Sept. 1973; Sept. 1976) and Thomas Hearns’ notorious troubles with Iran Barkley (June 1988; March 1992). Ali and Hearns, by all standard measures of boxing greatness, were far superior to these opponents (Norton and Barkley, respectively). Specific interactions between their styles, however, caused unforeseen outcomes.
On May 5, 2012 Floyd “Money” Mayweather defeated Miguel Cotto in an action-packed Cinco de Mayo slugfest/chess match.
As has been the case for all things Mayweather during the past four years, post-fight attention shifted instantly to what that performance told us about how he would perform in a hypothetical fight against Manny Pacquiao.
Here we’ll examine this hypothetical matchup and discuss the pitfalls to using classical boxing logic to predict the outcome. To do so, we’ll compare their performances against common foes, Miguel Cotto and Juan Manuel Marquez.
The Pacquiao-Cotto-Mayweather Axis
We’ll use mathematical notation to structure the discussion.
IF A >> B (“A is much greater than B”)
AND C > B (“C is greater than B”)
THEN A > C (“A is greater than C”)
Where Manny Pacquiao = [A]; Miguel Cotto = [B]; Floyd Mayweather = [C]
Manny Pacquiao defeated Miguel Cotto via 12th round technical knockout (Nov. 2009). The fight was close for several rounds before Pacquiao’s hyper-aggressive, multi-angle attack broke Cotto down in violent fashion. At the time of the TKO, the fight was lopsided enough to qualify as domination: [A >> B]
Floyd Mayweather, on the other hand, defeated Cotto clearly but not by the same margin that Pacquiao defeated Cotto: [C > B]
And so therefore, we might conclude that Pacquiao would defeat Mayweather decisively, even if not by the same margin that Pacquiao defeated Cotto: [A > C]
The more ambitious version of this argument adds actual boxing chatter:
“Mayweather looked hittable against Cotto….Mayweather can’t deal with pressure fighters.”
The conclusion might make sense using some logic. The problem is that when more factors are taken into account, the prediction falls apart.
To explain why, we’ll examine a different example that leads to a completely different conclusion.
The Mayweather-Pacquiao-Marquez Axis
To further illustrate the problem with transitive-like interpretations in boxing, we’ll focus on a different common opponent: Juan Manuel Marquez.
IF D >> E (“D is much greater than E”)
AND F > E (“F is greater than E”)
THEN D > F (“D is greater than F”)
Where Floyd Mayweather = [D]; Juan Manuel Marquez = [E]; Manny Pacquiao = [F]
Mayweather breezed through his fight with Marquez, outclassing him in a near shutout (Sept. 2009): [D >> E]
Pacquiao, on the other hand, has never convincingly defeated Marquez, if he’s beaten him at all (there are arguments that Marquez won all three of their fights): [F > E]
By this logic, Mayweather would clearly defeat Pacquiao: [D > F]
Tossing in a bit of boxing insight might add some color:
“Pacquiao has a hard time with tactical fighters who can accurately counterpunch.”
Context Makes Fights
In the case of a hypothetical Mayweather-Pacquiao matchup, we need to be careful in basing our prediction entirely on how each performed in fights against common foes.
To explain, we’ll examine how a handful of variables might confound a simple comparison:
1) Age: How old were the fighters when they fought each other and did fighters age substantially between fights? This doesn’t appear to be relevant to the Pacquiao-Cotto-Mayweather axis—none of them appears to have showed any signs of slowing down.
2) Weight: Pacquiao fought Cotto at a 145 lb. catchweight; Mayweather fought Cotto at the 154 lb. junior middleweight limit. Mayweather’s weigh-in weight (151 lbs.) was heavier than he’s ever been at a fight weigh-in.
3) Corner: Cotto’s changed trainers over the years, installing Pedro Diaz as his trainer for his rematch against Margarito and his fight against Mayweather.
4) Mental state: Cotto fought Pacquiao after his devastating knockout loss to Antonio Margarito (July 2008); Cotto fought Mayweather after avenging this loss to Margarito by decisive TKO (Dec. 2011). Mayweather fought Cotto weeks away from having to serve an 87-day prison sentence.
5) Setting: This category is especially important when studying fighters like Lucian Bute, who all but refuse to fight away from home. It doesn’t appear to be pertinent to the Pacquiao-Cotto-Mayweather axis: all fights took place in Las Vegas. One relevant detail involves the size of the gloves used: the 154-weight class typically uses 10 oz. gloves rather than 8 oz. gloves. The general consensus is that heavier gloves carry more padding and cause less damage than lighter gloves. Cotto used 8 oz. gloves when fighting as a welterweight (including his fight with Pacquiao).
We can do something similar for the Mayweather-Marquez-Pacquiao axis:
1) Age: The main criticism of Mayweather when he signed to fight Marquez was that Marquez was 36 years old and supposedly over-the-hill. The problem with this criticism is that a 38-year-old Marquez gave Pacquiao all he could handle; if Marquez was over-the-hill when he fought Mayweather, then he was ancient when he fought Pacquiao in Nov. 2011.
2) Weight: Mayweather fought Marquez at 146 lbs., a leap of two weight classes for Marquez (from his prior fight) and easily the heaviest Marquez had ever been. Pacquiao’s November 2011 fight took place at a contracted 144 lbs. While only two pounds less than the contracted Mayweather-Marquez catchweight, this was after Marquez was able to wear 140 lbs in a July 2011 tune-up (a TKO victory over Likar Ramos), which could have prepared Marquez to carry the weight better.
3) Corner: Doesn’t appear relevant in this axis, as all three had the same corners for all bouts.
4) Mental state: Mayweather fought Marquez after a layoff of almost two years. Pacquiao was allegedly distracted by family issues for much of his camp.
5) Setting: Doesn’t appear relevant in this example.
In the end, the study of common foes proves inconclusive: Cotto works in Pacquiao’s favor and Marquez in Mayweather’s favor. When multiple factors are taken into account the direct comparisons lose their general relevance. It is clear that any prediction of Mayweather-Pacquiao will require a higher level of analysis.
Am I suggesting that study of past fights isn’t relevant for determining how fighters will perform in the future?
No, of course not. I’m arguing that a detailed study of fights involves more than simply watching the rounds and documenting the outcomes.
Context is why the study of boxing will never become like baseball, reduced to simulations and advanced statistics, with experts who barely watch or know much about the sport.
There are no shortcuts in the study of the sweet science; its one on one nature makes it simpler and more complicated than any other sport in existence.