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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Pacquiao and Mayweather: One Bout Away from the Big One?

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It is 7:13 a.m. in Los Angeles and Manny Pacquiao, the world's best pound-for-pound boxer, is jogging on a public high school track. There are palm trees in the distance, and the low hum of traffic on I-10 is starting to turn into a low roar as the Filipino boxer, clad in a red tracksuit, dashes around the dirt oval despite a painful shin splint. A handful of early-arriving students hang on the chain-link fence surrounding the track and watch him do his work. The Pac-Man is preparing for his March 13 fight against Joshua Clottey, a dangerous but relatively unknown welterweight from Ghana. The $49.95 pay-per-view fight is billed as "The Event" but could easily be called "The Letdown."

Just three months ago, boxing was preparing for its version of the Super Bowl. Fresh from his mega-fight win over Miguel Cotto, Pacquiao had begun negotiations with Floyd Mayweather Jr., a brash welterweight whom non-sports fans know best from his appearance on Dancing with the Stars. The proposed battle was being compared to some of the greatest matchups in boxing history. Even people who had given up on boxing or hadn't really thought about it much were talking about the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight, which would probably earn each boxer $40 million, the most lucrative match ever. (See pictures of Manny Pacquiao's boxing career.)

But negotiations became so acrimonious that they descended to the level of bad soap opera. Mayweather insisted on Olympic-style random blood testing, which Pacquiao refused, saying that drug-testing rules should be decided by boxing commissions, not individual fighters. Though suspicions were raised that Pacquiao was on some sort of performance-enhancing drug, the Filipino boxer — who has won an unprecedented seven belts in seven weight classes, putting on 40 lb. throughout his career — has never tested positive for banned drugs. He says he is willing to submit to random urine testing. (See pictures of Olympic athletes' tattoos.)

Pacquiao's camp says the boxer refused the blood testing because he is superstitious and doesn't want to give blood so close to fight time. He was blood-tested a couple of days before his fight with Erik Morales, and lost. "It made me weak," says Pacquiao, who is suing Mayweather for sullying his reputation. There is speculation in some boxing gyms that Mayweather knew about Pacquiao's aversion to pre-fight blood testing and used it as a tactic to duck him. But Mayweather insists that he simply wants to reform the sport's drug policies. "I am taking a stand," he says, adding, "I should get to choose who I want to fight." But by allowing the negotiations to collapse, Pacquiao and Mayweather quickly became defined as the boxers who wouldn't fight each other. "I think Floyd is scared of Manny," says Freddie Roach, Pacquiao's trainer. "I think the public is disgusted by the controversy, but they still want the fight to happen." (See "The Meaning and Mythos of Manny Pacquiao.")

To fill the vacuum and assuage dissatisfaction, each boxer decided to take on formidable interim opponents. Pacquiao will fight Clottey, and Mayweather will battle "Sugar" Shane Mosley on May 1. The hope is that if Pacquiao and Mayweather both win their respective fights, they will work out their differences and fight in the fall. "My nails are going to be bitten down to the bone waiting until May 2," says Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, which is hoping to televise the Pacquiao-Mayweather spectacle.

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