LAS VEGAS – The last time Manny Pacquiao displayed his many talents he stopped Oscar De La Hoya in a fight no one thought he could win. The beating he administered that night not only sent De La Hoya into retirement, but cemented Pacquiao’s status as boxing’s newest star.
Pacquiao returns to the ring tonight much the same fighter he was five months ago, taking on Ricky Hatton in a lucrative 140-pound fight matching two guys who love to brawl. The big difference now, though, is everybody expects him to win.
One big fight can create a lot of expectation, and the biggest task for Pacquiao may be managing them in the ring.
His trainer isn’t worried. Pacquiao, said Freddie Roach, is more focused than ever.
“The win over Oscar just gave him more confidence,” Roach said. “So many people said he couldn’t do it but he did. Oscar could still beat a lot of guys, but he didn’t win a second of that fight.”
Once again, Pacquiao will be facing a fighter who is bigger than him as he fights for only the third time above 130 pounds. Pacquiao weighed in at 138 on Friday while Hatton was at the class limit of 140 pounds.
But oddsmakers who saw him dismantle an even bigger De La Hoya make him a 2-1 favorite to beat the once-beaten Hatton and win a title in his sixth weight class since turning pro. Coming off a rugged training camp that Pacquiao believes was his best, he’s not about to argue the point.
“I believe that I am improving and everybody knows and can see that by my last few performances,” Pacquiao said.
Those last few performances have made Pacquiao (48-3-2, 36 knockouts) a fighter in demand in a sport desperate for stars.
He’s such a hero in his native Philippines that he talks about one day running for president there, but the win over De La Hoya in particular catapulted Pacquiao into rarified status in the sport of boxing.
He’ll make $12 million to square off for a minor title against Hatton, who will earn $8 million in a fight that sold out the MGM Grand hotel’s arena and will be televised on HBO pay-per-view with the main event beginning about 8:30 p.m. PDT.
“I do feel different now than before I fought Oscar,” Pacquiao said. “There is a big difference in my popularity now and I think that was because Oscar was popular, too.”
Hatton, who will be backed by his usual throng of singing and chanting English fans, is coming off a knockout win over Paulie Malignaggi that seemed to help him regain any confidence lost in the only loss of his career, a 10th-round stoppage in December 2007 at the hands of Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Still, Hatton knows there are a lot of people in boxing that look at him as little more than a tough guy brawler who likes to party a bit too much between fights.
“People say (I’m) over-hyped, overprotected, a fat, beer-drinking Englishman,” Hatton said at the final prefight press conference. “Well, I’m going to shock the world again.”
Though both fighters love to mix it up, they go about it in different ways.
Hatton (45-1, 32 knockouts) tends to throw wide punches while moving constantly forward and trying to smother his opponent, while Pacquiao fights down the middle with hands held high from his southpaw stance.
Both say they plan to box more in this bout, but both have been known to simply start trading punches when they get hit.
“I don’t see it being a tickling contest,” Hatton said. “I see it being an absolute war because we’re both fighters by nature.”
A Pacquiao win could lead to an even bigger fight sometime later in the year. With Friday night’s announcement about Mayweather coming out of retirement for a July fight, there’s a possibility the two could meet in the fall in a clash of the holder of the current mythical title of best pound-for-pound fighter in the world against the man who used to have that title.
Pacquiao is only 30, but he has been fighting professionally since making his debut as a 106-pounder in the Philippines in 1995, and he has engaged in slugfests over the years.
Roach said he would like to see him fight just two more times, then move on to other things.
“He wants to get into politics, but I told him you can’t do both,” Roach said. “Maybe if he could get Floyd out of retirement that would be it. No sense in going any further after that.”
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