Hanging from a building directly across the street from Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland is a Nike billboard 10 stories high bearing a huge image of Cavaliers star LeBron James with the words we are all witnesses at the top. The message:
Manny Pacquiao, and put it up on every building he fights in. Because history, you see, is happening right now.
Last Saturday night in Las Vegas, in front of 16,200 fans at the MGM Grand, Pacquiao dismantled Miguel Cotto to win the WBO welterweight championship with a 12th-round TKO. The victory, his 50th in 55 fights, gave the 30-year-old Pacquiao a title in a record-setting seventh weight class. "I've been around Muhammad Ali, Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard," says Pacquiao's promoter, Bob Arum. "Manny Pacquiao is the best fighter I've ever seen."
Saturday's bout was expected to be the toughest test of Pacquiao's 14-year career. He would be fighting at his heaviest weight, 144 pounds, against a natural welterweight widely regarded as the division's best. Cotto, 29, brought a record of 34-1 (27 KOs) and a reputation for durability.
With trainer Freddie Roach (dubbed "my master" by Pacquiao during the week) dictating the game plan from the corner, Pacquiao rained punches on Cotto that seemed to emanate from all angles. He dropped an off-balance Cotto with a chopping right in the third round and sent him down again in the fourth with a left to his jaw. While a game Cotto responded with everything in his considerable arsenal -- including a left hook that snapped Pacquiao's head back in the third -- he could do little to stave off Pacquiao's assault.
By the ninth round Cotto's face was swollen and he was spitting blood; by the 10th he was in full retreat -- his corner almost threw in the towel -- and by the 12th a once bloodthirsty crowd was pleading for a stoppage. When Pacquiao drove Cotto to the ropes with another left, referee Kenny Bayless jumped in to wave the fight over with 2:05 remaining. "He was a lot faster than we thought," says Cotto's trainer, Joe Santiago. "A lot stronger too."
Basking in the present is a luxury afforded to no champion. Even before Pacquiao stepped out of the ring on Saturday he was asked whom he would face when he stepped back in. The first name to come up: Floyd Mayweather Jr. "We'll take the best deal out there," says Roach. "But personally I want Mayweather."
While a fight between Pacquiao and the unbeaten, five-weight-class world champion is a natural fit, there are no guarantees. There is a river of bad blood between Arum and Mayweather that flows from their ugly split in 2006. Then there is the money: Industry sources say a Pacquiao-Mayweather matchup could generate $80 million, but Mayweather has insisted he should get the larger share while Pacquiao's camp won't budge off of a 50-50 split. "Both sides need to look at the big picture," says HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg. "That's a boatload of cash and a fight that America wants." Arum, for the moment, agrees: "If [Mayweather] wants to fight Manny Pacquiao, he can call me."
The showdown, should it happen, could come as soon as early May. But Mayweather has long been criticized for avoiding the most challenging opponents, and already some in his camp appear to be looking for ways out of the bout. Mayweather's father, Floyd Sr., told SI he would advise his son not to face Pacquiao, saying that he believed Pacquiao's ability to absorb Cotto's shots and keep coming is proof that Pacquiao is taking performance-enhancing substances -- an accusation for which he had no proof. "I know Floyd is the best," says Mayweather Sr. "But when [your opponent] uses something illegal, even the best can get hurt."
Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, says there is no evidence Pacquiao is using steroids. Nevada rules, which have been in place since 2002, require fighters to submit urine samples before every fight. Those samples are tested for 40 kinds of steroids, diuretics and masking agents. Pacquiao, who has fought in Las Vegas 10 times since '02, has never tested positive. Pacquiao's conditioning coach, Alex Ariza, says the only substances Pacquiao took leading up to the fight were whey protein and liver-support supplements, while consuming a 6,500-calories-per-day diet.
Such controversy seems to bounce off Pacquiao. Humbled by poor beginnings in the Philippines, he still views himself as the reckless puncher who walked into Freddie Roach's Los Angeles gym eight years ago looking for a trainer. At the postfight press conference Pacquiao stood at a podium and declared himself "an ordinary fighter."
"You're not ordinary," Roach interrupted.
Pausing, his face reddening and then creasing with a shy smile, Pacquiao turned to Roach. "OK," he said. "Sorry about that, Master."