Bryan Armen Graham
Sunday November 13th, 2011

LAS VEGAS -- It was close.

That much everyone can agree on.

Manny Pacquiao beat back an improbable, heroic effort from an aging champion to retain his WBO welterweight championship on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, eking out a majority decision over the magnificent Juan Manuel Marquez in a fight that was just as close as their previous two ring wars. In doing so, he narrowly avoided a seismic upset.

One ringside judge scored it 114-114, with the other two giving it to Pacquiao at 115-113 and 116-114. had it 114-114.

Call it a lot of things, but don't call it a robbery.

A heavily pro-Marquez crowd rained boos on the floor after Michael Buffer's announcement of the outcome, hurling bottles and cans toward the ring -- a far more vehement reaction than Floyd Mayweather experienced after his ungentlemanly knockout of Victor Ortiz in the same room just two months ago.

But the outcry was not commensurate to the injustice.

Yes, most of the media at ringside scored it a draw or a narrow victory for Marquez. But most of the rounds were very close. How close? Not once after the sixth did all three judges score a single round the same way.

Fact is, Saturday's fight could have gone either way. There have been far more egregious iniquities in boxing -- this year alone.

Marquez (53-6-1, 39 KOs), a 7-to-1 underdog who'd appeared vastly out of his depth in his only previous fight above lightweight, looked better than anyone expected from the opening bell, staying away from Pacquiao's power in the early rounds and peppering him with well-timed counterpunches. The Filipino champion had trouble getting inside and landing shots, finding his hyperkinetic flurries thwarted regardless of his tack or pace. Marquez even managed to rock Pacquiao several times, most notably by gigantic right hands in the fourth, fifth and seventh.

During those the middle rounds Pacquiao was as apprehensive as he's looked in years, wary of the counters, as confounded by the Marquez riddle as he was when they met at featherweight in 2004 and super featherweight in '08. (They fought Saturday at a catchweight of 144, or 14 pounds above their most recent fight.) He was doing enough to bank a few rounds and keep the Mexican challenger from running out too far ahead, but it was clear the more disciplined Marquez was in control. After nine rounds, the fight was there for Marquez to take.

And then he took his foot off the gas.

So you can say what you want about Saturday's result, but Marquez can only blame himself. All three judges scored two of the last three rounds for Pacquiao -- and gave him all three.

Pacquiao (54-3-2, 38 KOs) showed great heart, and an even greater chin, to absorb Marquez's best shots and keep moving forward through the first three-quarters for the fight. Then as the reality of his 38 years became manifest -- as the Mexican's crisp, exquisite combinations began to lose their bite -- it was the 32-year-old Pacquiao's superior finishing kick that made the difference.

"The fight was there for Marquez," Pacquiao's trainer Freddie Roach said. "But he chose to stay in that counterpunching mode and not come forward, and if I'm going to give a close round to someone I'm going to give it to the aggressor."

Throughout the buildup to Saturday's fight, Pacquiao had talked endlessly about the desire for a definitive conclusion to a trilogy that's now spanned 36 rounds over seven years and three weight classes. This was not that.

Pacquiao's promoter Bob Arum was first to float the idea of a fourth installment for May, a reality even Roach grudgingly agreed with.

"It's a fight I kind of don't want to do again, but I think we have to," Roach said. "He's given us problems three times now and he's very good at what he does. He deserves a rematch."

For now, it appears the dream of a megafight between Pacquiao and Mayweather is on hold. If Pacquiao had this much trouble with Marquez's counterpunching, how could he expect to fare against a guy who's almost identical stylistically, only bigger and faster and far closer to his prime?

"Commercially speaking it will be huge fight," Marquez said through an interpreter. "But boxing is about styles, and the style of Mayweather will get very complicated for Pacquiao."

The workmanlike Marquez will never run for president. He'll never star in an action movie or cut a gold record or make Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people. He will never have his own branded hand sanitizer or cologne like Pacquiao (both of which were available Saturday at the merch stand, for $5 and $50, respectively).

But he will always have Pacquiao's number, the Ken Norton to Manny's Ali.

"I have to accept that it's not too easy to fight Marquez," Pacquiao said. "He's always backing off, he's waiting for me to create action. It's not easy."

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