Saturday, Dec. 6, marked one the most anticipated boxing matches in recent history—dubbed the “dream fight:” pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao versus the sport’s golden boy, Oscar De La Hoya. The fight was, quite unexpectedly, a drubbing. Pacquiao, the smaller boxer, who was not favored going into the fight, handily destroyed the bigger and older De la Hoya, forcing a stoppage going into the ninth round. It was a mauling. It looked like a video game where one guy plays all the time, and the other guy is still trying to figure out what buttons do what.
And while American boxing as a sport is clearly seeing an end of an era, having witnessed two of its largest stars go down hard to overseas fighters (De la Hoya to the Filipino Pacquiao; Roy Jones Jr. to Wales’ Joe Calzaghe), this recent fight also showed a marked difference in the way the public reacted to the ethnic tension that surrounds the fight game.
Boxing has historically played on racial tension as a way to sell matches, and while it tried once again this round, the public didn’t buy it.
In the visceral, politically incorrect, raw reality of boxing, best believe that reactions are not screened. People do and say what they feel. But despite every opportunity for this fight to be regarded as Latino versus Filipino, fight fans moved beyond the expected animosity. Instead, it was viewed as a fight between the old generation (De la Hoya) and the future (Pacquiao).
Political pundits may view our black president-elect as proof of a “post-racial” society, but the real indicator of progress is what happens when we see two men of different backgrounds pummel each other in a ring.
Manny Pacquiao is an enormous star in the Philippines. Think Ali, Jordan, Britney Spears and Obama rolled into one. When he fights, crime rates stop in the Philippines. Not drop. Stop. Saturday night, the vice-president of the Philippines was in Pacquiao’s entourage. Having beaten Mexico’s legendary fighters, Marco Antonio Barrera and Eric Morales, he is called “the Mexicutioner” by promoters. Pacquoa is, what a San Jose writer,and native Filipino Charisse Domingo called, “the physical expression of our psyche.”
In a show of how complicated racial stereotyping can get, fight fans posted blogs with the question, “Is Pacquiao a Mexican fighter?” And people actually debated this. The conversation was based on the assumed link between ethnicity and fighting style. Pacquiao’s physical, aggressive style is typical of the style of Mexican fighters. Indeed, Mexican fans for Pacquiao came out in droves as the fight approached. Even Mexican boxing icon, Julio Cesar Chavez (whom De la Hoya had beaten previously) and current welterweight champion Antonio Margarito were said to be Pacquiao fans. But if Pacquiao was the Mexican fighter, what then, was De la Hoya?
Oscar de la Hoya himself shows the ever-changing landscape of racial pride and prejudice. Raised in East LA, the child of immigrants, De la Hoya captured an Olympic gold medal for the US, and went on to win champion belt after champion belt in the pros. But the Mexican-American hero was cast in a different light when he fought other Mexican fighters.
When he fought Chavez, for example, he was not seen as Mexican. When he fought Fernando Vargas, Vargas claimed to be the true spirit of Latinos in the US, and that De la Hoya was just a “pretty boy.”
Yet when De la Hoya fought previous pound-for-pound king, African-American Floyd Mayweather Jr., the fight was unabashedly billed as a contest between America’s Black and Mexican populations. The fight was held on Cinco de Mayo to add more fuel to the fire. Mayweather, ever the showman, came out wearing shorts with the colors of the Mexican flag, and sporting a Sombrero. That night, De La Hoya was Mexican enough for fans.
This time around, boxing promoters expected a new feud between Filipino and Latino. But just as boxing is in a new place, the country is a well. I heard from people the next day, and they debated whether Oscar was too old, Manny too fast. But in all of the post-fight analysis, noticeably absent was the topic of race.
Boxing oftentimes can be about issues that exist outside of the ring. But race, at least on this “dream” night, was not one of them.