There were many good reasons Manny Pacquiao waited 11 months to fight. Not among them, however, was the reason most resonant to the men sitting at the bar at Krystal’s Cafe 81 in the Lower Eastside on Saturday night.
“I still don’t think I’m ready to see it again,” said the man in the blue hoodie.
He didn’t have to explain it. To this room full of Pacquiao faithful, it was the moment the ride ended, the inevitable flipside to the years of euphoria, the night their hero fell. It was the Juan Manuel Marquez punch that knocked Pacquiao, cold, to the canvas.
Yet before the faithful could watch him enter the ring for the first time since, they knew they would have to see it again. Montages showed it every way possible — from multiple angles, in black and white, in slow motion.
Even a year later, barely a scab had formed. The men at the bar groaned. Some looked away. Others stared, straight-faced, shaking their heads.
A great boxer, at his peak, flies as close to immortality as any man can. Able to dodge the fastest jabs and absorb the strongest hooks, a figure of strength who lords over the weaker men who have fallen at his feet, pummeling each new supposedly formidable foe.
But when a boxer is knocked out the way Pacquiao was, something is lost and can never be regained. The image — lifeless and face down — lives forever, a constant reminder of the boxer’s mortality.
So when the opening bell rang, and Pacuqiao squared off against Brandon Rios, perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising that the bar still had plenty of open seats.
Krystal’s Cafe 81 is one of the few Filipino joints with TVs in Manhattan, and those who had come here to watch previous Pacquiao fights remember standing-room-only situations. But there was a risk in watching this fight. It was possible the Marquez KO signaled a steep decline in Pacquiao’s skills and desire. His mother and wife wanted him to retire following that fight. Some fans, afraid of seeing their hero fall further, did too.
Yet here he was once again fighting a bigger man, a powerful and tough brawler in the prime of his career. Rios had declared that “I’m going to retire Manny Pacquiao.” A flush shot from his devastating left hook could make that happen.
“I’m nervous,” said the man in the hoodie.
“Yeah,” the man beside him, wide-eyed and arms crossed, shot back after a big exhale.
The nerves calmed a minute into the first round. By the third, fourth, fifth, they had nearly vanished, replaced by drunken excitement. From the start of the fight it was clear that Manny Pacquiao was in near-vintage form, overwhelming his slower and clumsy opponent with constant movement and machine gun flurries.
Inside Krystal’s there were chants of Manny! Manny! Manny! and unified shouts with each jarring combination.
“Get him, Manny!”
“Knock him out! Knock him out!”
By the seventh round, the tension had dwindled: Rios would need a knockout to win this fight. He kept throwing punches, but certainly not nearly as many as he had planned because often by the time he squared up and cocked back, Pacquiao had shifted out of reach.
Years ago, trainer Freddie Roach had honed Pacquiao from a reckless take-two-to-give-three fighter into a sound and efficient boxer. On Saturday, the footwork and ring generalship was better than it had ever been. Pacquiao landed his one or two punches, then ducked and slid around Rios, who desperately sought to trap him against the rope.
When the larger man bull rushed, Pacquiao jarred him with lead lefts to the nose, often followed by right hooks to the chin.
The fight was a near carbon-copy of Pacquiao’s one-sided beat down of Antonio Margarito in 2010. This made sense — not only did the opponents have similar skill sets and fighting mentalities, they shared the same trainer, Robert Garcia.
At the end, Rios’s face was nearly as battered as Margarito’s. Rios had boasted that he enjoyed taking hits, and he would later boast that Pacquiao’s power hadn’t hurt him. Yet as his hopes for an upset fizzled, Rios kept his gloves mostly stationed in front of his face.
Over the 12 rounds, Pacquiao landed 281 punches, to Rios’s 138. The three judges awarded Pacquiao a landslide unanimous decision victory — 12 rounds to zero, 11 rounds to one, ten rounds to two.
The bar burst into “Rrrraaahhhhh!” High-fives and hugs. Clinking beer bottles. Feelings of old times.
HBO’s Max Kellerman asked Rios, “You said before the fight, ‘Hey, I’m not going to be a punching bag, I have skills.’ Do you feel you proved something going the distance with Pacquiao?”
“What do you think, man?” Rios hissed, his pre-fight brash gone. “You’re the one asking the question! You were watching it — you think I’m a punching bag?”
The men at the bar laughed. Some ordered another round of San Miguel. Some closed their tabs and headed home. The money they paid would go toward the relief effort in the Philippines, the servers said.
On the TVs, Pacquiao had just finished declaring that he had dedicated the fight to the victims of Typhoon Haiyan. He wanted to win this fight for them, he explained. They needed this. As a street sweeper named Ardel Nebasa told the Associated Press, “It felt like I got my house back.”