Monday, August 17, 2009

Could Manny Pacquiao Beat Me Up?

I spent my Saturday at L.A. Live, bowling at the "Lucky Strike" and playing games at the ESPN Zone (before closing out the night by being, ahem, entertained by some beautiful ladies at this fine establishment near L.A.X., if you follow me), all in honor of my cousin's 18th birthday/going away to college. While I was there a 3-on-3 tournament was being held, as part of a three-day event being sponsored by the Lakers and partaken by celebrities and common men alike. When I arrived they were warming up for a game, and right there on the court in front of me were two of my favorite people whom I don't know: the talented, underutilized (and, for his performance as Avon Barksdale on The Wire, underappreciated) actor Wood Harris, and the great welterweight champion Shane Mosley. Harris was tall and slim, as I would have expected. It was the tiny Mosley who's size surprised me. It's one thing to know how small most of these welterweight and lower weight class fighters are. It's another thing to see it in person. Shane Mosley is a fighting machine, a bad, bad man. He's also a virtual pip squeak. His arms looked skinny and weak and he didn't even seem the 5'9" he's listed at. He was just puny. Having seen him in the flesh I find it hard to fathom how someone so small could beat people up for a living. I've eaten burrito's from Mexican restaurants that were bigger than Shane Mosley.

And to think, Manny Pacquiao is even smaller! I bring this up only because Pacman's frightening destruction of Ricky Hatton in May got me and my father to wondering if the little Filipino was so bad a dude that he could take out a bouncer-sized fellow like myself, a curiosity inspired by the sheer disparity in dimensions. I am a 6'2", 325 lb sportswriter in the body of a nose tackle. Manny is 5'6 1/2" and 140-ish. The consensus is that size does matter in a fight, in fact that it is the most important factor. But then again, as the saying goes, speed kills. So, who would win this imaginary squabble?

Before we consider that question any further, I think first I should tell you a few things about myself. I am 21 years old. I have never been in a fight. I have "gone body" in playful contests of machismo with friends but I have never been punched in the face or had anyone swing in that direction. I have had those same buddies I sparred with tell me that my punches do not hurt, and that I punch lazily. But I have also had other people tell me that my punches do hurt, that I am a very hard puncher. But in recent times I have become quite a fan of the sweet science, to the point that I even dropped some coinage on a punching bag. It's one thing to just be big; it's another thing to be big and know how to throw a punch. Whereas before - when I was in high school and middle school and engaging in these friendly battles - I was the former, these days I am closer to the latter, having learned much better how to throw a blow, and furthermore having practiced putting together combination's on my standing Everlast.

The scenario my father initially proposed went like this: Say I was in a liquor store, prepared to make my purchase, and I saw Manny standing in line ahead of me and decided that I was just going to walk up, nudge the little fella out of the way, and cut in front of him - and Manny took offense to this act of disrespect, decided that he would correct it the old fashioned way, and just swung on me. Could he knock me out? Could I take his best shot? We wondered about the left hook he deployed to render the Hitman unconscious - would it have the same effect on me? Almost certainly no, we decided. I am twice Hatton's size, so it is almost guaranteed that I would withstand it much more effectively. But could he knock me down with a punch? Could he rock the big guy off of his feet? Or would I merely shake it off and proceed to manhandle the southpaw slugger?

And what if we doubled up? I'm not talking about Manny just taking a swing at me now, I'm speaking about us both actually raising our fists and assuming the fighting position, going toe-to-toe, shooting the fair the one, as it is called in some circles. There is no doubt that, if I were able to catch Manny, to land a fairly clean shot, I could knock him out. I don't care if he is the pound-for-pound champ, or that Bert Sugar called him one of the 20 best boxers ever following his defeat of Hatton - he's still as small as he is and I'm still as big as I am. But that's a big part of the equation, though: Could I find him? Would I be too slow to locate such an elusive and well-trained target, a man for whom it is only instinct to avoid the punch of another man? Would he pepper my face with 18 consecutive punches before I even knew what was hitting me?

I think my best bet would be to just let go on him, to just swing away on him with anger and aggression, to impose my size on him and overwhelm him with it until the best he could do is just cover up, to try and shield himself from the avalanche. Because remember, not only do I outweigh by almost 200 pounds, but I'm taller than him by half-a-foot. So those punches would be reigning down on him and coming at him from all angles.

We'll never know the answer, obviously - unless, of course, I challenge Pac to a fight when I make my planned trip to the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood (the boxing hot spot and residence of Manny's training camps owned by his trainer, Freddie Roach) once he begins preparing for his November clash with Miguel Cotto in Las Vegas, and he accepts my invitation. All I know is that after seeing the diminutive Sugar Shane at L.A Live this past weekend, I remember thinking to myself, "There's no way he could take me." And as I said, Manny is smaller than Shane. Actually, I think that answers the question. At least for me it does.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is Jim Thome the Signature Slugger of His Era?

Before you read this any further, click here. Link opens up in a new window, and what you will find is a list of the top 1,000-plus home run hitters in baseball history. But just focus on the top 20. Out of all of the names in that group, ask yourself this question: Which one seems like it doesn't belong?

If you think like I do, the answer to that query is Jim Thome, by a mile. When I learned recently that Thome was only one home run behind Reggie Jackson for 12th all-time, I was thrown for a loop. It's not that I was unaware that Thome had activated the "mandatory Hall-of-Famer indicator" by locating the bleachers more than 500 times in his career; it's that one can't help but be caught off guard by the discovery that JIM THOME has one less career bomb than MR. FREAKIN' OCTOBER himself!!! It put Thome's career in perspective for me, and by doing so it at the same time caused me to consider him in a historical sense for the first time in my life, and really and truly to pay him more mind than I ever had before, period.

I have been watching baseball and grasping it since I was at least 8; as a young boy I was a student of the game. There was nothing I cherished more or spent more time focusing on. And yet in all these years, I don't really remember even thinking about Thome for more than maybe two seconds at a time, and it was rare when I thought of him at all. He was just so...blah. He was never really a superstar, and he never captured my imagination, or anyone else's.

Reggie's name and reputation put in relation to Thome provided some context for Jim's career acheivements and almost alarmed me to his existence. And so of course the two important numbers in the matter - 12 and 562, the number of homers he has accumulated - startled me as well; they both seem too high for him. It's like I knew he was in some exclusive company, while at the same time not being cognizant of the fact.

The reasons I have stated for this go hand in hand: In comparison to other similarly statistically significant players, I rarely thought of Thome. Why? Because he never felt similarly significant to me. There were never any elements of heroism to Thome, none of the grace, majesty, or superhuman powers possessed by his contemporaries; it's more like all he was was a guy who could hit a bunch of inconspicuous homers. On the other hand, Junior, Bonds, and A-Rod were divinely gifted; McGwire and Sosa were both like wood-wielding versions of Hercules; Manny was a goofy hitting savant; somehow even Palmeiro ended up seeming more important and intriguing than Thome, probably because of his connection to the steroids scandal.

Which brings us to another, also mind-boggling point: Isn't it reasonable to say that, considering how his peers are viewed, Thome could one day be considered the premiere home run hitter of his time? The majority of his peers are stigmatized, permanently tainted by their attachment to performance enhancers, their achievements accompanied by an asterisk.

And so here Thome stands, his name never brought up in any such conversations. Griffey has hit more dingers, but in my opinion his case is hurt by the time he missed to injury during what should have been his prime years; the relative lack of production there is glaring. Thome has been consistent, and is still going relatively strong, 21 bombs so far this season at age 39. Albert Pujols will pass him eventually, but that time is fairly far away, and you could even argue that Pujols will eventually wind up belonging to another era altogether.

And sure, this idea is the result of projecting in a way that, given the realities of what we have seen, should not be practiced. Thome could be outed as a name on the infamous '03 list, or otherwise linked to steroids or PED's, at any moment and no one would be surprised. But as it stands, Thome will go down as a big, homegrown mid-west dude who could always hit a baseball, and hit it far. Had things been different he might have become a defensive end for the Browns, Eagles, and Bears.

I don't know if I would necessarily agree with Thome earning such a lofty distinction - I lean towards the opinion that the numbers are what they are, the era was what it was, and that's that. But based on the prevailing logic of Baseball America, my proposal seems to make sense. Only, of course, it doesn't, for the same reason that I've never before heard the idea floated around or that Thome is breathing down Reggie Jackson's neck.

I'm not the only one who doesn't think of Jim Thome that way.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Don't You Know His Name?

On September 19th in Las Vegas, Floyd Mayweather Jr., boxing's returning pound-for-pound titan, will square off against the rich pugilistic history of Mexico's current pride and joy, Juan Manuel Marquez, himself considered one of the top three fighters in the sport regardless of weight class. The bout will take place at a catch weight of 143-144 pounds, which is 8-9 pounds north of the 135-pound lightweight limit Marquez fought at in his last match, a knockout victory over young Juan Diaz. Beyond the questions that arise any time a fighter moves up in weight, Marquez will have to do so against a true 147-pounder who once looked impressive in beating a still game Oscar de la Hoya at 154 pounds and remains unbeaten through 39 professional fights. Such a mountain to climb has understandably cast Marquez into the role of underdog. But more than that I feel that he is being treated as an afterthought, and that is a notion that I do not comprehend.

As I have continued my deep foray into boxing over the past two years, Marquez has become one of my three favorite fighters. Once someone I believed to be a refreshing dose of comedy and entertainment, in his comeback and promotion for the upcoming bout with Marquez, Mayweather has come off as just plain angry and unlikable, lashing out at everyone in a way that has made me lose some affinity for him and realize why so many people want to see him lose. With that being said he is a brilliant ring surgeon and a superb athlete, and I cannot help but enjoy his displays of mastery and superiority in the ring. Furthermore, I suppose that it will only take one charismatic appearance from him on the upcoming "24/7" for me to return completely to his corner.

There is nothing to dislike about Manny Pacquiao, for he is a polite and humble sportsman and gentleman, while at the same time being nothing less than a killer between the ropes. He seems to me to be a shining example of a great athlete in his prime. His body looks flawless, defined by muscle with seemingly no trace of fat, and it has only looked better and stronger as he has gone on to the larger weights. He is a smart and versatile fighter now, all the flaws of his youth corrected by Coach Roach and the gift of experience. He is a lean, mean fighting machine and deserving of his current distinction as the top pound-for-pound boxer in the game.

In the shadows lurks Marquez. Mayweather and Pacquiao are the two biggest draws in the sport; Marquez exists in mainstream anonymity. I suppose it is because while Floyd is a character and Manny is spectacular (Floyd is spectacular too but in a much more boring way to most), all there is to Marquez is guts and technique. But those two traits matter much to me, which is why I enjoy watching Marquez so much.

He has been involved in two of my favorite fights to watch on YouTube - his first of two fights against Pacquiao and the fight against Diaz. In the former he recovered from three knockdowns in the first round and managed to salvage a draw by adjusting before the start of the second and proceeding to apply his boxing acumen. In the latter he capped off what Jim Lampley called his "patented mid-round rush" by knocking Diaz down in the ninth round with a barrage of punches, then finishing him off seconds later by going to the body to set up the closing uppercut. Diaz fell to the canvas again and the fight was immediately called to a halt, the professionalism exhibited by Marquez as he went in for the kill worthy of appreciation.

When I think of Marquez I think of the way Bill Simmons once pegged Jason Kidd in an ESPN the Mag installment of his "Reasons I Love Sports" column series. Simmons argues that in order for Kidd to make up for not being able to shoot, the rest of his game had to be perfect. Similarly, Marquez is, unlike his two P4P peers, not a particularly special athlete. He can, as they say, be hit, and he doesn't have strikingly fast hands or any other kind of eye-popping natural blessing. And yet he is able to compensate for his ordinary physical skills by being such an expert boxer and savvy veteran. A disciple of Boxing 101, he is an accurate counter-puncher who puts combination's together extremely well and possesses a textbook stance. Mentally, he is just as sharp as he is physically.

And so I think the question is, How can somebody like this be so overlooked heading into a fight against anybody, no matter what the circumstances? Someone so fundamentally sound with so much heart and determination and knowledge of his craft? A scientist with such a strong resume and impeccable reputation amongst boxing people? He has won championships in three divisions, defeated fellow Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera, deserved both decisions over Pacquiao in the opinion of some people and deserved the nod in their second fight in the opinion of more.

He is a well-respected champion who has earned his standing in the fight community, and yet the same people who tout him are the ones who give him no chance of winning this fight. I don't think he will win, either, as I said I understand that sentiment. But at the very least he has a fighting chance, and it should not be ignored.