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Manny fiery, brilliant with help from Freddie

Manny Pacquiao exits the arena after his unanimous-decision victory over Jessie Vargas at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. AP

MANILA, Philippines – It took a key defensive adjustment for Manny Pacquiao to neutralize WBO welterweight champion Jessie Vargas’ vaunted overhand right in the middle rounds and when that problem was solved, the way was clear for the Filipino ring icon to wrest the crown at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas last Saturday night (yesterday morning, Manila time).            

Pacquiao got off to a hot start, clearly intimidating Vargas with his blinding hand-speed. Vargas appeared nervous in the face of Pacquiao’s aggressive attack at the onset. His beady eyes betrayed a fear in the heart, like he didn’t think he belonged in the same ring as a legend. In the second round, Pacquiao speared Vargas with a counter left straight and the 2008 Olympian from Mexico went down cross-legged.

Pacquiao went in for the kill in the third and had as much luck hitting Vargas with his right as his left. Vargas couldn’t get untracked and hit Pacquiao below the hip, drawing a warning from referee Kenny Bayless. Then, Vargas’ glove touched the canvas in a moment of indecision as Bayless ruled a slip. It could’ve been another knockdown since there was no push or contact from Pacquiao. To Vargas’ credit, he withstood Pacquiao’s power until the last bell.

In the fourth round, Vargas found the range with his left jab and overhand right. Because of his four-inch wingspan advantage, he was able to keep a safe distance from Pacquiao’s strike zone. Pacquiao tried to crack Vargas’ defense with combinations but couldn’t come close. That triggered a mild reversal for Vargas. In the next two rounds, Pacquiao couldn’t figure out Vargas whose confidence got a serious lift as he grew comfortable landing jabs and the overhand right that nearly bowled over Tim Bradley last year. Pacquiao seemed to be slightly confused, hardly threw punches and if he did, they came one at a time. It was like he took a step back to study how to break down his opponent. The three judges Dave Moretti, Glenn Trowbridge and Glenn Feldman gave rounds four and six to Vargas. Moretti was more generous as he also scored rounds three and five for the champion.

Then, Pacquiao made adjustments in both his offense and defense, no doubt with a little help from coach Freddie Roach in the corner. In defense, he made sure his left hand was up to block Vargas’ overhand right whenever they came close, ducked the right in distance exchanges and timed his step-out with precision. Whenever Vargas charged in, Pacquiao kept his guard up and countered with the left.

Pacquiao waited for Vargas to come in then unloaded with a quick one-two and stepped out before the champion could drop a right. In offense, Pacquiao executed the classic long left lead, leaning away from Vargas’ right to avoid a counter. If Pacquiao attacked, he led off with the right jab. If he countered, the left was the hand of choice. Pacquiao’s unpredictability with the left or right as his lead hand kept Vargas on his toes and on the backfoot where he was easier to hit and not a threat offensively.

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In the eighth round, Pacquiao opened a cut on Vargas’ right eyebrow with a left straight. Slowly, Vargas began to crumble. His right eye swelled and his right hand became impotent. In the ninth, Vargas repeatedly tried to connect with his right but Pacquiao had all answers. Vargas’ cornerman Dewey Cooper, a former two-time world kickboxing champion, couldn’t counter how Pacquiao countered and showed his inability to match wits with Roach. Pacquiao turned it into a tactical contest and Vargas was easy prey in a chess match.

In the 10th, Pacquiao wobbled Vargas’ legs as he lashed out with furious combinations. The right jab wouldn’t miss and the left hook kept Vargas on the defensive. It started to get one-sided. In the 11th, Vargas went down on a slip, tripping over his feet after he got hit by a right. He had lost his balance, confidence and composure. Pacquiao could’ve marched in for the coup de grace without resistance. The danger signals were nowhere in sight. In the last round, Bayless called another slip on Vargas who was badly outclassed in the homestretch by a man 10 years older.

Pacquiao could’ve gone another five rounds without showing signs of exhaustion. He was in peak shape, physically and mentally. Moretti, 72, scored it 114-113 which was a travesty and an embarrassment. If Pacquiao hadn’t scored a knockdown, he would’ve had it a 114-114 draw. Moretti, who should consider retirement, gave the last round to Vargas while Trowbridge and Feldman awarded it to Pacquiao. Trowbridge and Feldman both gave the last six rounds to Pacquiao in submitting identical 118-109 cards.    

What was evident in the fight was Pacquiao’s edge in experience. He displayed much more maturity in taking control of the fight starting the seventh round. Vargas threw a lot more punches but Pacquiao scored the more telling blows with a higher rate of accuracy. Vargas threw 562 punches compared to Pacquiao’s lower volume of 409 but the champion landed only 104 for a 19 percent rate of connection. Pacquiao was on target with 147 shots for a 36 percent rate of connection. It wasn’t about quantity. For Pacquiao, it was about quality.

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