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October 21, 2019

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Historic feat provides target for Pacquiao

He can come close to Henry Armstrong by winning in a third weight class this year

Manny Pacquiao timelapse

Boxer Manny Pacquiao gets in some practice earlier this month.

If You Go

  • Who: Oscar De La Hoya vs. Manny Pacquiao
  • When: Saturday
  • Where: MGM Grand Garden Arena
  • Tickets: $150-$1,500, (The original allotment of tickets sold out less than two hours after going on sale in September. A limited number of seats became available last week after a reconfiguration of the arena.)
  • Closed circuit: MGM Grand Conference Center, $60-$100
  • TV: Pay per view, $54.95

Boxing historians refer to it as the sport’s most extraordinary achievement.

In a span of 10 months, from October 1937 through August 1938, Henry Armstrong won world championship fights at featherweight, welterweight and lightweight — in that order.

He remains the only boxer in history to have held three world titles simultaneously.

No one will equal Armstrong’s accomplishment, if only because the rules of boxing no longer allow fighters to hold belts in more than one division at a time.

This week at the MGM Grand, however, four months after the 70th anniversary of Armstrong’s feat, Manny Pacquiao has an opportunity to come close.

Pacquiao, in his welterweight bout against Oscar De La Hoya at the Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night, will be fighting in his third weight class this year.

The first two fights were for world titles. Pacquiao won a decision against Juan Manuel Marquez for the super featherweight title (130 pounds) in March and stopped David Diaz for the lightweight belt (135) three months later.

No title is at stake in Saturday’s 147-pound showdown, though a victory by Pacquiao would cement his reputation as boxing’s best all-around fighter in any weight division.

An upset of De La Hoya would also establish Pacquiao’s streak in 2008 as a top contender for the most singular achievement since Armstrong’s.

“It will make boxing history,” Pacquiao said.

The comparison to Armstrong is valid yet imperfect. In his day, only eight weight divisions were recognized (about half the number as today), so his titles came at 126, 147 and 135 pounds.

Then again, Pacquiao will be competing in his third big fight in a row, without the benefit of any interim bouts to adjust to each new weight class.

Armstrong knocked out Petey Sarron in the sixth round to win the world featherweight championship Oct. 29, 1937, at Madison Square Garden. He then won a string of tuneup fights before facing Barney Ross and Lou Ambers in consecutive bouts. He scored 15-round decisions against Ross on May 31, 1938, for the welterweight title, and against Ambers on Aug. 17, 1938, for the lightweight title.

Armstrong’s welterweight title clash with Ross, because it featured a smaller world champ moving up to challenge an established heavier opponent, presents the most fitting comparison to this week’s bout at the MGM Grand.

Like Pacquiao, Armstrong, who had 11 losses on his record at the time, was installed as a betting underdog when he opted to step up to welterweight.

As The New York Times reported just before the fight, “John Doyle’s book quoted 1 to 2 against Ross to win the decision and 3 to 1 against Ross scoring a knockout. The quotation against Armstrong scoring the decision was 3 to 2 and against his scoring a knockout 2 1/2 to 1.”

John Doyle could not immediately be reached for comment, but De La Hoya is listed as a minus 220 (risk $2.20 to win $1) favorite against Pacquiao in Las Vegas.

Whereas Pacquiao and De La Hoya are expected to weigh in at 147 pounds, Armstrong and Ross — both later enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame — were substantially below the limit. Armstrong weighed 135 pounds to Ross’s 142, according to the Times.

Armstrong had to overcome only slight disadvantages in height (5-foot-5 1/4 to 5-6 3/4 for Ross) and reach (67 inches to 68 1/2 for Ross). De La Hoya enters the fight with significant advantages in height (5-10 1/2 to 5-6 1/2) and reach (72 inches to 67 inches) against Pacquiao.

Armstrong was 25 years old and Ross was 28 when they fought. Pacquiao is 29 years old; De La Hoya, 35.

During a workout at Stillman’s Gymnasium in New York, Ross was relying heavily on right uppercuts against his sparring partners, the Times reported, while speculating this was how he planned to deal with Armstrong’s “steady advances” in the ring.

De La Hoya, by contrast, has been emphasizing his left hook in training. Pacquiao said his speed, head movement and defense will make the difference against De La Hoya.

The De La Hoya-Pacquiao match, with two men from such disparate weight classes, generated some controversy in boxing this year, just as 70 years ago The Washington Post called Armstrong’s quest “one of the prize ring’s strangest sagas.” Still, according to the Post’s prefight analysis, “a guy perched two rungs below on the fistic ladder figures to have a chance against one of the greatest welterweights of all time.”

Excerpts from the Times’ next-day recap of Armstrong’s victory by unanimous decision at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City, N.Y., bode well for Pacquiao:

• “Like a human tornado, Armstrong cut down Ross. There was no resisting force.”

• “None in the crowd which saw last night’s slaughter — and it was that on a moderate scale — will dispute the fact Ross has reached the end of his fistic rope.”

Indeed, it was Ross’s final pro fight.

The crowd of 26,430, which included Joe Louis and Postmaster General James Farley, generated a gate of $136,016 (about $2 million in today’s dollars). The live gate Saturday at the MGM Grand is expected to approach $17 million, although it’s a long shot the postmaster general will show up. That figure would make it the second-richest gate in boxing behind the $19 million generated by last year’s fight between De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr.

After getting past Ross, Armstrong had a tougher time against Ambers, another hall of famer, despite going off as a 3 1/2-1 favorite.

Armstrong came away with a split-decision victory before 18,240 fans at Madison Square Garden although he was spitting and swallowing blood throughout the second half of the fight because of cuts on both eyes and his mouth.

Even so, the Times offered a favorable review, describing Armstrong in the ring as “a perfect little demon, a human cyclone, a frenzied destroyer ...”

On the same day the Associated Press heralded “a new chapter in fistic history,” calling Armstrong’s victory “the climax of the most amazing championship winning streak in pugilistic annals.”

Boxing fans could see Pacquiao, this era’s most powerful human cyclone, add a chapter of his own Saturday night.

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