Before I get into some Baltimore baseball, I have to dive into this past weekend. Saturday read off like a mega-concert set list for a sports fan. Big time interleague matchups were the warm-up act, with Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals functioning as the main opener that really deserved better billing. LeBron and the Celtics took the Main Stage at 8 and delivered two hours of some of the most riveting basketball I’ve seen in recent memory.
The last performance of the night was more confusing than it was entertaining: imagine seeing the Foo Fighters with Eminem lead singing for one night, having it be a complete disaster and then having three respected writers laud it as one of the great performances in rock and roll history. That’s the best I can come up with for Pacquiao-Bradley, which left 99% of viewers dumbfounded and scheduling optometry appointments for Monday.
The two stages that I hit were the Eastern Conference Finals and the Pacquiao fight (I caught a little hockey, but I’m too big of a basketball and boxing fan to invest more time into it). Really, the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals chipped away at my dislike for LeBron James a little bit. I’m never going to genuinely root for him (I did to a degree when he was with the Cavs) because I think he took a Super Mario-esque warp pipe to a championship.
The move he made to the Heat was something that we had seen in recent memory from burnt out stars desperate to shine just a little longer (Gary Payton, Karl Malone). LeBron was a white hot Supernova: the best player in the league, and one of the most talented in the league’s history, right in the middle of his prime. The move was incredibly overanalyzed to the point that every column in its aftermath put LeBron on the couch to determine motives, but all that mattered to me was that it was ultimately disappointing. If he wins a championship, it will still be a monumental feat as all championships are, but it just won’t be the same as if he did it without some Hall of Fame caliber helping hands.
But the other big reason that people tend to dislike LeBron – that he doesn’t live up to potential – well, that lost some water this weekend to say the least. Game 6 was nothing short of an absolute masterpiece. An artist at the height of his craft using all of his considerable tools and inspiration to craft something beautiful. The dizzying turnaround shots, the elbow bankers, the blow by dunks, he had it all at his disposal. Most impressively, his performance forced KG – the loudest of loudmouths – into respectable deference in his post-game press conference (“LB was in a groove and he never looked back”).
LeBron walked right into the lion’s den and mercilessly suffocated a raucous crowd and a confident champion. 19/26 shooting with 15 rebounds while playing 45 minutes? Even if you don’t root for LeBron, you root for greatness, and that was basketball nonpareil. A sublimely exceptional game from the one person on the planet capable of putting up numbers like that. It was Neo stopping the bullets.
Saturday was by contrast a ho-hum 31/12, but with the Celtics scrapping to stay in it in the 4th, LeBron dazed them with a few layups and then punched in his Fatality (a 31 foot three inspired by the devil on his shoulder) to rip out the Celtics still beating heart. Boston never got back within a possession. I’m still rooting for the Thunder in the Finals, but I realized that LeBron hate can really blur the obvious truth: we are watching one of the most talented basketball players ever, and sometimes you just have to sit back and respect his brilliance.
And now onto one of the more disappointing sports moments I can remember. I’m a defender of boxing, I love watching it, and I order every fight that I can scrap together the money for (or that my roommates order, thanks guys: I owe you some money). What happened Saturday night was indefensible, and as I continuously ranted, proof that Silvio Dante was correct in asserting that organized crime is indeed recession proof. What other explanation is there really? What I watched for 12 rounds was a wounded lion tamer jabbing his chair out to keep the beast at bay.
The only thing plastered all over Bradley’s face more than Pacquiao’s left hand was the look of abject hopelessness in the middle rounds. Go back and watch the fight, and stop it at any point in Round 7 (after Pacquiao had savaged Bradley for three consecutive rounds). That look right there defines every interpretation of the phrase “beaten man”. A finally fresh looking Pacquiao unburdened of problems calf or marital, hunted Bradley for all 12 rounds and looked like the hungry, fiery fighter more present in his younger days. He was aggressive – rarely to a fault – and landed punches that were memorable for everyone watching except the recipient.
Bradley looked dazed several times, and clearly was not at his best after breaking his foot in Round 2. The best credit I could give him was that he didn’t pack it in (aka the Joshua Clottey gambit). He kept poking his jab out to feign offense in lieu of covering up for the oncoming storm. For 10 or 11 rounds, he looked for all the world like a man desperately out of his depth trying gamely to concoct some way to steal a point or two back along with maybe a trace of his dignity.
I left my house before the decision, due in equal parts to two foregone conclusions (the decision was a formality, as was the bars closing time of 1:30). One person from my house yelled out that Pacquiao lost, and I kept walking thinking that there wasn’t time for jokes with last call so near. Then another person said it. Only after my roommate actually checked his phone and stopped dead in the middle of the street did I even give credence to the thought of a Pacquiao loss.
Compubox numbers don’t function as the whole story in boxing, but they’re a pretty damn good Cliffs Notes. They point to the obvious: Pacquiao landed 88 more punches, 82 more power punches, and nearly doubled Bradley’s connect percentage (34% to 19%). Bradley’s manager scored the fight for Pacquiao, Timothy Bradley allegedly admitted to Bob Arum before the decision “I tried hard but I couldn’t beat the guy” before giving one of the most tepid victory interviews ever (“I’ll have to look on tape to see if I won” is not something you hear from a conquering fighter).
Overall, it was an embarrassment on a huge scale for boxing that deserves the investigation Bob Arum is demanding. The fight will get a rematch, and I’m thinking Bradley’s face is already hurting from the multiple points Manny will drive home into it. What’s worse though is that this looms as yet another hurdle to the fight of the century. Optimists’ hopes for November are now dashed, and you can flip the calendar forward to spring 2013 before even penciling in a prediction for the Pac Man versus the Pretty Boy. Both men will be getting dangerously close to the downside of the talent bell curve at age 34 (Pacquiao) and 35-36 (Mayweather). This indefensible decision wobbled the legs of boxing as a whole, but the results from its aftermath have the power to put the sport on its back wondering whether it can answer a 10 count.