Given the hype surrounding the rivalry of Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, and the buildup to Saturday's culmination of their trilogy, a letdown at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas would have surprised no one -- especially considering the recent tenor of the sport's biggest fights. But aside from one eyesore of an undercard fight (Can we all agree to just pretend Timothy Bradley Jr.-Joel Casamayor never happened?), the card lived up to its billing and possibly then some. Pure entertainment? Sure. But it turns out we also had plenty to learn from Pacquiao-Marquez III:
1. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the best fighter in the world.
In some ways, the biggest winner on Saturday night wasn't even in the building. Seeing Manny Pacquiao struggle and, at times, look lost against a 38-year-old adversary whom many believed he would walk through, how many people still truly believe that Pacquiao would beat Mayweather? Yes, styles make fights and Marquez has the style that will always give Pacquiao fits, but part of the reason for that is that Marquez is a pinpoint counterpuncher who is able to maneuver Pacquiao out of position. Any other pinpoint welterweight counterpunchers come to mind? Right now, there's no real debate. Mayweather is the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. (However, there's one way in which Mayweather may not be a winner: A lot of the luster has now come off the long-anticipated Mayweather-Pacquiao clash, and as a result, a lot of money may have been pulled out of the pot, too.)
2. Pacquiao and Marquez are made for each other.
In a way, it was fitting that this fight should take place on an evening that honored the recently departed Smokin' Joe Frazier. Professionally, Frazier was defined by his trilogy with another great fighter against whom he matched up well, an in-ring rivalry that birthed outside-the-ropes hate and anger. As early as Round 3 of this third fight, I speculated in ESPN.com's live coverage that we could be in for another close and controversial decision, and so it proved. There were ebbs and flows in the fight: Pacquiao starting the first third brightly, Marquez seeming to dominate the second third and even make Pacquiao look lost, and a final third that was more nip-and-tuck. But within each of those segments, there were individual rounds that were incredibly close. Pacquiao and Marquez could fight a fourth or even a fifth time and still never find a decisive winner.
3. Pacquiao may have peaked (or at least, his boxing brand may have peaked).
Pacquiao soared to superstardom after his second fight with Marquez by blowing through David Diaz, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto. Since then, he has been taken the distance by Joshua Clottey, Antonio Margarito, Shane Mosley and Marquez, and one might argue that he has looked less impressive with each outing, even as he won all four.
There are, of course, mitigating circumstances: Clottey covered up all night; Margarito was a substantially bigger man whom Pacquiao nonetheless dominated; Mosley ran all night; and Marquez, as we established, is the closest thing to Pacquiao's kryptonite. But there were times on Saturday when Pacquiao looked befuddled, as though he had forgotten everything that trainer Freddie Roach taught him. For all the talk that Pacquiao was the much-improved fighter, it looked on occasion as though Marquez was the one who had adapted better. Even if Pacquiao hasn't peaked, his brand as a boxing superstar might have. For the first time since he rose to the top of the pound-for-pound list, he exited the arena to ferocious boos from angry fans who felt he had won through artifice.
4. Sometimes a fight can feel one way and be scored another
As HBO's "Boxing After Dark" announcer Bob Papa tweeted after the fight: "Even though feels like JMM won, I had draw. You MUST score each Rd and write it down Then add up at end. 'Feel' & actual score differ often." The feeling in the arena was that Marquez was winning the fight, partly because Pacquiao was expected to win so comfortably, and partly because when Marquez won rounds, he generally did so more convincingly -- and at times made Pacquiao look really quite poor. By contrast, with one or two exceptions, Pacquiao didn't clearly win as many rounds. But he eked out more of them, at least on the official scorecards. Interestingly, CompuBox statistics suggested that, in many ways, Pacquiao was more effective than he had been in the previous two bouts between the fighters, connecting at a higher average than before. He threw more punches than Marquez, landed more punches than Marquez and landed at a higher percentage. Yet it didn't feel that way. In such a close fight, the slightest things can make a difference: Had Marquez been that shade more active and effective in the 12th, enough to win it on all three judges' cards, he would have had a draw -- still short of the win he felt he deserved, but less bitter than another loss.
5. Mike Alvarado is a badass
Through five rounds against Breidis Prescott, Mike Alvarado was being outboxed, outmoved and outpunched. His face had swollen to grotesque proportions, and he looked well on the road to defeat. Then Prescott, as he has done before, began to tire, and Alvarado, who refused to be denied, kept on coming. In the final round, knowing he needed a big three minutes to stand a chance at victory, he went for broke and to good effect: Alvarado dropped Prescott, rocked him and finally finished him in a remarkable "Rocky"-style performance. His stock likely will soar.
Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.