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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Updated: November 27, 10:56 PM ET
Climb aboard the Pacquiao bandwagon

By Max Kellerman
Special to ESPN.com

When he was destroying guys like Lehlohonolo Ledwaba, Jorge Elecer Julio, and Emmanuel Lucero, I knew he was good. Everyone did. But I also knew that he had been knocked out twice early in his career. Sure, he had recently been overwhelming good fighters, but fighters with overwhelming offenses tend to look like world-beaters against good but limited opposition.

So when Manny Pacquiao moved up four pounds to fight the great Marco Antonio Barrera, featherweight champion of the world, his run of blowouts -- and even victories for that matter -- looked to be coming to an end.

A 24-year-old southpaw with fast hands and feet and vicious power, Pacquiao had been terrorizing the junior featherweight division over the last several years. Even though Paulie Ayala holds the Ring Magazine 122-pound title, it is Pac-Man who has been universally recognized as the division's best. But a guy who had been knocked out twice and was now moving up in weight to face Barrera, one of the most skilled and experienced fighters in boxing and one of the toughest punching-machines of this era -- that was a guy who figured to get his comeuppance.

In the wake of the little Filipino dynamo's destruction of Barrera, the only thing that has come up is a new featherweight king and pound-for-pound entrant. Those who have been slow to commit to the Pacquiao bandwagon (namely, me) must now climb aboard.

HBO's Larry Merchant has been pulling the Pac-Man bandwagon and he and Jim Lampley and Emmanuel Steward were all on the money when they opined during last Saturday night's changing of the guard that there is no point in a Pacquiao-Barrera rematch. Pacquiao was so thoroughly dominant, there is no doubt that they could fight 100 times and Barrera would go winless. Manny is too fast, too strong, too left-handed and too young. He is just too good for Barrera.

From the second round on, the fight was a mismatch. Barrera's only "success" came when a Pacquiao slip was incorrectly ruled a knockdown for Barrera. (Ironically, the slip occurred immediately after Pacquiao landed a head-snapping straight left hand.) The rest of the fight consisted of Pacquiao jumping in with stinging combinations and then avoiding any and all Barrera counters. Barrera looked as though he was moving in slow motion. In the third he was dropped by a left hand. By the 11th, Barrera's corner had seen enough.

Having turned pro at 15 and having been in with the likes of Kennedy McKinney, Junior Jones, Erik Morales, Naseem Hamed and Johnny Tapia, Barrera is an old 29. But his boxing years did not catch up with him until he faced Pacquiao. No one else has been good enough to demonstrate that "The Baby Faced Assassin" is indeed in decline.

The only logical opponent for Pacquiao now, the only fighter at 126 pounds or below who at least on paper poses some kind of a threat to the new and mighty featherweight champ, is Juan Manuel Marquez.

By dominating the likes of Derrick Gainer and Manuel Medina, Marquez has proven that he is a cut above all other 126-pound contenders. Pacquiao has a dentable chin, and Marquez is a top-flight boxer and excellent puncher. But we have never seen Juan Manuel in a real bruising, "test-your-character" kind of fight. Against Barrera, Pacquiao set a busy pace and never decelerated, if anything, his work rate seemed to increase as the fight wore on.

So at 126 a Marquez fight is the only one that makes sense for Pacquiao. At 130, however, Joel Cassamayor, Acelino Freitas, Erik Morales and Diego Corrales all offer tantalizing match-ups for the new featherweight king. Based on his performance against Barrera, Pac-Man will likely be favored to beat not only Marquez, but at least one or two of the 130-pound tigers as well.

Max Kellerman is a studio analyst for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" and the host of the show "Around The Horn."