When Pacquiao and Marquez meet in the ring, boxing wins

There are times when the stars align perfectly, when the levels of expectation outside the ring are matched and even exceeded by the performance inside it.

When that happens, boxing shows why, on its best nights, there is no sport that can truly touch it for drama or excitement.

Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, when Manny Pacquiao defeated Juan Manuel Marquez by the most razor-thin of margins to add the WBC super featherweight championship to his already padded resume, was one of those times.

In the hours before the opening bell, the casino was packed with throngs of Filipino and Mexican fans, each side ready to enter the arena and throw its vociferous vocal support behind its standard bearer. Every one of the more than 11,000 fans eagerly anticipated a contest on the level of the one that had taken place between these two fighters four years previously.

Once the bell rang and the fight began, Marquez and Pacquiao delivered, putting on a performance that, in its sustained brilliance, surely even exceeded that 2004 classic.

It did not erupt with the same fireworks that had marked the first of what, to date, has been 24 rounds of quality boxing action. Each man had earned the respect of the other during that first encounter and for much of the first three minutes, the two combatants circled each other warily and cautiously, looking for a way through, but reluctant to throw caution to the winds.

Both men, it was soon clear, were showing improved defense, but it was Marquez who, in the early going, appeared to have the better offensive game plan as well. Each time Pacquiao came forward behind a southpaw right jab, Marquez took the tiniest of steps backward, forcing the Filipino to lunge and over-commit, leaving him vulnerable to the Mexican's counters.

At the end of the second, a right/left combination from Marquez landed flush on Pacquiao's chin and clearly wobbled him, the best scoring blows of the night to that point. Pacquiao staggered and appeared hurt, but Marquez, perhaps wary, perhaps unaware of how much he had apparently hurt his man, was slow to follow up.

But the beginning of the third saw a straight counter right once more to buckle Pacquiao's knees, and through the first half of the third round, the champion from Mexico City appeared in almost complete control, countering swiftly and landing sharp one-two combinations that kept his opponent on the defensive.

Power, however, is a great equalizer, and Pacquiao has it in abundance. A right/left from Pacquiao landed and slowed Marquez just a fraction. A sweeping left by the Filipino hurt the champion, who tried to fight his way out of trouble. As he did so, however, Marquez walked into as sweet and short a left hand as Pacquiao has ever thrown. Marquez didn't seem to even see it, and he dropped to his back as if an unseen hand had cut an invisible cord that to that point had been keeping him upright.

Somehow Marquez rose to his feet and withstood the Pacquiao barrage that followed. The screams of the crowd were now so loud that they drowned out the sound of the bell to end the third round, referee Kenny Bayless seemed unaware that it was time to step in between the fighters as they continued to swap leather.

By the fourth, Pacquiao was landing his left hands almost at will, his trademark ferocity now to the fore and the Pacman of old -- the one who twice knocked out Erik Morales -- pushing aside the more diffident competitor who had possessed his body during 2007.

But Marquez held firm, and by the end of the round, a lead hook to the head, and a right to both body and head, suggested he had weathered the storm and was ready to turn the momentum in his favor once more.

The fifth and sixth provided further evidence in support of that belief, Marquez now back in a comfortable rhythm, countering sharply as Pacquiao began to look tentative and confused anew. The Filipino, aided by a clash of heads that opened a cut over the Mexican's right eye, bounced back in the seventh, but in the eighth, Marquez took over with a definitiveness that appeared as if it would be terminal to his rival's chances.

A right hand pierced Pacquiao's guard and landed flush on his right eye. Pacquiao stopped and winced as the punch opened a cut and blood began to spill. Suddenly unable to see the incoming artillery and seemingly discomfited by his own blood, Pacquiao visibly wilted, and Marquez -- who had been mixing a solid body attack into his arsenal all night -- dug to the ribcage again before switching upstairs as his opponent sagged against the ropes. Pacman looked ready to go, but this time it was his turn to suck it up and come back, even as he continued to struggle to find a way against an increasingly confident foe.

But then, in the 10th, Pacquiao did to Marquez what Marquez had been doing to him all night. The Filipino slipped a right hand, Marquez lunged and over-committed, and Pacquiao fired a fast counter left that landed flush. Marquez staggered forward, but his resistance to Pacquiao's follow-up assault was stronger than it had been in the third and fourth rounds, and after finding his feet again, he fought on even terms over the championship rounds. When the bell rang, he raised his hands in victory, confident that he had done what he had failed to do in 2004.

There are times when great fights almost appear to happen in a vacuum. Few nights in a boxing ring, if any, will ever match the drama and excitement of the first astonishing encounter between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo, but there were fewer than 5,000 of us in the Mandalay Bay Events Center to witness history unfold that night.

Conversely, it will be a long time before I experience a big fight atmosphere like that which surrounded Floyd Mayweather's defeat of Ricky Hatton in December, but the cheering outside the ring was heavily tilted in favor of Hatton, and the action inside it, just as heavily in favor of Mayweather.

In contrast, on Saturday night, both the support in the arena and the action in the ring were finely balanced between two fighters who gave their all in a fight that, if anything, exceeded even the loftiest expectations.

Nothing can detract from what Pacquiao and Marquez did in the ring on Saturday, not even the attempts by Marquez' promotional team to brand the judges' decision as a travesty that somehow shamed boxing.

It was a very close fight, and the decision could have gone either way. Being disappointed and emotional, feeling your fighter should have won after such a grueling encounter, is acceptable and understandable. Casting aspersions on the judges and hinting darkly that the result showed something is "wrong" with boxing is not.

The fact of the matter is that these two fighters are so evenly matched, it is barely possible to slide even a hair between them. After two fights over 24 rounds, the cumulative total of six judges' scorecards favor Pacquiao by just one point.

Pacquiao promoter Bob Arum clearly intends to match his fighter with David Diaz next for the WBC lightweight title. But a third fight with Marquez looms on the near horizon.

Whenever and wherever it happens, two things seem certain. The crowd support will be deafening and the action will be enthralling.

Chances are, whoever has his hand raised in victory will have earned that victory in the hardest of ways and by the slimmest of margins.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.