Max Kellerman on Pacquiao-Rios, Sinatra and Why the Superfight Isn’t Dead

by | November 19, 2013 at 2:21 PM | Boxing, HBO, Pacquiao-Rios

As Manny Pacquiao prepares to climb back into the ring after an 11-month layoff and the worst loss of his prize-fighting career, the world should finally have an answer to the question: is ‘Pac-Man’ finished? To hear his opponent, former WBA lightweight champion Brandon ‘Bam Bam’ Rios tell it, Saturday will be the Filipino star’s final curtain call. But there are many who still believe that the Marquez KO was little more than an expertly-timed punch that shut down a fight Pacquiao seemed to be winning. Thus, he’s not cooked, only human.

So are we that far removed from the Pacquiao who went on a tear from 2005-2011, winning 15 straight fights and a historic eight titles in eight different weight classes before dropping back-to-back fights less than seven months apart in 2012? To hear Max Kellerman tell it, the answer lies in Rios.

I recently caught up with the HBO Boxing analyst and commentator to get his thoughts on Saturday’s main event in China (HBO PPV, 9pm ET), plus his opinions on rising middleweight star Gennady Golovkin and boxing’s black eye.

Chris Young: There’s been wind that Pacquiao will contemplate retirement should he drop this fight to Rios, what would be his third-straight loss. What do you make of all the talk surrounding Pacquiao’s decline?

Max Kellerman: It’s not his (Pacquiao’s) third-straight loss, it would be his second loss. You can’t take the Bradley decision seriously. It was not just a bad decision, it was an incompetent decision. And I say that because you need to at least be able to add up swing rounds, where you could make a plausible case for one fighter, plus decisive rounds, and be able to get to at least six or seven of them in order to justify a decision. There simply were not seven rounds that you could potentially give Bradley in that fight so I don’t recognize that as a win for Bradley. Are you asking me what do I attribute to Pacquiao’s decline?

CY: I’m asking if you think Pacquiao’s skills are diminishing?

MK: Yes. I think he’s been in decline for a while. I think it’s partly his camp using (Ruslan) Provodnikov as a chief sparring partner. It’s hard to imagine using that guy as a chief sparring partner and not having something taken out of you. I think it’s partly his age. Pacquiao, as tough as he is, relies on athleticism, and that obviously declines over time. I also think his opponents have been a factor. It’s difficult to look good against certain opponents. Let’s put it this way: Pacquiao hadn’t looked good since the string between his second and third fights with Marquez, and between those two fights he beat the hell out of everyone. Then he fought Bradley, and then he had his fourth fight with Marquez. When you fight a great fighter, or a really good fighter in his prime, it’s by design. Boxing is largely matchmaking. With Pacquiao, the matches were made very well. Cotto was not the same after the Margarito fight; Clottey was a good, young fighter but not an elite fighter; de la Hoya was finished. One after another you can see where these are not elite fighters in their primes, nor are they great fighters. Then Pacquiao fights a great fighter in Marquez, struggles to beat him—I thought Marquez won the second fight—and goes through a string of something-less-than great fighters, and something-less-than top fighters in their primes, and he looks sensational. Then you put him in with a great fighter (Marquez) and he struggles, and then you put him in with a top fighter in his prime (Bradley) and he doesn’t get the decision. Then you put him back in with a great fighter for the fourth time and he gets knocked out. It’s matchmathing, but I think it all coincides with age and using Provodnikov as a sparring partner.

CY: Rios is beloved by fans for his warring style. But isn’t it that same style that makes him the perfect set-up fight for a speedy, hard-hitting counterpuncher like Pacquiao? Is Rios climbing into a fight he really can’t win?

MK: Well Pacquiao’s not really a counterpuncher; he’s an initiator. He’s the boxer in this particular case because he can box and because he has the willingness to do it at times. But even when Pacquiao boxes he’s not really countering, he’s leading. Rios is the perfect matchup because Pacquaio’s feet are so fast, even now, and that’s to a southpaw’s advantage. You know, southpaw fights an orthodox fighter, southpaw gets his feet on the outside, orthodox fighter can’t hit him but can be hit by him… there’s Rios and Pacquiao. And Pacquiao on paper can look sensational against Rios, if he’s still Pacquiao, of course. It’s a reasonable-risk, high-reward fight for Pacquiao and Rios’ style could be the package that makes him look sensational again.

CY: So you’re saying Pacquiao needs to not only win but he needs to win by knockout?

MK: People forget that perception shifts gradually over time. And sometimes even when it shifts suddenly people are unaware of the thing that sort of forced their perception to change and just how much it did change. The Mayweather-Pacquiao fight was the biggest sporting event in the world and potentially the biggest fight since Ali-Frazier 1. And it wasn’t about matchups or styles or star-status or anything. It was because it was hard to imagine either guy losing. Part of that was because of how sizzling Pacquiao looked in that stretch of fights I mentioned, that, “Oh, my god I’ve never seen anything like that” look. And then little by little he was something less than that. He wasn’t matched up against de la Hoya at the very end. Over time, and even before Pacquiao lost, suspense was that Mayweather-Pacquiao went from a pick-’em fight to Mayweather being the favorite. It stopped being as special an event as it once was. What’s interesting is that, in terms of perception, Pacquiao’s decline began before he started losing, and that had to do with matchmaking.

CY: Let’s assume Pacquiao gets past Rios. Who do you think he should fight next?

MK: If he gets past Rios and looks sensational I think there will be a lot of talk about Mayweather-Pacquiao.

CY: It’s interesting you say that. I interviewed Bob Arum in August and he intimated that the winner of Bradley-Marquez would rematch Pacquiao. But as a fan, I don’t want to see either of those fights. Do you?

MK: I think there will be a lot of talk about Mayweather (should Pacquiao win). Whether or not that’s realistic given the different promotions and networks, it only takes one fight to get people believing again. Sometimes it’s hard for people to imagine it until they see it. If Pacquiao looks sensational against Rios, I think the Mayweather-Pacquiao talk will ignite again, at least among fans.

CY: You’re nearly two decades removed from your days calling Friday Night Fights for ESPN, and even further removed from Max on Boxing, a show you started when you were just 16. You’ve held many posts since, including radio, and now you’re with the biggest broadcast entity in boxing. What’s the greatest part about your job as an analyst for HBO?

MK: That’s an easy one. On the ring apron for the best fights in the world and getting paid to let people know what I think about them (laughs). Calling fights next to Roy Jones and Jim Lampley… It’s like you’re a kid reading a comic book and you’re falling in love with all these characters and then, all of a sudden, you’re in the comic. That’s what it feels like. I’m happy with Jim and Roy. They’re friends of mine, they’re colleagues, and I’m sitting there watching the best fights in the world and interviewing the fighters afterwards… This is how often it is to sit ringside at a fight: When Ali fought Frazier the first time, Frank Sinatra took pictures for Life magazine. So why did Sinatra agree to take those pictures? It was the only way for him to get access to the ring apron. Sinatra could get the greatest ticket in the world, yet still not be able to sit on the ring apron. So watching the best fights in the world is so excellent that a guy like Sinatra asked to be a photographer.

CY: Gennady Golovkin is probably my favorite new fighter to watch. How good is he and what makes him such a stiff test for the middleweight division?

MK: He’s excellent, potentially great, and when guys start agreeing to fight him we’ll find out just how great. What makes him so excellent is his amateur pedigree at the international level. You’ll find with fighters that if you were really good in the Golden Gloves (regional), you would only reach a certain level in the pros. If you competed successfully on a national level you reached the next pro level, and so on. And if you’ve dominated international competition you are Floyd Mayweather, you are Andre Ward, you are Gennady Golovkin, you are Guillermo Rigondeaux. These are the best fighters in the world. What makes Golovkin so special in terms of the X’s and O’s is he has real punching power in both hands and he’s always in position to land with either hand. This means he can put pressure on guys without having to throw punches. The other fighter recognizes this and is like: “Oh, s—! This guy is in position to hit me right now and he hurts me every time he hits me.” He’s constantly in position to end the fight, and his opponent has to expend enormous energy to escape. His balance is perfect and his skills are excellent offensively.

CY: You interviewed Gennady following his stoppage of Curtis Stevens, and you were able to extract his next “wish list” opponent straight from the source. He said he wants Sergio Martinez. Do you think he’ll get him, and if so, when?

MK: Martinez is the real middleweight champ and Golovkin is the real No. 1 contender. The general consensus forming around Golovkin is that he’s better, and as you know the best guy in the division isn’t always the champion. So in terms of the lineal championship it’s Martinez, but Golovkin is his Sonny Liston. You know, people used to say Liston was the best heavyweight even though (Floyd) Patterson was champ. Martinez is a real fighter and a real champ. I think he fights Golovkin when he’s convinced that he might lose to someone he doesn’t have a lot of respect for. Even if that challenge is a bigger money fight, or if Martinez feels he’s finished because of his knee or if he feels he only has one top fight left in him, I think he uses it on Golovkin, a guy who I’m sure he respects.

CY: What about Canelo Alvarez? Where does he fit in that discussion?

MK: Canelo Alvarez will never get within a 100 miles of Gennady Golovkin.

CY: Why?

MK: In September I asked Golovkin about Alvarez because people were asking about that fight and he basically said that when he sparred with Alvarez (in Big Bear, California) he had to take it easy because he didn’t want to hurt him.

CY: If you could play matchmaker, what would be your top three or four fights in the next 24 months?

MK: I can match any two guys? I’d love to see Golovkin-Mayweather, Danylchenko-Rigondeaux, and Rios-Provodnikov. The latter is just an amazing fight. The funny thing is the other fights I’d like to see involve Golovkin in one way or another. If you look in his division you have him and Martinez for the lineal title. If you look below him you have Mayweather, and if you look above him you have Andre Ward. All three fights are within range. So it’s Golovkin versus the best middleweight, junior middleweight and super middleweight in the world, plus Danylchenko-Rigondeaux, and for pure action, Rios-Provodnikov. That would be the best action fight since Corrales-Castillo.

CY: Boxing has a rap sheet of bad calls. I often feel like naysayers who love to sully the sport use that black box of ugly scorecards and egregious judgments to bash it into the ground. But you’re closer to it than most. Do you think scoring fights is so overtly subjective that fans can’t expect consistency, and for that matter, accurately scored cards from fight to fight?

MK: I’ve definitely been through it and I think there’s corrupt and incompetent judging, but mostly corrupt.

CY: If it is unethical judging, are we at the point of removing them from the aprons and relying on statistical systems like CompuBox…

MK: You don’t want to make it statistical. My general rule of thumb for judging is to look at fights round by round and ask who would you rather have been and why? And that doesn’t mean you wait until the end of the round to get some sort of impressionistic view. Every moment of every round you’re asking yourself that question. You have to keep a running scorecard of every moment of every round in your head, and the rule you have to apply is who would you rather have been? If Fighter A hits a 5-out-of-10 on the power scale, and Fighter B hits an 8, yet Fighter A has a good chin and Fighter B has a weak chin, Fighter B is hitting harder but Fighter A is doing more damage. That’s where the subjectivity comes into play. The rules of judging are like contortionist logic. Effective aggression, clean punching, defense… I mean, why should defense count for anything? It’s all nonsense. The question is, who would you rather be? Effective judging comes down to asking yourself that at the end of every round. Sometimes you get honest disagreements, but the real problem is corrupt judging.


Photo: Josh Hedges/Getty Images

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.