On November 15, 2003, Manny Pacquiao crashed the pound-for-pound ratings with a breathtaking, turbo-charged, and unforgettable performance. His opponent, featherweight champion Marco Antonio Barrera, didn’t know what hit him and neither did the fans at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, who watched him get annihilated in 11 rounds.
Twenty years ago! Has it really been that long?
While Pacquiao entered the bout as a two-weight world champion, the Filipino lefty was largely unknown due to the majority of his fights taking place at home and a lack of U.S. TV exposure. As a late replacement, the 24-year-old Pacquiao had upset respected IBF super bantamweight champ Lehlo Ledwaba on an Oscar De La Hoya undercard, but this was a substantial step up in class.
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This was Marco Antonio Barrera.
“The Baby Faced Assassin”, for many, was the fistic successor to legendary Mexican Julio Cesar Chavez. A three-weight world champion, Barrera had lost a pair of fights to talented American Junior Jones but reinvented himself as an immaculate boxer-puncher to score career-defining triumphs over previously unbeaten superstars Prince Naseem Hamed and white-hot rival and countryman Erik Morales. Coming into the Pacquiao fight, Barrera was The Ring Magazine featherweight champion and a Top-3 pound-for-pound entrant.
Make no mistake, Barrera vs. Pacquiao 1 was marketed by HBO as the Barrera show. Fledgling promoter Oscar De La Hoya, who was in the process of building Golden Boy Promotions alongside former Swiss banker Richard Schaefer, had scored big when he signed the Mexican star. Thus, Barrera’s appearance at the Alamodome, which had played host to De La Hoya and Chavez fights in the past, was “a hail the conquering hero” moment.
And then the bell rang.
The only reason it isn’t numerically possible to score this fight a shutout is because Barrera was given credit for a non-existent knockdown in the opening minute of the fight. Even then, Pacquiao scored the better punches in Round 1 before scoring a legitimate left-hand knockdown of his own in the third.
During this era, Barrera, alongside Miguel Cotto, was known for having the ideal poker face for boxing. Not on this night. As Pacquiao feinted, moved his head, and switched up the angles with lightning-quick feet, the Mexican star wore the startled look of a driver whose brakes failed him as he approached a brick wall. And any time the champion did have success, Pacquiao would respond instantly with brutal combinations.
By the midway point, the focus had shifted from “Who will win the fight?” to “How much more can Barrera take?” There was the odd moment of brilliance from the champion, of course, but the return fire was so damaging that the Mexican warrior could never get a foothold. The fight resembled a trainee solicitor going against a brilliant lawyer with what amounted to a flimsy case.
In Round 7, Barrera’s problems were compounded when he was cut near the left eye by a clash of heads. The champ responded with fury and unleashed one of his best attacks of the fight. However, when this impressive volley of punches had no effect, a frustrated Barrera attempted an uncharacteristic flying headbutt. Impassive, Pacquiao, let referee Laurence Cole admonish his opponent before going back to work.
The punishment continued to intensify in the eighth, and Barrera was deducted a point for hitting on the break in Round 9. At this stage, point deductions were redundant because the champion was long past the stage of needing a knockout in order to retain his title. Barrera was beaten, bloodied, and mentally shattered. By contrast, Pacquiao was fresh, unmarked, and getting stronger.
In Round 11, Pacquiao released a sustained two-fisted barrage that dropped an exhausted Barrera to his knees. The champion was running on fumes and there’s nowhere to fill up in a prize ring. Sensing weakness, Pacquiao went up yet another gear and went all out for the finish. Rights and lefts crashed home from a variety of angles until finally Barrera’s corner entered the ring and surrendered their man.
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In terms of coming out parties, this Pacquiao performance ranks up there with the very best in boxing history. You would never look at the Filipino-born champion the same way again. When Cassius Clay (just days away from becoming Muhammad Ali) thoroughly outclassed then-heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in 1964, there would have been a similar reaction to “The Greatest”. Nobody expected Pacquiao to destroy Barrera in this fashion. Well, almost no one — the new champion’s trainer, Freddie Roach, cleaned house after betting on a Pacquiao stoppage.
Both men would go on to enjoy more championship success. Barrera scored a repeat win over Morales less than a year later to claim the WBC super featherweight championship. He would make four successful defences before losing decisions in back-to-back fights with Juan Manuel Marquez and Pacquiao. He would fight on until 2011 before finally retiring with a record of 67-7 (44 KOs). The great Barrera was inducted into the International Hall of Fame in 2017.
Meanwhile, Pacquiao would claim divisional titles in a record eight weight classes. His signature victories would continue with wins over Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Sugar Shane Mosley, Tim Bradley, and Keith Thurman. The latter triumph saw Pacquiao become the oldest welterweight champion in boxing history. Pac Man will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2024 and you can bet your house on his first-ballot entry.