As Manny Pacquiao might point out, he has yet to lose to Juan Manuel Marquez. He has won the past two of their three encounters, and he also would have emerged from the first meeting with a win, rather than a draw, had judge Burt Clements scored the opening round, in which Pacquiao dropped Marquez three times, correctly.
Yet there is no shortage of observers who argue that Marquez deserved the nod in one, two or all of their contests. And all but the most rabid of partisans would agree that every one of their fights has been exceptionally, barely-wide-enough-to-slide-a-cigarette-paper-between-the-two-of-them close.
What is it about the style of Marquez that, whatever the official verdict, enables him to take Pacquiao to the verge of defeat each and every time, something that no other PacMan opponent -- not Marco Antonio Barrera, not David Diaz, not Oscar De La Hoya, not Ricky Hatton, not Miguel Cotto, not Joshua Clottey, not Antonio Margarito, not Shane Mosley, not Timothy Bradley Jr. (yes, that's right, I said Timothy Bradley Jr.) -- has been able to do since Erik Morales upended him almost seven years ago?
"I think my aggressive style and his counterpunching style matches very well, for a good mix for both fighters and for the fans," Pacquiao said. "It's very, very hard to try to fight against his style for myself and come up with a strategy to beat him."
Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, has a similar, but more expansive explanation.
"Well, Manny really loves when people come to him," he said. "He's basically a counterpuncher himself. He makes them reach for him and he counters over the top a lot. Marquez is a pure counterpuncher and doesn't come forward too often. He's always fighting off the back foot and looking for the counter. And Manny doesn't do so well with that style, because he has to be the aggressor and he's a little bit out of his comfort zone."
Former two-time heavyweight titlist Chris Byrd, who now interviews boxers and breaks down fights for his online show "The Byrd's Eye View," notes additionally that Marquez, having experienced the power of Pacquiao's left hand at the very beginning of their rivalry, is focused like a laser beam on trying to negate its impact.
"You'll notice Marquez is cutting Manny in half a lot," Byrd said. "He's staying outside the jab hand. He's staying patient. And while Pacquiao is moving, especially while he's moving all over the place, Marquez is constantly moving to his left, staying outside that jab hand. So now Pacquiao is reaching with his left hand."
To Byrd, who was himself renowned for using smarts to outwit and outfight much larger opponents, the dedication with which Marquez sticks to that game plan is a thing of beauty.
"This has got to be drilled in him throughout training camp, every single day," Byrd said. "Because a lot of boxers, they'll go back to bad habits, they'll occasionally trade or have that thought in their mind. But when you're constantly working on something, and you know this guy knocked you down many times with a straight left hand, you're going to want to smother it or avoid it. So he's just constantly moving to his left, constantly turning Manny to try and stay away from that left hand."
For his part, Marquez all but sniffs at the counterpunching-is-key-against-Pacquiao argument postulated by others, seemingly considering it too simplistic. Or could it be that he's hoarding hard-earned trade secrets?
"It's everything," Marquez said when asked about the importance of his counterattack against Pacquiao. "The timing, the combinations, my intelligence, my experience. My conditioning, too. It's different things."
According to Byrd, Marquez is even able to turn what is widely regarded as one of Pacquiao's great strengths -- his constant whirring blizzard of Tasmanian Devil-like movement -- to his own advantage, despite Marquez's relative lack of speed.
"Marquez is the older fighter, and he's slowed down a lot," Byrd said. "But because he's slowed his pace down, he can stay in the fight as long as he wants, without getting tired, without getting counterpunched, because he's dictating the pace. Manny can move all day long, and Marquez just waits there to hit him."
Of course, because -- as Byrd observes -- Marquez is moving to his left and staying outside the Pacquiao right hand, that also reduces the effectiveness of his own jab as a major weapon. As a result, he turns to another punch: one that Roach admits causes his fighter problems.
"He knows Manny likes to move, for the most part, into the right hand, and he knows not to lead with the jab, because if he does, he gets countered over the top," Roach said. "So he leads with right hands a lot, and that's something we have to deal with. That's the biggest part of the puzzle, is how to eliminate that straight right hand, because he does have a lot of success with that."
OK, so if that explains why Marquez gives Pacquiao such a tough time in the ring, what does Pacquiao need to do about it? (If, indeed, he needs to do anything about it at all. As noted above, Pacquiao has yet to officially lose to Marquez. Said Roach: "Basically, I think we always win the close decisions because we are the aggressor. And if you get a close round, you generally give it to the guy who's trying to make the fight. I thought Manny won all three fights. I don't need a fourth fight to convince me.")
In Byrd's view, Pacquiao's weakness is that Marquez has adjusted to Pacquiao's strengths and, for the past two fights in particular, has been forcing the Filipino to respond to his game plan. The time has come, argues Byrd, to retake the initiative:
"To me, Manny's the better talent: He's more youthful, he's more active and he can really punch with that left hand. Now it's time for him to make the adjustment on his side, and figure out what he wants to do, and I think, if I were Manny, I'd want to make Marquez fight going backward. He can walk him down, but he's got to jab his way forward. He can't just shoot his left, because he'll get counterpunched. But if he can set up his jab, and move to his right, trying to trap Marquez, then he can make him turn and steer him into the path of that left hand.
"If it was me boxing Marquez as a lefty, I'd move constantly to my right and stand right in front of him. Every time Marquez throws something, now I'm the counterpuncher. Make Marquez adjust."
That would be a far cry from the Pacquiao of the first fight, the overpowering force who nonetheless gave new meaning to the notion of being technically raw, whose idea of tactics was to chase after his opponent and launch left hands. But then Pacquiao today is a far cry from that version, which is why Roach was expecting his charge to provide an unequivocally dominant performance in his most recent meeting with Marquez.
"The third fight was where I thought Manny would excel, because Manny had become a better fighter over the years and he'd learned how to use both hands," the trainer said. "But the thing is, with that fight we had some of the mental distractions with his family and his wife and so forth, so that he reverted back to the way he fought the first two times. I do think that Marquez is going to see a different Manny this time -- one who can use both hands and can knock you out with both hands, and I don't see any distractions getting in the way this time because Manny's in a really good place right now."
For Roach, the key to the fourth contest is striking the right balance -- of deploying the more varied arsenal that Pacquiao has developed, but doing so in such a way that doesn't inhibit the aggressiveness that has so often been the key to his success.
"In studying all the tapes, when Manny's aggressive and showing his in-and-out motion, that's when he does his best," Roach said. "That's where we have the biggest advantage, and that's what I want this time. I want Manny to be Manny. I just want Manny to make this fight into a war, to make it a fight."
And if everything goes according to plan this time, for the first time in the long rivalry, when the final bell rings and the winner's hand is raised, there won't be any controversy or doubt:
"We want to make it clear that we're the better fighter. And the only way to do that is by knocking him out."