Trigger? What trigger? Outgunned De La Hoya leaves firepower at home

LAS VEGAS -- So this is how it ends.

It is the way it almost always does, even for the best of them. It is the way it ended for Muhammad Ali. It remains, over a long, drawn-out period, the way it is ending for Roy Jones.

And now it is the way it ends for Oscar De La Hoya.

Even those who predicted that De La Hoya's size and style would overwhelm Manny Pacquiao offered one small but significant caveat: If De La Hoya could no longer pull the trigger, if he could no longer fire the jab and hook with sufficient quickness and authority, Pacquiao had the chance to get in close, rake De La Hoya's body and overwhelm him en route to a points victory.

Ali and Leon Spinks, I offered by way of analogy: the younger guy outhustling the more experienced champion.

I was wrong. It was Ali and Larry Holmes.

It wasn't that De La Hoya couldn't pull the trigger. He didn't even know where he had put it.

De La Hoya simply had nothing. From the first round, he looked perplexed, unable to respond as the Filipino bounced around on his toes and then darted in to land his straight left with consummate ease. But at least for the first few rounds he made a game attempt, doing what he could to use his size and strength to his advantage, trying to land a right hand even as Pacquiao's movement took away his vaunted left.

But then in the fourth, Pacquiao turned it up a notch, mixing in body punches that caused De La Hoya to bend over and leave his head vulnerable to further punishment from the Filipino's explosive combinations.

Even so, even as Pacquiao continued to strafe De La Hoya with combinations and continued to evade the counterstrikes, even as those of us on media row turned to each other with astonishment at the extent to which Pacquiao was dominating his opponent, it was nothing compared to those final rounds.

Say what you will about De La Hoya, about the victories that should have been defeats or the defeats that should have been victories, but with the exception of his ill-advised challenge of Bernard Hopkins, he had always been competitive in every one of his fights.

Yet here he was, in the final minutes of what will probably be the final fight of his career, retreating to the ropes as Pacquiao assaulted him.

De La Hoya covered up, he buckled under the onslaught and he offered nothing in response except to invite, seemingly yearn for, referee Tony Weeks to step in and save him further punishment and embarrassment.

Weeks looked closely, thought about it, would have been justified for doing so, but in the end it took Nacho Beristain to do what his fighter surely wanted and signal that it was all over.

"If this is Oscar's last fight, then we have to remember what he did for boxing, what he did for the sport all those years," said the Golden Boy's promoter-turned-rival Bob Arum at the postfight news conference. "If he does retire, God bless him and we should thank him for what he's done for boxing."

Manny Pacquiao put it more simply.

"He is still my idol."

But, as is the case with boxing, as one man falls, another rises. De La Hoya might be finished, but it took Pacquiao to finish him, the same way he finished Erik Morales, the same way he finally finished Marco Antonio Barrera.

No wonder they call him the Mexicutioner, however much the genuinely kind Pacquiao might demur from that description.

"It's nothing personal," Pacquiao said after the fight. "It's not about Mexicans and Filipinos. It's about putting on a performance and making people happy. It is not my ambition to beat all Mexicans. I love Mexicans too."

Indeed, for now, his two most obvious future opponents are neither Mexican nor Mexican-American.

The mouth-watering prospect awaits of a clash with Ricky Hatton at 140 pounds, a fight fan's delight and a battle that would either bring a return of the singing British army to Las Vegas or could surely pack 100,000 people into Wembley Stadium. And should Pacquiao prevail, then how much longer could Floyd Mayweather resist the siren call? How much longer could he refuse to fight the man who has assumed his mantle as boxing's best?

Make no mistake, that is what Manny Pacquiao is. He is the perfect standard bearer for a sport anxious for one: Exciting to watch inside the ring, affable and approachable outside it, and utterly adored in his homeland.

De La Hoya was the big man when he entered the ring on Saturday. By the time the beating was over, the torch had been passed, and a page turned.

At the end of the night, it was the little man who stood tall.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.