James Lawton: Pacquiao can take final step towards clinching the most thrilling fight of all time

It's rarely a hardship watching Brazilians play, wherever they cast up in their relentless globe-trotting. However, there has to be the suspicion as the sun rises here this morning, that whatever the world's greatest football nation produces tonight against Fabio Capello's England in the Khalifa Stadium, one might just be in the wrong desert.

Manny Pacquiao, who meets Puerto Rico's favourite fighting son Miguel Cotto in Nevada, creates the doubt because in the brilliance of his fighting and the force of his spirit he has made a compelling argument he is not just the most mesmerising performer in boxing, but all of sport.

This might prove a financial reality soon enough if, as expected, the Pacman engulfs the splendid Cotto and sets up with maximum fanfare potentially the fight of next year and possibly many others against the superb, if not easy to like, ring craftsman Floyd Mayweather Jnr.

Meanwhile, promoter Bob Arum argues that tonight's drama in the MGM Garden Arena has an integrity and a potential all of its own. Yes of course, he would say this.

It is also true that notwithstanding his distinguished service on the late Robert Kennedy's anti-mob investigating committee, Arum is notorious even in the cynical old vineyard of pugilism for his admission that some of his words need to be weighed more carefully than others.

When he was once told that his latest statement was in direct contradiction to one he made the day before, he shrugged and said, "Yesterday I was lying." But then if Arum, like most of his trade, can be cavalier with the truth when the challenge is selling tickets and pay-per-view buys, he is nobody's fool – and certainly far too intelligent to expose himself to an avalanche of post-fight mockery.

It is in this light that we should receive his claim that Pacquiao-Cotto might just prove the most eviscerating collision since the one at Caesar's Palace between Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns 24 years ago. "Yes," said Arum, "this fight could turn out the same way. If Cotto is aggressive enough, it could be Hagler-Hearns all over again."

Talk about loading up expectation. Hagler-Hearns may not have been the greatest fight any of us have ever seen – the verdict here would be that as an all-round test of nerve and will and ability, Hearns-Sugar Ray Leonard, four years earlier, was superior – but as a sensation, a firestorm, a shooting star burning its way across the desert sky it was, surely, unsurpassable in one lifetime.

The sight of Hearns leaning back against the ropes and pounding the head of Hagler repeatedly, and then the awesome refusal of Hagler to stop for a second in his relentless pursuit, is unforgettable for anyone who ever saw it. The great screenwriter and boxing aficionado Budd – On the Waterfront – Schulberg was a ringside companion and memorable too was his reaction to this onslaught on the senses.

"I never expected to see anything so intense outside of war," said the man who wrote the scene that had Marlon Brando, as the failed fighter, telling his corrupt brother, played by Rod Steiger, "I coulda been a contender."

When Arum talks of Pacquiao and Cotto walking in the steps of Hagler and Hearns he goes to the heart of boxing's most thrilling but sometimes most troubling appeal, the prospect of men going to their absolute limits.

How far did the beaten Hearns go? This is him on the desperate impulse that carried him so ferociously into a fight that would, and perhaps only could, go just three rounds: "Man, that was a night. I knew I had to go to my limit. I had to gamble. But when I lost the gamble I didn't have any regrets. I made an honest decision about my best chance of winning – and winning well.

"Maybe I should have stayed away from him [Hagler] more, used my reach, tried to outbox him. But I knew how strong he was, how he would keep coming at me and I decided I would go for him. I would hang out there, on the edge.

"I'd worked so hard for the fight. When I got into the ring, I didn't believe I could go 12 rounds with a fighter as strong as Hagler. I felt I had to get him out of there. I don't blame Manny [trainer Steward] - we had our rows but they were never about how good he was at his job.

"Manny tried to rein me in. Unfortunately, you cannot get your time back. If I could have done, I would have fought Hagler differently. I would have trusted my legs a little more, tried to fight my way through that feeling of tiredness. I would box him, use my reach, attempt to drive him crazy with frustration. That was always going to be the strategy. I'd fought the fight a thousand times in my head. But then the bell rings and you are in reality.

"People still tell me that was the greatest fight they ever saw, even though it went less than three rounds, and that they will remember it when they forget my other fights against such men as Sugar Ray Leonard and Wilfred Benitez and Roberto Duran, all great fighters. Me, I just wish I could have it again."

Boxing, of course, can never get enough of such fights, and maybe the yearning has never been greater in an era when someone like Manny Pacquiao emerges part hero, part saviour.

Tonight, certainly, he pursues rather more than Cotto's WBO welterweight crown. He seeks to confirm himself as boxing's best pound-for-pound fighter, and one of the champions of the ages.

It means, surely, that it is no insult to the beautiful game of Brazil, or the ambitions of the new England, to suggest that one desert wind may well blow somewhat forcefully into another at some point in the next 24 hours.

Is football finally rising above the diving game?

David Ngog's dive last week was on the face of it more bleak evidence of football's cynical tendency. However, there is maybe at least a little encouragement for the belief that growing nausea in the face of such behaviour is beginning to have some effect.

Certainly Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, despite the growing extremity of his situation, implied strongly that the point saved against Birmingham had not exactly bestowed heroic status on the young player who had made it possible.

Jamie Carragher also suggested he might be having a word with the miscreant who had otherwise performed well under considerable pressure.

Such reaction goes against a tide which once seemed irresistible, a great weight of evidence that the imperative to win at all costs had become absolutely paramount. Also cause for optimism is reports that the football authorities have finally grasped that institutionalised cheating is something that can only be tolerated at long-term risk to the game's popularity, at least among those who remember that it is supposed to be about sport and not mass prejudice.

The Eduardo affair, which was resolved in so unsatisfactory a fashion in legal niceties, may have been something of a fiasco. But perhaps it did indeed trigger a little bit of thought and, who knows, a hint of conscience.

Relentless spectacles can ask too much of their showmen

The tragic end of German goalkeeper Robert Enke on a railway line near Hanover reminds us that if professional sport is often a circus, some of the performers are at least as vulnerable as any of the inhabitants of what we choose to call real life.

In fact, when you think about the heightened dramas, the sudden highs and lows, the casualty rate in Enke's profession must be said to be remarkably low.

This, however, does not include all the private fears and suffering and the contributing extra stress in cases of mental illness, that go into maintaining a place in what we are maybe sometimes excused in thinking is nothing so much as an opulent playpen.

It is, anyway, perhaps another reason to nod our agreement that if the glory and the rewards of professional sport have never been so pronounced, nor has the clamour been so great. Enke's tragedy, obviously, could have happened in any walk of life. However, the need to always present a strong and invulnerable front might not have been quite so great if he hadn't been required to be constantly on show. It is at least maybe something to reflect on the next time the howls of derision come rolling in from the terraces.

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