WHETHER or not you agreed with the outcome, it is beyond dispute that Manny Pacquiao can’t quite figure out Juan Manuel Marquez.

In 24 rounds southpaw Pacquiao has recorded four knockdowns (three in the opening round of their first meeting), but still not established outright supremacy. Their first fight four years ago was a thrilling and hotly contested draw. The rematch, at the Mandalay Bay Hotel on March 15, 2008, saw Pacquiao become a three-weight ‘world’ champion and WBC super-featherweight king by the narrowest of margins – a split verdict that hinged on a third-round knockdown.

Never before have I seen Pacquiao shaken so often. And the Filipino hero ended another intense 12-rounder with damage above and below his right eye, injuries that could prevent him challenging David Diaz for the WBC lightweight title in the summer.

Pacquiao, who said this would be his final fight as a super-featherweight (presumably he will soon vacate), required a total of 18 micro stitches to two superficial cuts. Marquez was also bloodied, quite seriously, over his right eyebrow (eight regular stitches).

It wasn’t quite as exciting as their first meeting, but that was an impossible act to follow. This was more tactical, almost a role-reversal at times with Pacquiao trying to counter and Marquez more offensive-minded than I have ever seen.

Pacquiao’s strategy worked for short spells, but often he’d fall short with punches and get nailed in return by the sharp-shooting champion.

Pacquiao admitted in his fragmented but improving English that it was a struggle. Morally, Marquez, 48-4-1 (35), seemed the winner even if his rival walked off with the belt.

I had it for Pacquiao by 114-113 (six rounds apiece), the knockdown being the difference, but wouldn’t – and couldn’t – have argued had it gone Marquez’s way.

The body language spoke volumes: Marquez’s team was in disbelief and Pacquiao’s somewhat relieved.

Bob Arum, Pacquiao’s promoter, said what more could you ask for than two of Nevada’s most senior judges, Duane Ford and Jerry Roth, coming up with the same 115-112 total, but split either way, the former for Pacquiao?

That, he seemed to suggest, made it fair and proved what a difficult fight it was to score. But was it when three judges agreed on nine of the 12 sessions and seven of the first eight rounds, which included the 10-8 for Pacquiao in the third?

The crowd was 11,061. The Mexican fans turned out in force for Marquez, while Pacquiao’s loyal supporters travelled from another continent to make just as much noise. Pacquiao was the favourite, though not surprisingly as Marquez has always been undervalued.

Pacquiao, 46-3-2 (35), gets away with lunging with his feet off the ground and dropping his guard after he jabs only because he is quick, unorthodox and dangerous. But Marquez, an intelligent counter-puncher, took Pacquiao out of his stride by picking him off with sharp rights and solid hooks.

The first round was tight. Pacquiao seemed more driven to take the initiative, though he was tagged by one hard right counter that made Manny wave both fists at his rival, as though he was saying, ‘Bring it on’.

And that’s precisely what Marquez did, in his considered and meticulous way, starting in the second as he cleverly shifted back and countered smartly every time Pacquiao advanced. Marquez polished off the round by nailing Pacquiao with a meaty right-left hook to the head, the effects of which were visible immediately as Manny’s legs danced involuntarily.

In the third, though, Pacquiao responded positively and the exchange of superiority with each passing round was a feature of this contest.

Pacquiao, came out with his right glove higher, thinking it might stop Marquez countering with the left hook, but early on the Mexican was the boss. He was stronger, faster and more decisive.

But then Pacquiao rallied. It was, if only briefly, like the vintage Pacquiao, the man who demolished Barrera and Morales. Marquez came at him near the ropes, Pacquiao ducked, threw a right hook that missed, but followed with a booming left to the jaw.

Down went Marquez heavily on his back, arms outstretched and legs kicking into the air.

Juan Manuel picked himself up at referee Kenny Bayless’ count of four and instantly hit back, staggering Pacquiao even though he still hadn’t fully regained his senses (I know that because Marquez started walking to the wrong corner at the bell).

Pacquiao came out for the fourth to finish it. He planted his feet, let his fists of fury fly and Marquez’ countering strategy went out the window. They traded head shots later in the round. Pacquiao was moving his head much better and looking to line up his heavy left. Marquez survived and came back to win the fifth. Pacquiao, perhaps because had overexerted himself in the previous round, bided his time more.

Marquez took the lead, though sustained a nick to his right eye that would develop into a serious laceration. He landed a sharp right to the head, a left hook to the ribs and in the final minute twice stunned Pacquiao with rights to the jaw. Marquez ruled in the sixth, too. Pacquiao was loading up too much with his vaunted left, landing more to the body than head, but mostly Marquez could see his attacks coming.

Pacquiao discovered in the seventh that combinations worked better than single shots. His urgency was increased when a clash of heads led to a cut over Manny’s right eye. He survived an inspection from the doctor and waded in two-handed. Marquez responded in kind. Soon both were bleeding, with Pacquiao also sliced open beneath the right optic.

The blood became a problem for Pacquiao, who after shipping a right early in the eighth looked for an instant as though he was going to quit. He winced and looked away before quickly regrouping.

Blood ran into Pacquiao’s eye, obviously impairing his vision. He looked in serious difficulty when under pressure on the ropes. With a minute to go he was nailed by a hefty left-right, but took it.

Pacquiao’s corner patched him up well, allowing Manny to return on to the offensive during a close ninth. He landed often enough to worsen Marquez’s injury to the point that it required a second opinion from the doctor.

Pacquiao then stormed the champion to finish strongly.

I gave Pacquiao the 10th also, as just after the start Marquez missed an audacious lead left hook and walked on to a straight left that caused his legs to sag. The champion kept his footing, but Pacquiao pounced and Marquez was soon pawing at his cut eye.

That exertion took something out of Pacquiao and allowed Marquez to typically come back strongly. By the 11th, though, it was close enough that neither fighter could afford to coast. Marquez had more in the tank. I gave him the final two rounds. So did the judges except Duane Ford, who somehow had Pacquiao winning the last.

There was no question the champion controlled the penultimate session. He scored with long-range rights, while Pacquiao continually punched short and looked listless.

Marquez was quicker off the mark in the last, landing a left hook then a right, while Pacquiao missed frequently and was rocked into the ropes by a right as they traded.

The champion’s more forceful ending left a strong impression, especially on those who were not scoring round by round.

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But opinions were divided in the press section, although all agreed there was little in it. My first reaction, however, was not who had won, but that they surely have to fight again.