For sheer happy weirdness, nothing quite rivals the surreal encounters that occur at a major boxing match. Saturday night, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, as Manny Pacquiao readied himself in a dressing room for his fourth mega-fight with legendary Mexican foe Juan Manuel Marquez, Mitt Romney appeared. A guest of the Nevada Athletic Commission, Romney had dropped by to wish the Filipino superstar good luck.
A seated Pacquiao was having his hands taped in preparation for putting on his boxing gloves. An aide casually introduced him to Romney, who expanded on the introduction: “Hi, Manny. I ran for president and lost.”
The dressing room “exploded in laughter,” longtime Pacquiao publicist Fred Sternburg said in an e-mail Sunday morning.
Pacquiao replied that it was nice to meet Romney, Sternburg added.
For the non-boxing fan, it is often a shock to discover a fighter willing to meet a stranger shortly before stepping into the ring. Politicians, for instance, typically wall themselves off in the final hours of preparation before critical debates or convention speeches. But great boxers are generally accustomed to granting audiences in the last hours before a fight; it is one of those gladiator rituals that bespeaks a fighter’s composure and confidence. A fighter’s dressing room regularly serves as the American intersection between celebrity, sports and politics.
Romney chatted a little more before wishing Pacquiao a good night. Their brief meeting apparently ended without any discussion about their shared passion — politics — or Pacquiao’s work as a Filipino congressman. Romney left and joined his wife, Ann, in the sold-out arena, where their arrival elicited neither roars nor boos but simply a few handshakes from passersby. They took their seats near ringside and close to Pacquiao’s corner, seated in the proximity of former champions Mike Tyson and Sugar Ray Leonard, and basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson.
It had been just 32 days since Romney’s loss to President Obama, and he found himself on Saturday night in yet another battleground state that, in the end, had rejected him. But his tight smile reflected the mien of a man endeavoring to transition from a searing disappointment. Over the next couple of hours, he embraced the weirdness of Vegas and the evening: He greeted a well-heeled entrepreneur and part-time boxing promoter named Curtis James Jackson III — more commonly known among his legions of fans as the rapper 50 Cent. He watched the action in the ring with the characteristic intensity that he had typically reserved over the past two years for political stages.
And, in a familiar scenario, he had a chance, finally, to watch how his new acquaintance coped with a profound setback of his own, after having seemingly seized the upper hand in a spellbinding contest. Late in the sixth round, just a round after he had knocked down Marquez, Pacquiao ran into a short, devastating counter right-hand from Marquez that knocked him out cold.
Afterward in the ring, a graceful Pacquiao tapped Marquez and congratulated him on waging a “good fight.” Later, in a moment that no one in the arena understood perhaps as well as Romney, a sad but philosophical Pacquiao reflected on what he felt only seconds before the fight’s sudden and fateful turn: “I was just starting to feel confident.”