Ahead of Steve Geffrard’s last ditch appointment with Joe Smith Jr. at the weekend, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks at Manny Pacquiao’s contrasting experience in the late substitute and favourite’s role.

The bad news is that Callum Johnson tested positive for Covid and had to withdraw from his light-heavyweight title challenge against Joe Smith Jr., scheduled for Verona in New York State this Saturday. The good news is that the show goes ahead, with Smith now defending against the No. 15 WBO-ranked challenger Steve Geffrard.

As a short-notice replacement, Geffrard isn’t too bad at all. He’s on a winning run and he was US champion and national Golden Gloves champion as an amateur.

And sometimes, substitutes can prove to be surprise packages. A substitute actually has something working in his favour because he’s going against a fighter who likely was preparing for an opponent with a different style than the replacement.

Yordenis Ugas came in as a substitute against Manny Pacquiao last August and pulled off the upset. It didn’t help Pacquiao that he had been preparing for a southpaw in Errol Spence Jr., and Ugas boxes in the orthodox position.

But it was as a substitute that Pacquiao scored the win that set him on the road to super-stardom, when he stopped South Africa’s Lehlohonolo Ledwaba in the sixth round to capture a 122lbs title in Las Vegas. The date was June 23, 2001 and I was on duty for Boxing Monthly at the MGM Grand Casino Hotel. Main event that night was Oscar De La Hoya’s 154lbs title fight with Spain’s Javier Castillejo. But Pacquiao stole the show. “A new star has been born,” I wrote in the opening sentence of my ringside report.

Ledwaba had originally been matched against Enrique Sanchez, of Mexico, but Sanchez pulled out two weeks before the bout due to injury. This let in Pacquiao, who was training under the practised eye of Freddie Roach in Los Angeles.

Although Pacquiao was a big name in his native Philippines and indeed in southeast Asia, having won a world title in the flyweight division, he was something of an unknown in the US.

Pacquiao’s promoter at the time, Murad Muhammad, was bullish about his man’s chances. He saw Pacquiao as what he described as a “diamond in the raw”. Pacquiao had apparently been on the verge of returning to the Philippines, unable to line up a meaningful fight, when Muhammad negotiated the late-notice championship bout with Ledwaba. It seems that the folks at HBO weren’t immediately sold on Pacquiao as a stand-in. But Muhammad had no doubts. “When this fight was made I guaranteed that Manny would win,” Muhammad told me.

The oddsmakers at the Las Vegas casinos stayed away from the fight, to the chagrin of fight publicist and ex-Los Angeles daily newspaper scribe John Beyrooty, who wanted to put money on Pacquiao. “I’ve been looking everywhere but there aren’t any odds offered,” Beyrooty lamented.
Pacquiao had won six in a row by KO after moving up from 112 to 122lbs. He radiated an unshakeable self-belief. Pacquiao went into the fight with the mindset of a fighter who didn’t believe he could lose. He smiled as he shadow-boxed his way to the ring and brandished his right fist in a “This is my night!” type of way.

Freddie Roach told me he had been working on Pacquiao using his legs more and that he didn’t want him standing right in front of Ledwaba all the time. This was understandable. Ledwaba looked formidable. Defeated just once in 35 bouts, he was making his sixth defence of the IBF title, which he had held for three years. Ledwaba hadn’t lost in nine years and was on a run of 23 wins in a row. This included a title defence in California and two defences in the UK. Pacquiao, meanwhile, had never boxed outside of southeast Asia.

“Ledwaba was fancied, even though, surprisingly, there were no odds posted,” I reported. But Pacquiao took command from the start. “There was a sort of joyous fury about Pacquiao as he drilled Ledwaba with big lefts from the southpaw style, pounding the champion down and up,” I noted.

Before the fight, Pacquiao had promised to deliver a special type of performance. “If I get hit, I’ll step back for only a second, then I come right back,” he said. “I will not stop fighting.” Nor did he. Pacquiao broke Ledwaba’s nose and knocked him down in the second round and twice in the sixth. Referee Joe Cortez waved the finish without bothering to count when Pacquiao’s left-hand thunderbolt dumped a bloodied and broken-down Ledwaba for the second time in the sixth round.

HBO’s Larry Merchant confessed that he’d never seen nor heard of Pacquiao before the fight: “But I’ve seen and heard of him now — and I want to see him again.”

It’s unlikely we’ll get a star-is-born type of performance from Steve Geffrard on Saturday night. Champion Smith is something like a 1/14 (-1400) favourite. But, as Pacquiao, and more recently Yordenis Ugas, have shown, we write off an underdog at our peril.

Main image: Yordenis Ugas provided inspiration for all late subs with an upset win over the great Manny Pacquiao last year. Photo: Ryan Hafey/Premier Boxing Champions.