Tonight is going to be, as far as I’m concerned, the biggest night in boxing for 2014.
Manny Pacquiao, one-time Ring Magazine‘s pound-for-pound king and hero to Asian and Asian American boxing fans everywhere, is squaring off against Timothy Bradley Jr. in a hotly-anticipated rematch bout. Boxing fans will remember the highly-controversial first fight between Pacquiao and Bradley, which resulted in a 115-113 split decision in favour of Bradley by judges despite near-universal agreement by ring-side journalists and fans that Pacquiao won the fight (I was among those who felt Pacquiao was robbed). Notably, both judges who scored the fight in favour of Bradley — Duane Ford and CJ Ross — are now no longer active judges in the sport; Ross famously “stepped down” after handing over another absurd scorecard in the Mayweather-Canelo fight last year.
Tonight, Pacquiao and Bradley are calling a do-over of their first match in Pacquiao-Bradley 2 (HBO PPV, starting 9pm EST). And, the casual observer may assume that tonight will be a redemption for Pacquiao; however, the events of the intervening year since Pacquiao-Bradley I strongly suggest that tonight will go a different way.
Tonight is likely to mark the end of the Pacquiao era.
Manny Pacquiao is, hands-down, a champion. Hailing from the Phillipines, Manny Pacquiao is the world’s first and only boxer to win a title in eight weight classes spanning Flyweight to Light Middleweight. Pacquiao accomplished this through his trademark style: a combination of quick hands, surprising punching power, and wild flurries of punches that come at an opponent from all angles. Pacquiao supplements this winning combination with a near-legendary straight left that is capable of dropping virtually any opponent, particularly in the lighter weight divisions.
Manny Pacquiao is a legend in the sport of boxing, and a huge source of inspiration to Asian and Asian Americans. But, that doesn’t mean he’s going to win tonight.
The problem is that Pacquiao may have peaked several years ago, and he is now on his decline. Even in the first Pacquiao-Bradley fight — a fight he should have won handily — Pacquiao was already a shadow of his former self. In the ring, he was slower, flatter-on-his-feet, and overly reliant on his fight-ending straight left. Outside of the ring, he seemed distracted and less hungry for the win; between being an actor and a congressman in the Phillipines, Pacquiao just didn’t seem like he needed or cared about boxing that much anymore. A troubled marriage with infamously dramatic boxing wife Jinkee Pacquiao didn’t help.
All of this can spell death for a boxing career, and it almost did in 2012. After his controversial defeat in February 2012 to Bradley, Pacquiao refused a rematch fight — a fight that Bradley wanted in order to prove his victory — and instead committed to a big pay-day in the fourth installment of the Pacquiao-Marquez rivalry in the end of that year. A fight that was, by all accounts, supposed to be a straight-forward mini-comeback for Pacquiao instead ended shockingly: Pacquiao was knocked out cold by Marquez in the end of the 6th round.
There’s really only one word for that knock-out punch: devastating. I opined at the end of 2012 that the Marquez knock-out could spell the end of Pacquiao’s career.
There’s no ambiguity here. This punch was the winning salvo in the war between Pacquiao and Marquez. This punch eliminated any possibility that Pacquiao is still boxing’s greatest pound-for-pound fighter. This punch destroyed any possibility of a Pacquiao-Mayweather fight. This punch, most likely, ended Pacquiao’s boxing career. And, it goes without saying, this punch could have caused permanent damage to Pacquiao’s brain.
If Pacquiao can’t prevent a blow like this — whether due to age or fading athleticism or deficits in skill — it is simply no longer safe for him to be boxing. It is time for him to retire.
Not one to retire, Pacquiao took most of 2013 to regroup and retune his style. Late last year, he reappeared in a comeback/tune-up fight against Brandon Rios. A lacklustre pay-per-view, Pacquiao looked better than he has in years, having eliminated many of the bad habits that had developed over years of being a champ against lesser opponents. Gone was Pacquiao’s tendency to fiddle with his shorts, and back was a focus on boxing skill and technique over wild flurries. Freddie Roach had re-created Pacquiao as the skillful fighter.
But this was still against Brandon Rios, who is basically a walking punching bag; through 12 rounds last December, Pacquiao looked stellar against an opponent who felt his job was to stand in the ring and absorb shots. And, even under these settings, Pacquiao’s rejuvenated crispness still failed to recapture the same edge of the Pacquiao of yester-year. Pacquiao was back, kind of, but he wasn’t back to full-form.
Meanwhile, consider the year that Bradley had.
In 2013, rebounding from being boxing’s most hated fighter after his controversial scorecard victory over Pacquiao, Bradley was having difficulty signing fights. Despite being a world champion (having wrested Pacquiao’s Welterweight title from him in Pacquiao-Bradley I), Bradley was treated like a pariah in boxing circles. He ultimately was able to land a fight against Ruslan Provodnikov, at the time a virtually unknown member of the Freddie Roach stable and a former Manny Pacquiao sparring partner.
Bradley-Provodnikov defied all expectations. It was an edge-of-your-seat fight, and hands-down winner of the Fight of the Year. Bradley and Provodnikov both left everything out in the ring, and later Bradley confessed that he fought nine of the ten rounds while concussed; despite this, Bradley won the fight by unanimous decision. Instantly, the fight elevated both Bradley and Provodnikov — nicknamed “Deer Hearts” by me and Snoopy Jenkins; we’re still trying to get the Provodnikov camp to adopt this bad-ass moniker — and proved in particular that Bradley has both the hand strength to stun a man, and also the chin and tenacity to withstand onslaughts from Deer Hearts, the heaviest hitter in the Welterweight division.
Later that year, Bradley smartly took a fight with Juan Manuel Marquez — the man who had knocked out Manny Pacquiao — and defeated him in another clear scorecard decision, nearly knocking him out in the final seconds of the last round.
In both the Provodnikov fight and in the Marquez fight, Bradley has shown incredible improvement in technique and skill. Compared to his rather slow, straightforward style in Pacquiao-Bradley I (problems at least partly due to fighting with a twisted ankle for half the fight), Bradley is light on his feet and a quick counterpuncher in both his fights of 2013 while also being willing to get aggressive and trade punches. By December 2013, Bradley’s style had been so honed that he was starting to remind me of a poor man’s Floyd Mayweather; give him a couple more years, and I think he could easily be the man to topple the king.
So, in short, 2012 was a year when Pacquiao’s star fell, while 2013 was a year when Bradley’s star rose.
Tonight, those two careers traveling on opposite trajectories will come to a head. And the question is really whether or not Manny Pacquiao still has one more boxing victory left in him.
And, I just don’t think so.
While Pacquiao looked good in the Rios fight, he’s still slower and less hungry than Bradley, who has everything to lose should he not win tonight. Pacquiao could do without continuing his boxing career, and his wife (who is heavily pregnant with Pacquiao’s fifth child and who will be missing the fight as a consequence) has already made it clear that she wants him to retire; by contrast, Bradley needs to win tonight if he is to continue in the sport. And although I doubt Bradley has the strength to knock Pacquiao out, I do think he has both the strength and the chin to out-box Pacquiao while going the distance.
Tonight, what you’ll probably see is a more cautious Pacquiao, one who is likely going to try to pick his moments to push Bradley to the ropes where he’ll try to bury him in flurries. Meanwhile, you’ll hopefully see Bradley try to control distance, turn Pacquiao (a south-paw) clockwise by keeping his foot on the outside, and counter-punch Pac-Man as he comes in; if successful, he should be able to land sufficient shots to keep Pacquiao at bay for 12 rounds and possibly even hurt him. Either way, tonight you should see a high-activity, skillful boxing match between two contenders who have it all out on the line.
Ultimately, I think the fight is going to come to a decision in Bradley’s favour, followed by Pacquiao retiring from the sport. I think this mainly because Bradley is both younger and hungrier. We’ll only have to see if I’m right.
Join me tonight starting at 9pm EST on Twitter at @Reappropriate where I will have live-tweeting coverage of Pacquiao-Bradley 2, along with undercards.