Manny Pacquiao is Back (Kind Of)

Last night, Pacquiao scored his first boxing victory in 2 years, solidifying a new nickname "Comeback Pac".
Last night, Pacquiao scored his first boxing victory in 2 years, and introduced the world to “Comeback Pac”.

Manny Pacquiao had a bad year in 2012.

As the first and only boxer to earn a title belt in eight weight class divisions through his career, Pacquiao was once crowned boxing’s pound-for-pound king by Ring Magazine. Over the years, he has defeated many of boxing’s big names, including Miguel Cotto, Shane Mosley, and Oscar De La Hoya. At the height of his career, fans clamoured for him to take on boxing’s other undisputed champion — Floyd Mayweather. It was a fight that all hoped might actually match (even challenge) Mayweather’s superhuman technical skill, and was anticipated to earn millions for both fighters. Yet, despite intense negotiations between both camps (that devolved into vicious and even racist feuding) this fight has yet to manifest.

In 2012, Pacquiao suffered two consecutive losses that may have put the final nails into the coffin for a Pacquiao-Mayweather bout. For a fighter whose rise in boxing was meteoric, his fall from grace was equally as long a fall. In the 2012 spring season, Pacquiao suffered a controversial scorecard loss to the up-and-coming young fighter Timothy Bradley (a defeat that even I thought was an example of bad judging). Although boxing fans wrote this off as Pacquiao being a victim of the sport’s innate arbitrariness when it comes to scoring, fans were also certain that in the ring he looked more sluggish than we were used to.

Then, in December of 2012, shit hit the fan. Pacquiao suffered a devastating mid-fight knockout to Juan Manuel Marquez in their fourth match-up. Pacquiao was out-cold for over 30 seconds, and fans were convinced he wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — ever get back in the ring. I was one of those naysayers, arguing that it was time for Pacquiao to pack it up and focus on other matters, like his political career (he is a sitting Congressman in the Philippines) or his family (he is expecting his fifth child with wife, Jinkee).

Well, after an 11 month hiatus, Pacquiao was back in the ring, fighting the young and brash boxer fighter brawler platypus with boxing gloves Brandon Rios (look for the Storify of my live-tweet coverage of the night at the end of this post, after the jump). To folks like me, it was  as if Pacquiao had something to prove — that he wasn’t going to exit boxing with his face in the mat. That, despite his many other accomplishments, he still needed to be a boxing superstar.

And, after 12 rounds of one-sided action, one thing is clear: Manny Pacquiao is back. Sort of.

This image is the story of the night, and not how Brandon Rios wants to be immortalized.
This image is the story of the night, and not how Brandon Rios wants to be immortalized.

Now, let’s be clear: Brandon Rios isn’t much of a boxer. A 27 year old Mexican-American, Rios has made a name for himself in boxing by sheer tenacity and bullheaded-ness, rather than boxing skill. Rios has a chin that won’t quit (a fact that I forgot in my own predictions for Pacquiao-Rios when I thought Pacquiao might score a knock-out). His previous victories have been won largely by walking into his opponents flurries, absorbing all the damage, bulldozing the fighter into a corner, and unleashing an uncontrolled combination of power shots hoping one lands flush. That ugly strategy has worked for Rios in over 30 fights — most of them by knock-out — but failed him in his latest rematch against Mike Alvarado where he was woefully out-classed and ultimately lost by scorecard decision.

While I — like the vast majority of boxing fans — predicted a Pacquiao victory in last night’s header, I was wary in the moments leading up to the fight. The Pacquiao I had seen throughout the 2012 season was a far cry from the Pacquiao of yester-year. The Pacquiao of 2012 was one who had picked up a number of bad habits and seemed particularly vulnerable to power shots.

Well, despite news stories that gave me concern about the seriousness of Pacquiao training camp, Pacquiao quelled my anxieties by sailing to victory over “Bam Bam” Rios. More importantly, Pacquiao hit the much more important bar set for him in this fight — he needed to demonstrate a true return to form, and score a decisive indisputable win to prove that he wasn’t just back, but back on top.

And Pacquiao achieved that in spades. On my unofficial scorecard, and that of HBO’s Harold Lederman’s, Pacquiao pitched a complete shut-out. The same was true of one of the official ring-side scorecards; the other two gave Rios one or two pity rounds.

This wasn't an even match-up. Not by a long shot.
This wasn’t an even match-up. Not by a long shot.

Stylistically, it was impossible to watch Pacquiao-Rios and not think Pacquiao had won. 11 months of dedicated training with Freddy Roach had broken Pacquiao of several bad habits, including two that I identified last year: 1) dropping his guard every minute to pull his trunks up like clockwork, and 2) going for the uncontrolled and often ineffective flurry in the last minute of each round to try and steal a round, but which makes him vulnerable to a counter-punch. The Pacquiao of 2012 was slow, flat-footed, and heavy: Pacquiao of last night darted in and out, ducking under Rios’ looping hooks, and forcing Rios to stay in the centre of the ring. Manny Pacquiao has always relied more on his pure athleticism than on technical boxing skill; last night, he was a fresh-looking, sharp, well-rounded integration of both. And, Pacquiao absorbed at least a few Rios power shots without falling, a clear message that his chin is back, too.

In short, last night we learned that, if you’re Freddy Roach, you absolutely can teach an old dog new tricks.

Meanwhile, last night, we also saw the unofficial retirement of Brandon Rios, a fact that I definitely welcome. I personally favour technical boxers over brutes, but boxing is a dangerous enough sport that I don’t think anyone has any business going into the ring without the tools to avoid a punch. And Rios lacks any of the skill needed to protect himself from the chronic damage that comes with boxing: he’s heavy, slow, and most importantly suffers a chronic inability to adapt to changing tactics in the ring. Rios has one path to victory — bulldoze and flurry — and is at a complete loss when that strategy is neutralized early on by his opponent. That being said, an effective Brandon Rios certainly posed a danger to Manny Pacquiao; Rios unofficially outweighed Pacquiao by 9 lbs last night, and a Pacquiao on the ropes is a Pacquiao who can’t deploy his natural style to evade and come in at odd angles.

But, inexplicably, someone in the Rios camp — former featherweight champion turned trainer Roberto Garcia, perhaps — came up with a completely useless strategy against Pacquiao. It seems to have been to keep Brandon Rios leashed, and not to chase Pacquiao to the ropes. I want to believe that the plan was to wait for an aging and out-of-shape Pacquiao to tire himself out, and then for Rios to enter into phase two: “Bam Bam Rios Unleashed”. This was the same strategy that Rios planned to use — but didn’t — against Mike Alvarado in his rematch loss; for some reason, Rios wanted to prove he was capable of staying in control last night.

To be fair, unleashed Bam Bam Rios didn't fare much better in his last fight either.
To be fair, unleashed Bam Bam Rios didn’t fare much better in his last fight either.

The problem was that we never saw phase two of the Rios master plan. Around round 8 or 9, Rios’ corner started telling Rios to start fighting back — which is pretty late for a strategy like this, by the way — but Rios never stopped hunkering down and absorbing Pacquiao’s many, many, many shots to the face and waiting for something to happen. Despite vocal opposition to the nickname in the days leading up to last night’s fight, Brandon Rios proved he was every piece the “punching bag” critics had charged him of being. Worse yet, he’s not even a “punching bag who punches back“, as he claimed.

No, he was really just a static, inanimate punching bag; one who looked progressively the worse for wear as the fight dragged on.  If Brandon Rios’ bar was set at “give Pacquiao a run for his money”, he failed utterly at that. Brandon Rios blustered that he was going to retire Pacquiao last night; in my mind, he only retired himself from the top tier of his division.

So, what’s next for Manny Pacquiao? Well, regardless of last night’s performance, one thing is also clear: Comeback Pac isn’t the Pac-Man of years past. Despite some really great boxing last night, Comeback Pac is still a half-second slow, a touch heavier, a bit less hungry, a shade less aggressive than the Pound-For-Pound Pac. To that end, I think any return to discussion of Pacquiao taking on the sport’s greatest — Floyd Mayweather, Jr. — would be utter foolishness that would toss away all the career gains he made last night. Boxing is a fickle sport, unimpressed by victories and unforgiving to losses. If Pacquiao is wise, he should take on another lesser — Mike Alvarado, perhaps — whom he has a pretty good chance of defeating before taking on a riskier fight and unintentionally bringing his comeback status crashing back down to earth.

But, if Pacquiao chooses to take a risk, he should — and possibly will — schedule a rematch against Timothy Bradley. Keep in mind, however, that Bradley’s star is on the rise after a truly stellar performance against Juan Manuel Marquez earlier in the year. Bradley has demonstrated a remarkable ability to make wide leaps in skill with every major fight. A match-up that pits Comeback Pac against the current Timothy Bradley would be a very difficult slugfest for the aging fighter, and may be more challenge than Pacquiao is willing to expose himself to at the moment.

Either way, in the moments after the fight, HBO asked Pacquiao whom he’d like to face next, and Pacquiao wisely stayed mum, deferring to his promoters. So, we’ll all just have to wait and see.

Boxing in Asia

This decidedly intercultural, if a little "Odd Couple" promotional tour was the face of Pacquiao-Rios in the weeks leading up to the fight.
This decidedly intercultural, if a little “Odd Couple”, promotional tour was the face of Pacquiao-Rios in the weeks leading up to the fight.

Meanwhile, another major victory was scored last night for boxing, but one that will get lost in the shuffle of stories over the Pacquiao comeback: the success of a major boxing event staged in Asia. Despite growing interest in many Asian countries in Western sports like boxing, many athletic industries of the West have been slow to incorporate the very large and pretty much untapped Asian market. Last night’s fight, held in Macau, China, was a major marketing experiment designed to integrate Eastern boxing interest with the West’s boxing behemoth.

The fingerprints of these efforts were everywhere. The fight was held in China to a packed audience, but scheduled for a Sunday morning to allow Western audiences to view the fight at the traditional Saturday night time. Three of the four (lacklustre) undercards pitted an American fighter against a fighter from China, Thailand, or Australia. Of these three undercards, one basically served to introduce a rising Chinese boxing star — featherweight fighter Zou Shiming — to American audiences. In his six-round fight, Zou massacred his opponent in a woefully uneven bout, proving that Zou is sufficient to rally Chinese audiences, at least until someone better comes along. (Critics of Zou have noted the fighter has yet to prove himself by entering into a risky fight; given that, it’s hard to truly judge his skill). And, in a symbolic decision that perfectly demonstrates the interest of last night to marry East and West when it comes to boxing, American Idol contestant Jessica Sanchez, who is half-Latina and half Filipina American, was chosen to sing both the American and Filipino anthems last night.

Jessica Sanchez knocked it out of the park, too.
Jessica Sanchez knocked it out of the park, too.

All this despite a few rough-around-the edges kinks that produced some seriously weird on-air moments regarding Asia. Although HBO boxing commentators clearly spent a lot of time practicing to pronounce the Thai name of boxer Petchsamuthr Duanaaymukdahan — which all of them did repeatedly and flawlessly — Lampley and company couldn’t help but pat themselves on the back for this achievement. There were also a few instances of weird off-the-cuff racially suspect statements — Asians as demure boxing fans, Asians as incorrigible gamblers, Max Kellerman and Jim Lampley’s bizarre assertion that boxing is a solution for China’s One Child Policy. While no “chink in the armour” moment, these kinds of eyeroll-inducing missteps can’t continue to happen if boxing hopes to increase its presence in the East.

Nonetheless, the night had a distinctly hyphenated, cross-cultural flavour that is the perfect synthesis of exactly where the sport needs to go. And, Comeback Pac may have just enough fight left in him to be the guy to take us there.

Live-Tweeting Storify

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