By Tyson Bruce
Boxing is an unforgiving sport. One minute you are on top of the world with lap jockeys from all walks of life telling you that you’re the best thing to happen in the sport since Ali and the next minute your name’s being ripped apart by the rabid, faceless masses on twitter.
Photo: Chris Farina/Top Rank
This is exactly what has happened to Manny Pacquiao in the last couple years, beginning with a pair of lethargic performances against Marquez and Bradley and reaching a fever pitch when he got absolutely waxed by Marquez in there forth and final meeting. Once the most respected and admired figure in the sport, Pacquiao now has a large and vocal chorus of pundits putting his whole career under a microscope of criticism.
However, folks might be wise to slow down on their prognostications of Pacquiao’s demise just slightly. People seem to have forgotten that a listless Pacquiao, in the eyes of almost everyone who watched, basically dominated Timothy Bradley less than a year ago. You know, that muscled bald dude that just beat Marquez and whom everyone has ranked number three ‘pound for pound’ in the whole sport? The focus, however, is obviously on the knockout loss to Marquez. Knockouts, most specifically one-punch knockouts like the one Pacquaio suffered against Marquez, leave an indelible impression on the mindset of fans.
This, after all, was Manny Pacquiao we are talking about. The guy that mainstream sports fans saw comically singing with Will Farrell on Jim Kimmel Live and whose various acts of goodwill have been documented by CNN and Time Magazine. And there he was, laying face first on the canvas–utterly devastated and unnervingly human. He hit the ground so hard that during his post-fight interview there was blood encrusted around his mouth just from the impact of his fall. For his hardcore supporters this image was a symbol that he should never box again and for his haters it was proof that he was never the fighter that people made him out to be. The truth is that neither one of these things are totally true.
It is beyond question that Pacquiao is not quite the man he was when he obliterated Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto in 2009. That, however, does not mean that he is a spent force as a top fighter. Floyd Mayweather is not as physically sublime as he was when he blasted Arturo Gatti out in 2007, but he still remains the very best fighter on the planet. Pacquiao looked magical in the first six rounds of the fight with Marquez, regardless of the knockdown. He had never managed to control the pace and land as consistently with hard shots as he did in that bout. However, years of over aggression and poor balance finally caught up with him, as he hastily lurched forward and got wiped out by a perfect counter punch. He may have been a round or two away from a stoppage victory himself. But that, as they say, is boxing. Sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.
The byline for his comeback fight against Rios has been one of curiosity and unanswered questions. Is Pacquiao still the Pacquaio that we know, how will the knockout loss effect him as a fighter, and how will he handle the aggression of Brandon Rios? One theory people may want to consider is that although one-punch knockouts like the one suffered by Pacquiao look the most dramatic, they are vastly less harmful than a slow and steady beating over a long fight. It is possible that Pacquiao’s brutal first fight against Erik Morales or his tremendously violent draw with Marquez in the first fight were more physically damaging than his most recent defeat.
Pacquiao, for his part, has been very calm and realistic about the situation acknowledging that knockouts are a commercial reality of boxing and that it wasn’t the first time that he has had to rebound from a knockout loss. Wisely Pacquiao, who had probably been fighting too often in recent years, took a full year to physically and mentally regroup.
Boxing history is littered with examples of guys getting knocked out and rebounding with stellar performances and others who are never the same. Middleweight great Gene Fullmer was similarly cold-cocked by Sugar Ray Robinson and went on to have the best years of his career afterwards, but when a young Fernando Vargas was destroyed by Felix Trinidad it set in motion a rapid and pronounced decline in ring performances. The fact is no boxer responds exactly the same to a knockout defeat. Pacquiao, who is a born fighter if there ever was one, seems to possess the self belief that it takes to minimize the effects of such a defeat. However, we really won’t know for sure until the fight—thus, encapsulating the appeal of the bout.
Brandon Rios might not be all that well known to the public at large, but within boxing circles he is must watch entertainment. I have been a vocal fan of his ever since his debut on HBO against the favored Anthony Peterson. Rios, despite suffering many deliberate low blows, ravaged Peterson with savage aggression. His post-fight interview with Max Kellerman was as raw and passionately emotional as any I have seen. This guy just loves to fight. However, there is a reason that he has been selected as Manny’s comeback opponent. He comes forward and get hit a lot—two factors that have traditionally resulted in pain for Pacquiao’s opponents. This isn’t an empty accusation either, as among ranked fighters Rios ranks fourth in opponent connect percentage at 40%, but also ranks fourth in total punches thrown per round. It is your classic example of your greatest strength being your greatest weakness.
When the fight was first announced I was surprised that Pacquaio’s team chose such an offensively ferocious opponent. However, when I watched Ruslan Provodikov, Pacquiao’s long time sparring partner, absolutely torture Rios’s virtual equal in Mike Alvarado, I understood why. It was a red flag that Pacquaio might just be on a completely different level than Rios. Thoughts of David Diaz and Antonio Margarito came flashing into my head. Clearly, Rios is being served up as an appetizer for Pacquiao to get back to the super bowl. It’s up to Rios to prove everyone wrong and regardless of what you think of his chances you can bet he will leave it all in the ring trying.
With the eyes of the world locked on the tragedy of the typhoon ravaged nation of the Philippines—a place that used to be know as the pearl of the Orient, but is now a tragic symbol of unending strife—it’s favorite son and most prized export will attempt to lift the spirits of the nation by gifting them with hope through victory. For boxing fans it is a chance to see whether we are still in the midst of a boxing era or the end of one. If Pacquaio wins in devastating fashion then the drum beat for an overdue showdown with Mayweather will no doubt begin again and if Rios pulls off the upset then the proverbial torch will have been passed.