By Tyson Bruce
The first genuine super fight of 2014 is the long awaited rematch between Manny Pacquiao and the defending welterweight titlist Timothy “Desert Storm” Bradley. It takes place this weekend at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and is being televised by HBO PPV. Since that shocking and surreal moment when CJ Ross and Duane Ford, to the vocal dismay of nearly everyone who watched, awarded Timothy Bradley the welterweight championship and ended Pacquiao’s incredible seven-year winning streak, a rematch was a virtual certainty.
What has happened in the intervening two years, however, has greatly added to the complexity and intrigue of the rematch. Although most experts felt Pacquiao easily defeated Bradley the first time around, his concussive knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez and perceived lack of hunger have many feeling like the odds are closer than ever. Bradley had a stellar 2013 campaign, which saw him edge Ruslan Provodnikov in the fight of the year and out-box Juan Manuel Marquez to become one of the most highly regarded fighter’s on the planet. As a result, it’s probably the first time since Pacquiao fought Oscar De La Hoya that he won’t be a noted favorite to win a fight.
More than just physical things have changed since their first fight, the entire dynamic of the fight has changed. Going into the first fight Bradley was regarded as a young and hungry fighter that would provide Pacquiao with a slightly faster target. Pacquiao, on the other hand, represented a path from obscurity to international celebrity for Timothy Bradley. The pressure was all on Bradley as this was literally a life changing fight for him. This time around the stakes have been reversed, as it’s Pacquiao that now bears the brunt of the pressure. Pacquiao has lost his cloak of invincibility since his knockout loss to Marquez and despite remaining a premier fighter he isn’t getting any younger. Every fight from this point forward will be life and death for Pacquiao’s career. Will it be one more chapter in a storied career or the end of an era?
Regardless of the shift in perception the original bout is still a good place to start for analyzing how a potential rematch might play out. By all accounts Pacquiao took Bradley lightly. This is supported by his less than perfect physique and documented lack of focus. Remember when the HBO camera’s briefly lost Pacquaio, only to find him running on a treadmill while watching a Boston Celtics game just minutes before the bout? Pacquiao looked lethargic and noticeably took his foot of the gas after the ninth round but he still probably won nine of twelve rounds according to most experts. Aside from the bizarre decision, the fight, though perhaps less entertaining, went exactly as most predicated it would.
The reason why Pacquiao was such a heavy favorite the first time around is because it’s very rare that a fighter who possesses a definitive edge in both speed and power will lose the fight. In boxing things very often don’t follow logic but that wasn’t the case on this night. Most people thought Pacquiao had easily won because he landed the harder punches and in much greater numbers. If—and it’s a big if—Pacquiao still hold a commanding edge in both categories we could very well see a replay of the first fight. If Pacquiao still has a commanding edge in hand speed, as he did the first time around, Bradley will struggle to turn the tide in his favor because of his noted lack of punching power.
Supporters of Bradley will claim that his skill set has improved to the degree that it now matches his Spartan conditioning and natural athleticism. For years it was difficult to think of Bradley as anything but an overachiever. He was regarded as a well-rounded fighter that capitalized on his potential because of his work ethic and toughness. Bradley won all of his fights but struggled to separate himself from many of his top opponents, including a 2009 bout with Kendall Holt when he was nearly knocked out on two separate occasions. This opinion crested in 2011 when he eked out a technical decision against Devon Alexander and turned down a career high payday with the popular Amir Khan. The gift decision against Pacquiao certainly didn’t help matters.
So, what’s changed since 2012? Bradley proved that he was more than the sum of his parts by overcoming extreme adversity in victory. After the Pacquiao fight he was a boxing pariah and even received death threats. Instead of bowing to despair he slugged it out with reckless abandon against the massive punching Ruslan Provodnikov simply to prove that he was a better man than people had given him credit for. You just had to watch him ferociously trade punches with Provodnikov while being basically out on his feet to know that he possesses a limitless will to win. Against Marquez he proved that his technical ability had been underrated by out-boxing Marquez in a highly tactical bout. Bradley proved he can win hard but also that he can win smart.
The greatest intangible of the rematch is desire. Which will prevail: Bradley’s incessant need for recognition or Pacquiao’s remaining desire to prove that he is still the best?
If we are to use history as a guide then Bradley’s chances look all the greater. Many of histories greatest fighters began a long and painful decline at the exact age Pacquiao’s is at right now. Unlike other thirty-something boxers like Adonis Stevenson or even Floyd Mayweather, Pacquiao’s had over sixty professional fights. Many of those were high-contact matches fought at the most competitive level of the game. He’s no spring chicken and it’s possible that we may never see a prime version of Pacquiao again.
After Julio Caesar Chavez’s upset loss to Frankie Randall in 1994 his loyal fans kept hoping that he could reclaim the passion of his younger days. The problem was that his thirty-two year old body could no longer produce the fuel needed for such an offensive oriented style. It took a great many people, including Chavez, to admit this was true. No one could believe that someone so good could ever become so human. It’s very possible we are going through the same thing with Pacquaio now.
Pacquiao will no doubt carry those doubts with him when he walks into the ring on Saturday night. Only he knows whether he really still has it in him. It’s up to Bradley to make it the kind of fight that will force Pacquaio to answer the tough questions. After so many years of almost universal respect it must eat away at a true competitor like Pacquiao to now be regarded by some as a “shot fighter”. It’s also the kind of incentive that great comebacks are born on. For example when a thirty-six-year-old Sugar Ray Robinson miraculously knocked out Gene Fullmer, despite being written off after losing their first bout. For Bradley a life of wealth, celebrity, and respect that many doubted would ever happen is now right at his fingertips. His story of redemption would come full circle if he could win fairly what many thought was an injustice the first time around. That’s a whole lot of incentive that wasn’t there the first fight around and why it could be one hell of a fight this time.