By Jim Cawkwell
The chemistry of matchmaking is one of the most delicate sciences in boxing. Feed a fighter too many easy wins and he might become complacent, believing too much in his abilities that have not yet undergone a proper test. Miscalculate a fighter’s readiness for a real challenge by throwing him in deep too soon, and you risk incurring the dreaded loss that has become not a learning experience but a plague to be avoided thanks to the precious politics of promotion.
Top Rank made much of their acquisition of Tim Bradley last year, and there seemed in Bradley enough of every relevant skill and intangible to warrant their enthusiasm for him as a potential superstar. But what was really happening was that like most promoters, Top Rank knew that the days of their star attraction – Manny Pacquiao – were numbered. Bradley, unbeaten, exciting and marketable, represented a logical replacement.
And how better to replace the old lion than to have him slaughtered by the new one?
Coming off a less than vintage performance in the third Juan Manuel Marquez fight, Pacquiao appeared vulnerable. If you believed the portrayal of Bradley on Face Off with Max Kellerman and Pacquiao-Bradley 24/7, Bradley is a physical beast possessed of such indomitable will that he might be the one to usurp Pacquiao.
Pacquiao and Freddie Roach laughed along with the façade, fulfilling their responsibilities to hype the fight. But they knew what any unbiased observer suspected: Bradley had yet to fight anything close to Pacquiao’s level, did not have the firepower to keep Pacquiao honest, and was in for a long night. Tim Bradley could not beat Manny Pacquiao, and only Bradley’s people or gullible part time fans thought otherwise.
As it transpired, even a sub-par Pacquiao was more than enough to shut Bradley down. Gone was the trademark velocity and renowned killer instinct, and still Pacquiao moved Bradley around the ring at will, at times reminiscent of the Antonio Margarito fight in which Pacquiao the humanitarian refused to destroy the once irresistible force he had rendered so helpless.
The decision in Bradley’s favor was a travesty, but so many of them has boxing endured that the sickening feeling that accompanies the reading of the judges’ scores is almost a tradition. But if it was a bad night for boxing and a bewildering disappointment for Pacquiao, it was a complete disaster for Bradley’s career and the notion of him becoming one of the true elite fighters. The day may come when Bradley ascends to the highest level on the boxing food chain, but despite a “win” over the great Pacquiao, it has not happened yet.
The fallout from the fight only served to enhance Pacquiao’s visibility, leaving an injured Bradley to convalesce while the world wondered whom Pacquiao might take on next, rather than speculate about the “new champion.” There were even calls from some quarters that the most appropriate and honorable thing Bradley could do was to give Pacquiao his belt back. Not exactly the launching of a global boxing superstar.
Some time elapsed, Pacquiao’s anger at the decision dissipated, and even he of such placid disposition managed to heap greater misery on Bradley’s cause, dismissing the possibility of a rematch as a useless exercise that nobody wanted to see. He was right, and incredible as it is, eight months on, Bradley’s career is only now beginning to make its way out of professional purgatory.
The first stage of Bradley’s public rehabilitation happens next month against prospect Ruslan Provodnikov. The Russian has a few wins over a few old faces in the game (Augustus, Jauregui, Corley), but nothing to suggest he is ready for the step up in class to world championship level. So from this we can assume that Team Bradley have learned a valuable lesson from their exposure to the ruling class of the fight game: learn to walk before you try to run.
Assuming Bradley looks impressive in this run out, Top Rank need to schedule him twice more this year against opponents of increasing substance and marketability. They got it quite wrong with Bradley the first time, but he is officially an undefeated welterweight world champion and the opportunity to re-build him is still alive. It’s conceivable that Bradley could jumpstart the process later in the year with entertaining fights against Josesito Lopez, Andre Berto, or Robert Guerrero.
And now that a fifth altercation between Pacquiao and Marquez seems unlikely, Bradley is fortunate enough to be positioned to perhaps steal back some of the esteem lost in the Pacquiao fight by challenging Marquez. Having already infuriated the Philippines with a controversial win over their man, Bradley can augment the trend by annoying another famous fighting nation if he agrees to be the farewell fight for Marquez in Mexico and comes out on top.
And if Bradley and Top Rank negotiate their way through that and gather sufficient momentum, the chance to take the coveted crown may once again present itself. In his prime, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. might not even consider a fight with Bradley, but Mayweather is no longer in his prime; he’s still an elite fighter, but also thirty-five, and even one as evasive as he is will come undone if he chooses to stay around too long in a young man’s game.
Someone is going to catch Mayweather eventually, and on the right night, with a high enough work-rate, instead of being the beneficiary of a wayward decision, might Bradley be the one to take the top spot from a great fighter because he actually deserves it?
Jim Cawkwell can be reached at [email protected]