Headbutts and the heavens have dominated much of the pre-fight talk ahead of Saturday night's Manny Pacquiao vs Timothy Bradley main event on HBO pay-per-view, live from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, but as we close in on fight time, all the chatter comes down to one thing: Who's going to win?
For Pacquiao, 33, it's the first time since he faced Juan Manuel Marquez a second time in 2008 that he's facing a fighter considered, truly, to be in his prime years. The last time he faced a fighter who had yet to enter is 30s, it was Miguel Cotto in November 2009, just after Cotto turned 29. The last time he faced an undefeated fighter, it was Jorge Solis in 2007.
Manny Pacquiao has had an incredible run since December 2008, when he shocked the boxing world not just by beating Oscar De La Hoya in an upset, but by truly pulverizing "The Golden Boy," forcing him to quit on his stool, and forcing him into retirement when Oscar's cobwebs cleared a few months later.
Wins over Ricky Hatton, Cotto, Joshua Clottey, Antonio Margarito, and Shane Mosley followed the win over Oscar. But with those wins came physical decline, extra pressures inside the ring, extra distractions and focuses outside of it, and through it all, no fight with Floyd Mayweather, the biggest bout in boxing.
That night against De La Hoya was special. I didn't think Manny could do it, and that's with the note going in that I thought De La Hoya was old, well past his peak, and was worried when he weighed in at 145 that he was weight drained. I still thought he would just be too big, too tall, too strong for Lil' Manny, who was jumping essentially from 130 to 147, with one fight at 135 against David Diaz under his belt.
So while I contend that De La Hoya was old, shot, and badly overtrained for that fight, it doesn't mar the win in my eyes -- I thought Oscar would look old and still get a win just on size. I didn't think, to put it clearly, that Manny Pacquiao was as good as he was by that point.
But he was. And five months later, I thought Ricky Hatton would be able to push him around some. I picked Hatton. That was a winner:
"There it is." "Boom."
Pacquiao may never have been in stronger physical condition that he was that night against Hatton, fighting at 140 pounds for the first and only time. He was sensational again seven months later against Miguel Cotto, who was game, and had the talent, and then overwhelmed by Pacquiao's speed, power, and explosiveness.
The Cotto fight, I feel, was the last we saw of the Manny Pacquiao who took the world by storm. It's not that he's fought poorly since then, but the next time we saw him, in March 2010 against Joshua Clottey, he didn't seem the same to me. It wasn't just that Clottey turtled up and offered little resistance that a wall couldn't have offered (though he marked up Pacquiao when he did bother to throw punches) -- there was something about Manny's movement that wasn't the same anymore. His defense seemed to regress. He was dominant, and he beat a very good fighter that night. But he didn't shine.
It was the first time I thought that maybe, Manny was slipping just a bit. I feel like I need to clarify here, because some folks seem to get offended when I say that Manny is in decline, or has been for a couple of years: All fighters, all athletes, decline. Floyd Mayweather, still unbeaten and pretty damn dominant, has declined over the last few years. It's how it goes. Manny Pacquiao hasn't been getting younger, and a long, hard, war-filled career has taken its toll.
This is not me saying Manny is "shot," because he's not. Or that he's "over the hill," even, because if he is, he's barely over it -- maybe you could say he's over the hill, but sitting up near the top, lounging in a lawn chair for the time being. He is still a great, great fighter. But he is not who he used to be.
I thought it showed a little bit more against Antonio Margarito in November 2010, when he broke Margarito's face but took a bit of a beating himself, and we're talking about Pacquiao getting hit clean by a guy who has no hand speed, doesn't stalk the way he used to, and frankly hasn't looked worth much of a damn since his 2008 fight with Miguel Cotto.
Again, it was that Pacquiao, to me, wasn't moving as well as he used to. Didn't have the spring in his legs that he used to. This is not to say that I'm not rather awed by what Manny did to Margarito -- Margarito was really, really big compared to Manny, and Pacquiao beat the shit out of him. But there were minor issues that seemed like possible warning signs going forward.
The legs came up again the next time out, when he moved over to Showtime PPV for a groaner fight with Shane Mosley.
Pacquiao's legs were blamed for his lackluster performance and inability to find Mosley in the fight -- specifically, cramps were blamed for the performance. Mosley, who ran most of the latter portion of the fight, survived because Pacquiao didn't have the legs to catch up to him.
Last November, Juan Manuel Marquez, old and small and counted out, gave Pacquiao another 12 rounds of hell. I thought Marquez won that fight. Again, Pacquiao's legs were blamed, and then so was his marriage, and so was Alex Ariza, and so was Manny himself. Fingers were pointed all around. None of it means much if something isn't different this time out.
Manny Pacquiao isn't who he used to be. And yet he remains one of the world's best fighters, a stunning offensive machine when he's at his best.
Today, we see Pacquiao on 24/7 with his "spiritual awakening." He is a Godly man, preaching the word of the Bible any chance he gets, focused on that it would seem as much as his boxing career, if not more than his boxing career. A man of great faith, which Pacquiao seems to be these days, is hard to deter. The worry is that this "distraction," more than any other -- politics, celebrity, gambling, women, night life, whatever -- may be the one that unravels him.
It would make sense. He may have loved a game of basketball and a roll in the hay with an unfamiliar woman (or so we're told), but I don't think they captivated him the way his obsession with his faith is doing now. That's not a bad thing for Manny Pacquiao the person, I suppose. It could be a bad thing for Manny Pacquiao the boxer, however.
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With the promotion of this fight, Timothy Bradley's story has been told for the first time -- the full story, anyway. Undefeated and just 28 years of age, he's got a potentially tough style awaiting Pacquiao on Saturday night. And though he wants to get away from the talk, headbutts are a major concern. Chiefly, it's a concern that Bradley, whether he'll admit it or not, has a genuine history of not just leading with his head, but using his head.
Bradley made his bones under promoter Gary Shaw, and featured as a Showtime fighter. His breakthrough came in 2008, when he traveled to England and beat Junior Witter, who held the WBC junior welterweight title and at that point was considered the No. 2 man in the division, behind Ricky Hatton.
Quality wins over Kendall Holt and Lamont Peterson followed. Both quality fighters who had good nights in the ring with Bradley, they were outfoxed by a smart, sound, and oddly aggressive fighter. Bradley's aggression is "odd" because he sometimes fights in spurts, but when he opens up, he can really put together some blistering attacks. He's not predictable, like so many Manny opponents the last few years have been, he doesn't stand still the way many have, and he adjusts very well, which most of Manny's opponents have not.
One is tempted to look back at the Marquez fight in November for ways that Manny could lose to Bradley on Saturday night, but I don't think it's particularly useful. Sure, Bradley and trainer Joel Diaz have probably spotted a few things that they might try to incorporate into the game plan, but as good as Tim Bradley is, he is not Juan Manuel Marquez. And beyond just not being that level of fighter (for now, anyway), he also doesn't have 24 rounds of experience against Manny to draw from.
Remember, Marquez was very nearly out against Manny in their very first round together, back in 2004. His legendary resilience, bravery, and boxing IQ led him to a draw that night, and then to two close losses. But there's no question, in my mind, that when it became a firefight each time, Marquez was a bit outgunned -- and I think Marquez hits harder, sharper, and with more accuracy than Bradley does.
Bradley came to HBO in summer 2010, imported from Showtime to set up a a "must-have" fight against Devon Alexander. The network put way too much money behind what became an artistic and economic flop of rather epic proportions, as promoters Shaw and Don King couldn't agree on a venue (it should have been in St. Louis), and wound up in Pontiac, Mich., in the abandoned former home of the Detroit Lions. Nobody came to the fight. Those who did, didn't get much worth paying for.
But let's start with Bradley's HBO debut, a welterweight fight against Luis Carlos Abregu. Bradley was in against a naturally bigger man, who was physically stronger, but didn't have the skill or speed to keep up. Bradley wasn't thrilling that night, but he clearly dominated the bout:
It was supposed to be part audition at 147, part stay-busy fight. It wound up much more the latter than the former. At 1:23 of that video, Bradley's billygoat skull comes in.
But if you really want to see his headbutts get out of control, you need to fast forward to his next fight, against southpaw Alexander. It was without question his best weapon that night. Take that however you wish, but it's not just talk: Bradley used his head to great effect. Essentially, it got him the win.
Bradley then decided to sit out the remainder of his contract with Shaw and co-promoter Thompson Boxing, rather than fighting Amir Khan. He ignored cries of cowardice for the most part (though his public explanations didn't much help his cause, and could have been worded a lot better). Personally, I thought he had a point: Why would you risk that fight and your own negotiating power on a new contract somewhere else when you could just wait?
Bradley-Khan never happened, but I think we can say that financially, Bradley didn't make a bad decision after all. As expected, he signed with Top Rank, and he easily disposed of washed-up Joel Casamayor in a mismatch on the Pacquiao-Marquez undercard.
He was being groomed as a Pacquiao opponent, but nobody was thinking it would come this soon. Miguel Cotto chose Floyd over Manny, though, and Top Rank had few options. Tim Bradley made the most sense right now. And here we are.
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Bradley doesn't have Pacquiao's fame. Frankly, I don't think he has his talent, either. And I'm almost certain he doesn't have the ability to go toe-to-toe with Manny for any extended period of time.
We know for a fact that Manny Pacquiao can take punches at welterweight, and even higher. He's faced several guys who are better punchers than Bradley. I know Freddie talks too much, but when he says Bradley can't punch, I don't think he's wrong. Bradley is not a puncher by any stretch of the imagination.
I do think Timothy Bradley can win this fight, but let's put it this way: Everything has to go exactly right for him, and a lot of stuff has to go wrong for Manny Pacquiao. Timothy Bradley can beat Manny if Manny is truly distracted, truly not 100% in it anymore -- hell, he'd have to be about 80% in it, in my estimation, for Bradley to have the chance to do enough things right to get this win.
I am certain that Timothy Bradley cannot stop Manny Pacquiao. That means he's going to have to do something really impressive. He's going to have to back him down. Hurt him. Out-quick him. Out-box him thoroughly -- and I mean thoroughly. He has to be better than he's ever been, and by a pretty fair amount.
If you watched the Pacquiao-Clottey highlights up above, you will notice there's a point where Max Kellerman of HBO is saying something to the effect of, "What Joshua Clottey needs to do to win this fight, he's never done before. We're asking a lot of Joshua Clottey."
Clottey made it through 12, but he never threatened to win the fight. I said something similar back in 2010, right after that fight:
Joshua Clottey didn't lose credibility last night, necessarily, but made it clear that he's not a great fighter. And he's never going to be a better fighter than he is now. Clottey is rugged, durable, good defensively, and limited. We usually save "limited" for guys like John Duddy, but it applies to Clottey, too. Good as he is, he's only so good. And Manny Pacquiao made him look bad.
Is Timothy Bradley great, or just very good? Are we asking too much of Timothy Bradley if we ask him to win this fight? Is it simply beyond his ability as a fighter?
I have said several times I think this is a good matchup, and I do. I believe it's the best fight that could have been made for Manny at this point in time. I believe it's valuable that we find out whether or not Bradley can be great, because just saying he can't isn't really good enough. He's worked hard. He's beaten good fighters. He deserves to be in that ring on Saturday night.
But I don't think he's going to win. I have grown to like Timothy Bradley more in the last month than I ever did before, and I never had any problem with Bradley, really. He's a good guy, a true fighter, and I know he's going to give his best effort here. When you match good fighters against good fighters, someone has to lose. When you match good fighters with great fighters, guess who usually loses?
My money is on Bradley not being great. Of course, I've been wrong a few times before. I'm sticking with it though: Pacquiao by unanimous decision, this time with no real debate. He's going to win this fight, and win it clearly, against a damn good opponent who will come to win.