When Juan Manuel Marquez knocked out Manny Pacquiao last November, that squashed the talk of Pacquiao facing Brandon Rios a few months later in the spring, which had been the plan for promoter Bob Arum. An intriguing action fight on paper, Pacquiao-Rios was something Arum had talked about for the future ever since Rios broke through as one of the sport's most compelling in-ring combatants a couple of years prior.
Visions of a bloody, merciless war between an aging superstar and a rising young brawler must have danced in Arum's eyes -- it was money in the bank, without question.
Instead of getting Pacquiao, though, Rios went into a rematch with Mike Alvarado. Their October 2012 fight was a contender for Fight of the Year, with Rios muscling through Alvarado's best efforts and stopping the Colorado native in seven rounds. It was an all-out assault from both men, determined to stand their ground and out-macho the other. It was a fight that wasn't for any title (well, it was for the WBO Latino title) -- balls and pride were on the line.
That night in Carson, California, Rios proved the stronger, more durable man, outgutting Alvarado in a fight that somehow exceeded the expectations, which were sky-high. But in March, when they met again, Alvarado had made adjustments, kept to a smart game plan, and neutered the attack of Rios, giving him angles that the heavy-handed Oxnard fighter just couldn't deal with over a full fight.
Despite bits and pieces of success, Rios was downed on the scorecards, and fairly lost a fight that exposed his limitations. (By the way, "exposed" can be used without it needing to mean that someone suddenly sucks. Rios is a very good fighter, excellent at what he does, and there are ways to beat him. Just like everyone else.)
Richar Abril had already deserved a win over Rios in 2012, but the judges in Las Vegas awarded Rios a split decision win. This was the first time Rios had ever had to actually deal with a loss. He couldn't brush this aside with the knowledge that two of three judges saw it his way, so forget what a bunch of fans and media may have thought. They didn't count; Glenn Trowbridge and Jerry Roth did.
Dealing with defeat for the first time seemed to short a few of Rios' circuits. He accused Alvarado of "running," which was written off as either a desperate reach for a reason he lost other than being purely outboxed and outsmarted, or an indication that he really was so mentally one-dimensional that he somehow didn't understand that boxing is about more than standing still, throwing punches, and seeing who crumbles first.
The former, for the record, is far more likely than the latter. And a lot of fighters soul search in the heat of the moment following a loss, then may come around to acceptance later. A loss, while not career-ending, is a hit on every aspect of a pro boxer's career, even if it's valiant and commendable. Your marketability goes down a bit, you have to find the "right" fight next, and the amount of money you can make will often be lessened in the short term. Nobody wants to lose, especially not a proud, hyper-competitive warrior like "Bam Bam" Rios. He knows one way to fight, and he will likely go down swinging a few more times over the rest of his career, against guys who just have more in the toolbox.
Alvarado, on the other hand, made a statement. He's not really better than Rios, but he is a more well-rounded fighter, and he used his brain and stuck to a terrific game plan the second time around. Alvarado is one of the few men in the surrounding weight classes who can stand toe-to-toe with Rios and have success, as he did in October, but standing toe-to-toe with Rios, no matter who you are, is a dicey proposition. He's got an unbelievable chin, laughs at the punishment he takes, and never stops coming at you. Rios, in short, is a lunatic fighter, an unbreakable punching machine, who desires nothing more than to take your best shots and give you back a whirlwind of offensive output that you cannot handle in return.
Digging in with Rios is a fool's game, and Alvarado learned that. The preferred method for Rios is to last longer than an opponent. He's subtly good defensively on the inside, and tremendous offensively in close quarters, but get him at range, and he can be muted, at least enough that you can put some rounds in the bank and make him get truly reckless, which in turn will simply open up more opportunities.
The rematch was Mike Alvarado's night. Not long after, when it was clear Juan Manuel Marquez and Timothy Bradley intended to fight one another, Manny Pacquiao needed an opponent. Alvarado's name was first on the list. A week later, however, Rios was added to the discussion.
It was then that the sneaking feeling that Rios, probably still the more popular, well-known fighter between he and Alvarado, may land the Pacquiao fight despite the clear loss. There are several reasons this may happen. That popularity thing, which leads into the idea that Rios might sell a few more pay-per-views with a guy who has lost two straight (I know, he didn't really lose one of them, but he did). Alvarado might want more than they want to give him, while Rios may accept lesser terms right now, knowing what a shot this would be for his career. And there's also the fact that Rios, frankly, may be seen as an easier opponent -- and a guy against whom Pacquiao will unquestionably look good, if Manny were to win.
Trainer Freddie Roach is hardly hiding his thoughts on that subject:
"I think that Rios is probably a better fight, action-wise. We would like that. We like when Manny looks spectacular in an action-packed fight.
"I think that Manny fights in the pocket really, really well, and we think that Rios might stay in the pocket a little too long, but either guy is fine. Whoever Manny picks would be great. I'll get him ready for either one."
It sounds clear, at least from Roach, that Team Manny would like to get him someone who will be defensively vulnerable, and that's Rios without question. Pacquiao, a better boxer with better movement than Alvarado, even as his legs have declined with his aging, could in theory chop Rios up and have him for a late dinner. Alvarado may not be any less an underdog against Pacquiao, but he's shown a willingness to sacrifice action for success. He likely wouldn't be looking to stand in the pocket with Pacquiao, which Rios probably would.
Pacquiao adviser Michael Koncz said this:
"I think Rios and Alvarado, both of their styles make for perfect opponents so it really doesn't matter to me which one. I think it's question of which one is not going to overprice themselves."
The "overprice" comment is code for, "Who will take less money?" That, quite frankly, is likely Rios, who isn't coming off the biggest win of his career, and may not get another shot at a big-time fight like this one would be, facing Pacquiao in Macau this November.
So will Rios be getting the dream fight, despite his recent setback? It seems very possible, maybe even probable. The only thing stopping that might be Pacquiao insisting on facing Alvarado, but we are all quite aware that Manny's not big on insisting on particular opponents. He will, as he says after every fight, take on whoever Bob Arum wants.
If Arum still sees Rios as the better fight, it will likely happen. And if the worst thing that goes down here is that we get Pacquiao vs Rios, in what pretty much can't be less than a really good fight, well, that's something boxing fans can live with, surely.