With his clear and decisive decision victory over Timothy Bradley last night on HBO pay-per-view, Manny Pacquiao pulled a thorn from his side, not only getting his win back from their 2012 controversy (robbery), but beating a world-class, top-level, elite opponent without leaving any doubts for the first time in what seems like a long time, at least if you think two judges having doubts about the first Pacquiao-Bradley fight counts.
Manny is 35 years old, and he's been through it all in the sport. He's made an incredible climb from winning world titles at 112 pounds to topping out with a (bogus, catchweight) title at 154 pounds. He's won world titles in eight divisions. He may be the most globally famous and popular fighter of his generation.
He's been in Fight of the Year-type epics, engaged in the sport's greatest modern rivalry with Juan Manuel Marquez, and sold millions of pay-per-views, banking a ton of money along the way. Just six years ago, the idea of a Filipino super featherweight becoming one of the two biggest stars in boxing, and a legitimate mainstream sports star, would have sounded absolutely crazy.
That's because it is. It's absolutely crazy what Manny Pacquiao (56-5-2, 38 KO) has done since 2008, when he ended a the year by mauling and retiring the great Oscar De La Hoya, in a fight that figured to be out of Pacquiao's depth at 147 pounds, where surely he would simply be too small.
Wins over Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Joshua Clottey, Antonio Margarito, and a withered Shane Mosley followed, all of them dominant. Has Manny slowed down? Sure he has. There's no sense in arguing, at least in my opinion, that a 35-year-old Pacquiao is the physical beast he was at age 30. Time has taken some toll, and he's wearing the scars of battle that have accumulated not over just those last five years, but the last 19 spent in professional boxing.
He's faced the best in the world over about 30 pounds of boxing real estate, a massive undertaking. And through it all, he's been one of the best fighters on the planet.
Even "declining," or in the latter stages of his career, he still is. Manny Pacquiao showed with a fantastic win over Timothy Bradley on Saturday night that he remains one of the best boxers out there. Time may slow him down, but no more than it does any man. And with Pacquiao, he's so good that time has only taken him from otherworldly to great.
Following his sixth round knockout loss to Marquez in December 2012, Pacquiao underwent a true gut check. Was it worth it anymore? Manny's a guy with status as a national hero that no American athlete of the modern age will ever truly grasp. He's already a successful politician in the Philippines, too. He's got a family, he's got his faith, he's got a lot of things outside of the boxing ring that he can dedicate his life to, whenever he's done.
There was some belief that the face-first, out-cold devastation that night in Las Vegas would be the sort of loss that nobody, even a fighter as great as Pacquiao, could truly rebound from and get back to the elite level he had enjoyed for so long. And if it had been, there wouldn't have been any real shame in that.
Pacquiao took time away from the sport, probably did some soul-searching, got a break from the boxing grind, and returned with a tailor-made tune-up fight in November 2013, making his debut in the budding boxing mecca of Macau. That night, he boxed circles around the gritty but limited Brandon Rios, using his speed and in-ring acumen to throttle a tough fighter who just couldn't keep up. Smile through the pain as Rios did, he was outclassed, and to a very large degree.
But that fight was indeed made to make Manny Pacquiao look good. Rios was coming off of a loss to Mike Alvarado that seemed to tell us that his ceiling was certainly below the Pacquiao level, and he'd struggled badly with a crafty fighter in Richard Abril back in 2012, a gift victory for Rios.
Manny beating up on the man some called a "punching bag" was no surprise, and though Pacquiao did unquestionably look fit and sharp, he also never pressed the issue. As bad a hombre as Rios is, if Manny Pacquiao had really put the pedal to the metal, shouldn't he have been able to stop a guy who did little more than stand and absorb punishment, while doing his best to find any opening in the trenches?
That's where the question of hunger and desire and motivation came from, the one that Bradley (31-1, 12 KO) so loudly declared would be Pacquiao's undoing in their rematch. After the 2012 "win," Bradley was met with a backlash so severe that he says it drove him to thoughts of suicide, as hate mail flooded in, and the world at large reacted as though Tim himself had scored the fight, or awarded himself the victory.
A nine-month absence followed for Bradley, before he returned against Ruslan Provodnikov, a Friday Night Fights regular and 140-pound slugger, for a pretty heavily criticized HBO main event in March 2013. What was expected to be Bradley easily outboxing an inferior foe instead turned into an instant classic, a toe-to-toe war with Bradley surviving a massive onslaught from a ballsy fighter with nothing to lose. The 2013 Fight of the Year was made harder by Bradley, who appeared to come out looking to make some sort of statement, but the pre-fight criticism was gone within the first few rounds, and as the two tore into one another like junkyard dogs going after a T-bone, Bradley got some respect back.
Maybe he was no Pacquiao, but he was tough, and he was good. He proved the latter more in his next outing, a fight where he out-boxed the masterful Juan Manuel Marquez, one of the great boxers of his generation, arguably behind only Floyd Mayweather and maybe Bernard Hopkins for being the best tactician and technician of his time.
After Bradley beat Marquez, a rematch that once seemed frivolous was a natural fight to make. Pacquiao and Bradley signed on the dotted line, the April 12 date was set (getting a three-week jump on Mayweather's next bout), and the hype cycle began.
Bradley supposedly got under Pacquiao's skin by saying he wasn't the same as he used to be, that his fire was gone. Pacquiao promised over and over that he would show "the old fire" again, that he would be hungry and aggressive come fight night. Both fighters didn't exactly promise knockouts, but Pacquiao hinted that his alleged "compassion" that prevented him from stopping recent opponents would not be present. Bradley said he felt he needed a knockout.
Both of them lived up to their words.
There was no mercy from Pacquiao in last night's fight, as he exhibited at least flashes of his prime form throughout the night. After an even six rounds to start the bout, Manny took over, working beautiful angles, showing strong footwork, and overpowering Bradley, who did indeed come out firing bombs and looking to make a statement, much to the chagrin of his trainer, Joel Diaz.
Whether or not a seventh round leg injury slowed Bradley down, it doesn't really matter. Pacquiao took over down the stretch, and as good a fighter as Tim Bradley is, he was beaten by the better man on the night. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Manny Pacquiao was better than Timothy Bradley in their rematch, and this time, the judges got it right, scoring the bout 116-112, 116-112, and 118-110 for Pacquiao, the first two mirroring the scores of BLH and HBO's Harold Lederman.
Before the fight, I said that I did not think that Pacquiao could really regain his old form, and that the Manny of 2008-09, when he demolished De La Hoya, flattened Hatton, and trounced Cotto, would never be back. Not because Manny Pacquiao had become a bad fighter by any stretch of the imagination, and not because he was "shot," but because time will do what time has always done, robbing our greatest athletes of their natural abilities, turning them slowly mortal before our very eyes, taking away what made us marvel at them at their very best.
He's not "back," because he never left. While he'll never be in his mid-30s what he was in his late-20s and early-30s, the fighter we still have showed there's a lot more left in the tank with his win over Bradley, who fought his ass off, met Manny toe-to-toe, and was just plain outgunned.
Pacquiao isn't in his prime anymore. And that's what makes last night's performance even more brilliant.