By Steve Kim
On April 12 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the rematch between WBO welterweight champion Tim Bradley and Manny Pacquiao arrives. They first met in June of 2012, with Bradley winning a decision that was so controversial and met with such derision that it caused mass hysteria about the supposed death of boxing for the 100th time. Somehow, the sport survived, and this time around, Pacquiao, isn't just fighting to win back his crown, but in many respects he's fighting for his career.
Not literally, of course, as in boxing rarely do careers come to a natural and convenient ending. Just look at the cases of James Toney and Roy Jones, who have continued the age-old boxing tradition of champions fighting well past their sell-by date, now performing in virtual obscurity for a mere fraction of what they were once compensated in far-flung locales like Russia.
Win, lose or draw, Pacquiao will fight on, regardless. But the result of the fight will determine just where he really stands in the game. Is he still among the elite? Or is he just another faded great who will play out the string to increasingly smaller purses and dwindling audiences? When Pacquiao was asked at an elaborate press conference at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel this past Tuesday afternoon if this was a must-win fight, he responded, "Yes, I have to win the fight." ( Pacquiao, for all his stardom, is an unusually amiable and nice individual, but there are times when the answers he gives in English can be as abrupt and fruitful as an interview session with Marshawn Lynch.)
But it's evident that even Pacquiao understands that much of his market-value will depend on the result of this upcoming fight. There was a time not too long ago when he would routinely garner over a million pay-per-view purchases. But in the wake of his stunning KO loss to arch-rival Juan Manuel Marquez in December 2012, his return this past November against Brandon Rios from Macau generated roughly half that amount. It's clear that in addition to perhaps his physical decline inside the ring -- which isn't unexpected given that he is 35 years old and has a high-intensity style predicated on volume-punching and taking risks -- he's also experiencing shrinking support from his once fervent masses.
So just how much fight does he have left?
"I think he has a lot of fight left in him," said his trainer, Freddie Roach, who has worked with him since 2001 ."He did very well versus Brandon Rios, put his combinations together, he fought three minutes of every round for the first time in a long time. I was very happy with that performance and a couple of times I thought he would step it up a little bit and tried to get Rios out of there, but the thing is he didn't want to take chances and make a mistake like the last fight with Marquez, he stepped in a little bit too soon. We're not going to make those mistakes anymore, and I think he's got a lot of fight left in him."
While he dominated Rios over 12 rounds, the trademark ferocity from Pacquiao was absent. The word "compassion" was used by Bradley on Tuesday in describing the Filipino icon, but perhaps he was really gun-shy in the wake of his frightening knockout at the hands of Marquez. Regardless, a better version of Pacquiao will be needed to defeat a resurgent Bradley, who's riding the momentum of a strong 2013.
"He'll have to be to win this fight," Roach said, "because Bradley's going to bring it all. He's proven himself, he boxed well vs. Marquez. I think that's the type of fight he's going to fight. I think he's going to be more difficult this time because he learned in the second half of the first fight with Manny."
It's interesting that you read the familiar storyline for this promotion that Pacquiao has to gain revenge or redemption versus Bradley, given that outside of two judges, he had done more than enough to out-point Bradley. When that decision was read, it was immediately denounced. It was half of what was a winless 2012 for Pacquiao. Everyone was outraged, except the victim of this heist.
"I was surprised, but I'm a gentlemen and I have to respect the decision of the judges, the officials of the event. It's part of the game," said Pacquiao, who's record now stands at 55-5-2 (38 knockouts). If his answer raises a few eyebrows, just remember that in his spare time he's a congressman in the district of Sarangani. With that, there will be life in the spotlight for Pacquiao long after boxing is in his rearview mirror, which is certainly sooner rather than later. When asked how many more fights he had left, Pacquiao said, "I don't have an idea, but a couple fights."
What could cloud the issue are Pacquiao's recent tax problems, which have been well-reported by various outlets and have been the subject of much debate and conjecture. Could he be a modern-day Joe Louis, who came out of retirement as he found the IRS to be much more difficult to defeat than the "Bum of the Month Club?" Promoter Bob Arum thinks such worries are unfounded, saying, "I don't think the problems are particularly serious in the United States, the liens, the levies, have all gone away. Does he own some money? Yeah, he does, normal stuff like disallowing deductions but in the Philippines. But really it's nothing big."
The veteran promoter is guaranteed to win on April 12, because he represents both sides. But truthfully, a Pacquiao victory would be better for business. When asked if Manny was in a win-or-go-home situation, he quipped, "It's over -- 'til it's not over," full well knowing the way things work in this racket. Regardless of the outcome of this upcoming bout, Pacquiao will most likely fight on for a while. But a loss would certainly mean more than just another blemish on his ledger; it would give further evidence that this was no longer 2009, when he was at the apex of his powers -- and his financial clout.
"I'm not thinking of losing," said Pacquiao, who didn't even want to entertain such talk. "I'm always thinking positive and I believe I have the advantage for this fight."
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Steve Kim began covering boxing in 1996 and has been writing for Maxboxing.com since 2001. He is also a regular contributor for Boxing News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets (a lot.)