By Geoffrey Gray
LAS VEGAS -- For all the pre-fight hype about faith and will and killer instinct, it was Manny Pacquiao's superior technical ability and hand speed that were able to stop a game Timothy Bradley Jr. in their rematch for the WBO welterweight title on Saturday night. Looking to extend his legendary career and keep the $20 million paydays rolling, Pacquiao had to prove he was still an elite fighter and avenge a controversial decision Bradley won in 2012. Desperate to escape the dark shadow of that fight, Bradley was furiously looking to knock Pacquiao out and become a household name in boxing.
Bradley's grit wasn't enough though, as the judges unanimously gave Pacquiao the decision, and even Bradley conceded the challenger won the fight. "I have no excuses," Bradley said. "He was a better man tonight. Dude still has it."
"I am so happy to be world champion," Pacquiao said. "Tim Bradley was not an easy fighter. He hurt me on the chin. During the second half of the fight they told me to work on my timing. Bradley was wild on the outside and I took my attack on the inside. He threw a lot of punches, and I didn't want to be careless."
In the ring after the decision was announced, Pacquiao said he would like to fight for two more years, and would consider fighting Juan Manuel Marquez for a fifth time.
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Earlier on Saturday morning, around 50 of Pacquiao's closest friends and family members had filled the rooms of the fighter's elaborate hotel suite high above the Vegas Strip to sing their last prayer song together before the fight. Throughout his two-month training camp, Pacquiao had led his expansive entourage in morning singing. Some of the songs Pacquiao picked were secular karaoke favorites, like Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline, but most of the tunes he likes these days are Bible hymns. On fight morning, the first song he chose was Jesus We Enthrone You. The second was Sino Ako, a song that means, "Who am I?" in Tagalog, a language native to the Philippines, where Pacquiao is from and serves as a congressman.
"Kundi ko man bigyang halaga," the lyrics go. "Kundi ako nagmahal."
Translation: "If I didn't know how to love.... Then what is my worth?"
Those lyrics seemed to embody the Manny Pacquiao who stepped into the ring Saturday night. In the weeks leading up to the fight, despite the warnings from his trainers about his newfound compassionate fighting attitude and a $20 million payday, Pacquiao refused to engage in any trash talk with his opponent. On the contrary, he talked like a preacher, not a pugilist. He told me he now recoils at the sight of blood on his opponent's face -- an odd disposition for a legendary fighter famous for his gory ring wars and explosive knockouts.
But once Pacquiao stepped in the ring against Bradley, his compassion was not evident. Every moment he sought to exploit, dropping his hands and launching right hooks and left straight hands with abandon.
The fight was grueling. In the early rounds, the bigger Bradley seized control and seemed fresher and faster, walking Pacquiao down and catching him with body shots and overhand rights and right-hand leads. Pacquiao looked deflated, missing with pot shots and struggling to find an answer. By the end of Round 5, Bradley was starting to lose respect for Pacquiao, taunting him by dropping his hands and inviting him into the corner. Bradley came off his stool in the seventh round looking possessed, throwing every punch imaginable, lunging in and leading with uppercuts and haymakers until the fight exploded into an all-out brawl. Before the 10th round, Pacquiao's eyes looked bloodshot and Bradley had the cold stare of a viper.
In the later rounds, though, Bradley didn't have the power to hurt Pacquiao, and both fighters continued to the final bell, earning their moments but not truly resolving the fight like they wanted. Pacquiao showed more skill. Bradley proved his will. But throughout the fight, it was Pacquiao who landed the cleaner and harder punches. Bradley was trying so hard for a knockout punch -- and missing -- in the later rounds that he found himself tangled in the ropes. After swinging so hard, he seemed to tire. Seconds before the final bell, though, Pacquaio suffered a vicious cut around his left eye that requires stitches and potential plastic surgery to repair.
When the scores came in, Pacquiao was down on his knees, praying for favorable results. He got them. Two judges had the bout eight rounds to four. One judge had it 10 rounds to two. Sports on Earth had it closer: seven rounds to five.
"Manny was a little sloppy, but I am obviously pleased with his performance," Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach said. "Bradley was looking for a one-punch knockout, swinging for the fences."
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Despite his advantage in nearly all categories (speed, skill, experience, talent, charisma, power) there was an undeniable sense that Pacquiao's storybook career -- which started on the streets of Manila, where he lived out of a cardboard box and sold donuts to survive, and peaked in 2012 with him ranked by Forbes as one of the wealthiest athletes in the world and considered a potential candidate for the presidency of the Philippines -- could come to an end amid his struggles versus Bradley.
The foreshadowing was evident in pre-fight comments Roach made about advising retirement after a loss. "I won't let him become a stepping stone," Roach said. And the grim soothsaying continued from Pacquiao's long-term advisor Mike Koncz, who argued that even a unanimous decision for Pacquiao wouldn't be enough to satiate his public. "We have to win in spectacular fashion," Koncz said, "or I think it's time to consider retirement."
Pacquiao seemed to care more about making sure that his entourage had a good time. One the night before the fight, hundreds of his friends from the Philippines filled the hallways of the Mandalay Bay, queued up at the VIP Guest Services window like a soup line during the Great Depression. Bobby Pacquiao, Manny's younger brother, was supervising it all until well after midnight. The final tally of tickets Manny purchased for others, he said, was 2,200. The total price tag for those tickets was more than $1 million, his advisor said, and the seats filled roughly an eighth of the MGM Grand Arena.
Growing up in abject poverty, and running away from home for the streets of Manila after his father ate the family's pet dog for food, Pacquiao seems to abide by the adage that money should be spent, not saved. During his training camp in Los Angeles, Pacquiao had a contest for the women in his large entourage. He encouraged everyone to work out with him, hosting a basketball tournament for the men and a weight loss competition for the women. If they could shed 8 percent of their body weight before he left for Vegas for the fight, Pacquiao promised to pay each of them $3,000. Countless women accepted the offer and all who succeeded were paid, according to Helena Buscema, his voice coach. Buscema was one of them.
"He thought it was fun. He's like a big kid," she told me. "He must have paid $100,000."
The pre-fight demands of his entourage were so great that Pacquiao never seemed alone, or able to concentrate. Even entering the area, a time when most fighters prefer to listen to their headphones and focus on the task at hand, Pacquiao was talking on his cellphone. Maybe he was talking to his pastor. Or his pregnant wife Jinkee back in the Philippines. Or any of the 2,200 people he invited to his show, making sure everyone got their tickets.
"The dude is too nice," Bradley told me about Pacquiao before the fight. "He can't even tell me he's going to knock me out!" Bradley thought Pacquiao's newfound spiritual quest would be detrimental to his performance. "People find motivation in all kinds of places," Bradley said, though he believed Pacquiao's compassionate streak was dangerous in a violent sport like boxing. "It makes you powerless. Powerless!"
Since he last faced Pacquiao two years ago, Bradley had reinvented himself. The benefactor of a decision that a vast majority of experts considered robbery of Pacquiao, Bradley fell into such a deep state of depression he vowed to change his fighting style in order to win more fans and escape the cloud over him. Above all, he was trying to become likeable. His war with Ruslan Provodnikov and split-decision victory over Juan Manuel Marquez didn't seem enough to endear him to fans, however. Bradley also asked his promoter Bob Arum to help him "brand" himself, Bradley told me, because he was upset he had risen to become an undefeated American world champion, fought all those rounds against Provodnikov with a concussion and still hadn't become a star. As part of his contract, Bradley said Top Rank hired a firm to help him boost his profile.
Whatever they were doing, Bradley couldn't shed the bad guy image. When he stepped on the scales for the weigh-in earlier this week, he received heckles and cat calls. Every time his face flashed on the screen in the arena, the heckles returned. Bradley was so convinced he needed a knockout to vanquish the critics, he trained for the punch throughout camp. He even changed his brand of gloves, opting to use the same gloves Pacquiao uses: Cleto Reyes, a Mexican manufacturer that stuffs its gloves with horse hair, not foam like the other brands. The horse hair moves around through the fight, shifting toward the back of the hand and the wrist, exposing the knuckles and creating a heavier punch.
Still, it wasn't enough. "I tried. I really tried," Bradley said afterward. "I really wanted that knockout. I kept trying to throw something over the top. That was the plan. That's what we worked in camp.
"I lost to one of the greats... Manny is a great fighter, maybe one of the best ever."
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Geoffrey Gray is a best-selling author and reporter based in New York. A contributing editor at New York Magazine, he has covered boxing, bullfighting, tennis, female-arm wrestling, camel racing and high-end perfume.