By Geoffrey Gray

LAS VEGAS -- Forget the judge's scorecards. After this fight, it was hard to pick the winner from the loser. Preparing for the fight that would define his career, Timothy Bradley Jr. sounded content to lose his welterweight title to Manny Pacquiao on Saturday night, perhaps relieved that the pressure of performing on such a big stage was over. Bradley had gambled everything on a risky strategy: knocking Pacquiao out. He fought like a wild man, part boxer, part slugger, bullying the lighter Pacquiao around the ring, scoring vicious right hands to the belly and overhand rights flush on Pacquiao's face.

"I fought a courageous fight," he said after it was over. "I tried my best."

His best wasn't enough. On the dais at the post-fight press conference, Pacquiao joked about the cut over his left eye, a nasty gash that opened from a Bradley head butt with only seconds to go in the final round. Once those 17 stitches heal (there are 15 stiches inside the cut), Pacquiao will carry that memento from Bradley, scar tissue that embodied a strange chapter in Pacquiao's storybook career. Even though the judges had him ahead on all scorecards, Pacquiao, 35, seemed to age in the ring in this rematch against the 30-year-old Bradley. His punches seemed to lack snap. He struggled with timing. He didn't seem to have a strategy. He rarely threw body shots in the earlier rounds to wear Bradley down, and paid for it.

The victory was not emotional, not overwrought with revenge for that lousy decision in 2012. Amid talk of retirement, beating a younger champion at his best guarantees Pacquiao another lucrative payday.

"My journey in boxing continues," Pacquiao said.

Analyzing the fight, Freddie Roach, Pacquiao's trainer, felt guilty. "I never saw this coming," he said of Bradley's relentless pursuit of Pacquiao. Studying Bradley's amateur and professional career, Roach was confident that Bradley would not attack Pacquiao furiously, nor connect with the powerful punches that troubled Pacquiao on Saturday.

"I was cringing," Roach said of the body shots that Pacquiao sustained, along with an overhand right hand that wobbled and stunned him in the fourth round. Pacquiao recovered, and the harder the bulky Bradley tried to land the punch that could erase all the doubts about their last fight, the more tired he became. Pacquiao weathered the storm, but he looked off through most of the fight, struggling to find a way to survive.

According to one member of his inner circle, Pacquiao had been sick in training camp. He developed a virus infection in his sinuses and was taking antibiotics only weeks before the fight. He eventually recovered and showed spark. In the dressing room before the fight, working the focus pads to warm Pacquiao up, Roach's body was recoiling from Pacquiao's speed and power. "He was on fire," Roach said. But in the ring, the flames seemed to fizzle.

"Obviously, Bradley had something to do with it," Roach said.

On balance, Roach called Pacquiao's performance "a little sloppy," and believes that Pacquiao still has a long way to go to reach his optimal level even in the twilight years of his career. The veteran of so many tough fights, and with his other job as a Congressman in the Philippines requiring his attention, it's a mystery how Pacquiao could reach that level. Wherever he travels, the mob follows. Instead of carving out space for himself to focus, he allows the doors of his training camp to be open.

Pacquiao's financial future is also a mystery. Before the fight, the welterweight champ and promoter Bob Arum had been negotiating an extension: four fights over the next two years, at $20 million per fight -- assuming Pacquiao continues to win -- plus a signing bonus. It all sounds like a generous deal for an aging fighter, and it's especially important for Pacquiao, who spends his millions as fast as he makes them. Despite rising to the top of Forbes' list as one of the highest-grossing athletes, it's all unclear whether Pacquiao is fighting to add to his savings or get himself out of debt. Spend any time with Pacquiao and those around him worry that he could become -- or is already becoming -- a familiar cliché: the pug who came up from nothing, amassed a fortune by knocking out the best of his generation, then lost it all.

During his training camp in Los Angeles, I asked Michael Koncz, Pacquiao's longtime advisor, to describe the fighter's financial state. Koncz declined, citing Pacquiao's privacy, but added that Pacquiao "has a lot of assets," presumably stuff he can't spend easily: homes, buildings, Ferraris, gold watches. Still, without cash reserves, Pacquiao will be fighting on the float, a hard position from which to plan for the future with any efficiency and discipline. Growing up on the streets of Manila, where he was so poor that he sold donuts to survive, Pacquiao is now so generous with his purses that he consistently spends more than $1 million on fight tickets for his friends and political associates. For this training camp, according to Helena Buscema, his voice coach, Pacquiao gave away around $100,000 to the women in his expansive entourage after challenging them to lose weight. Pacquiao is so fun to be around. His smile is infectious. He turns down very few. Even Bradley called him boxing's Gandhi.

"He's like a big kid," Buscema told me about Pacquiao. It's a disposition that makes him so special, and one that is probably his greatest liability right now.

There are millions more to win and more names to fight in boxing's fractured marketplace. Marquez. Alvarado. Khan. Garcia. Maybe even Mayweather. But unlike all those other fighters -- and nearly every fighter of his generation -- Pacquiao has the rare chance to transcend his unusual status as pugilist congressman. As all those around him know, the road to the presidency of the Philippines is long and winding. The first step that Pacquiao needs to take (and those around him believe he will) is to run for the Filipino Senate in 2016, the year the seat from his province becomes available. If he wins the Senate seat that year, Pacquiao could begin to position himself for a presidential campaign one day. Already, he has been given a playful endorsement by former president Bill Clinton.  

Pacquiao has said that he wants to fight for two more years, perhaps to pay off all his debts, outstanding tax bills, and build up his political war chest. But to compete in worlds as vicious and demanding as politics and boxing, Pacquiao eventually will have to choose a path.

The boxing path is limiting. In the ring, he has little to prove anymore. From his performance against Bradley, it's doubtful he could raise his levels again to a spectacular caliber. His choices of opponents are also poor. He could fight Juan Manuel Marquez a fifth time. Or Mike Alvarado, who fights Marquez next month. But neither of those fights will do anything for Pacquiao's stock. If he wins, experts will crow that he was better to begin with. If he loses, many will call on him to retire. As the Senate elections loom, it will be hard to run for office while desperate to book fights.

The political choice has upside. In order for Pacquiao to run for Senate in 2016 -- and eventually the presidency -- he'll need to build up his network of political supporters, financiers and staff. With the election only a year and a half away (and no real appetizing opponent right now), Pacquiao could benefit by taking time away from boxing to enhance his political infrastructure, give his aging body additional time to rest, and look to have a comeback fight that will energize his Senate campaign should he decide to run for higher office, a fight he can take on with a coherent political strategy in place.

One choice seems certain. In order to compete in politics and boxing, the Pacquiao that won in the ring on Saturday night has to grow outside of it. His boyish persona is lovable. His generosity keeps the entourage robust. But the tactful decisions he'll need to make in both worlds cannot hinge on needing to take a fight in order to pay for a Ferrari. Or finance a weight loss contest. We all like the big kid in Pacquiao, but to compete at the next level he must arrive there focused and frugal, if not transformed.

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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.