So continues our marathon coverage of one of the biggest fights of 2013, Manny Pacquiao vs. Brandon Rios on HBO pay-per-view on Nov. 23. Previously: a special edition of TQBR Radio. Next: the undercard, previewed.
A creeping sense that Manny Pacquiao's time as one of the world's best prizefighters was coming to an end slowly began invading boxing enthusiasts' perceptions in 2010 — but the moment when any number of people fully believed it arrived hit like the misbegotten child of a thunderclap and an atom bomb. There have been few more shocking boxing scenes in the new century, maybe none more shocking, than the one that played out the last time we saw Pacquiao in the ring on Dec. 8, 2012 at MGM Grand. In the moments following his defeat, the foremost thought in the minds of Pacquiao's family and many others wasn't whether his career was over; it was whether his life was over. Knockout punches like the one longtime Pacquiao rival Juan Manuel Marquez delivered — so definitive, so unexpected, so shattering of the sport's landscape — are equally awe-inspiring and frightening. Fighters have recovered from knockouts like that before. Others never do.
Pacquiao's return to the ring this Saturday would have been greeted with trepidation under any circumstances, but it also comes mere weeks after Frankie Leal died from his ring injuries and Magomed Abdusalamov was placed into a medically-induced coma. Throw in Pacquiao's choice of opponent — hard-hitting, rugged Brandon Rios, whose in-ring style has inspired its own set of worries about how long he can last in boxing and what will come of his brain once he retires — and we end up with a fight where If Pacquiao is done on the elite level, Rios is exactly the worst kind of opponent for him to face, and Pacquiao-Rios has a grim spectre hanging over it because of that.
If, however, Pacquiao is right physically, and Rios can adjust to the welterweight division in his 147-pound debut, we could end up with exactly the best kind of opponent for Pacquiao to rebound in spectacular fashion. Rios has only been in one even so-so fight, and that took his opponent, Richard Abril, going out of his way to make it ugly. The man they call "Bam Bam" lives up to his nickname: Hit, and then hit again. He is all offense, no defense, the kind of boxer who thrills the crowd every time out — and that type is the type that has made Pacquiao look his best, because he struggles with clever counterpunchers like Marquez who don't initiate. And when Pacquiao hits someone who's available for the displeasure with any frequency, he is sensational. Even a diminished Pacquiao could resemble his old self against a man like Rios.
So that's all that's at stake: the career of one of the sport's biggest attractions and best fighters of this era. One route reestablishes him, at least somewhat; another route leaves him in a lackluster limbo; and another route passes the torch, although perhaps with some surrounding darkness.
Door Number One: Pacquiao Wins An Action Fight, Is Outstanding
As much as Top Rank's Bob Arum likes Rios — he's charismatic, he's an action star, he's Mexican-American — one of the best arguments for Pacquiao winning this fight is that Arum surely wants him to. He wouldn't put Pacquiao in with Rios if he didn't think he had a strong chance of winning. Pacquiao has been the cash cow of the Top Rank stable for so long that whatever Rios' future earning potential is, Top Rank has to be thinking about how much longer it can ride the Pacman.
Pacquiao's earning potential has a few pillars. One of them is his Filipino fan base; it's why this fight is in China, to exploit the regional appeal Pacquiao offers, as Top Rank does its best to tap the biggest untapped boxing markets in the world. Another is his dynamic ring style, his frenzied motion and intoxicating speed and power. Another is a certain outside the ring appeal — his sportsmanship, his happy-go-lucky demeanor, his status as a member of Congress in the Philippines.
The final pillar is his excellence. Pacquiao might very well be the kind of resilient attraction, a la Oscar De La Hoya, who can lose a few and still sell PPVs. But make no mistake, it was his ascent to the top of the pound-for-pound mountain that helped him become the attraction that he is. I still suspect Pacquiao-Rios will do at least pretty well at the box office this weekend, because Pacquiao still has name value — he was in pistachio commercials well after he lost to Marquez — and people will be intrigued about the China angle, and Rios will bring some Mexican fans, and people will be curious about whether Pacquiao still has "it."
If he does, and he shows it against Rios, all will be well for the time being. This fight will be an action fight no matter what, no matter how long it lasts. Whether it goes one round or 12, Rios will insist on an action fight, and Pacquiao has never shied away from that variety. If Pacquiao bashes Rios circa the 2009 edition of himself, that's ideal for the Pacquiao money train. If the pair produces a classic brawl that Pacquiao wins and looks good in, that will do quite nicely as well. No matter how impressively Pacquiao wins, there will be critics who will find justifiable cause to doubt whether Pacquiao is "back;" Rios is moving up in weight, he's tailor-made for Pacquiao, etc. But a big, quality win over Rios will be enough for Top Rank to SAY he's back, and for a good number of people to put their faith in the notion, then line up to spend their money on Pacquiao's next. It might even get folk riled up again about a Floyd Mayweather fight, not that it should.
Door Number Two: Pacquiao Wins, But Struggles
An action fight is good for Pacquiao's career, but only if he clearly wins it. If he is rocked and wobbled a bunch by Rios, some will say it was because Rios was strong enough to do it, but others will see it as a sign of Pacquiao's chin being permanently shaky after the Marquez knockout. You can still sell damaged goods. But it's harder.
Dramatic one-punch KOs like the kind Pacquiao suffered can go a couple ways for the fighter's future. Roberto Duran showed little ill effect from what Thomas Hearns did to him. Paul Williams couldn't reestablish himself among boxing's pound-for-pound best after what Sergio Martinez did to him.
A competitive showing against Pacquiao will do something for Rios' stock, even if he loses. Anytime a fighter of lesser stature can get in the ring with one of the sport's top PPV attractions and hold his own, his next fight will draw more eyes. So, for Rios, door #2 is a far better option than #1. But it still would have an element of "kissing your sister" for Pacquiao.
Maybe a close fight that Rios loses can set up a semi-lucrative rematch for both men. But it probably won't do as well as the first meeting. A less-excellent Pacquiao is a Pacquiao with diminished earning potential, and struggling against Rios will likely point to a less-excellent Pacquiao as the most logical conclusion to draw.
Door Number Three: Rios Wins
Should Rios win, we will have to consider the possibility that he did it while doing great harm to Pacquiao. A conclusive knockout could send Pacquiao into retirement; his mother has been pining for a while for him to retire, and his wife has recently joined the chorus. A prolonged beating would be even worse for Pacquiao's health, if no better for his boxing future — and Rios, alas, tends to do that kind of cumulative damage rather than score clean KOs. So while I like Rios as a fighter, and enjoy many of his antics, I cringe a little when I think about him winning. It could mean bad, bad things for Pacquiao's health.
If Pacquiao makes it out of the fight without suffering massive harm, though, it would be difficult not to see a light at the end of the tunnel with Rios as a bigger name in the sport. Rios might have diarrhea of the mouth in a way that's bad for his public profile — the calling opponents "faggot," the mockery of Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach for his Parkinson's, long since apologized for, and so forth — but Rios is also a refreshingly candid interview, and a quote machine I could get used to hearing more from in the coming years.
Furthermore, when Arum calls Rios the closest thing we have right now to Arturo Gatti, he's not exaggerating. Since 2011, Rios has participated in four bouts that are at least Fight of the Year candidates. His first battle with Mike Alvarado stands out in particular. His bouts are possessed by a kind of mania for violence, both giving and receiving, that almost make you giggle with incredulity.
More of a spotlight on Rios might have its periodic politically incorrect or even downright offensive drawbacks. But it will also bring its share of amusement outside the ring, and some of the most raw moments you can find inside it. It's a proposition I can get behind — so long as it doesn't come at the grave expense of Pacquiao's health.