So begins our marathon coverage of one of the biggest bouts of 2014, Timothy Bradley vs. Manny Pacquiao II, on April 12 on HBO Pay-Per-View. Next: Keys to the fight.
How fitting it is that in this dreadful, murky year for boxing so far, in which the sport has sunken down into a depressing morass, the first big fight that is also the best on paper to date in 2014 — the rematch between Timothy Bradley and Manny Pacquaio this weekend — happens to draw some of its storyline from the kind of swamp in which professional pugilism currently finds itself.
The two welterweights fought in 2012 with Bradley coming out the victor in a bout that probably less than one percent of the populace scored for him; two of their number just happened to be sitting ringside, rendering the verdict as judges. With so many eyes on the sport that night, it prompted a larger discussion about whether the outcome was fixed at worst and whether boxing judging was fatally flawed at best. Bradley became despised. Pacquiao suffered his first loss in seven years. The rematch gives both men a chance to satisfactorily set the record straight, always an appealing aspect of a rematch.
But since then, two things have happened to bestow part two with less appeal. It has to do with the course both men’s careers have taken since they met.
Pacquiao’s fall from grace with that dubious loss to Bradley became a meteoric plummet when in his next fight, his longtime rival Juan Manuel Marquez dropped him like a plank of wood and left him nearly as lifeless. After a long layoff, Pacquiao returned to mixed reviews against Brandon Rios in a fight that nonetheless proved Pacquiao had something left as a top fighter. Opinions vary today on how much.
Bradley emerged from 2012 with that regular boulder-sized chip on his shoulder having grown to the size of Mount Whitney, which compelled the Californian into a foolish brawl with Ruslan Provodnikov that was 2013’s Fight of the Year, then wrapped up a Fighter of the Year campaign by beating Pacquiao’s rival Marquez and ascending to a spot as arguably one of the sport’s three best boxers, period.
Bradley is better now than when he met Pacquiao in 2012. Pacquiao is worse. While Pacquiao was the clear winner of the first fight in the view of most, it also wasn’t a blowout, and Bradley later said he suffered a foot injury that he has taken to blaming, comically, on not wearing socks that night.
We will, throughout the week, contemplate Bradley-Pacquiao II from myriad angles. For now, we’ll talk about the landscape of boxing right now and where this fight fits in, both men’s standing in the sport and what’s at stake.
Boxing isn’t dead and it isn’t dying, no matter how many decades the traditional media declares it so. It exists now as a niche sport in the United States, capable of intense peaks like the all-time high pay-per-view figures Floyd Mayweather has been a part of in recent years or the live audience of 40,000 that a fight did just last year, but just as capable of putting up pedestrian viewership numbers that would be the envy of no other sport. In some other countries, like Mexico or Germany or Japan, it remains a mainstream attraction.
Boxing in 2013 was on a pretty consistently high level, by its own standard. We got great match-ups on paper that produced excellent results in the ring. The aforementioned Mayweather combined with Canelo Alvarez and a quality undercard to do the second-most PPV buys in the sport’s history.
But the same factor that fueled all of that excellence wasn’t built to last and was instead a time-lapse poison pill. HBO and Top Rank Promotions battled ferociously with Showtime and Golden Boy, one-upping each other with great product after great product. But having the sport split in half meant those match-ups would eventually begin to suffer due to fewer available options, and in 2014 they have. The split recently robbed us of one of the most appealing fights in the whole sport, deepening the condition. Simultaneously, boxing’s powers that be have almost consciously begun to dredge up all the greatest misses of the sport’s past, like putting way too many fights on PPV. And in that environment, with little good happening inside the ring and so many poor business practices doing other things to drive off fans, the other negatives of boxing — like the inherent dangers of the sport and how little is being done to mitigate it — appear more pronounced.
In that environment, Bradley-Pacquiao II is something of a relief. Yes, it’s on PPV but it’s a fight that deserves to be. It probably isn’t the best available fight for either man — Bradley would be better off against Floyd Mayweather in a meeting of the two top Transnational Boxing Rankings Board 147-pound contenders in a richer fight for him, and Pacquiao would likewise make more money against Marquez again — but it’s the next-best, easily. The undercard is a letdown with Raymundo Beltran-Rocky Martinez falling apart, but it’s a notch better than some of the eyesores Top Rank and HBO have produced of late. And it’s a genuinely good match-up now thanks to the doubts about how much Pacquiao might be faded and the impressive way in which Bradley has risen.
Bradley has put himself into the mix for best American fighter behind Mayweather, with Andre Ward the only other candidate, and Ward has become very, very inactive. Those men also happen to be the three best fighters in the world right now, in my opinion.
He has done it with an iron will that surpasses that of nearly every other boxer, in a profession that demands a pretty high level of willpower already. His fighting style is versatile — he can brawl like a maniac or box intelligently, but he’s better off when he either boxes or keeps the brawling to the minimum amount necessary. He burst onto the scene against Junior Witter in 2008, beating him on his home soil in the U.K. as an underdog. He amassed a terrific junior welterweight resume, beating the likes of Kendall Holt, Lamont Peterson and Devon Alexander, then stepped up to welterweight to fight Luis Carlos Abregu. He struggled slightly, but the win aged well (as has his win over Miguel Vazquez, who subsequently has established himself as the top lightweight in the game). And his 2013 campaign was stellar. He hungers to be the best in the sport, which might make common sense, but some boxers are interested in paydays only, not in establishing their greatness.
Despite all this, Bradley has struggled to win over fans at times. He did a decent PPV figure with Marquez, even if Marquez carried most of that, and he did pretty good ratings with Provodnikov. Early in his career he couldn’t even draw in his hometown. He has been booed at the end of his last three fights: first for the bunk Pacquiao win, then for the close (debatable, but correctly scored) Provodnikov win, then for the Marquez win that he definitely deserved but that the Mexican fans didn’t like since their man lost. Personality-wise, he has the right kind of confidence, intelligence and candor to make for great interviews, although he occasionally shoots himself in the foot by doing things like insisting he won against Pacquiao or the socks thing. As far as the product in the ring goes, the Provodnikov fight was pure entertainment and he’s had a couple other solidly exciting battles, but sometimes he is a bit too much of a thinking man’s fighter to sate the bloodlust of the masses.
Pacquiao is a superstar that has dimmed, although that stardom has not, as he proved against Rios, faded away. There were glimmers of the flaming dirt devil of old against Rios, of the hand speed, of the powerful combinations. But the guy who smashes his opponents like he’s blasting away enemy space ships in a 1980s video game? That guy doesn’t seem to be around anymore. For one, he had a spell there were he complained about leg cramps. For another, his faith seems to compel him to take his foot off the gas when he has an opponent hurt. And maybe, as Bradley keeps saying, he no longer has the hunger for boxing. Still, he had enough of that star-level talent to dominate someone who had never been dominated before in Rios, and to stay on his feet when there were questions about whether he could take a punch post-Marquez. And we can’t take away from him his long run as the world’s best fighter, or his status as the Fighter of the (past) Decade, or as one of arguably the top 20 fighters ever.
The Rios buy rate was extremely low, however, by Pacquiao standards. No doubt the fact that the fight was in China accounts for a big portion of that, maybe the biggest. But Pacquiao isn’t the unbeatable instrument of pure destruction he was at his peak, and the two consecutive losses didn’t help, especially when one of them was Marquez Pacquiao-ing Pacquiao. No question, he remains very popular in his native Philippines, where he is a congressman, although it feels to me like Pacmania is also off its peak. Still, he’s one of the few guys who can probably still do big PPV figures, one of the biggest attractions in the sport. When him rubbing shoulders with Bill Clinton is no longer the kind of headline it might once have been, that speaks to how casually Pacquiao remains near the top of the sport as a star, even as he remains the humble, smiley childlike anti-star.
For Bradley, a win would define his career. He’d probably pass Ward on the pound-for-pound lists by getting the best win of his life. It would validate his previous win over Pacquiao to an extent. Would it turn him into the star he wants to be? That’s harder to say, and maybe something we’ll talk about more later this week. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt. A loss, a legitimate one? It would be a test of that confidence of his. He seems to have genuinely convinced himself he beat Pacquiao the first time around, and used the hatred he received afterward as fuel. Would he be able to use a legitimate loss as similar fuel for a rebound? Certainly, there would be no shame in losing to Pacquiao. His career wouldn’t be over, or anything like it — he’d just take a bump from his current heights.
For Pacquiao, a win would put him closer to the top of the p4p list than he’s been in years. He’s lost far too much ground to Mayweather to ever get all the way back on the top, short of beating Mayweather directly, and no matter how much Pac trainer Freddie Roach spins it, that fight isn’t going to happen. A loss would be another foot or two down the slide in both marketability and p4p standing, yet more evidence that Pacquiao isn’t the Pacquiao of old. But then, just as there is no shame in Bradley losing to Pacquiao, there is no shame in Pacquiao losing to Bradley. Pacquiao wouldn’t be “over” in a loss to Bradley unless the semi-light-hitting Bradley starched Pacquiao badly. Pacquiao would have, instead, lost to a fighter already ranked ahead of him.
The PPV buy rate will, to an extent, measure what kind of attraction Pacquiao still is, although the ship has long since passed in how he stacks up to Mayweather there, too. Bradley is neither Marquez nor Rios, but somewhere in between, as a Pacquiao opponent for PPV buys. As Pacquiao is probably still HBO’s main man on PPV — I say probably because I’m curious how well Miguel Cotto-Sergio Martinez will do — the network is probably counting on him to deliver.
After, there will still be good match-ups for both men. Likely, the winner faces the winner of Marquez-Mike Alvarado, and the loser faces the loser. Marquez is a great option for either man, Alvarado a so-so one. A whole host of welterweights, from Mayweather himself to most of the division’s top 10, will be inaccessible, as they fight with Golden Boy and/or on Showtime. Which means it won’t be long until this big fight, and the little relief it brings us from the murk, recedes into the rest of the landscape.