Who Should Be Next For Manny Pacquiao? Not Who You Think.

Who’s next?

That was the question surrounding Manny Pacquiao for many boxing fans Saturday night before the epinephrine-soaked cotton ball even coagulated the blood dripping from the deep gash under Antonio Margarito’s eye in their one-sided, yet entertaining, bout at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.

Pacquiao had reached even thinner air of boxing greatness with his demolition of Margarito, who entered the ring with a 4 ½-inch height advantage, a 6-inch reach advantage and a 17-pound weight advantage.

So as Manny continues to scale the peaks of boxing implausibility, what fight would be his Everest? What would secure his legacy alongside Henry Armstrong and Sugar Ray Robinson as one of the three greatest pound-for-pound fighters to step between the ropes and into the ring?

Most boxing fans and all of the general public would say Floyd Mayweather Jr. And they would be wrong.

There’s no question that Pacquiao-Mayweather is a salivating matchup. It would capture the imagination of all boxing fans. It would revive the sport with mainstream sports and entertainment media, especially due to the enmity between the two camps over drug testing in their lurch-halt negotiations over the last year. It could land a boxer back on the cover of Sports Illustrated, of the American edition of Time or Newsweek, for the first time in quite some time.

It would earn both fighters probably north of $30 million each. It would spin Bob Arum’s net worth upward the week after the fight like whirring slot machine dials. It would break all pay-per-view records.

And there’s also a good chance it would be a lousy fight.

There’s no way Pacquiao could attack Mayweather in the same crowd-pleasing, rapid-fire fashion that he did Margarito last Saturday night. Margarito is as easy to hit as a frozen lamp post in January, even for slower fighters. Mayweather ranks right with Pernell Whitaker as the best defensive fighter of the last 25 years, and sometimes Willie Pep comparisons even are whispered around Mayweather.

And everyone knows Money would use the same defense-first, counterpunching style that has kept his record and face unblemished. Not exactly a thrill show for the masses, not exactly the Velcro that boxing needs to get new or disenfranchised fans to stick with the sport.

But a fight between Pacquiao and the winner of this Saturday’s Williams-Martinez rematch is exactly the fight for which boxing fans should clamor. Hope for. Pray for. Beg for.

It could be the most interesting fight in a long, long time, one that if marketed and promoted properly could appeal to the masses. And that bout also is better for the long-term health of boxing than a Pacquiao-Mayweather matchup.

What’s not to like about this fight? Nothing.

First, I would think Bob Arum, Freddie Roach and Pacquiao probably would want some sort of catchweight to fight for Williams’ or Martinez’s middleweight belt. Probably around 155 or 156.

Pacquiao probably wouldn’t bulk up to much more than 148 or 150. He weighed in at 144.6 to face Margarito and still destroyed him with speed and power.

So once again, there’s a good chance that Pacquiao would face a foe who outweighed him by 15 pounds on fight night and was 6 ½ (Williams) or 4 ½ inches (Martinez) taller. And I think Pacquiao still would jump at that fight, as he seemed sincerely impressed after the Margarito fight that he was able to corral and manhandle such a larger man in that Dallas ring.

A victory over Williams or Martinez not only would give Pacquiao a world title belt in a record ninth weight class, but it would cement his legacy along with Armstrong and Robinson as one of the three greatest pound-for-pound fighters who ever lived. This isn’t just about Canastota – this would be about global immortality.

Pacquiao will have beaten a bigger, stronger man with much more speed than Margarito for a ninth belt. That sure as hell holds a lot more cachet than beating Mayweather at 147.

A victory by Pacquiao over Williams or Martinez also would widen the opinion gap between Pacman and Mayweather. Whether it’s fair or not, Money is seen by many as someone for whom protecting the zero at the end of his record is more important than taking on all of the best fighters in his weight class.

Meanwhile, Manny will have jumped six classes in 3 ½ years, assuming the fight takes place late next spring. And if his opponent is Williams, he will have taken on the current “most avoided fighter in the world” because of The Punisher’s freakish combination of size, reach and speed.

Game, set. match, Pacquiao in the court of public opinion over Mayweather if he wins this fight.

The sheer physical difference between Pacquiao and either Martinez or Williams – especially Tall Paul – could be a great promotional tool. Can you imagine the staredown at the pre-fight press conference and weigh-in between Williams and Pacquiao? Manny would barely reach Williams’ chin. It would look like Herve Villechaize lined up next to Yao Ming.

Plus this is a legitimate test for Pacquiao. Both Williams and Martinez are valid top-10 pound-for-pounders in the world. Unlike the sticky line of sliced baloney tossed around by Top Rank officials and HBO announcers before the Margarito fight, this could be the toughest physical test of Pacman’s career. Not only are Williams and Martinez bigger, but they also have enough speed to avoid being a stationary target for Manny’s incredible combinations from all angles.

Both Williams and Martinez also have significant traits that could pose problems for Pacquiao. The sheer volume of Williams’ standard 100-punch-per-round onslaught could blunt Pacquiao’s approaches and combinations, and Martinez proved in the first bout against Williams that he has a strong ability to change tactics mid-fight, a skill that Margarito lacks and that anyone who wants to beat Pacquiao will need to summon at some point during the fight.

Williams and Martinez both are southpaws, and that throws in another element of mystery. Pacquiao has faced just one left-hander since 2005, David Diaz, whom Manny disposed of in nine rounds. But Williams and Martinez both are better fighters than Diaz.

Williams and Martinez also have good stories to sell out of the ring. Williams is an American who has a long, interesting relationship with trainer George Peterson all the way back to Williams’ childhood in Aiken, S.C. Williams has charisma, a 100-watt smile and could be the likeable subject of four segments of “24/7″ — someone we haven’t seen before.

Martinez’s story is fascinating. He didn’t start boxing until 15 years ago, at age 20, after participating in elite-level cycling and soccer. Plus Martinez has the chisled, matinee-idol looks that could attract many female fans. This could be the fight your wives and girlfriends want to see.

A fight between Pacquiao and the winner of Martinez-Williams II also would be the best for the growth of the sport of boxing, long term.

Sure, a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight would be a short-term bonanza for the sport. Huge pay-per-view buys. Huge mainstream media attention. The two most well-known names in the sport getting it on.

But much like a sugar rush or the woozy buzz felt after guzzling a funnel of beer at a college keg party, that phenomenon would wear off soon.

Unless a rematch clause was included in the contract, there’s a very good chance that a Pacquiao-Mayweather fight could be the last for both men.

If Money wins, his record remains perfect, he pockets another 40 million slices of cheddar, and he has nothing left to prove. Any subsequent fight – unless it was a Pacquiao rematch – would have nowhere near the star power, as it probably would be a mismatch. I can’t see Mayweather risking his unbeaten record to take on Williams at 147 or 154. It’s not Floyd’s style this late in his career; cash and carry is.

If Manny wins, he claims the most prestigious scalp of his career and can return to The Philippines to concentrate full time on his job as a congressman, probably with an eye on the presidency of the nation. He sees politics as his biggest calling in the future, and that future would become the present if Pacman beat Mayweather.

So the public would be jazzed by seeing a Pacquiao-Mayweather megafight, with some watching their first fight since the early days of Mike Tyson’s reign of terror. And then both guys probably will retire, if not on the spot then probably one fight later. How is that tease good for the growth of the sport?

But if Martinez or Williams could beat Pacquiao, boxing will have its next world superstar. It would have the guy who finally found Kryptonite for Supermanny. Williams is only 29, so he would have four or five years to rake in megabucks and spawn even more fans. Martinez is 35, but he seems to have fewer miles on his chassis than fighters of comparable age because of his incredible fitness. So it’s conceivable he could fight at a high level for the next three or four years.

And if Pacquiao beats Martinez or Williams, his popularity and respect will reach Sputnik-like heights. And then he can take on Mayweather in a bout in November 2011 that Bob Arum can call “Blood Feud.”

But the best next fight for Manny Pacquiao – and for the sport of boxing – is against either The Punisher or Maravilla. Money can wait.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.