So begins our marathon coverage of one of the biggest fights of 2012, Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley on June 9 on HBO pay-per-view. Now: the stakes of Pacquiao-Bradley. Next: getting to know Bradley.
This weekend comes the latest episode in the newly-dawned era of vulnerability for boxing’s two biggest stars and two best fighters, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather. Pacquiao christened this new era with a near-loss in November to old rival Juan Manuel Marquez, and a mere month ago, Mayweather overcame his gravest, most sustained challenge in years, against Miguel Cotto. Now, with Pacquiao’s next turn up Saturday, the sense of surprise that someone might beat these two titans who bestride the sport has evaporated: Timothy Bradley is widely viewed among close observers of the sport as a substantial threat to Pacquiao, a once-unthinkable scenario that is now conventional wisdom.
With the defeat of Pacquiao a real possibility, more than just the “anyone can lose a fight in boxing if they get caught with the wrong punch” asterisk affixed to every bout, the usual “what if” hypotheticals become more concrete, the stakes more real.
Pacquiao As Hero
Something else that’s unheard of has been happening of late: Some quarters of the U.S. public has been turning on Pacquiao, a “white hat” who does a lot of charity work back home in the Philippines and comes off as such a friendly sportsman in the boxing world that he verges on bland.
After a while, a “good guy” can begin to rub people the wrong way, as a mixture of boredom and distaste for the pious vibe — conscious or imposed from the outside — begin to take hold. Pacquiao might have arrived at the “boredom” phase of his public perception through no fault of his own. But the “pious” thing is his own creation, one that has been worsened by misinterpretation. Football player Tim Tebow is a wildy popular athlete in America, but his frequent declarations of his faith and related political views has made him an unappealing figure to some segment of the NFL’s fan base. Pacquiao has been doing some of that, most infamously with his discussion of his views on gay marriage. Some of the remarks attributed to him turned out to not be his words, but the furor over the whole incident helped some negative views of him take root. And HBO’s 24/7 program has focused intently on his religion for this sequence of the documentary series, so it’s hard to escape Pacquiao talking about God. Combined with his trip to the gun range, also covered by 24/7, Pacquiao has taken on the air of a conservative Christian, and, well, some Americans are staunch liberals.
Maybe some of this hostility doesn’t begin to creep toward Pacquiao’s image if he didn’t nearly lose his last fight, or if he had been exciting in the previous one against Shane Mosley. Winning is the best deodorant, as the saying goes. And some measure of Pacquiao’s appeal in recent years, aside from his personal story, has come from the view that he was a force of nature, the kind of athlete with a style that offers intrinsic appeal. Beating Bradley — aruably one of the 10 best fighters in the world — and beating him impressively would go a ways toward convincing the world that Pacquiao’s religiopolitical makeup matters less than that he is an all-time great, a once in a generation athlete whose every performance can’t be missed.
Maybe a prominently religious Pacquiao widens his appeal to the same faction of Christian Americans who love Tebow, imperfect or not. But to be a conquering hero for all, he at minimum needs to win in a spectacular fashion that reminds everyone why they came to love Pacquiao in the first place.
Bradley As New American Superstar
America has been searching for the “next” American boxing superstar ever since Mayweather temporarily retired back in 2008. America’s always looking for its next boxing superstar, and never stops worrying that another will soon come — from Mayweather replacing Oscar De La Hoya to De La Hoya replacing Mike Tyson to Tyosn replacing Sugar Ray Leonard and so on. Bradley has been in queue for a while as a potential replacement for Mayweather.
We’ll talk more about Bradley’s qualifications and limitations in that regard in-depth in our next blog post, but he has a lot going for him: He’s likable, he’s talented, he’s handsome (as Pacquiao himself awkwardly declared). He is also totally unknown outside of hardcore boxing fandom. His fighting style is often ugly and unappealing, though, which has held him back to some degree.
One thing that absolutely wouldn’t hurt his “next American superstar” bid is to beat Pacquiao. He’d become the toast of not only the boxing world, but the sporting world as a whole — it would be a massive story on ESPN and everywhere else. And it probably wouldn’t stop there. Pacquiao has a rematch clause in case he loses, so Bradley would again bask in the spotlight by fighting Pacquiao a second time.
A loss wouldn’t even necessarily hurt Bradley’s qualifications for big-time stardom, depending on how it happened. Cotto now has more name recognition and acclaim from his loss to Mayweather than any of his wins, because of his impressive effort. Bradley could benefit from a similar showing.
The subcontext to every Pacquiao or Mayweather fight is how one affects the other. They compete for oxygen, and their every move provokes fights between their fan bases about who is better, who is bigger and who’s most to blame for them not fighting. As I wrote recently, Pacquiao and Mayweather not fighting in a welterweight megaclash, while disgraceful and disappointing, has its saving graces. But we’ll probably never stop talking about the two in relation to the other until one of them fades badly.
Mayweather recently overtook Pacquiao on my pound-for-pound list of the best fighters in the world, regardless of weight. Most now have Mayweather above Pacquiao. With a convincing outing against Bradley, Pacquiao might again re-take the throne.
Mayweather has seemingly put to rest any notion of who’s the bigger box office attraction in America, with Mayweather time and again doing better numbers against opponents Pacquiao has also faced. Pacquiao still probably is the bigger attraction outside of America. But the PPV numbers for Pacquiao-Bradley will contribute to that argument.
All of this in turn wil have some affect on the contours of the debate about Pacquiao and Mayweather facing each other, about who should give up more in negotiations, who would win, all of it. I’m resigned to that fight never happening. But in a universe where talking about Pacquiao vs. Mayweather is all we can do, every chapter of each man’s career is more fuel for that talk, however empty.