So continues our marathon coverage of one of the biggest fights of 2012, Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley on June 9 on HBO pay-per-view. Previously: the stakes of Pacquiao-Bradley; getting to know Bradley; the undercard, previewed; keys to the fight, part I and II; the Rabbit Punch column takes on Pacquiao-Bradley. Next: a staff roundtable.
From early 2009 until late 2011, the safest prediction for any Manny Pacquiao fight was, “Pacquiao, by overwhelming speed and power.” There were always reasons to suspect it might not go that way — maybe it was Miguel Cotto’s size advantage, or Antonio Margarito’s, or Joshua Clottey’s defense and jab, or people thinking a faded Shane Mosley had more left in the tank than Pacquiao could handle. But that’s the way every one of those fights has gone, in the end: Pacquiao, by overwhelming speed and power.
Last winter, Juan Manuel Marquez helped show us, in a stark way, that Pacquiao was no longer invincible. Marquez, even older and not at his ideal weight, flummoxed Pacquiao like he did back in two previous meetings before Pacquiao ascended to boxing’s pound-for-pound throne, bringing to the fore rumblings that Pacquiao might finally be slowing down in his early 30s.
That reminder of Pacquiao’s mortality still fresh in our minds, it becomes easier to accept the possibility of Timothy Bradley beating Pacquiao Saturday. It’s all the easier because of the specific things Bradley has shown himself capable of, and how those things play into Pacquiao’s longstanding weaknesses. Maybe Pacquiao still wins in his usual fashion. But the pathway to a Bradley victory doesn’t require unsubstantiated suspicion. The mind can grasp it, almost like it’s a tangible thing.
Bradley’s team keeps saying they’ll figure out everything they need to know in the 1st round — that round will determine whether Bradley will win. It might not be that early, but a few things will happen toward the beginning of the fight that will be telling. One is that Pacquiao will catch Bradley with a meaningful punch, and Bradley will either go away or he’ll stick around. Bradley has been dropped by lighter-punching junior welterweights than Pacquiao is at welterweight, but recovered; the kind of power Pacquiao packs ain’t the same thing. If Bradley does keep his consciousness, watch out: It could be a long night for the Filipino idol against a rugged, obsessively motivated fighter who’s astute about making adjustments mid-bout — similar to something Pacquiao has struggled against with Marquez. And it doesn’t hurt Bradley’s chances that he’s a tireless, relentless worker in the ring with better hand speed than anyone Pacquiao has faced since he became one of the world’s best fighters.
In the other direction, another thing that will happen early is that Bradley will head butt Pacquiao, because Bradley head butts everyone. When he does, Pacquiao will probably suffer a cut. Every fighter who gets cut is affected by it, but some manage it better than others. Pacquiao is one of the others. He nearly shuts down, and if the cut never gets under control, he’ll struggle all night long. His corner has gotten very, very good at controlling Pacquiao’s cuts, so maybe it’s not a long-term concern. But Bradley handling Pacquiao’s power and adjusting to him, plus Pacquiao being rendered less effective by a head butt-induced cut, is all it takes to spell ruin for Pacquiao.
Maybe, even under that scenario, Pacquiao finds a way to win. There are unknowns about how Bradley can perform at this level of boxing, on this night. It’s one thing to, as Bradley has, beat up a whole array of top junior welterweights, none of whom could’ve been considered one of the 10 best fighters in the world. It’s another thing to face a special, all-time great talent like Pacquiao. In fights like this where a good fighter steps up to the classiest opposition, he can sometimes discover the cold, cold truth that he wasn’t who he thought he was. There’s also a view out there that Bradley might have overtrained for this fight because he wants to win so bad, and will be drained when he steps between the ropes.
But even taking into account some of the signs of Pacquiao’s slippage, there are other reasons to wonder how deep he can or will dig. Pacquiao always has distractions in his training camp, but the way he and his crew talk about his new-found religion, it could go one of two directions: it could give him the focus he’s lacked in the past, or it could make him passive; I’m still worried from the day Pacquiao’s trainer Freddie Roach said he had to convince Pacquiao that God could approve of him hurting people. Pacquiao, too, has been talking about retirement damn near every fight. I can’t help but wonder if his heart is in boxing anymore. What’s more, Roach sounds like a man who has badly underestimated Bradley. He keeps comparing him to Ricky Hatton, whom Pacquiao obliterated, but Hatton and Bradley are totally different fighters. If Pacquiao is expecting an easy fight because Freddie is telling him it will be, Pacquiao could be in for his own rude awakening.
A few months ago, when this fight was announced, I might’ve picked Bradley to win. The more tape I watched of Bradley this week, though, the more I saw him leaving a lot of openings for Pacquiao on defense, and the more I began to think that Pacquiao’s power would be too much for Bradley when Pacquiao got through those openings. I don’t believe Bradley’s subpar punching power will impress Pacquiao, which means that Bradley will have to outwork Pacquiao, and to outwork him, he’ll probably have to be in some firefights. Even against lesser fighters than Pacquiao, Bradley has gotten hit pretty flush in most fights while bullying in close on his man. Those kinds of punches from Pacquiao, no one can withstand.
I think Bradley might go down early, but I also think he’ll adjust and stick around at least for a while. Pacquiao might spend a full round early on struggling with a cut. But I’m confident that Pacquiao’s corner will tend to the cut well, get him back in the game and that his power will take over. It’s less clear to me whether Bradley will go out on his shield in a blaze of glory, or spend a few rounds in retreat, trying to sort things out; I don’t think he’ll full on give up or shut down, just that he’ll find things aren’t working, and as the wheels spin in his brain trying to figure out what to do about it, he’ll be on his back foot and uncertain. A stoppage win for Pacquiao sometime between the 7th and 10th is my call.
More so than anyone Pacquiao has fought in years, Bradley winning this fight wouldn’t surprise me. But I’m going with “Pacquiao, by overwhelming speed and power” at least one more time.