The great Larry Merchant liked to remark that boxing is the “theater of the unexpected.” And for the most part, it is. Fights that look like snoozers on paper turn out to be barn-burners. Underdogs score huge upsets. Refs have bad nights. Judges have very, very bad nights. ESPN analyst Brian Kenny’s hair goes from plastic to Brillo Pad. And that’s because when it comes to physical combat, no two blows are alike. A touchdown is a touchdown. A home run will always be a dinger. But a punch, well, a punch can do several things. It can punctuate a dominant round. It can make an opponent hesitant to engage. It can take a fighter from the brink, to the victory speech. Very little in this sport is guaranteed, except Manny Pacquiao beating Timothy Bradley. That’s just going to happen. Every damn time.
It happened again Saturday night, on HBO Pay-Per-View, in what was purported to be Manny Pacquiao’s swan song. Pacquiao, despite landing only 122 punches through 12 rounds, won easily. That’s because he’s better than Bradley. Nothing against “Desert Storm,” but a new trainer wasn’t going to help him here, because Bradley can’t help himself. He is a boxer who desperately wants to brawl. It makes for fun, sometimes wildly-entertaining bouts, but it also makes it damn-near impossible for him to beat a guy like Pacquiao. In his prime, “Pac Man” was an offensive buzzsaw who overwhelmed basically anyone not named Juan Manuel Marquez. He had too much speed. Too much power. Too much unpredictability. He was too much. And though he’s not that guy anymore (a combination of age and a touch of Bible-thumping dulled him out quite a while ago), he’s still a very good fighter, capable of bursts of greatness.
Bradley’s good too, he’s just not on Pacquiao’s level. And really, not many fighters are. The point is that the only shot Bradley had was predicated on the effects of Pacquiao’s age, layoff, and surgically (or saltwater?) repaired left shoulder. Turns out, he ain’t that old, layoff shmayoff, and saltwater is some majestic shit! This fight lacked buzz, and for a substantial reason. We’ve seen it before. Twice. Technically, the fighters split the first two fights. Anyone with functioning eyes and a brain unclouded by whatever made Johnny Depp see bats in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas saw that Pacquiao had easily won both. And yet there we were, watching rounds 25-36 of a trilogy nobody outside of Bradley’s immediate family clamored for, save for maybe Bradley trainer Teddy Atlas.
This was to be Pacquiao’s final fight, and he had the choice to go in any direction. Terence Crawford was ready and willing to do battle. That bout would have matched one of the best fighters of the last 30 years against one of today’s best. Maybe Crawford would have proven to be too young, and too skilled for Manny. We’d have certainly been okay paying to find out. Instead, we were left paying to find out just what he had left. And for all the negativity surrounding Pacquiao’s camp — the retread fight, the moronic, dumbass, homophobic commentary — this choice was just as bad for Bradley. Make no mistake — this was lose/lose either way for him. A win in the rubber match would have been a win against an old fighter with a bum shoulder after a year-long layoff. A loss? Well, we’ll see, won’t we? Suddenly, that Atlas/Bradley match-made-in-heaven doesn’t look as shiny as it once did. They were still “firemen” Saturday night, but this time the blaze was too hard to contain.
Maybe Pacquiao will actually call it a day. He has nothing left to prove in the ring, and there isn’t much left to do anyway besides collect a whole bunch of money. But if Floyd Mayweather’s retirement seemed iffy, Pacquiao’s is laughable. He appeared to change his mind halfway through a sentence after his win. The odds of Pacquiao’s promoter Bob Arum riding off into the sunset Thelma and Louise-style with powerhouse adviser Al Haymon are better than Pacquiao hanging ‘em up for good. The good news is that if he does continue, he won’t be embarrassing himself. He’s still got the speed and agility, and he still cracks enough to earn respect, if not knockouts. His lackluster showing against Mayweather last spring can now be explained pretty clearly — you don’t look good in a speedo, you don’t look good in a man-bun, and you don’t look good fighting Mayweather.
If he chooses to fight on, the only business I’m interested in other than a fight with Crawford is one more dance with Marquez. Now, I’m biased, since I’d watch these two guys fight over the chocolate pudding in a nursing home in 40 years. But they waged incredible wars in their primes, and they’ll do it every time they fight. Let’s see one more battle, and then they can join each other in five years in Canastota. Pacquiao isn’t what he was, but what he is, is still better than most.
(LAS VEGAS: Manny Pacquiao celebrates at the end of the 12th round of his welterweight fight against Timothy Bradley on April 9, 2016 at MGM Grand Garden Arena. Pacquiao won by unanimous decision; Photo, Ethan Miller/Getty Images)