by Kieran Mulvaney
Brandon Rios (Right) - Photo Credit: Ed Mulholland
The words stand out like a welcoming beacon, visible through the windows of the plane as it lands at Macau International Airport.
“City of Dreams,” they say, emblazoned on the building that stands guard nearby and on the sign across the street from the Venetian Macao, where Manny Pacquiao will swap punches with Brandon Rios this weekend. It is the name of a hotel-and-entertainment complex that advertises itself as Macau’s “leading leisure destination,” but for Rios, it is the perfect descriptor for this quasi-independent-city-within-a-state, a place where China meets Las Vegas and which, if all goes well for the American, will become famed within boxing circles as the location where an icon’s career ends and another fighter’s career is launched into the stratosphere.
It is an opportunity that did not appear to be on the immediate horizon at the end of Rios’ last fight, a decision loss to Mike Alvarado in March.
“When Brandon lost, he was really hurt and thinking, ‘I have to start all over,’ especially as, when he beat Alvarado the first time [in October 2012], they promised him with the winner of Pacquiao and [Juan Manuel] Marquez,” explained the Californian’s trainer Robert Diaz in his fighter’s hotel suite on Monday. There had even been, he noted, a tentative agreement for the Rios and Pacquiao to meet in April of this year, had the Filipino taken care of business and won the fourth fight in his rivalry with Marquez last December. But he didn’t: despite appearing on the verge of victory, he was knocked out in the sixth round, upending the boxing world and Rios’ plans within it.
Rios pursued an opportunity with Marquez instead, but when that didn’t come to fruition, he faced Alvarado a second time and suffered his first professional defeat. But boxing is, among many things, the theater of the unexpected; during his win, Alvarado suffered an injury to his hand that required surgery, and the door was opened again for Rios to face Pacquiao – except this time, with both men coming off losses, the stakes were arguably even higher than before.
The 31-1-1 Rios is no stranger to the big time: the former lightweight title holder has fought and won at Cowboys Stadium, the Mandalay Bay, and Madison Square Garden, among other storied venues. But crossing the Pacific and fighting in Macau, in a potentially career-defining bout against an opponent who remains one of the most globally bankable in the sport, is on another level entirely. Rios admits there have been a couple of occasions during the build-up when he has been struck by the magnitude of it all.
“I think it hit me when we did our first press tour here in Macau,” he confessed. “I got a little emotional. And now, when I went back home before I came over here, I was watching fights on HBO, and 24/7 was at my house, and I said to my dad, ‘Man, we made it.’ And he said to me, ‘I knew you were going to fight one of these guys one of these days and be on the big stage.’ So it really hit me again, and now my dad’s going to be with me this week, so I’m feeling more confident and more ready.”
It’s a confidence that manifests itself in his outlook as he prepares to walk out into the glare of the klieg lights on the biggest stage of his career.
“I’m fighting the biggest fight of my life, and if I want to go forward, I’ve got to prove that I’m ready for that next big step. And Pacquiao is that big step,” he said. “So I just want to shut everybody up, and I want to prove to everybody that’s doubted me - all the critics out there, all the media who’ve doubted me and not given me a chance in this fight – I want to prove them all wrong and show that fighting the best brings the best out of me.”