Speed Kills in Macau as Pacquiao Returns to Form

by Kieran Mulvaney

[Click for Slideshow] Photo Credit: Will HartBrandon Rios shook his head and smiled every time Manny Pacquiao hit him flush. Sunday morning at The CotaiArena in Macau, he shook his head and smiled a lot.

They say that, in boxing, speed kills, and Pacquiao's speed killed any hope Rios had of walking away from Macau with an upset victory in front of an energized sellout crowd of over 13,000. Long before the final bell rang at the end of 12 one-sided rounds, Rios must have felt like Bill Murray with a swollen face, each frame much the same as the last as the American was forced to endure a succession of painful, pugilistic Groundhog Days.

The rounds took on a familiar rhythm. In the first, Pacquiao connected with a left uppercut and a strong left hook. At the end of the second, he exploded with combinations. In the third round, he showed nice footwork, turning Rios as he looked for a clean shot. The fourth saw Pacquiao land a straight left, then a combination that snapped back Rios' head. In the fifth, another big straight left. And so it went.

Early in the fight, there was a sense from ringside that Pacquiao's punches, though fast and landing with repetitive accuracy and effectiveness, did not carry quite the explosive power of years past.  It seemed then that Rios was perhaps the less vulnerable and more heavy-handed of the two, that a Rios combination to Pacquiao's jaw might have an effect similar to the right hand that Juan Manuel Marquez landed to render the Filipino unconscious at the end of their December contest. Maybe that was the case, but Rios never had a chance to put the theory to the test, never came close to landing testing blows, and was obliged instead to chug after his opponent in an increasingly futile effort to cut off the ring and get his foe where he wanted him.

Pacquiao was having none of it. He moved effortlessly from one side to the next, his footwork setting up his offense and proving to be exceptionally effective with a defense that left Rios punching at air on more than one occasion.

And while Pacquiao may not have detonated the kind of blow that left Ricky Hatton prone or Miguel Cotto wanting no more, he landed enough that, by the end of the contest, Rios had a badly swollen right eye and a slow blood trail from his left  for his troubles.

"All I can say is, many Manny punches," smiled Pacquiao's trainer Freddie Roach. "He fought the perfect fight. He let him off the hook. I wanted him to knock him out. But I was very happy with his performance."

Indeed, there is a case to be made that, if Pacquiao's punches weren't always quite as heavy as they once they had been, that that was by design, the result of a decision not to become too excited or to over-commit and risk walking into a counter punch of the kind that Marquez threw. The evidence for that supposition came in the final round, when Rios, seemingly badly hurt, staggered backward into a corner and Pacquiao, knowing victory was his and risk was unnecessary, backed away.

At the end, there was no doubt. The winner was clear, and it was Pacquiao – amazingly, the future Hall-of-Famer's first conclusive win since early 2011. And yet, even in his latest finest hour, the congressman from Sarangani province turned his thoughts elsewhere.

"This isn't about my comeback," he insisted. "My victory is a symbol of my people's comeback from a natural disaster, a national tragedy. It's really important to bring honor to my country with this win."

Undercard Recap: Gradovich Overpowers Dib Yet Again

by Kieran Mulvaney

Photo Credit: Will HartIn the co-main event, Evgeny Gradovich retained a featherweight belt with a ninth-round TKO victory against the man from whom he first took the title, Australia’s Billy Dib. Gradovich, who bills himself as “The Russian Mexican,” steadily ground Dib down with his relentless, suffocating offense, knocking him down in the sixth round. Dib was game and did his best to return fire, but by the end he appeared to be wilting from every punch that landed.

After eight rounds, as Dib struggled to respond to commands, his trainer said to him in the corner, “Billy, I love you, but one more punch and it’s over.” It took only 1 minute and 10 seconds of the following frame for him to fulfill his promise, stopping the contest as Gradovich landed another combination. 

Undercard Recap: Ruiz Looks Deceptively Quick; Hamer Quick to Quit

by Kieran Mulvaney

Photo Credit: Will Hart

In heavyweight action, Tor Hamer began relatively brightly against undefeated Andy Ruiz, probably taking the first two rounds behind a crisp jab, as the two big men exchanged hard punches that echoed with an entirely different and deeper thud to those of the flyweights who had preceded them. In the third round, however, Ruiz began to assert control; even so, it was a shock when Hamer quit on his stool at the end of the round, citing two hard body shots. Then again, maybe shock isn’t the right word: it’s the second time now that Hamer has done just that. It’s fine for a man to look out for his health – commendable, even – but one wonders if an alternative, less dangerous, profession might be a wise choice for Mr. Hamer. Still, Ruiz moves on; he may not be a body beautiful, but as former trainer Freddie Roach told reporters this week, “That fat kid can fucking fight.”

After the fight, Hamer's disappointed promoter Lou DiBella took to Twitter to vent his frustration with his fighter. "This is an embarrassment. Sorry to the fans" he tweeted. "By the way, Tor, you are released."

Undercard Recap: Chinese Hero Shiming Impresses in Third Professional Fight

Photo Credit: Will Hart

Earlier in the week, Zou Shiming’s trainer Freddie Roach sounded less than enthusiastic in his assessment of his fighter’s progress since turning professional. He’s likely to be a lot more satisfied by Zou’s third paid bout, in which the local hero came close to stopping Mexican Juan Toscano, especially in a dominant third round, before settling for a wide, unanimous decision to move to 3-0. Zou bounced on his toes, straightened up his punches, and darted in and out as he raked Toscano with right hands that opened up a nasty gash on his opponent’s cheek, much to the delight of the CotaiArena crowd.

“I’m getting better all the time,” said Zou.  “I went to Manny’s camp, and worked on my lower body strength from my hips on down, so I was able to sit on my punches better.  I really think I’m getting better.”

Undercard Recap: Verdejo Batters Overmatched Yet Tough Opponent

Photo Credit: Will Hart

In the opening bout of the telecast, hot lightweight prospect Felix Verdejo remained unbeaten with a unanimous six-round decision against Thailand’s Petchsamuthr Duanaaymukdahan. The Thai fighter was no match for Verdejo’s blistering hand speed and combinations, and twice came close to being floored by Verdejo right uppercuts. But Duanaaymukdahan was game and kept coming until  the end, earning the appreciation of the crowd and of his opponent.

“I’m glad he came to fight,” said Verdejo, who improves to 9-0 with 6 KOs. “He challenged me. He took a lot of punishment. I got a lot of good punches in. I got a lot of good quality rounds.”

Four Boxing Legends on Pacquiao vs. Rios

Fans Weigh In During a Fight Week to Remember

We've seen a lot during this fight week.

We've seen trainers fighting instead of training fighters. We've seen one boxer dedicate his fight to his tragedy-stricken country and another one compared to a " a bobblehead doll whose bobblehead will not break off no matter how many times you slam it on the side of a desk." We've seen weigh-ins and Stat Chats conducted across multiple time zones, or even days. We've seen what the world's largest casino floor looks like teeming with screaming fans. We've heard what it's like to compete out of your comfort time zone from experts and legends. We've prepared for an undercard with an overweight heavyweight and a boxer carrying the hopes of his populous nation. We've gone inside the camps and Under the Lights:

We've heard from the fighters' fellow boxers, expert prognosticators, Harold Lederman and Mike Tyson. And now we're hearing from you. While, 100 percent of HBO Boxing Insiders predicted a win for Pacquiao, on HBO Connect and Twitter, 52 percent think Rios holds the #KeyToVictory (though it's constantly changing).

Here's more of what fight fans had to say:

Writer Predictions: It's Unanimous for Pacquiao

Photo Credit: Will Hart

There are a lot of things boxing writers disagree about, but apparently the outcome of this weekend's fight is not among them. In the admittedly small sample size of HBO Boxing Insiders, not one brave soul was willing to predict a Brandon Rios victory. That isn't to say we're not expecting fireworks, but they're likely to be the type of fireworks heralding the return of a champion, and not a new ascendant to the throne.

Here's how our writers see the fight playing out:

Kieran Mulvaney

The big question about Manny Pacquiao is whether he is still Manny Pacquiao, after the years of tough fights and particularly the nap he took at the end of his last one. But even 75 percent of Manny Pacquiao should be too versatile, too fast, and too strong for Brandon Rios. A game Rios has his moments, but Pac-Man chops him up en route to an 11th round stoppage.

Eric Raskin

I've been among the bigger believers in Brandon Rios for the last couple of years, but I expect he'll find himself overmatched on Saturday night. This isn't Mike Alvarado or Miguel Acosta; this is Manny Pacquiao. His speed, accuracy, and athleticism threaten to overwhelm the more stationary Rios. I don't think we'll see significant residual effects from Pacquiao's knockout loss to Marquez, so I expect Manny to stop a very game Rios in about seven or eight high-contact rounds.

Nat Gottlieb

Although I think Pacquiao has lost his edge, Rios is a one-dimensional brawler with a poor skill set. Pacquiao boxes circles around him, winning every round.

Hamilton Nolan

I think Pacquiao by decision is the most likely outcome, and the second most likely outcome is Rios by KO, if it turns out Pacquiao got old after the Marquez fight. I wouldn't necessarily bet on that, though.

Tim Smith

Brandon Rios likes to sit in the pocket, but he doesn't play peek-a-boo with his defense. He relishes taking shots. Pacquiao has some of the heaviest hands in the welterweight division. That spells trouble for Rios. Pacquiao KO 7.

Bob Canobbio, CompuBox

Rios has limited movement and is the busier fighter, throwing 74 punches per round in his last 6 fights.  As a result, opponents landed 40% of their power shots.  Pac (69 punches thrown per round) has better lateral movement and a better jab. Pac landed 47% of his power shots in his last 9 fights, while opponents landed 33% of their power shots. Pacquiao TKO 10 Rios.

Diego Morilla

Rios presents a difficult challenge, but his level of opposition hasn't been anywhere near Pacquiao's, and that difference will become evident as soon as the fight starts. This one looks just like Juan Manuel Marquez vs. Juan Diaz all over again: young, volume-puncher with decent power against a tough veteran who knows how to counterpunch and has the patience to wait for his chance to hurt him. Pacquiao wins by late-round TKO.

Michael Gluckstadt

As much as I'd like to go against the grain, Manny Pacquiao is just too good of a fighter to be beaten by Brandon Rios. Rios almost seems custom-built as an opponent that Manny could look good against in his comeback fight; someone who can take a punch, a lot of them actually, and give Pacquiao the canvas he needs to turn in a masterful performance. Pacquiao UD.

Zou Flies Banner for Chinese Boxing

by Kieran Mulvaney

Zou Shiming is not, it seems, afraid to test himself.

Trainer Freddie Roach recalls that, shortly arriving for training at the Wild Card Gym, the three-time Olympian asked to spar with eight-time world champion Manny Pacquiao.

"I said, 'Are you sure? He said 'Yeah,'" Roach told reporters this week in Macau, where Zou 's third professional contest will be on the undercard of Pacquiao's clash with Brandon Rios.

"I went over to Manny and I said 'Manny, Shiming wants to box with you,'" the trainer continued. "And Manny looked at me and I said 'No, he didn't mean it in a bad way, he just wants to see what it's like to box with Manny Pacquiao.' He says, 'Maybe I'm a little bit too big for him' and I say 'Yeah, maybe you are, but just box.' Two days later they boxed four rounds together, and it was a great experience for Shiming. He got hit by one really good shot, a body shot by Manny, and he felt it and grunted a little bit. There was no knockdown and he did okay. He did good. A lot of people said 'You're crazy, if he gets knocked out you're going to get fired.'"

Zou won a light-flyweight bronze in the 2004 Athens Games, and then gold in his hometown Beijing Olympics in 2008. He successfully defended that crown in London last year, and is as a consequence by some distance the most successful Chinese boxer to date. The extent to which his fame has captivated this nation is illustrated by an art exhibit at the Venetian Macao, where Saturday night's card is taking place, in which Macanese boxer-turned-artist Jet Wu has portrayed the life of the "King of Boxing" in some surrealist watercolors as well as a graphic novel, the draft pages of which are displayed on the exhibit's walls.

A long amateur pedigree can sometimes lay the foundations for professional success (see, most recently, the example of Gennady Golovkin), but the disciplines can be surprisingly different and the transition can sometimes take time. Roach suspects the latter is proving the case with Zou, despite a promising start sparring former three-time world champion Brian Viloria.

"I thought it was going to happen really quick with Shiming because his first sparring partner in America was Brian Viloria that I thought 'For sure this kid's going to be champion in, like, a month' – he was doing that well," Roach explained. "He has Brian Viloria's number for some reason and then in the first fight he reverted back to his amateur style a little bit too much, I thought. In the second fight he thought that I wanted him to be more of a banger and I think our gameplan got lost in translation a little bit. He stayed in the pocket way too long and got hit way too much in that fight. Because I want him to sit down and score with a couple of good combinations and get under and get out with his speed, but he just stayed in the pocket a bit too long. So now we're trying to work the middle a little bit, be aggressive but not too aggressive, you know?"

Roach, the definition of old school, get-off-my-lawned that perhaps Zou's progress was being hindered by achieving a financial comfort level too soon.

"I don't like to spoil people and I think they might be spoiling him a little bit," he said. "He might be making a little bit too much too early. It might be making him a bit soft or softer, because my first ten-round fight was for $1,000 and I thought I was rich, but that was a long time ago."

Zou in contrast will earn $500,000 for his outing on Saturday night – a pretty hefty sum for a man with two pro bouts under his belt. But promoter Bob Arum makes no apologies for the fee he's forking over.

"If anyone on this card deserves their purse, it's him," he said in the media room this week.

The reasons for that are manifold and the kitsch in the hotel is merely the most obvious manifestation of them. There is only one boxer who, by Sunday, will have fought three times as a professional on internationally-televised cards from Macau, after all, and it isn't Manny Pacquiao. Arturo Gatti and Ricky Hatton weren't the greatest boxers known to man, although they were plenty good; but the fact that they weren't the best didn't stop their fans turning out in droves time after time. Those fans loved their fighters' styles and personalities; similarly Zou's amateur success and easy-going manner has struck a chord in the Middle Kingdom.

If big-time boxing gains a foothold on this Chinese peninsula – or indeed, elsewhere in what is potentially by far the largest market on Earth – it will have a lot to do with Manny Pacquiao. It will have more to do with Bob Arum. But most of all, it will be because of Zou Shiming.

Weigh-In: Wait is Almost Over as Pacquiao, Rios Make Weight

by Kieran Mulvaney

[Click for Slideshow] Manny Pacquiao (left), Brandon Rios (right) - Photo Credit: Will Hart

Eight o'clock in the morning is really too early to be watching (mostly) skinny young men stand on bathroom scales in their underwear, and judging from the slightly muted atmosphere in the Venetian Macao’s Cotai Arena, fighters and fans alike felt the same way. There were hundreds, rather than thousands, for the official weigh-in, staged early in Macau in order to stream live on Friday evening in the United States, but there was no doubt about the allegiance of those who did show up, even if few of them had had the opportunity to caffeinate sufficiently before whooping and hollering for their man.

Not that Brandon Rios cared about the boos from the Filipino contingent, cupping his hands to one ear and then the other, beaming, and making a “Look at me, this is what it’s going to look like when I put a title belt around my waist” motion. That waist, by the way, appeared a little bit more expansive than Manny Pacquiao’s; but then Rios has never possessed the most svelte of physiques. By his standards, though, he looked fighting trim, and actually weighed in one half pound under the 147 lb. welterweight limit.

Pacquiao, as always, looked in perfect shape, and boasted his characteristic beatific smile, soaking up the cheering, struggling as ever to keep from grinning during the face-off with Rios, and then departing the stage – perhaps, like the writers who grumbled about being forced to work so early, to take a nap.

It has been a long and slightly strange week, but now suddenly the end is near. The epithets, the insults, the kicks, the complaints: all are in the past. Pacquiao doesn’t have to see Rios, or vice-versa, for another 26 hours, and the next time they are in each other’s presence will be the only time that matters. The bell will ring, the fight will be on, and the truth will be just around the corner.