Against Rios, Which Pacquiao Will It Be?

by Eric Raskin

Manny Pacquiao - Photo Credit: Will Hart

Most knockouts happen slowly, gradually, rounds of punishment accumulating until a conclusive punch or series of punches makes it official. In those cases, the audience is able to brace for the impact, even if the fighter isn't.

When Manny Pacquiao got knocked out by Juan Manuel Marquez in December 2012, there was no bracing, by him or by us. One second Pacquiao was bouncing on his toes, about to head into the second half of the fight with a comfortable lead over his Mexican rival; the next second he had bounced directly into unconsciousness. We had no time to prepare ourselves for what we were seeing, which is why most of us responded by screaming incoherently at the moment of impact. Nobody had any words at the ready. It was the most jolting image in all of sports, a boxer previously thought to be something close to superhuman reduced to snoring rubble. There was no time to process it.

The 11 months since have offered us that time. We fully understand what we saw last December: an all-time great fighter walking into a perfect punch. What we don't fully understand yet is what the future implications are. How much of Manny Pacquiao was left in that MGM Grand Garden Arena ring? Is Manny Pacquiao still one of the best fighters in the world, or did one punch rob him of everything that made him special?

Brandon Rios is a fascinating fighter in his own right, but on November 23rd at the Cotai Arena in Macau, he is mostly there to answer our questions about Manny Pacquiao -- to either tell us it's game over for "Pac-Man" or to make the Filipino look like a force of nature again.

"I have no concrete expectation as to exactly which Manny Pacquiao shows up," says HBO blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley, who has had a ringside seat for the last dozen years of Pacquiao fights and is as concerned about him being emotionally checked out as he is about his physical decline. "It could be the same guy who destroyed Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito, it could be the same guy who didn't seem quite as palpably violent in the third fight with Marquez, it could be anyone. I really don't know."

History isn't much of an indicator of what to expect, as there simply aren't many examples of fighters at the uber-elite level getting knocked unconscious by a single punch. If you want to believe Manny can bounce back from Marquez's right hand, you can cite Roberto Duran, a similarly revered fighter who got similarly splattered by Tommy Hearns and went on to one more signature victory and one more title reign a few years later. If you are of the opinion that a knockout this violent will spell the end, you'll point out Jersey Joe Walcott, who saw (or, more accurately, never saw) his heavyweight title reign ended by a single shot from Rocky Marciano, lost in one round in the rematch, and never fought again.

Brandon Rios - Photo Credit: Ed Mulholland

In the case of Pacquiao (54-5-2, 38 KOs), it's important to consider that he was already slightly beyond his absolute prime when he stepped into the ring with Marquez for the fourth time last December. He hasn't scored a knockout since 2009, a string of six fights. Most observers felt he deserved to lose the third fight to Marquez, then he officially did lose to Timothy Bradley (even if many regard that as one of the worst decisions in boxing history), and then came the Marquez knockout. But let us not forget that Pacquiao seemed in total control of that fight until the fateful final second of round six and was perhaps just a punch or two away from being declared a knockout winner.

"Make no mistake, Pacquiao is not shot," Oliver Goldstein sensibly wrote in the current issue of Boxing Monthly. "He should have had victory against Bradley, he was beating Marquez after five rounds. He is simply less than he was before."

For his part, Pacquiao, who turns 35 next month, is saying the right things. On the first episode of '24/7 Pacquiao-Rios,' he stated very matter-of-factly, "I lost. My next fight, I'm not thinking I'm scared because I'm going to get hit again. No, I'm not thinking about that."

Should he be scared of getting hit by Rios? On the one hand, Rios (31-1-1, 23 KOs) tore off an impressive 11-fight early-ending streak from 2008 to 2012 and has been known to erase deficits on the scorecards with mid-round and late-round power. On the other hand, Rios is moving up to welterweight from junior welter for this fight and went the distance in two of his last three, including a close loss to Mike Alvarado last time out.

Stylistically, many believe Rios is just the get-well present Pacquiao needs, a straight-forward slugger who offers the perfect change of pace from counterpunchers Bradley and Marquez. Lampley asserts that his style could "be the perfect canvas on which for Manny to paint a masterpiece." But if Pacquiao's defensive reflexes and punch resistance are not what they once were, who worse to face than a relentless pressure fighter crazy enough to insist -- as Rios did during the first episode of 24/7 -- that hitting men in the face is more enjoyable than sex? And let's not write Rios off as entirely one-dimensional; he did have 400 amateur fights and, while he's not nearly as quick or athletic as Pacquiao, he does have a bank of skills to call upon and blocks and parries punches better than he's often given credit for.

If the underdog Rios should win this fight, there are reasons to believe he could become one of boxing's next big pay-per-view attractions. He's a Mexican-American, he almost always finds himself in Fight of the Year candidates, and he possesses a distinctive, blue-language-infused charisma. Beating Pacquiao could push him to true boxing superstardom.

"But," Lampley warns, "he has to hope that it's in a really good, competitive fight. I mean, if he just goes in and annihilates Manny Pacquiao in three or four rounds, what then does he have? That would be seen as more about Pacquiao than about him. He needs a thriller where both guys look pretty good. He needs to look as though he's fighting the real Manny Pacquiao. If there's no Pacquiao there, then what exactly has Rios accomplished?"

Even when we try to make Rios the focus, it's still primarily about Pacquiao. And you could argue that Manny has never been more fascinating. His wife, Jinkee, wanted him to retire after the Marquez knockout. He says he's far from finished, and Jinkee has chosen to support him. Rios fans hope Jinkee's instinct was correct. Pacquiao fans hope Manny is in touch with reality.

And boxing fans are just eager to finish processing what took place in Las Vegas 11 months ago.