By Eric Raskin
A quarter-inch of head movement here. A blink of a judge's eye there. In boxing, the slightest change can affect everything.
The perception going into the first Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley fight, on June 9, 2012, was that Pacquiao, a top-two pound-for-pound fighter at the time, was a level above Bradley. After Bradley was officially awarded the victory that night, the perception didn't shift at all; if they'd had an immediate rematch, Pacquiao would have remained about a 4-1 betting favorite.
But they didn't have an immediate rematch. They waited 22 months. They've each fought twice in the interim. And now it's an almost impossible fight to call.
Had Pacquiao altered the angle of his sixth-round lunge against Juan Manuel Marquez by one degree, we might not be having this conversation. Had a judge or two flipped a single close round in Bradley-Pacquiao I, Bradley-Ruslan Provodnikov, or Bradley-Marquez, there wouldn't be a Bradley-Pacquiao II. But the angle was what it was and the scores were what they were. This fight is happening. You could say it's a fight that needs to happen. And it's a very similar fight to what it was two years ago while at the same time feeling like a completely different matchup -- one in which there is no clear favorite.
Bradley opened as a +160 underdog at the betting window, but those lines are designed to generate balanced action from bettors, so when you take into account Pacquiao's status as the far more "public" fighter, it equates to the fight being almost a pick-'em in actuality. So what has changed in the past two years? Maybe Bradley is a better fighter now than he was then. Maybe Pacquiao is a worse fighter than he was then. All we know for sure is the perceptions have shifted in those directions. Bradley is at least a more proven fighter than he was in 2012. And Pacquiao has been knocked unconscious, something that wasn't true two years ago.
"I would say it's a safe assumption that Pacquiao is a little worse than he was two years ago," asserts HBO analyst Max Kellerman. "He got knocked out. He's a little older. Once you're past your prime, you don't tend to get better with age. I came away from the Brandon Rios fight [Pacquiao's last fight, a lopsided decision win last November] wondering, where is the whirling dervish Pacquiao? He always used movement, but it was to overwhelm guys, not to pick them apart."
Indeed, Pacquiao (55-5-2, 38 KOs) played the role of boxer against Rios, and incredibly, since winning four straight by knockout during his 2008-'09 apex, he hasn't scored a single stoppage victory in his last seven fights. That fact wasn't lost on Bradley, who's been on a "Pacquiao isn't as great as you all think he is" campaign ever since he was awarded the unpopular decision in their first fight.
"When was the last time you saw him knock somebody out? It's been a long time," Bradley noted during the buildup to the rematch. "[Brandon Rios] was right there in front of him, and he couldn't get rid of him. He is supposed to be one of the vicious punchers in the game. I have never seen Manny Pacquiao take a step back before; I think it was the last round of the Rios fight and he had Rios trapped in the corner and you saw Manny take his foot off the gas pedal and it was unbelievable to me. In our fight, I had two wounded feet and he couldn't take me out."
While Bradley probably isn't one to talk about failing to finish off opponents -- the Californian has scored exactly one stoppage in the last seven years, and it came against a ready-to-retire, 40-year-old Joel Casamayor -- his point about his injuries in the first fight is an important one to handicapping the rematch. One thing is for sure: Bradley (31-0, 12 KOs, 1 no-contest) will wear socks under his boxing shoes this time. And if he has two fully functioning legs, that could spell trouble for Pacquiao.
"People looked back at the first fight," Kellerman observed, "and thought, okay, Pacquiao won the fight, but over the second half of the fight Bradley neutralized him. It's not that he was winning rounds, but he neutralized him. He stopped what Pacquiao was doing well. And that was on one leg. People think if he can figure Pacquiao out and do it well on one leg, what's he going to do when he's healthy?"
According to Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, however, Pacquiao is the one best positioned to improve upon his performance in their first fight.
"It was so easy for Manny in the early rounds that in the later rounds he wasn't throwing combinations like he usually does," Roach said. "He was just throwing single punches and kind of going through the motions. He thought he was very much ahead, of course, but we needed to be fighting aggressive three minutes of every round, and if we fight at a fast pace like that we'll be able to stop Bradley somewhere during the middle rounds."
Some would say Pacquiao doesn't have to do anything different at all from the first fight -- he just needs better judges. The judges assigned to this rematch are Michael Pernick (who had Pacquiao beating Rios via shutout), Glenn Trowbridge (whose 116-112 card in Pacquiao's favor in the third Marquez fight raises eyebrows), and John Keane (who, just like the other two judges, had Pacquiao up by one point when Marquez stopped him in their fourth fight). Even if these judges didn't have any history at all with Pacquiao, the natural inclination for any judge assigned, even on a subconscious level, would be to score close rounds for the guy who got royally screwed the first time.
Last time, Bradley lost eight or nine rounds on the average fan's scorecard and won the decision; this time, he could win eight or nine rounds and end up with the first loss on his record.
There's much more at stake here than there is in most boxing matches. If Pacquiao wins, both on the cards and in the court of public opinion, then it all but erases Bradley's "win" in the first fight from the record books. If Bradley wins, both on the cards and in the court of public opinion, then we can expect some revisionist history saying the first decision wasn't so bad after all.
And if this one ends in another controversial verdict? In that case, book your tickets for Pacquiao-Bradley III.