Photo: Will Hart
By Eric Raskin
Two words, printed on thousands upon thousands of T-shirts, a simple slogan that could be interpreted in any number of ways: “Manny Knows.” Except now, however you interpret it, it doesn’t ring particularly true. Manny Pacquiao doesn’t know. Nobody does anymore. Can “Pac-Man” still be great at age 37? Can he get over losing the biggest fight of his career, the injury that accompanied it, and the layoff that followed? Will this be his final fight? The answer to all of those questions: It’s anybody’s guess.
Timothy Bradley certainly doesn’t view himself as a supporting player in someone else’s story, but in the eyes of many fight fans, his role here is to be the ultimate litmus test. We saw what happened when Pacquiao and Bradley fought in 2012 (Bradley took home the most hotly disputed decision of this century) and 2014 (Pacquiao won on points, competitively but clearly). With those fights as our barometer, Bradley is in a position this Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to answer all of our questions about the 2016 version of Pacquiao — and possibly send him into retirement.
That’s how Pacquiao-Bradley 3 was initially pitched: as the Filipino living legend’s last fight, a farewell before his full-time life in politics begins with May’s Senate election in his homeland. But as the fight has neared, no one in the Pacquiao camp has been willing or able to make a definitive statement about whether he’ll keep punching after April 9.
“I don’t know if this will be Manny’s last fight, but he is training like it’s going to be his last fight,” said his longtime coach, Hall of Famer Freddie Roach. “Manny has achieved so much in his boxing career, and if this is going to be his swan song, I know he wants to go out blazing with a spectacular performance… He knows how to close the show and he wants this show closed with fireworks. He wants to finish the book on his boxing career with a spectacular ending… [But] I do think Manny has more quality fights in him. His power, speed, and work ethic are still superior.”
They’ll need to be if he’s to prevail against Bradley (33-1-1, 13 KOs), who like Pacquiao (57-6-2, 38 KOs), can still be found in the top five on most pound-for-pound lists. However you scored their first 24 rounds, you can’t deny that Bradley, despite claiming to be hampered by assorted injuries to his lower extremities, was frequently a hard target for Pacquiao to find. For the most part, he retreated out of range when the Filipino was ready to fire, didn’t fall for the feints designed to set up Pacquiao’s lethal left hand, and circled to his left successfully (although sometimes directly into the path of Pacquiao’s underrated right hook). At age 32, Bradley appears to be in some semblance of his physical prime; the same can not be said for his 37-year-old opponent who has been off 11 months since losing a decision to Floyd Mayweather.
“It’s a true 50/50 fight,” asserted fellow world-class welterweight Jessie Vargas, whose only professional loss came in a memorable bout with Bradley. “Pacquiao doesn’t seem to be the same fighter he once was, he doesn’t possess the same strength that he had when he stopped Miguel Cotto and Oscar De La Hoya. I think that his power has diminished. But he has the same speed. He’s very fast, very agile. Based on my experience, I don’t think Bradley possesses the power to knock out Pacquiao. He’s not a knockout puncher. It’s just volume with him. But Bradley is quick, he’s consistent, he has good movement. This fight could go either way. I think it’s going to come down to who comes in with the better game plan.”
In other words, it’s going to come down to a matchup of trainers as marquee as we’ve seen in years: Freddie Roach, a disciple of the legendary Eddie Futch, vs. Teddy Atlas, a disciple of the equally iconic Cus D’Amato. This will be Pacquiao’s 32nd fight under Roach. This will be Bradley’s second under Atlas, following an impressively (if predictably) dominant victory over Brandon Rios last November.
The trainers have exchanged unfriendly words through the media in the buildup to this fight, but ESPN boxing broadcaster Joe Tessitore, who has worked with Atlas for some 15 years and also considers Roach to be a friend, doesn’t take the tough talk too seriously.
“These two guys are wired fairly similarly,” Tessitore said. “They both have great care for their charges. Not just in boxing, but in all of sports, they’re two of the best sound bites and two of the best characters you’ll find. There are some nuances on the periphery where maybe there are some differences. For example, Teddy likes to take ownership of one single task where Freddie is managing an empire of fighters. But from what I’ve seen of both guys through the years, a lot of their hardwiring is very similar. I don’t think there’s real disrespect between them. I just think both guys don’t sugarcoat anything. It’s not unlike political adversaries in a primary debate. A lot of the ideology and thought is very similar, but they find ways to make it combative and wildly entertaining.”
Tessitore believes Atlas never stopped considering himself a trainer first and a broadcaster second, even when he’d all but retired from the former. Now Atlas is entering his biggest bout in more than 20 years, since he was coaching Michael Moorer with the world heavyweight championship at stake. “I know this: This fight means a lot to Teddy,” Tessitore insisted. “I mean a lot.”
It means a lot to Bradley also. The veteran from Palm Springs, California has spoken openly about wanting his kids to be able to brag for the rest of their lives that their dad beat the great Manny Pacquiao. Bradley has held belts in two divisions but has never been regarded as the lineal champ; that can change here, as this fight will fill the vacant Transnational Boxing Rankings Board welterweight title by pitting the numbers one and two fighters against each other. For a currently borderline Hall of Fame candidate like Bradley, one win of this magnitude — one legitimate win that the entire viewing public agrees on — can make a world of difference. So, yeah, Saturday night brings serious business for Bradley.
What’s tougher to pinpoint is how much this fight means to Pacquiao. He’s seen and done it all several times over. He’s about to become the first championship-level fighter to engage in three separate trilogies since Emile Griffith nearly 50 years ago, a remarkable stat. After all the titles, all the pay-per-views, and all the millions earned, is boxing still make or break for him?
It had better be. Anything less than the best Manny can muster won’t be enough to win what, on paper, looks like the toughest call of this trilogy.
“When a big fight is made, typically I get an initial gut feel as to the outcome that proves fairly accurate,” Tessitore said. “But I can honestly say that I didn’t gather that gut reaction when I heard this fight was signed, because of the unknown. I have a strong understanding of where Bradley is after the Rios fight, but I don’t know where Pacquiao is after the Mayweather fight.
“You’re talking about one of the greats of all-time in Pacquiao. Against Bradley, we’re going to find out just how great he still is.”