The career arcs of Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley suggest that their meeting on Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada, may be more than routine star maintenance. Instead, the cocoon of Pacquiao’s iconic status might be ripe to burst from a budding force.
Bradley, now 28-0 with 12 knockouts, looked like a middling prospect during his ShoBox debut against Jaimie Rangel in December 2006. His hands were fast and willing but his feet were heavy. The bout abruptly ended from a headbutt¬¬¬-something that would become a bit of a theme for Bradley-and the Palm Springs native won a comfortable technical decision. But he was tagged with several left hands in the process.
In the five and a half years since, Bradley has improved dramatically, showcasing a new wrinkle in virtually every fight. For his first world championship opportunity, he traveled to the United Kingdom to defeat Junior Witter, taking advantage of Witter’s propensity to pull away from trouble with chin high by landing several flush overhand rights. In his first unification bout, he survived a Kendall Holt left hook in the opening round that launched him off his feet. He came back to earn a decision over Holt using an array of feints to supplement a fiendish body assault. Six months later, he unveiled the most impressive title defense of his career, curtailing Lamont Peterson with footwork, an active jab, and precise counterpunching.
Indeed, if Bradley’s typecast as a fighter who simply puts on his hardhat and outworks his opponent was ever accurate, it’s now outdated. He has developed into an adaptable practitioner, armed with a slippery defense and sharp ring IQ, willing to adapt to whatever strategy presents him with the best path to victory. It’s possible that with a career-defining opportunity looming in the form of Manny Pacquiao, a ceiling yet unseen will be reached on June 9th.
Meanwhile, beginning in December 2008, Manny Pacquiao, 54-3-2, with 38 knockouts, saw his stardom reach another level after he steamrolled Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, and Miguel Cotto within a year. He would have been hard-pressed to look more destructive in those bouts, surpassing pre-fight assurances by stopping his bigger opponents with sensational ease.
The expectations reached an unsustainable stratosphere after his demolition of Cotto. He dominated his next two fights against Joshua Clottey and Antonio Margarito, but both survived to see the end of 12 rounds. Then, a lackluster performance against a reticent Shane Mosley, in which Pacquiao’s aggression uncharacteristically subsided for long stretches, raised questions about whether the Filipino icon was becoming vulnerable. Nemesis Juan Manuel Marquez amplified those questions last November, fighting him on even terms after entering the ring as a heavy underdog. Though the rubber match largely followed the script of their first two affairs¬-aside from how the judges chose to split hairs, neither man can claim superiority after 36 rounds of battle-one distinction it had was that Pacquiao never took Marquez off his feet, or even put him on shaky legs.
But if Pacquiao’s explosiveness has waned with age, he remains a serious KO threat to nearly anyone around his weight class, and memories of Holt sending Bradley airborne remain prevalent despite the 28-year-old’s proven durability. Bradley bounced back up, quickly shook off the cobwebs, and remained undeterred while he aggressively pressured his dangerous foe throughout the following rounds. It was a cruel reminder, however, of how sloppy he can be when he’s eager, and making the same mistake against a finisher as virulent as Pacquiao can lead to a short night and a long ride back to Palm Springs.
Pacquiao’s concerns with losing by knockout Saturday night are substantially smaller. The 33-year-old was last separated from his senses in 1999, when he tried to defend a flyweight title by squeezing a super bantamweight frame into 112 pounds. He hasn’t been in serious trouble of suffering the same fate since. And while Bradley’s fists are a grade or two higher than feather¬having displayed a stinging body attack and the ability to knock down the likes of Junior Witter, Edner Cherry, and Lamont Peterson with right hands¬¬-the last time he recorded a one-punch knockout was against brittle Nasser Athumani in 2007. It was one of only two stoppages over the last five years or so for Bradley. In part, Bradley’s low KO percentage is the result of poor finishing skills-with his footwork and technique slipping noticeably after he stuns an opponent-but whatever the case, he hasn’t shown the ability to take out stern opposition, so the chances of him stopping Pacquiao are in the vicinity of zero.
While it’s clear that Bradley doesn’t have Pacquiao’s firepower, a combination of attributes makes him tough to deal with. He scarcely gets caught with a flush punch, accompanying a low center of gravity with copious head movement. He has a spirited and varied jab to go along with a dedicated body attack. And he’s quick to make sharp deviations from a strategy that begins to flounder. That you rarely see him get handled for a full three minutes of a stanza, or clearly lose two consecutive rounds, is a sign that he’s an intelligent, well-rounded fighter.
Unfortunately, making use of his head has often been a multifaceted plan of action that includes not just defense and intelligence, but butting the hell out of people. It’s not that he launches himself into his opponents like Victor Ortiz did to Floyd Mayweather, Jr., he just ‘tends to’ lead with his head when beginning a combination. Three of his last 13 bouts have ended early due to headbutt related lacerations, and Pacquiao, suffering the hazards of being an aggressive, sometimes reckless, southpaw, has had a history of getting cut from butts. To Bradley’s credit, he managed to avoid serious clashes with Joel Casamayor’s omnipresent head last November, which may be a sign that he’s aware of his reputation and is trying to repair it. Nevertheless, a headbutt or two playing a role in Saturday night’s outcome remains a distinct possibility.
Head knocks aside, we’re likely to see a fast-paced chess match. Bradley’s proficiency of slipping punches combined with Pacquiao’s lively legs means that there may not be consistent contact in every round. It’s unlikely to be a ‘war,’ as Bradley has promised several times during promos and HBO 24/7 episodes. But the feeling here is that it’ll be highly intriguing, with swings of momentum born out of exuberance augmented by versatility, with both men capable of entering a new gear when it’s called upon. Bradley will look to press forward at times behind a jab distributed to chest and head, seeking out paths towards clean overhand rights. Pacquiao will have rounds where he’s pressing Bradley back, using his quicker feet to strike with left hands delivered from unsuspecting angles. Pacquiao’s right hook, a necessary ingredient against a combatant as layered as Bradley, will remain as integral as Bradley’s ability to counter Pacquiao’s advances with lefts beneath the rib cage. Keys to victory should be found closer to the bottom of the toolbox than the top, forcing two skilled fighters to survey the limits of what they’re capable of.
As the favorite and the headliner, if Pacquiao finds himself in a losing battle, most attention will be directed at the increasingly-prominent slope his career has been sliding down since beating Miguel Cotto. But more attention should be paid to the ascending path of the man in front of him. Tim Bradley is a formidable challenge.