It is the wrong way to end a fight: looking more like the victim of a skydiving misadventure than the loser of a boxing match. Yet, this is how welterweight Manny Pacquiao found himself last December, when Juan Manuel Marquez so stunningly nailed him into the MGM Grand Garden Arena canvas. It is hard to believe that the most memorable moment in a career as improbable as Pacquiao’s may now be a loss. This is not to mistake it for the most defining moment. No, there are too many images of his hands raised, his foes broken, to trump his furious run. Pacquiao, 54-3-2 (38), will always be defined by his wins; by the performances he delivered securing them. But how he responds to the Marquez loss could determine his future in ways none of his previous fights could. For the first time in his career, Pacquiao, who faces Brandon Rios at the Cotai Arena in Macau, China, Saturday night, is faced with questions not even he can answer. Or maybe it is just one question: Is Manny Pacquiao finished as a prizefighter?
He will undoubtedly still look the part. Bouncing and smiling as he approaches the ring, Pacquiao will look like the same dynamic assassin who climbed through the ropes for his fourth fight with Marquez last year. The hand speed will be there, the power still coiled in his destructive kinetics; even his aging legs will retain much of their rare explosiveness. But when the savage business begins, mere physical resemblance will not be enough. And yet, this resemblance may be all Pacquiao has.
Most fighters never fully recover from the kind of KO loss Pacquiao suffered last year. If he is now among the forever groggy, Pacquiao’s punch resistance will be compromised, as will his coordination, cognition and confidence. With this new vulnerability, Pacquiao will be more likely to suffer another unforgettable moment he cannot remember. Yes, he has been philosophical about being knocked cold and about the dangers of his trade, but it is hard to believe Pacquiao, General Santos City, Philippines, has no lingering doubts. He would not be alone in his unease. Freddie Roach says that Pacquiao should retire if Saturday night goes poorly. Roach too, then, for all his public confidence, is not entirely certain of what will happen when Rios is unloosed.
Rios, Oxnard, California, could be all wrong for Pacquiao. While he conducts himself with the crudity of a drunken frat boy—you half expect to catch him at a press conference wearing a lampshade—Rios is a natural fighter. Watching him ply his brutal trade is like watching erosion in time-lapse. Pacquiao may slip the first punch, he may dodge the second, but the third is coming, and behind it, the fourth. Rios, 31-1-1 (23), will be gunning for Pacquiao for however long the fight lasts, applying a pressure that is both physically and psychically exhausting.
Nor will Rios be discouraged by Pacquiao’s arsenal. This tattooed menace takes his fair share of abuse in the ring, accepting pain for the chance to etch some dark markings of his own. He can punch with such abandon because Rios, 27, is as tough as a pair of Doc Martens. And he knows it. Despite his brawling ways, Rios last touched the canvas almost eight years and fifteen fights ago. This is not to say that he has escaped all those brutal rounds unscathed. Many wonder, quite rightly, about what is left of Pacquiao; but eventually the years of battling the scale and other men will catch up with Rios too. Still, if asked to wager on which of these fighters is better preserved, where would your money go? With the man who loves punishment, or the one who was undone by it?
Even so, there are some stylistic concerns for Rios that could negate his ruggedness. He is, after all, a comeback opponent, one chosen for his weaknesses and exploitable strengths. Had Pacquiao not been separated from his consciousness last December—even if he had lost by a less frightening stoppage—most would consider Rios made to order for the Filipino. Few have fared worse against Pacquiao than eager brawlers, and no brawler is more eager than Rios. He is nowhere near the marksman Marquez is, and he is far less of a puzzle. Mike Alvarado, a fighter who began boxing in his twenties, outboxed Rios in April. If he can endure the pace, pressure and punch of Rios, Pacquiao should butcher him.
But that “if”– the specter of uncertainty–will hang over the fight until Pacquiao displays his trademark fury. And what if he doesn’t? What if he can’t? But he should. Shouldn’t he?