Manny Pacquiao, in November of 2010, got more of a fight than many anticipated from Antonio Margarito. The next November, he got his hardest fight in nearly four years, from Juan Manuel Marquez -- a rematch many predicted would be a total mismatch because Pacquiao had grown so much physically and technically, whereas Marquez had only gotten older since they last fought on such even terms back in 2008. Now, for the first time since Pacquiao rose to his present level of superstardom by beating Oscar De La Hoya three years ago, he is taking his fight that is actually expected to be competitive: On June 9, he faces Timothy Bradley. After agreeing to terms weeks ago, the fight was officially announced Tuesday and tickets go on sale Friday.
That Bradley is expected to give Pacquiao such a challenge says as much about Pacquiao as it does Bradley. There's a wide perception that Pacquiao's incredible run as the world's best fighter is slowing down as he ages, and might already have expired; Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has reclaimed the title in many pound-for-pound lists. And Bradley has some assets that make him particularly dangerous -- he is a crafty boxer, a trait Marquez has used to confound Pacquiao repeatedly, and he's a young, hungry, gritty character who has never lost a fight and is widely thought to be no worse than one of the 10 best fighters in any weight class.
With Pacquiao-Bradley and Mayweather's next fight against Miguel Cotto, the usual caveat applies: That Pacquiao and Mayweather aren't fighting each other, when it would be the biggest and most meaningful fight in decades, remains a black mark on the sport itself. And Bradley was, really, Pacquiao's last viable choice -- he is an unknown outside of boxing circles, but well-known within them for an aesthetically displeasing boxing style and an inability to sell tickets.
But at least Pacquiao-Bradley has competitive elements in theory that haven't graced a Pacquiao fight in a long while. As with Mayweather-Cotto, this isn't the fight we should be getting, but it's better than some of the other horrible options, and has merits of its own.
For those who don't know Bradley... you're not alone. Bradley recently switched promoters to Top Rank -- not at all coincidentally, Pacquiao's promoter --- after floundering under Gary Shaw, unable to sell tickets even in his home turf in California. Shaw, along with powerful manager Cameron Dunkin, did manage to get Bradley on Showtime a bunch, and then got him threee undeservedly lucrative paydays on HBO/HBO pay-per-view. He was in one of last year's least enjoyable and most debacle-like fights, a head butt-induced technical decision win over Devon Alexander in a meeting of two of America's then-brightest young talents. In his most recent fight, his first with Top Rank, he appeared on the Pacquiao-Marquez undercard and easily defeated ancient Joel Casamayor.
The Top Rank idea was to build up Bradley as an eventual opponent for Pacquiao, after he got more name recognition and became an attraction -- a difficult prospect, given that some of the distinguishing characteristics of Bradley's fighting style are a general roughness and tendency to head butt. But at least Bradley was talented, and an American, and had a nice smile, and a reasonably charismatic personality and could maybe somehow tap into the black fandom market that has atrophied over the years. The plan to match the two was accelerated when Pacquiao couldn't secure Cotto for rematch, and when Marquez, too, proved difficult to get an agreement for another rematch.
For Bradley's part, this fight is the culmination of a huge gamble that has paid off, despite skepticism from some (including myself) that it would work out so well. Last year, Bradley had called out Amir Khan, the best available junior welterweight after Alexander, and had been offered a career-high payday for the fight. But Bradley said no, saying he was eager to leave Shaw, and instead sat out until he could legally break free of his old promoter. The decision came under considerable criticism. But now he'll get an even bigger payday against Pacquiao, in a fight that, should he win it, would make him pretty big-time. Even if he loses, he'll be more well-known than ever, just by virtue of sharing the big ol' spotlight Pacquiao inhabits.
Pacquiao, meanwhile, takes this fight as talk of his boxing career ending is louder than ever. Against Margarito, then against Shane Mosley, then in his last fight against Marquez, some have detected increasing signs that Pacquiao has exited his prime. He himself admits that he has struggled with some injuries, like a tendency for his legs to cramp, and that recovering from them takes longer than it used to. As a congressman in the Philippines, he has aspirations for higher office still -- like governor, and, perhaps, president.
The Pacquiao team, led by trainer Freddie Roach, are talking up how worried they are that Pacquiao won't be enthused about this fight given Bradley's low profile, how distracted he is looking forward to his next move away from boxing, etc. Maybe they're legitimate concerns, maybe they're trying to make the fight more competitive than it actually is. It's not as if Pacquiao doesn't have a lot of advantages in this fight. He's proven more effective at welterweight than Bradley, whose test fight there in 2010 didn't impress too much; he's obviously more experienced; he's more offensively gifted; and more.
But Bradley is a tough dude. Any time someone's turned the pressure up on him, Bradley has found that extra gear -- he doesn't get outworked in fights. He has some boxing skill, even if his degree of polish varies from fight to fight. He may not hit very hard, but he is quite fast, and I'm struggling to think of a time Pacquiao faced anyone this quick. And lastly, while he'll tell you the head butts are accidental, they happen in his bouts so much more often than they do in any other boxer's that it can't be a coincidence. What that means is Bradley will take every advantage of the rules in a fight, even if that includes bending the rules sometimes.
We'll see if the fight does very well with pay-per-view buys -- Bradley's relative anonymity could hurt there. But if we're not going to get Pacquiao-Mayweather, at least we're getting a product in the ring that offers some measure of hope of uncertainty. There's more uncertainty here than with Mayweather-Cotto, too. In the exhausting, ongoing Pacquiao-Mayweather proxy war, score this round for Pacquiao on the pure boxing merits.