(Manny Pacquiao connects on Brandon Rios; credit: Chris Farina, Top Rank)
Manny Pacquiao buried Brandon Rios in an avalanche of punches Saturday on HBO pay-per-view, in the process shoveling dirt on memories of his astounding knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez last year. Rios was, as expected in one of the two most likely scenarios for how the fight might go, a sitting duck for Pacquiao's speed, movement, experience and overall talent and ability. Yet I was left with the view that Pacquiao could've done much more, and would've done much more at the absolute temperature of the supernova that was prime Pac-Man.
If another fighter does this to Rios, we're all dazzled. Rios has only one official loss on his record, a 2013 Fight of the Year contender against Mike Alvarado. While Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach derided Rios beforehand as a "punching bag," he's an especially belligerent one. His physical talent level might be low, but his grit and power have been more than enough to make up for it against top lightweights and junior welterweights.
Pacquiao was far, far too much for him at welterweight, despite coming off a loss that left some wondering whether a pressure fighter like Rios would turn the crack in Pacquiao's eggshell into a full-blown scramble. Alvarado, Rios' best opponent, is a top 10 contender at 140, but he's nobody who, say, spent some years as the best fighter alive like a certain Filipino. The 1st round was Pacquiao's, as Rios probably tried to get a touch too clever and box intelligently when he needed to turn it into a brawl. The 2nd and 3rd drew increasingly closer. But essentially after that, Pacquiao had his way. The fight began to resemble an extended game of paddleball with Pacquiao smacking Rios at will with his two-fisted fusillades courtesy his trademark in-and-out movement. The judges had it 120-108, 119-109 and 118-110, each card increasing in its generosity to Rios.
Yet because he is Pacquiao, as impressed as I was that he was able to bounce back from such a devastating defeat, I found myself wanting more of that old greatness. Maybe Pacquiao, who hasn't scored a straightforward knockout since moving to welterweight, just doesn't have the power at 147. Maybe rust played a factor, after a layoff of a year. Maybe Rios coming in on fight night at 159 pounds gave him punch resistance beyond reason. Maybe Rios' inherent toughness, potentially as dangerous to his long-term physical health as the Marquez knockout of Pacquiao, came to play -- his face sure showed the damage, and his post-fight interview was a bit on the punchy side. And maybe Pacquiao's killer instinct is long gone, thanks to his religion and desire to do public good as a congressman in the Philippines. Early in the 12th, Pacquiao had a pained Rios in retreat and backed him into a corner, cowering and covered. A boxer who wanted a knockout would have seized that moment, or at least tried. Pacquiao did not. Instead, he deliberately strolled backward and let Rios escape unconsciousness.
If you were looking for signs that Pacquiao could still be the Pacquiao who enraptured not only boxing fans but the general public, they were there against Rios. But Pacquiao of 2009 incinerates Rios by the middle rounds if not sooner. Whether we'll ever get that truly great Pacquiao back is hard to say. Saturday, we got a very good version of him, and that was more than enough to leave tendrils of smoke smoldering from the half-demolished ruins of Rios.
Another question is whether the "foot off the pedal" has something to do with the recent deaths in boxing. Rios was clearly taking direct blows to the head in the mid-rounds. In one of the mid or late rounds, I remember Manny saying something to the referee (different from the headbutt incident.) We've seen him do this in the past (e.g. vsBradley and vsMargarito.)
In addition to this, I have a problem with Max Kellerman's ambiguous takes on Pacquiao's reduced killer instinct. During the post fight analysis, he argued that Pacquiao didn't seem to have the same finishing aggression as before. While on some (several) earlier comments during the fight, he acknowledged how Pacquiao has learned to not overcommit and stay in for punches 3 and 4 (or he might've said punches 4 and 5.) Maybe Pacquiao just recognized how tough Rios was and how incredibly impossible it was to take that tree down. Maybe, when Pacquiao said on previous interviews that he will take the KO only when it comes, he truly meant it. A lot of credit goes to Rios' Typhoon proof chin and that freakishly large neck!
I think in Pacquiao's own smart way (as a more experienced fighter), he displayed that he hasn't really slowed down but has learned to not overcommit on his attacks and to always keep in mind his goal, which is to win and not just to look spectacular. Power is normally the last thing an athlete loses.
A fighter with Pac's speed and lateral movement at this stage in his career you would want him to outbox his opponents and get the wins, yes he is exciting and yes we love the hurricane of punches and the exchanges, but the movement and the in and out combos are just as majestic to watch. I would like to see Pac use his speed to out box opponents from no on.
The athleticism was obviously still there as well as his fighting spirit, but I felt he wasn't as fearless as he has been in the past. I have no problem with that as we had a chance to see Manny use more boxing skill rather than pure fighting aggression. I'm not sure the 2009 version of Pacquiao would have KO'd Rios as that version of Pacquiao didn't KO Clottey or Margarito who both hid behind their guard for most of the fight as Rios did. In this fight Rios did better than Clottey yet not as good as Margarito. The thing that worried me is that Manny seemed to tire around the 5th round. His body language in the 5th against Rios looked like his body language in the 11th against Margarito and Pacquiao had taken some serious shots at that point against Margarito that he hadn't against Rios. What also troubled me is that it seemed at times that Manny didn't shake off some shots as easily as he had in the past. That being said, he took some good shots and didn't back down. Overall, good win for him and his people.
Pacquiao looked NOTHING like his "old self." His "old self" would have knocked out Rios within five rounds, like Pacquiao did to Hatton.
As I said in the preview, Rios was tailor-made for Pacquiao's eroding skill set. Pacquiao looked like a whirling dervish only because there are light posts in my town with more movement and defensive ability than Rios.
He seemed lots like old self, but without (a big without I admit) too much risk-taking. This may be the mature Pac-man, with thoughts of conservation and preserving himself for rest of his career prominent in mind, something he previously paid little attention to. I'm very fine with that.
@Al_Eggs_Myth Interestingly, he thought he was hurt in the 5th round. So maybe that explains the body language you saw. I didn't see it myself but have only watched the fight once.
@PaulKelly Speed wise, mainly, I thought he was SOMETHING like his old self. Power wise, not so much. But yes, it's very possible that RIos' lack of movement and defensive ability exacerbated the speed Pac showed.
@gavaniacono I tend to agree on the risk-taking aspect. I don't think there was anything "wrong" with Manny's performance, necessarily, but a 2009 or 2010 version of Pacquiao probably would have pressed for a stoppage.