Welterweight superstar Manny Pacquiao is at an unsteady point in his boxing life, coming off the kind of knockout loss that ends careers and two consecutive losses overall. For his comeback fight, he's picked someone who might put his lights out or else make him look like Fred Astaire: The brutal, brawling Brandon Rios.
The date is Nov. 27, the network is (naturally) HBO pay-per-view and the location is Macau. So while Rios is a test for where Pacquiao is, Pacquiao-Rios doubles as a test of the Chinese market for promoter Top Rank, which views the country as a potential goldmine and has already had one foray into the Republic. The announcement came right after Pacquiao's long-time rival, Floyd Mayweather, returned to the ring this past weekend, which is probably no coincidence to capitalize on the amount of eyes paying attention to boxing right this minute. And while I don't know if we can say it's 100 percent happening until we hear from Top Rank rather than just Pacquiao adviser Michael Koncz, at least this time Top Rank's Bob Arum hasn't immediately contradicted Koncz's claims, like he often does.
This wasn't my first choice for Pacquiao; that was Mike Alvarado, who recently defeated Rios, pictured above. This wasn't even Top Rank's first choice; that was Juan Manuel Marquez, the man who gave Pacquiao that devastating knockout loss last year. But it's a really nice match-up. Pacquiao is at his best with boxers who are aggressive, since he nimbly feeds off their attacks to create his own offensive opportunities and struggles with boxers who move around a lot, and that was the main appeal of Rios for Freddie Roach, Pacquiao's trainer. (Well, that and the fact that a couple years back, Rios and his trainer, Robert Garcia, made fun of Roach's Parkinson's disease. They apologized and bygones ought to be bygones, but the motivation -- and storyline -- remains.) Rios will be moving up a weight class, but I suspect he'll still hit pretty hard at 147 based on the power he's demonstrated at 140, and if Pacquiao's chin and mindset are still fragile after the Marquez loss, Rios will have a chance of repeating Marquez's feat. Rios is a bulldog who attacks with unparalleled ferocity among boxers today.
That both men are coming off of losses doesn't hurt the appeal of the bout much in my book. Maybe Alvarado was more deserving of the golden ticket that is a Pacquiao fight on competitive merits, and he would've made for an exciting match-up, too. Pacquiao's first loss in the sequence, to Timothy Bradley, was a bunk decision, and the last losses of both Pac and Rios were competitive affairs against top-notch opposition. Perhaps, too, the dual losses will raise the stakes -- Pacquiao losing again would probably be the death knell for his career as an elite boxer, so he has a lot to lose. Rios losing to Pacquiao could be written off as a guy stepping up in weight and class, but I'm sure Rios doesn't want to lose two straight. Of course, maybe some casual or non-fans who might buy a Pacquiao bout otherwise will be less enthused by his return, and maybe some will ask, "Brandon who?" Hardcore fans know and love Rios, who's been in a string of Fight of the Year candidates. But he also isn't fully formed yet as a marketable attraction with crossover potential. The PPV buy rates could suffer from both conditions.
And Top Rank could very well be right: China could be a goldmine. There is anecdotal evidence that the last Top Rank card in China, featuring Chinese Olympic gold medalist Zou Shiming, was a smash. The fact that there are 1.35 billion people there is mathematical evidence of an untapped market for the sport. I know the success of the Chinese boxing program has whipped up some nationalistic pride, but don't know enough about the prevailing sensibilities of Asia to know whether Chinese fans would get behind Pacquiao, a Filipino, in the same way (or perhaps even more -- Shiming was making his pro debut, while Pacquiao is a worldwide pro star who has been at or near the top of the sport for many years).
But they're probably gonna get a hell of a show. Pacquiao-Rios proposes a lot of difficult questions, but this one's easy: "Will Pacquiao-Rios have any action, perchance?" A: "You bet your ass."