In a high-level game of chess Saturday night on HBO pay-per-view, what could have been a stalemate ended up a closely-earned checkmate for Timothy Bradley against Juan Manuel Marquez. Measured purely by official outcomes, Bradley's win over Manny Pacquiao was to this point the best of his career, enveloped though it was in disbelief from those who scored it to the contrary. But as close as this fight was, there was nothing dubious about Bradley getting his hand raised. This is the best win of his career, in reality. That hunger for greatness that rumbles in his belly unlike few other fighters? It just got sated with a pretty big meal of steak and potatoes.
Bradley was sharp and disciplined for most of the fight, exactly what he needed after a grueling battle against Ruslan Provodnikov and with Marquez coming off a nasty knockout of Pacquiao. Marquez, at 40, didn't resemble the same beast who had physically transformed into a power-packed welterweight -- his work rate wasn't up to snuff and Bradley withstood his shots. Bradley's discipline played a role in that. After Marquez won the 1st, Bradley took over a great many of the ensuing rounds with his lateral movement, defense, jab and the occasional flurry, with his body shots placed especially well. Marquez couldn't hit him cleanly but once or twice a round until the 8th.
That's when I saw momentum shift. Marquez turned up the heat a bit more, even though his trainer Nacho Beristain was, as usual, leading him astray by telling him he was winning the fight, and Marquez began to land more as a result. From the 8th to nearly the end of the 12th, Marquez had Bradley on the run, timing him and finding the range with hard shots, usually his long right. Bradley never seemed shook -- in the 10th, if anyone was shook, it was Marquez during an exchange -- but Marquez was back in the game. Fatefully on my scorecard, Marquez's control of the 12th transferred over to Bradley in the final seconds with a counter left that sent him stumbling backward and nearly down. I scored it a draw.
The wobble didn't end up deciding the fight with the judges: they had it 115-113 Marquez, 115-113 Bradley and 116-112 Bradley, with the 12th round going in various directions or the other on each card but none in a way that tipped it.
These were two intelligent, brave prizefighters in the ring Saturday, both emphasizing intelligence over bravery for the evening in a fight that could've gone either way but that more scored for Bradley. His athleticism made a big difference against the aged Marquez, whose physique didn't match his birthday. There will of course be questions about whether the advanced Nevada State Athletic Commission drug testing forced Marquez off whatever pharmaceuticals he'd taken to swell into a monstrous welterweight. They are not bad questions. But there also are some other factors at play here. Marquez never caught Bradley with the kind of perfect shot he caught Pacquiao with. And Marquez Saturday faced a younger fighter who, for all the damage he took against Provodnikov, appeared closer to the middle of his career than a Pacquiao who appeared closer to the end prior to his fourth and decisive meeting with Marquez. I don't think we can say Marquez is very badly faded, either, but maybe his age is catching up to him. It's too hard to answer definitively with just one explanation or another.
What we do know is that Bradley doesn't do to Marquez what he did if he isn't one of the best in the world. In a post-fight interview, Bradley told HBO's Max Kellerman that there's Floyd Mayweather, there's Andre Ward and there's Timothy Bradley. I'm inclined to agree. Next, it might be "Fighter of the Year" laurels or at least an honorable mention (big win over a top-3 pound-for-pound fighter, a frontrunner for Fight of the Year against Provodnikov) and a chance to rematch Pacquiao and turn that tarnished trophy into a bright, shiny one.