LAS VEGAS – Manny Pacquiao without a belt is like LeBron James not playing basketball. It just doesn’t seem right that Pacquiao holds no world title at the moment. He’s in the record books as the only fighter ever to capture world championships in eight different divisions. He’s a legend in his own time, a phenomenal athlete who competes at the highest level even as he has responsibilities as an elected legislator. As a national icon, Pacquiao deserves the recognition that only a world championship can bestow.
But the reality is Pacquiao sits on no throne. He lost the WBO crown to Bradley on a disputed split decision two years ago. Since that fiasco, Pacquiao has lost once (to Juan Manuel Marquez on a tragic knockout) and won once (over Brandon Rios whom he transformed into a virtual novice). After dethroning Pacquiao, Bradley survived a severe beating to outpoint Ruslan Provodnikov and turned himself into a Floyd Mayweather clone to defeat a badly faded Marquez.
Bradley, 30, is unbeaten with a 31-0 record, including 12 KOs. He’s never been known to be a one-punch knockout artist. His last three bouts went the distance. Bradley is a body banger but to reach Pacquiao’s midsection, he’s got to move close to the target, something the Desert Storm may not want to risk. What’s scary about Bradley is the way he uses his head. He leads with his head as a regular habit, wrote David Mayo, and that’s why three of his fights wound up technical decisions and another was declared a no-decision because of “accidental” butting. The man has a iron skull and knows it.
Figuratively, Bradley also uses his head in strategizing against opponents. He’s a tactical fighter. He likes to jab, slip, slide and bang the sides of the body. Bradley won’t engage especially against a power puncher like Pacquiao. In 2009, Bradley learned his lesson after Kendall Holt knocked him down twice. Luckily, Bradley had enough of a cushion to win a decision. It was the same with Provodnikov. He was floored in the first round but the referee ruled it a slip. In the 12th, Bradley fell on one knee, took a mandatory eight and saved himself from a final barrage to win on points.
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If Bradley sticks and runs, it will be up to Pacquiao to make a fight of it. There is a possibility that it will be a boring encounter. It could turn out to be a waiting game as both are counterpunchers. If Bradley will avoid exchanging, Pacquiao must find a way to cut the ring off and force a toe-to-toe confrontation.
Pacquiao can’t afford to lose. One more bump on the road will derail plans of a megabuck showdown with Mayweather. If and when Pacquiao regains the WBO throne, he’ll go up next against the winner of the May 17 bout between Marquez and Mike Alvarado. The likelihood is Pacquiao and Marquez will slug it out one last time to complete their quintology late this year. And if Pacquiao disposes of Marquez who will be 41 by then, he’ll be next in line for sure to battle Mayweather not once, not twice but thrice in what could unravel to be an intriguing trilogy.
Pacquiao, 35, isn’t badly outsized by Bradley. The Desert Storm has a two-inch reach advantage and is nearly as tall. So a disparity in physical assets is not an issue. Pacquiao has the edge in experience with 61 fights compared to Bradley’s 31. That could be a plus or minus. It’s a plus because Pacquiao can use his wealth of experience in the ring. It’s a minus because Pacquiao has absorbed twice the punishment, meaning more wear and tear in his body.
Pacquiao hasn’t scored a knockout since the Miguel Cotto bout in 2009. His last five wins came on points. Bradley said Pacquiao has lost his killer instinct. Pacquiao reacted by promising to prove Bradley wrong.
Pacquiao was robbed of a decision in their first fight and won’t be robbed again. If he hurts Bradley early, the champion might capitulate sooner than later. Bradley has repeatedly said he’s not in the business of getting hurt. His mental toughness was shattered by both Pacquiao and Provodnikov. Once Bradley feels the power of Pacquiao’s punches, he’ll think twice about exposing himself to danger.
Bradley will bob and weave, threaten Pacquiao with his head and fight defensively like Mayweather. Pacquiao will attack relentlessly. Inevitably, Pacquiao will land shots to shake up Bradley. If Pacquiao isn’t able to pin Bradley down long enough to connect solidly, it will go the distance with the Filipino winning convincingly on points. But if Pacquiao is able to trap Bradley along the ropes or into a corner or goad him into mixing it up in the middle of the ring, it will end as soon as the Filipino connects.
Neither Pacquiao nor his trainer Freddie Roach is taking Bradley lightly. They respect him as a champion. Losing isn’t an option for Pacquiao with so much at stake in the future. He must and will win tomorrow night (Sunday morning, Manila time).