As the bell rang for the twelfth and final round of the anticipated rematch between WBO Welterweight Titlist Timothy Bradley, Jr. and Filipino icon Manny Pacquiao, HBO’s blow-by-blow announcer Jim Lampley set the scene succinctly. “Their first fight was very good,” he said. “This one…has been even better.” And the view from my table in a raucous, surprisingly standing room only Columbus, OH bar and grill bore that thinking out, though an unsettling caveat stuck in my mind: Yes, Pacquiao-Bradley II had been a good fight, to my eyes, a good deal better than the original – which you may remember Bradley won via a stunning, many would say dumbfounding, majority decision that redefined boxing controversy for the latter half of 2012 (and bled into what was an, ahem, eventful new year for both combatants). Pacquiao-Bradley II had also been a closer fight than its predecessor. If conventional thinking went that Tim Bradley, through no real fault of his own, got a miracle gift decision in the 2012 match, would the mere fact that he outpaced that performance in the rematch lead to him having his hand inexplicably raised a second time? Could Manny Pacquiao somehow soundly outbox an opponent over the course of 24 rounds without winning a single match?
The answer to both questions, thankfully I suppose, was a definitive no, and so tonight some semblance of justice returned to the boxing universe. But you still can’t say the thought didn’t occur to you, and the very fact that it did implies some pretty unsavory things about this sport I love so much.
But first, the good, which the early going had in abundance. This was essentially a toss-up fight for me going in, the type of confrontation between ascendant champ and descending legend that boxing history is rich with, and its first third lived up to that billing and then some. Bradley, who derided Pacquiao’s killer instinct and made much noise in the build up to the fight about his desire for a knockout victory, looked intent on delivering on his rhetoric out of the gate. He swarmed his way to a clear first round advantage, which Pacquiao turned on its head in subsequent rounds with increased activity, his famous speed and angular punching defusing Bradley’s own attack, though the Californian surged again in round four. I couldn’t hear the partisan crowd at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas because the partisan crowd in my bar area was drowning both them and the announcers out, thrilling aloud to every punch Pacquiao either landed or appeared to land, and recoiling along with him whenever a cornered Bradley dug deep and uncorked a proper response.
The action was rock solid if a notch below scintillating. Both men abruptly stopped bouncing after the fourth, and threw flat footed rangefinders and combinations from distance, occasionally working their ways in to unleash a tight flurry. Bradley bobbed without ever seeming to weave in an attempt to deflect Pacquiao’s punches, and lunged demonstratively both out of the way and into the fire, head first as always (although the only accidental head clash in the entire bout occurred in round 12). At the halfway mark, there was real doubt as to which direction the pendulum would definitively swing, or even if it would, but then Bradley, who has always been the embodiment of snow pure confidence and determination in the ring, began uncharacteristically taunting his opponent – dropping his hands, daring Manny to hit him, chin out, a picture of utter defiance, repeatedly beckoning Pacquiao in (particularly with his own back to the ropes, which seemed sure to prove disastrous at any moment). Manny stepped on the gas just enough and sped past him, this time for good. By the time Bradley seemed to recognize and hastily recant his odd detour into Mayweatherland and began boxing again, the damage had been done, in equal measure by Pacquiao’s fists and his own hubris.
I invoke the name of the pound for pound king here not because Floyd Mayweather ever has to resort to such desperate measures in the ring (so preternatural are his gifts that his mere presence is an unspoken taunt to his opponent to not only attempt to hit him but to miserably fail) but because I became convinced during rounds seven and eight that I was witnessing Bradley subtly call an audible on the fight, which at that point was still up for grabs, and maybe also on his career going forward. Timothy Bradley is a seemingly nice and exceedingly engaging young man, a hard-working family man, a direct, eloquent and refreshingly honest interview. He seems like a guy people should want to root for, yet people boo and discount him instead. He had famous difficulties drawing a crowd in his home town of Palm Springs. What had being a nice guy ever gotten Tim Bradley, really? No matter how much love or respect he received, he would crave more, and the louder cheers would almost certainly always be for his opponent. I convinced myself that Bradley, in a moment of weakness, willful, impatient, and feeling owed by the boxing gods, tried being a bona fide villain for two rounds. He found it didn’t suit him, violently in fact, most likely as Pacquiao battered him with an eight-punch combination as he slouched against the ropes. What other observers might have seen as merely a puzzling behavioral aberration, I saw as perhaps the key to the fight. Either way, the ground Pacquiao seized while Bradley was busy grandstanding was crucial real estate, and momentum, that the Californian never recovered.
Bradley fought gamely but with increasing desperation from the 9th on, winging wide and looping punches non-stop in search of a game changing connect (at one point he threw two golf swing uppercuts that were worthy of Punch-Out’s Don Flamenco). It was caveman’s craftsmanship from what is normally such a disciplined and adaptable fighter. Bradley’s conditioning even seemed an issue for one of the first times in his career (the Provodnikov fight, of course, which was life and death to its bitter end, also springs to mind as a more concrete example), and the sheer effort of trying to get back into the match seemed to noticeably sap him. Pacquiao, for whom conditioning never seems an issue, simply threw and avoided, slipped and connected, energy unwavering, dialed in like we haven’t seen in some time. His performance was a moderate but noticeable overall improvement from the Brandon Rios fight last fall, compares favorably to Pacquiao-Bradley I, and gives fans hope going forward, though the Manny who cowed De La Hoya, pummeled Cotto, and starched Hatton seems an increasingly distant memory. I’d say that differentiation really only matters to history. Pacquiao is still among the world’s elite today.
All that remained was the decision. The old joke goes that only two people in all of America thought Tim Bradley beat Manny Pacquiao in their first meeting. Unfortunately, those two people happened to be judges at ringside. Widespread outrage hounded Timothy Bradley and stole from him the joy and validity of what he convinced himself, if no one else, was his legitimate, career-making victory. Every breath he has taken in the almost two years since that June night (including the 2013 fight of the year against Ruslan Provodnikov and a convincing win against Pacquiao’s longtime nemesis Juan Manuel Marquez) was done in search of vindication from the people who had shunned, insulted and doubted him. He spoke earnestly and often of the pain caused by the controversy and its far-reaching fallout, which found him absorbing copious scorn and abuse, death threats and even, he recently revealed, contemplating suicide. Everything pointed to this rematch. It was a formidable bar to clear, too high as it turned out. Manny is just too good, but Bradley, even in defeat, is almost every bit as worth seeing. The scores of 116-112, 118-110 and 118-110 in Pacquiao’s favor seemed to set the scales right again, and even Bradley, whose indomitable will above all else has been the catalyst of his success, seemed somewhat resigned to if not content at the outcome. This was definitive. Everyone saw it, and everyone agreed. That’s a good night in boxing; This was a good night of boxing.