The second mega-fight of the year takes place on Saturday when Filipino superstar Manny Pacquiao takes on undefeated American Timothy Bradley, a former unified junior welterweight champion. Read below for the keys to the fight. My official prediction will be at the end of the piece.
1. Which Pacquiao will show up?
This is the central question of the entire fight and leads to a series of additional inquiries about Pacquiao. Who is Pacquiao right now as a fighter? Is he the guy who has shown reduced foot speed and a decline in his athleticism over the last few fights? Is he the spiritually reborn fighter who has rededicated himself to Catholicism, his family and the sport? Is being the best boxer in the world still important to him?
It's tough to assess where Pacquiao is in boxing these days. Clearly, over his last two fights he has become more of a straight-line fighter and has lacked explosiveness. Part of that could be attributed to some physical problems, specifically foot and leg cramps; Juan Manuel Marquez and Shane Mosley must also be given credit for not providing Pacquiao with the ability to shine at full starpower wattage. Marquez flummoxed him with pinpoint counterpunching. Mosley put on a clinic on how to survive in a fight; it wasn't beautiful to watch by any means, but it was effective.
Still, even if Pacquiao is only as good as his last fight, he was still competitive with one of boxing's top pound-for-pound talents. It wasn't as if Pacquiao was embarrassed in the ring. There is also the possibility that Pacquiao declines further, whether from age, injury or a lack of dedication to the sport.
In truth, no one knows which Pacquiao will show up in the ring on Saturday. It's the giant "X-Factor" for this fight. Maybe he has a turn-back-the-clock performance and dominates Bradley with his awesome combination of power and speed. However, it's also possible that Pacquiao struggles with the younger, hungrier fighter.
2. Timmy's noggin.
Bradley has a substantial history of using his head in the ring. Having cut Nate Campbell and Devon Alexander to the point where both couldn't continue, Bradley uses his head as a weapon. It's not to say that he butts intentionally, but he leads with his head – for Bradley, if the opponent gets cut, so be it.
Fighters don't feel comfortable facing boxers who lead with their heads. They get fearful of butts and cuts. Look at the success of Bernard Hopkins or Evander Holyfield. It wasn't that they butted constantly, but their style caused concern and hesitancy for many of their opponents.
Bradley threw Alexander completely off his game with his aggressive use of his head. Alexander didn't stand in the pocket and exchange; he retreated. He didn't throw his uppercut because he didn't want to remain within range of Bradley's head.
Similarly, in Pacquiao’s last official loss, Erik Morales caused an enormous cut on Pacquiao that affected him throughout the fight. Now, Pacquiao has amassed far more professionalism since that night in 2005, but nevertheless, cuts and butts can have a huge outcome on the trajectory and the final result of a fight.
Pacquiao must not let Bradley's head become a psychologically limiting factor, an excuse not to perform at peak levels. He'll have to fight through some butts. It will be up to him to have the mental toughness to overcome this attribute of Bradley's style.
3. Time for Pacquiao to dust off his old weapons.
So much has been made of Pacquiao's evolution as a fighter. He morphed from a one-handed destroyer to a well-rounded, pound-for-pound talent. As he moved up to face bigger guys, such as Antonio Margartio and Miguel Cotto, he and his team realized that he could no longer walk through fighters as he had in the past. Much emphasis was placed on adding to his arsenal, including a right hook, a right uppercut and an overhand left.
Bradley is a much smaller fighter than Cotto and Margarito are and he has already been knocked down at junior welterweight. In addition, he squares up during exchanges and leaves himself open for counters when he throws his looping right hands. In short, business is open for Pacquiao's straight left hand.
For Pacquiao, he needs to keep the fight as simple as possible; his counter left hand should be the focus of his offense. He'll have ample opportunities to land the punch. If he looks for openings, he'll score and hurt Bradley with it.
Also, Pacquiao's left uppercut could come in handy during infighting. He usually throws the punch as part of a combination and not as a single lead or counter shot, but the punch will be there for him. For Pacquiao, the less he complicates his offense against Bradley, the better he will be. Let Bradley come to him and he'll be able to land with punishing lefts.
4. Remember Tim, It's CLEAN punching and EFFECTIVE aggression.
Most likely, Bradley will press forward and make the fight an inside war. Bradley, who doesn't possess a long reach, likes to impose his physicality on opponents to wear them down. However, to win rounds, he has to land clean, effective shots. This sounds more basic than it really is. Bradley often smothers himself on the inside. He'll throw a straight or looping right hand to initiate action and then grapple on the inside. This can be a fine strategy against many fighters but against Pacquiao, he's not going to get a stoppage; it's very unlikely that Pacquiao will be intimidated by Bradley's stature after fighting relative giants such as Margarito, Cotto and Mosley.
In addition, Pacquiao’s punches are easy to score. Shooting from the outside, he'll land his jab, straight left hand and right hook. These punches are easy to see from a judges' perspective. A lot of Bradley's best work is done in close and it's not always a simple task to identify clean punches that Bradley lands.
Bradley must remember to take a step back on occasion while he is fighting Pacquiao along the ropes and land with short right hands and left hooks. By grappling on the inside, he won't necessarily win rounds on the three scorecards that matter. Sure, he'll press forward, but he needs to remember to score.
5. Bradley might be fighting more than one opponent.
Let's face it; Bradley has an uphill climb to win a decision. As stated above, even with the most well-intentioned and objective judges, Bradley does a number of things which could negatively impact his ability to win rounds. On Saturday, he's fighting in Pacquiao's boxing home of Las Vegas and he will be up against a highly partisan pro-Pacquiao crowd. Additionally, the slate of judges announced for the fight may not provide Bradley with his best chance of winning a decision.
In Bradley's favor is that he is normally the aggressor. This can be a very good thing in Las Vegas (in fact, the Las Vegas school of judging is known for choosing the aggressor in close rounds, often irrespective of whether the aggression was effective). However, counterbalancing that tendency are Jerry Roth and Duane Ford, two veteran Las Vegas judges who know where their bread is buttered. Roth, one of the deans of the Vegas judging circuit, has turned in some terrible cards over the last few years, including Rios-Abril and Shumenov-Campillo II. Of note, Roth was the only judge to score Pacquiao-Marquez II for Marquez. Traditionally, Roth has almost always favored the aggressor, but as he has gotten older, he has become a bit more of a wildcard. I no longer think of him as a top judge.
On a personal level, I still haven't forgiven Duane Ford for scoring the 12th round of Hopkins-Taylor I for Taylor, which enabled Taylor's victory. That was an awful job by Ford. Over the years, Ford has judged a number of Pacquiao fights and he has scored those bouts as wide as or wider in favor of Pacquiao than any of the other judges on those cards. Ford also judged Bradley-Alexander and scored the fight fairly as a comfortable Bradley decision. Overall, Ford is a quality judge, but he is very much of the Vegas school and his wide (but not necessarily off base) scores for Pacquiao could be a cause of concern for Bradley.
The third judge, C.J. Ross, has worked her way up over the last few years to become one of the most dependable judges in Las Vegas. Going back over the last few years of her resume, the only decision I didn't fully support was her draw in Lara-Molina. She turned in an excellent draw in Mares-Agbeko I. She has been on the right side in practically every card she has turned in. Bradley should be able to get a fair shake from her.
If just a good (not even spectacular) Pacquiao shows up, he has the exact weapons to neutralize Bradley. Pacquiao's left hand will always be there. It's his money shot and it's the exact punch to which Bradley is most vulnerable. I see Bradley coming forward and eating a lot of leather. His conditioning though will be superb and the fight will come down to how many left hand bombs Pacquiao can land.
I think Bradley will break through for a few rounds in the fight, where he will use his head movement and angles to get inside and do some good work along the ropes. But that is his only way to win the fight and I don't think his chin and his power are enough in this contest. I expect him to taste the canvas at least once and absorb a lot of punishment.
Ultimately, Pacquiao's clean power shots will be too much for Bradley to overcome. Bradley won't be able to knock down Pacquiao and if he is behind on the scorecards, it will be very difficult for him to get back into the fight. Pacquiao will have to take Bradley's aggression and tenacity seriously, and I think he will be more than up to the task.