Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Opinions and Observations: Pacquiao-Bradley II

There's a fascinating comparison to make regarding the relative confidence levels of Manny Pacquiao and Tim Bradley in their two fights. Twenty-two months ago, Pacquiao got off to a rousing start, banging Bradley around the ring with hard left hands and superior hand speed. Bradley got spooked and went into a four-corner defensive style in the last third of the fight. Perhaps out of overconfidence, Pacquiao didn't feel the need to pursue Bradley in the closing moments with his typical fury. Bradley did enough to survive the fight, win a few rounds and gain an unjust unpopular split decision victory. 

In Saturday's rematch, Bradley was the one who opened the fight brimming with confidence. Landing a series of right hands from rounds three to six, Bradley showed that he could get to Pacquiao with his power shots and match him in the hand speed department. In many of these rounds, Bradley was the one successfully pushing forward and forcing Pacquiao into an unfamiliar role of the retreater. 

But adjustments were made and soon Pacquiao shortened his shots and stopped flurrying recklessly. Using essentially just his jab and straight left hand, Pacquiao consistently beat Bradley's home run bombs with shorter, well-placed shots. In the seventh and ninth rounds, Bradley tried to fight off of the ropes, hoping to force Manny into making a mistake. Here Pacquiao performed like a seasoned pro, landing two or three hard punches before stepping out to reset. He would then come in with a few more shots and exit again. It was a wonderful example of spacing, distance, effective pressure and composure. It reminded me of Mayweather's surgical work against Alvarez when he had him backed up against the ropes. 

By the 11th round, Bradley returned to the four-corner defense, where he would retreat around the ring and pot-shot Pacquiao with a punch or two before going on the run again. For the record, this was still an effective play for Bradley, but it was clear that this wasn't the statement that he wanted to make. In his mind, Bradley was there to impose himself and assert his dominance, not to craft his way to a decision. 

The final round essentially told the story of the last half of the fight where Pacquiao dug down to throw more shots while remaining defensively responsible. Bradley spent too much time waiting for the fight-ending shot that never materialized. 

It was a very competitive bout with great swings of action. Two of the scores (116-112) were just and the third was a little wide for my liking (118-110), but all three judges had Pacquiao winning, and deservedly so. (I scored it 115-113 Pacquiao.) 

Athletically, Pacquiao's performance was far less than what it was against Bradley in their first fight or Marquez in late 2012. Gone are the days of the swashbuckling, fearless aggressor who batters opponents with 75 punches a round, blinding hand speed, crushing power and wonderful angles. Pacquiao now fights with a lot of breaks. His volume is no longer troublesome. He feels comfortable with two-and-a-half punches (sometimes he will show a few right hooks). 

Although Pacquiao isn't the fearless gunslinger of the past, his new-found appreciation of ring mortality may have won him Saturday's fight. Where Pacquiao really distinguished himself in the rematch was his understanding of the realities of aging and the capricious nature of boxing judges. Pacquiao learned in 2012 that he could be stopped by either punches or rogue judges. After trading big shots through the early rounds against Bradley on Saturday, Manny realized that he couldn't afford to participate in that kind of war, not at 35, not with his mileage. For his career to continue at the highest levels of the sport something had to give, and to Pacquiao's credit he realized that jumping in recklessly, even though it delighted his fans, was not the way to win Saturday's match. He had to think his way through the fight, and he was ultimately successful. 

To my eyes, Pacquiao’s performance on Saturday wasn't one of his best from an aesthetic performance. It didn't resemble the "happy destructor" of his peak years. But Pacquiao showed a maturity and cerebral acuity that haven’t always been apparent throughout his career. In the past, when he was tagged with hard shots, his answer would always be to do more, fight harder; Saturday was an example of fighting smarter. That he prevailed with this strategy speaks to his ring IQ and his acknowledgement that Father Time may not be so far away – perhaps in the driveway, not yet knocking on the door.

Bradley received a lot of criticism for his game plan on Saturday, and in some cases deservedly so. Not a knockout puncher, Bradley loaded up on big shots but seemed to have emptied his tank by the later rounds. It was the first time that I had ever questioned Bradley's conditioning. 

But take a step back and his approach makes sense. He saw Pacquiao fade markedly in the first fight. I'm sure that the plan for the rematch was to hurt him early and weaken him significantly for the later rounds, where he could inflict more damage or even get a stoppage. Through six rounds, the strategy was working. Ultimately, the fight changed on Manny making an adjustment to go shorter with his shots and smarter with his approach. For Bradley, there wasn't a real Plan B, and that's where he deserves criticism. Through much of the back half of the fight, it seemed that Bradley had run out of ideas, deciding to double down on his plan to land power shots through hell or high water. Waving in Pacquiao to the corner was a desperate maneuver, an example where he was outthought and outcoached. 

However, let's not bury Bradley. He was far better on Saturday than he was in the first match. He did all sorts of clever things with his right hand through the first six rounds. He opened up Pacquiao by throwing hard rights to the body and then followed through with overhand rights as Pacquiao was backing up or trying to get out of the pocket. In addition, he clearly had studied Pacquiao's movement and was successful with throwing his overhand right to a spot, anticipating where Pacquiao would be. He landed several impressive blows. 

Perhaps Bradley outsmarted himself. Maybe he thought that there was no way that he could win a decision by boxing (the 118-110 card helps support his viewpoint). However, he didn't give himself the best chance to win the fight in the later rounds. I wish Joel Diaz, his trainer, would have said, "The fight's close. Just box him and keep throwing punches. You're right there." Instead, it slipped away.

Going forward, Bradley has to learn how to fight more intelligently when he is hurt. Winging wild, looping amateurish punches that hit mostly air is not a successful move against a patient power puncher. Although Bradley's fighting instinct is admirable, he would do much better by tying up and conserving energy. He was barely able to survive against Ruslan Provodnikov with this approach; it didn't work against Pacquiao. Bradley was running close to empty as the fight ended.

Bradley won't enjoy watching the tape from Saturday's fight. There were opportunities missed and places where he could have done more. Pacquiao was there for the taking, but at the final bell, Bradley lost the battles of resiliency and adjustments. 

After both fights, Bradley complained about foot and leg injuries. Watching Saturday's fight live, I could understand how Bradley might have hurt himself. Trying to gain angles, Bradley contorted his body in irregular ways and then unloaded unconventional punches with maximum torque. These aren't the types of movements that are regularly practiced at the gym and they looked uncomfortable just to execute. 

Although Bradley continues to demonstrate that he can compete with the best fighters at 147, he still needs to understand that being macho won't solve all of his problems in the ring. With only moderate power and a chin that can be dented, he will one day learn that fighting smarter, like he did against Marquez, will be his ticket to the top. He possesses the talent and versatility to get there but until he fully makes peace with who his best self is in the ring, he remains vulnerable to a variety of fighters. The numbers don't lie; the 12 KOs speak for themself.

As for Pacquiao, he guaranteed himself at least one more big fight. And although he might not be the whizzing specter flashing across the ring of yesteryear, in a diminished capacity he still beat a damn good fighter, legitimately and without controversy. In hindsight, the manner in which Pacquiao won on Saturday truly speaks to his greatness. Should this be the last truly significant victory of his career, it was one hell of a capper.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com 
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1 comment:

  1. I agree with most of your article, except for the fact that I believe Pacquiao showed the best of both worlds...that is boxing and damage. But on e could only see how effective and damaging he was until you saw Bradly's face afterwards...you don't get those kind of lumps and bruises from someone who "looks" like their on their way out...no, no , no, that came from a "fighter" (as you alluded to) that has built up his ring IQ to become a more intelligent "boxer" with a fighters edge.