Saturday features the third matchup between Manny Pacquiao (57-6-2, 38 KOs) and Tim Bradley (33-1-1, 13 KOs) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Officially, the series stands at one win a piece as Bradley was awarded an undeserved split-decision victory in their first meeting in 2012 while Pacquiao won a unanimous decision in the 2014 rematch. With an absence of unfinished business between the two fighters, the third meeting was neither demanded by the boxers themselves nor deemed necessary by the public; but Top Rank needed a high-profile opponent for Pacquiao and Bradley fit the bill.
Nevertheless, Saturday's fight does have some redeeming value. By almost all ranking systems, Pacquiao and Bradley (with the retirement of Floyd Mayweather) place #1 and #2 respectively in the welterweight division. The winner of Saturday's fight will become the true lineal champ at 147 lbs., and having legitimate champions in the sport is a very good thing. As for less esoteric considerations, it's never a bad thing when two of the top-ten fighters in the world want to face each other. Although their first two bouts weren't wonderful affairs, both featured pockets of excitement and interesting strategic changes.
The elephant in the room for Saturday's fight is Pacquiao’s condition – both physical and psychological. Pacquiao re-injured his right shoulder during his last bout against Mayweather. After surgery and time off, Pacquiao claims that his shoulder is healed. However, older fighters often continue to break down. Older fighters often think about retirement as well. Pacquiao will be running for a senate seat in the Philippines later this year and has refused to commit to future fights. Although he hasn't officially announced that Saturday will be his last bout, by all accounts, his career is close to the end.
On the Bradley side, Saturday will mark the fighter's second pairing with trainer Teddy Atlas, a boxing television personality over the last two decades and a former disciple of legendary trainer of Cud D'Amato. When Atlas decides to train a fighter, he demands complete devotion from his charge. Atlas also strongly believes in unlocking the psychological barriers that affect fighter performance in the top levels of the sport (D'Amato was a strong proponent of hypnosis). Atlas' motivational tactics may not be every fighter's cup of tea but to this point Bradley has become a devotee of Atlas' teachings and unique psychological approach.
Below will be my Keys to the Fight. At the conclusion of the article, I'll give my prediction.
1. The state Of Pacquiao.
This remains the biggest X-Factor for the fight. Is Manny healthy? Does Manny really want to keep fighting? What does he have left to give physically, emotionally and mentally? All of the strategies and tactics aren't important if Pacquiao’s not fully invested in the proceedings.
Mysteriously, Pacquiao has holstered his right hook in recent years. His right hand is now mostly used to jab – both to land and to blind an opponent for a left cross. However, if he doesn't trust his right shoulder, will he even jab like he once did? Will he even throw a token number of right hooks just to keep Bradley honest? Has Pacquiao become a one-armed fighter?
We just don't know where Manny's at in terms of his boxing career. What we do know is that he's beaten Bradley twice before (scorecards be damned), he's older now, he's had a significant injury and his retirement will be soon. Does Manny have one last hurrah in him?
Let's also not pretend that the 2016 version of Pacquiao resembles the fireball who demolished future Hall of Famers like Morales, Barrera and Cotto last decade; Pacquiao hasn't scored a stoppage since 2009. However, even the late-model Pacquiao featured enough offense to defeat Bradley in 2014. Is Pacquiao still at that level?
2. The Teddy Atlas factor.
Prior to enlisting Atlas, Bradley's relationship with former trainer Joel Diaz had deteriorated in and out of the ring. Towards the end of his tenure with Diaz, Bradley would freelance during fights, deviating from the game plan where he would often take unnecessary punishment in an attempt to prove his machismo. In the second Pacquiao matchup, Bradley, despite not being a big puncher, insisted on going for the knockout. Loading up on big shots, Bradley wound up injuring himself trying to create additional torque on his punches. It was a bewildering strategy and one that contributed to his defeat.
With Atlas, Bradley now has a disciplinarian in his corner. Atlas won't tolerate Bradley going off-script. Just as importantly, Bradley has fully bought into Atlas' approach. It's certainly possible that Bradley made some questionable decisions in his later fights with Diaz because he no longer fully believed in his trainer's vision, message, strategy and/or tactics.
In his first outing with Atlas, where he faced Brandon Rios, Bradley remained focused throughout the match. There was none of the drifting that Bradley had done in the past, where he would sleepwalk through portions of a round. Bradley's renewed focus helped lead to a knockout. He looked like an elite fighter that night and didn't fight down to the level of his competition.
Bradley's belief in Atlas should put him in a stronger position against Pacquiao than he was in their previous fights. Trusting his trainer, Bradley will want to incorporate changes and adjustments as the fight progresses. Atlas himself may not be enough to put Bradley over the top but there's a higher probability of this happening now that Team Bradley is finally in synch.
3. Lessons from Marquez.
Both fighters have significant histories with Juan Manuel Marquez. Pacquiao has faced the Mexican legend four times, earning a draw, two wins and most recently a knockout loss. It's worth pointing out that Marquez seemed to do better in each successive bout. Bradley had perhaps his best performance as a pro in beating Marquez in 2013. He defeated Marquez by remaining disciplined, using his boxing skills and foot speed and limiting prolonged exchanges.
In the past, Bradley misjudged a key aspect of Pacquiao-Marquez IV. After witnessing Marquez's knockout of Pacquiao in 2012, Bradley believed that he could do the same to Manny in their rematch. And although he did land some big shots early in the fight, his power wasn't enough to win. He thought that Pacquiao’s chin was damaged goods but it held up throughout the fight.
Pacquiao has the blueprint to beat Bradley. He needs to keep his volume up and use his hand speed to score points. Waiting to counter Bradley, like Marquez did, would be a mistake. However, it's worth considering that Pacquiao doesn't have the punch volume that he used to and he now rarely fights three minutes a round. His activity level must remain high to beat Bradley. In the past, he hasn't found Bradley hard to hit and has also taken his best shots. Pacquiao needs to trust his chin and go forward on Bradley. He can't and shouldn't worry about being knocked out. If he sits back, he gives Bradley the opportunity to get off first, which is not a favorable situation for Pacquiao, who isn't a natural counterpuncher. Marquez wasn't active enough against Bradley and he lost. Pacquiao needs to remember that lesson for Saturday's fight.
4. The pace of the fight.
Will this be a bout that features 40 punches a round thrown by each boxer or 60? The higher the punch output in the fight, the more the match should favor Pacquiao, who has superior hand speed and is a more fluid combination puncher. Bradley's best bet will be to pick and choose his spots to engage. He can buy time grappling on the inside or using his legs to circle on the outside. In addition, Bradley will need to go to the body to discourage Pacquiao from coming in too often. Over the last few years, Bradley has become a very effective body puncher, using his jab, right hand and left hook to cause damage downstairs. (In his last fight, he was successful at stopping the ironed-chin Rios by going to the body).
It's important for Pacquiao to think about quantity over quality. He still throws those flashy punches that get crowds oohing and aahing. It doesn't necessarily matter if they always land effectively. When he's flurrying, he's getting the better of the action. Pacquiao needs to go for the decision. If he puts punches together and keeps his punch output high, it's very unlikely that Bradley can match him punch-for-punch. That's a recipe for a Pacquiao victory.
5. The championship rounds.
The final rounds of their first two fights could be very meaningful for Saturday. After being beaten to a pulp early in the first fight, Bradley changed his approach in the final four rounds. Instead of trying to beat Pacquiao in the center of the ring, Bradley fought almost entirely off the back foot. By boxing and moving, he probably won most of final rounds. Of course, it's possible that Pacquiao, believing that he had the fight handily won, wasn't putting forth an all-out effort. Nevertheless, it was an interesting tactical switch by Bradley and one that he should've employed in the rematch.
In the second fight, Pacquiao just out-willed Bradley in the championship rounds. He was the fighter putting punches together while Bradley, exhausted and injured, loaded up for a big shot, one that never came. Pacquiao, who had been hurt at points earlier in the fight, wasn't trying to knock out Bradley; he just wanted to win rounds. Remember, Pacquiao won by only 116-112 on two of the scorecards in the rematch. Without sweeping the final rounds, he faced the possibility of a draw or a close defeat. His tactical switch in the rematch clinched the fight.
Through two fights and 24 rounds, I believe that Pacquiao has won 16 or 17 of them. He's been the bigger puncher at times and has also bested Bradley by being busier. Bradley did have some success boxing at points and there were moments in the rematch where he hurt Pacquiao with lead right hands. By now, both fighters are intimately familiar with each other. The winner of Saturday’s fight may very well come down to who is fresher at the end of the fight, both physically and mentally. Which fighter can gut out the final few rounds to come out on top? Which will make the key tactical adjustment to carry the championship rounds and seal the victory?
I'm betting on youth and health here. Although Bradley, at 32, is no spring chicken, he is five years younger than Pacquiao. Yes, Bradley has been through a number of wars in his career and may have only two or three years left at the top of the sport but I believe that he has much more left to give in his career than Pacquiao does. I think that the intangibles in this matchup all point towards Bradley.
However, Pacquiao remains a formidable opponent. I expect him to do well in spots and win several rounds by outworking Bradley. He'll flash his superior hand speed and galvanize the crowd, which most likely will be in his favor. But ultimately, I don't think that Pacquiao has enough left to win seven rounds against a top version of Bradley. Timmy will be just a little bit better in a number of close rounds. His accuracy, punch variety, versatility and ring generalship will allow him to squeak by with a disputed decision victory.