Pacquiao-Bradley: What Happened?

Manny Pacquiao is one of the two best fighters of his generation; in the view of most observers, his only possible rival is Floyd Mayweather. Pacquiao is a human tsunami, swarming his opponents with punches from every angle. I, personally, don’t think I have ever seen as overwhelming a fighter as Pacquiao at his best. Going into last night’s fight against undefeated welterweight Tim Bradley, Pacquiao hadn’t lost a fight in over seven years.

Still, there were reports of trouble. Pacquiao was drinking and gambling heavily. His wife Jinkee threatened to leave him. Perhaps more significantly from a ring perspective, he had gone four fights in a row without knocking out his opponent–a disturbing trend for a vicious puncher like Manny–and many observers thought he lost his last fight, a split decision against Juan Manual Marquez. Pacquiao’s own trainer allowed that Manny is not the fighter he was five years ago, but is still, he said, better than anyone else in the world.

So the main pre-fight story line was Manny’s rededication to religion. He quit drinking and gambling, prayed often, and got back in Jinkee’s good graces. Fight commentators wondered whether the newly devout Pacquiao would be able to muster the same violent frenzy for which the fighter has always been known.

Last night’s fight at the MGM Grand, in which Pacquiao’s WBO welterweight title was at stake, attracted a lot of attention because Tim Bradley was a worthy opponent. Bradley, from California, went into the fight 28-0. He is an excellent defensive boxer, but lacks Pacquiao’s explosive power. Still, there were lots of fight fans who thought Bradley stood a legitimate chance.

If you watched the fight on HBO, as we did, you saw, or thought you saw, the restoration of Pacquiao to his glory days. He swarmed over Bradley, not often getting hit in return. Neither boxer was ever seriously hurt or knocked down, but Pacquiao rocked Bradley a few times, usually with hard lefts. Bradley inflicted no such damage. The pay-per-view team saw the fight as all Pacquiao, awarding him 11 of 12 rounds. I’m no expert, but I thought they were seeing the fight too one-sidedly. I said several times that the judges’ scoring of the bout would be closer than the announcers thought. Still, I had no doubt that Pacquiao was winning handily.

The scene between the final rounds struck us as odd. Usually if a fighter is way behind on points, his corner will tell him before the final round that he needs a knockout. To my surprise, that wasn’t what Bradley’s corner was telling him. Rather, his trainer said (with many expletives deleted) that the final round was the most critical of the fight, and Bradley was going to make history. It was Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, who said, “Let’s knock this guy out.” He did not, however, seem to be suggesting that his fighter was in danger of losing a decision.

When the 12th round ended, Bradley’s corner hoisted him on their shoulders, to the fighter’s seeming discomfort. The HBO team snickered; one of them said that Bradley’s corner probably didn’t expect their man would ever be in a position like this again, so they wanted to take advantage of it.

The announcement of the judges’ decision was met with disbelief. The announcer said that Judge #1 had scored the fight 115-113 for Pacquiao. That seemed absurdly close; more significant, it implied a split decision. The second and third judges both scored the bout 115-113 for Bradley. The crowd booed lustily, and when Bradley was interviewed immediately after the fight, the announcer asked, in effect, how it felt to win such an obviously lousy decision. Bradley himself seemed apologetic about having won the bout.

Pacquiao, displaying his newfound religiosity, was gracious in defeat. I thought he was too stunned by the decision to react angrily; instead, he seemed bemused. There was immediate talk of a rematch, but first: what happened last night? How could the judges at ringside apparently see a completely different fight from the one the announcers and a large majority of the crowd were watching?

Boxers sometimes like to watch a fight with the sound turned off, so that they will not be influenced by crowd reaction–frequently meaningless–or the bout’s announcers. It seemed clear that last night, the announcers got carried away with their own story line and overstated the extent to which Pacquiao was dominating the fight. Watching a replay in silence would probably confirm that Bradley did better than we were being told at the time.

Still, the prevailing view that Pacquiao won easily was confirmed by the CompuPunch statistics. Pacquiao landed nearly 100 more punches than Bradley, and nearly doubled his power punch total, 190-108. CompuPunch numbers are as objective as anything in boxing, and it is hard to see how a boxer who is outhit 253-159, and whose punches carry less weight than his opponent’s, can possibly have won the fight.

After the decision was announced, Emanuel Steward said, “People accuse me of liking knockouts. Well, this is why. If you don’t knock your opponent out, anything can happen.” Maybe Pacquiao is at the stage in his career where he can’t count on judges to give him a fair shake on their cards. Maybe last night’s result was a sort of karmic payback for the Marquez decision. What we know for sure is that chances of a Pacquiao-Mayweather fight, for which boxing fans have waited for years, have once again receded. Mayweather now has an easy excuse to fight someone other than Manny. Maybe, too, it is getting too late for such a bout. Two or three years ago, Mayweather-Pacquiao would have shaped up as one of the great fights in the history of the sport. Now, as both boxers continue to age, perhaps not.

In the meantime, we shouldn’t overlook what a terrific fight Pacquiao and Bradley put on last night. The action was furious and both fighters were not just game but supremely skilled. With its spirited action and puzzling outcome, the bout was a reminder of why boxing fans around the world continue to find the sport compelling.

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