Brandon Rios (far left), with IBF featherweight titleholder Evgeny Gradovich, trainer Robert Garcia, and RING featherweight champ Mikey Garcia in Macau. (Photo by Chris Farina-Top Rank)
MACAU – If the stakes are higher than ever for Brandon Rios, he didn’t show any feelings of nervousness when he strolled into the Venetian Resort for the final press conference for Saturday’s HBO2-televised tripleheader, headlined by Chinese Olympic hero Zou Shiming’s second pro bout against Mexico’s Jesus Ortega.
The former WBA lightweight titleholder Rios, flanked by his trainer Robert Garcia and his stablemate/RING featherweight champion Mikey Garcia, was his usual playful self, using this reporter’s microphone to jab at his trainer’s backside, while entertaining anyone in the vicinity with his trademark charming vulgarity. Rios is enjoying himself, so much so that he remarked that Macau was “way better than Vegas.”
Just two days from now, Rios will get his first up-close look at Manny Pacquiao, the once universally recognized best boxer on the planet, for the first of seven stops on a 23,722-mile worldwide media tour to promote their November 23 bout at the Venetian.
“I’m kind of anxious and excited to meet this guy face-to-face,” said the 27-year-old Rios (31-1, 23 KOs) of Oxnard, Calif. “I’ve seen him at a distance but not face-to-face, so I’m very excited.”
The closest they had ever come was when Rios defeated Omri Lowther on the undercard of Pacquiao’s 2011 battering of Antonio Margarito, a Rios gym mate with whom he shared a trainer. For years, Rios had dreamed of standing opposite one of the sport’s main attractions, and it isn’t lost on him that defeat – a unanimous decision to Mike Alvarado in March – that finally made it happen.
“That’s what I keep saying,” said Rios. “I’ve been waiting for the biggest fight of my life. I’ve been ready for the past three or four years, but it took a loss just to get this opportunity so I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to fight Manny Pacquiao.”
If Rios is looking to get back on track, the 34-year-old Pacquiao (54-5-2, 38 KOs) is attempting to right a derailed freight train. Following a 2012 that saw him lose to Timothy Bradley (controversially) and Juan Manuel Marquez (conclusively), the congressional representative from the Philippine province of Sarangani is barely clinging to his status as a mega star in the boxing world.
The latter defeat, which saw the former eight-division world champion Pacquiao knocked unconscious for several minutes following a Marquez counter right, is accountable for most of the intrigue heading into a clash with Rios. Rios may be made to order for the old Pacquiao, but might be a nightmare for an old Pacquiao.
“Everybody is a little anxious and interested to see what Pacquiao does after that loss to Marquez,” said Mikey Garcia, who is undefeated at 32-0 (27 KOs). “That’s going to be the most interesting thing. We all know what Brandon can do. Everybody knows what kind of fighter he is.
“Very few fighters come back from a knockout like that and do just as much as before. I think that might be to Brandon’s advantage, that Pacquiao might not be the same. He may have some memories from that knockout loss or his body may not react the same. His punches may not be all there, his stamina, his speed may not be all there so I think Brandon has to take advantage of that.”
Mikey’s older brother isn’t banking on any advantages. “We’re going to prepare ourselves for the best Pacquiao,” said Robert Garcia, who will be in the corner of IBF featherweight titleholder Evgeny Gradovich when he makes his first defense against Mauricio Munoz on Saturday. “[Pacquiao] did get knocked out, so that’s something we’ll find out when Brandon fights him. But right now, we’re not going to think about that. That’s not going to be our mentality. We’re going to go in there thinking like we’re fighting the Pacquiao that everybody saw four years ago.
“[Pacquiao] knows how important this fight is so we expect to face one of the best Pacquiaos ever because this is do-or-die for him.”
Though Pacquiao isn’t expected to arrive in Macau until Friday morning, his trainer Freddie Roach is already at the Venetian finishing up preparations with Zou. The third televised bout will pit unified WBA/WBO flyweight titleholder Juan Estrada of Mexico against undefeated Filipino contender Milan Melindo, which is expected to be the fight of the night.
Garcia says that Rios has been doing light training 3 to 4 times a week to maintain his rhythm and timing and will begin training camp on August 8 after the media tour wraps up. By the time he steps in the ring to face Pacquaio, Rios would have had eight months to rest and recover from the loss to Alvarado, which was the second in a series of punishing bouts that took place over a five-month period.
Robert Garcia doesn’t feel that his fighter lost anything in those wars. “Not at all, it actually gave us more,” reasons Garcia. “We lost the fight during the last two or three rounds but we still think it was very close. If you watch the fight, Alvarado came out of the fight with more punishment than Rios did. We didn’t lose much because we got the Pacquiao fight. At first it hurt us a little, but in the end it turned out to be better for us.”
Rios doesn’t expect to see more than a few close friends of Mexican descent at their clash, but anticipates a pro-Pacquiao crowd given that the Philippines is just a two-hour flight from Macau. Still, despite being on a stage that he had only previously stood atop in his dreams, Rios is determined not to let the event get to him.
“I’ll tell you right now: It’s the biggest thing I’ve done in my life,” admitted Rios. “It’s going to be something different for me. I’ve never gotten to experience a press tour. I’m not going to let this get to me. Pacquiao’s got his style, I’ve got my style. Fighting the way I’ve fought has gotten me this far, it’s gotten me this fight. Why change something that isn’t broken?”
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine and GMA News. He can be reached at email@example.com. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.