MACAU – The scene atop the dais at the Venetian Resort was a testament to how globalized the sport of boxing has become. To the left was Manny Pacquiao, the reigning congressman from the Sarangani province of the Philippines, a man who has fought from the obscurity of third world poverty to become one of the most celebrated athletes in the world. To the right was Brandon Rios, a Mexican-American from Kansas who once did a two-month prison term for a street fight before winning the WBA lightweight title.
Pacquiao, 34, looking his usual calm self, seemingly unaffected by the hype accompanying his clash with Rios on Nov. 24 at the Venetian, which will be the first major boxing event to take place in China. Pacquiao, who has won titles in eight different divisions, has been competing on the sport’s biggest stage for over a decade now but is working his way back to boxing’s highest echelon following a crushing knockout loss to arch rival Juan Manuel Marquez last November.
“It’s going to be a good fight because Rios loves to fight toe-to-toe and he loves action in the ring,” said Pacquiao (54-5-2, 38 knockouts). “So what we have to do is train hard and prepare ourselves 100 percent physically and mentally. And of course, we always pray to God that nobody got hurt.”
Rios, 27, was noticeably edgy as he addressed the predominantly Cantonese-speaking media, many of whom had probably never met a Mexican until this week. Despite earning a reputation among boxing insiders as one of the toughest blood-and-guts warriors in the sport, Rios had never been the focus of an international media event before. Flanked by trainer Robert Garcia, Rios took advantage of the opportunity to size up his shorter opponent at the staredown.
“It felt good being next to Manny Pacquiao,” said Rios (31-1-1, 23 KOs). “I want to show him that I’m ready. I want to show him that he’s not fighting a little kid. He’s fighting a man, a guy that comes out to fight and give the fans what they want. A war.”
The fight, which will take place at 9 a.m. Sunday morning in Macau and be beamed live to America at 9 p.m. on Saturday evening on HBO PPV, will be Pacquiao’s first outside of the United States since his 2006 decision victory over Oscar Larios in the Philippines. Rios is fighting outside of North America for the first time in his nine-year career.
Bob Arum, whose company Top Rank will promote the fight, is confident that Pacquiao’s recent losses (prior to Marquez he lost a controversial decision to Tim Bradley) won’t hurt his ability to sell pay-per-views in the States, where he has consistently sold at or around the one million buy mark. To ensure that the fight’s buzz isn’t contained purely to China, Arum set up a 23,722-mile journey with stops in Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, New York, and the ESPN studio in Bristol, Conn., before culminating in Los Angeles.
Arum said that Zou Shiming – the two-time Olympic gold medalist and Chinese boxing hero – will appear on the undercard. Zou won a six-round unanimous decision over Jesus Ortega in his second pro fight later that night.
Like Pacquiao, Rios is also coming off a loss, though his war against Mike Alvarado in March was not nearly as damaging as what Pacquiao endured in November. Pacquiao’s wife Jinkee, who recently joined her husband in politics and won the vice governor seat in Sarangani, said she had asked Manny to retire from the ring after the Marquez fight, but supports his quest to recapture his previous glory.
“I told him [to retire] already but he will be the one to decide if he will stop or continue,” she said. “Everything happens for a reason so we accept the fact that he lost the last fight. Now we’re looking forward that God will grant him the winning for this fight.”
Despite his cool demeanor, Pacquiao acknowledged that there was pressure on him to win impressively following the lackluster 2012. When asked to analyze the challenge Rios presents, Pacquiao likened Rios to Antonio Margarito, whom he punished over twelve rounds in 2011 at Cowboy Stadium in Texas. Coincidentally, Robert Garcia trained Margarito for that fight, and Rios competed on the undercard, knocking out Omri Lowther in five rounds.
“Let them think what they want to think,” said Rios. “Everybody thinks that, he’s not the only person that thinks that. All the critics around the world – even you probably. Ya’ll think that Brandon is just a f—ing punching bag. How many times have I come out of the ring f—ed up? How many times have I come into the ring scratched up? They don’t give me the credit for blocking the shots. Of course when you block a shot, you’re going to get hit.”
Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, also likes the matchup for his fighter’s first fight back after the losses. “He’s an aggressive guy, he likes to fight, he likes to exchange,” said Roach. “I love an aggressive opponent for my guy and I think he’s made to order.”
Pacquiao will already be in light training in his hometown of General Santos City, Philippines, when Roach leaves to join him on Oct. 6 – a day after Roach works the corner of former Pacquiao opponent Miguel Cotto in Florida against Delvin Rodriguez. Like Pacquiao, Cotto is looking to bounce back from two consecutive defeats in 2012. Roach likes the idea of Pacquiao training in “GenSan,” as it’s known by the locals, away from the attention that follows Pacquiao around in Los Angeles and Manila.
“GenSan is a very different place,” said Roach. “It’s not like Manila or Macau, it’s not a heavily-populated area. It’s where Manny grew up. Every time we go there, we play basketball in the outdoor courts and the only guys there are the players.”
For Rios, the fight is an opportunity to finally break through as a major player in the sport. He feels that getting to this point is a victory in itself.
“I grew up poor, I grew up not the richest guy, but you know what? I kept following my dreams. That’s why I’m overwhelmed right now. I’m kind of emotional right now but I’m keeping it inside. A kid like me – a poor Mexican – made it this far. I was always in and out of jail; I wasn’t supposed to be here. And look, I’m here now.
“I like to be the underdog. Because when I beat him, everybody is going to be like ‘Damn, that’s Brandon. He’s f—ing badass.’ Because Manny Pacquiao is not God. He’s a human being. He bleeds like I bleed. He sleeps like I sleep. He sh–s like I sh–. So people that think he’s a God, they’re going to think of me as a Saint, because when I knock his ass out, they’re going to say ‘Wow, Brandon is the man.’”
Photos: Chris Farina-Top Rank
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.