MACAU, China – The signs were all there as Manny Pacquiao headed to Las Vegas last November. Some just chose not to see them. Pacquiao, who had won world titles in eight separate divisions, hadn’t been the same dynamo that he had been in previous years.
He hadn’t scored a knockout since his demolition of Miguel Cotto in 2009, and after consecutive dismal performances against Juan Manuel Marquez in their third clash and a controversial loss to Timothy Bradley, many wondered aloud whether the Pacman had shot his load.
Despite having gone life-and-death in three previous outings with Marquez, this time would be different, many figured. This time there would be a clear-cut winner. Nobody could imagine how right they’d be.
For Pacquiao’s supporters, his one-punch, sixth-round knockout loss, which left him lying face down unconscious for the ten count, was the equivalent of Superman being felled by an average street tough. Nevermind that Marquez is a surefire Hall of Famer or that Pacquiao had suffered knockouts earlier in his career; Pacquiao was perceived to be invulnerable by many.
Nearly a year has passed and Pacquiao is mere hours away from his return to the ring. Pacquiao (54-5-2, 38 knockouts) will face former WBA lightweight titleholder Brandon Rios (31-1-1, 23 KOs) this Sunday (Saturday night in the U.S.) at the Venetian Resort in Macau, China, in a fight that will make or break his future as a major pay-per-view attraction.
But perceptions have changed, and the devil-may-care approach that opens Pacquiao up to his opponent’s punches will have fans gasping each time Rios cocks back to throw.
Rios, of Oxnard, Calif., by way of Kansas, is seven years younger than Pacquiao at 27, but with a style built for wearing opponents down through aggression and attrition. It’s a style that is thought to be tailor-made for the native of General Santos City, Philippines.
Robert Garcia, the former IBF junior lightweight champion who now trains Rios, hears what people are saying. He believes he sees things in Pacquiao that other people are refusing to see.
“There are things that I’ve seen in his last few fights, a lot of things that I’ve seen on TV that maybe a lot of people who’ve never fought before won’t see,” said Garcia. “I see them because I used to fight. I see them because I probably went through those same things. There’s things that I was ashamed to say, to tell my my trainers and family but I already had them. A lot of fighters go through the same thing and never tell anyone, not even their wives.
“In three years, a lot of things have changed. Since then, Manny is not the same fighter.”
The pressure is certainly on Pacquiao to not only win, but to win impressively. What Pacquiao has accomplished previously has little bearing on what goes on in the ring on Saturday. Pacquiao has to prove himself all over again.
“He knows that he has to be impressive and win this fight after coming off of two losses,” said Roach, the trainer credited with turning the crude brawler into an explosive boxer-puncher. “Being impressive is not winning a close decision; being impressive is winning by a knockout. He’s not going to say it because he’s a gentleman, but I will. He needs to win in a good fashion and the only way to do it is by knocking guys out.”
The road to Macau has been one carefully thought out by Roach. Pacquiao had wanted a quick return in April, but Roach nixed the plan and had him rest. In the interim, Pacquiao played basketball, spent time with family and fulfilled his duties as a congressman in the Philippine province of Sarangani.
He also underwent significant neurological exams to ensure there was no serious damage following the knockout loss.
“We saw every doctor in the world before bringing him back,” said Roach, who says that he sees a neurologist every three months himself to treat his Parkinson’s disease. “[Top Rank CEO] Bob Arum helped out with that. We made sure that Manny was 100 percent for the fight.”
Rios has been in line to face Pacquiao for some time, with Garcia revealing that the fight was all but set for April prior to the Marquez fight. But while Rios may have been made-to-order for the old Pacquiao, but could be all wrong for an old Pacquiao.
Roach said that he sat down with Pacquiao to watch videos of his potential opponents before unanimously settling on Rios.
Rios is coming off his first career loss, a unanimous decision in March against Mike Alvarado after having stopped him in seven rounds the previous year.
“This guy is not in the same class as Marquez, not in the same ability as Marquez,” said Roach of Rios. “I don’t fear this guy, he’s too slow.
“He doesn’t have power, he’s not a big puncher. He’ll knock you out with an accumulation of punches, but he’s not a one-punch knockout artist. At 147, he’ll be less of a puncher than he was at 140 and 135.”
Few boxing personalities, if any, have been giving Rios much of a chance against Pacquiao. Two former world champions on the scene in Macau – Gerry Penalosa and Billy Dib, who will face IBF featherweight titleholder Evgeny Gradovich on the undercard – have vocalized their belief that Rios is in over his head against Pacquiao.
“Rios is just an average fighter,” said Penalosa. “He might be a punching bag for Manny Pacquiao.”
“I really believe that the Manny Pacquiao-Brandon Rios fight is not going to last long,” said Dib. “I think Manny Pacquiao is going to knock his ass out cold.”
Rios’ camp hears what people are saying and say that it motivates them.
“He’s been the underdog before,” said Garcia. “That’s what he needs to feel, and that’s why he trains the way he trains. In his head, he wants to prove all you guys wrong.
“I think that when they first brought him in to fight [Anthony] Peterson, Top Rank felt that Peterson was going to be the next big thing. Brandon finished him. I don’t even know if he’s fought after that.
“Then the same thing against Miguel Acosta; they didn’t really think he had a chance against Acosta. Brandon stopped him and Acosta hasn’t been the same. Alvarado the same thing. The first time, everybody thought we were crazy to fight Alvarado moving up in weight – our first fight at 140, fighting one of the strongest, toughest guys at 140. Brandon knocked him out at 140.”
Rios will be fighting at 147 pounds for the first time as a professional. To prepare for the task, the team added Alex Ariza – the strength coach previously employed by Pacquiao. Garcia says that working with Ariza has helped Rios get his weight control issues in hand.
Food and water were usually off limits for Rios on fight week as he sweated off the weight, but Garcia says that Rios has been drinking plenty of water and eating three times a day approaching the fight.
For Roach’s part, he says he doesn’t buy it.
“Body shots are a key,” said Roach. “Rios is having trouble making weight; he’s still wearing plastics in workouts. … He’s never felt the speed and power of Manny Pacquiao. I don’t think that this is that hard a fight.”
Boxing fans have short memories. A sensational win for Pacquiao will distance him from the image of the Marquez loss and reestablish him as one of the sport’s most significant attractions. Big fights still loom, such as the showdown with Russian knockout artist Ruslan Provodikov that Top Rank has floated around.
Pacquiao isn’t without motivators of his own. Like Rios, he hears the whispers of the detractors. He hears those who question whether he can bounce back from one of the most crushing knockouts in recent history.
That kind of pressure may be just what Pacquiao needs to reawaken his fighter’s instinct.
“I think the biggest push for me there is that he’s coming off two losses,” said Roach. “He’s coming off a knockout loss that has a lot of people questioning him and they’re questioning if he’s done. Some people would be after a knockout like that, it was devastating.
“But Manny handles things pretty well. That’s in the past. He doesn’t dwell on that; it’s part of the sport, he knows that, he accepts it. Not everybody thinks that way.”
Photos by Chris Farina-Top Rank; Al Bello-Getty Images