Everyone knew that Manny Pacquiao was the superior fighter coming into his welterweight fight with Brandon Rios.
The version of the Filipino icon that retired Oscar De La Hoya, annihilated Ricky Hatton and wore down Miguel Cotto would run right through Rios, despite how rugged the 27-year-old slugger is. However, those fights took place five years ago. Much has changed.
Pacquiao has become a politician. He struggled in his third fight bout with Juan Manuel Marquez. He lost a decision to Tim Bradley. He was knocked out cold by Marquez. So despite his awesome accomplishments, there were questions about Pacquiao.
Does he still have it? Can he still take it? Does he still want to be a prize fighter? Rios was the kind of punishing young warrior who would help us answer those questions.
Yes, Pacquiao still has it, enough to outbox, outwork, outmaneuver and generally outclass Rios over 12 one-sided rounds. Yes, he can still take a shot. Rios wasn’t able to land much, but he connected with enough solid right hands to shake a shot or faded fighter.
Pacquiao (55-5-2, 38 knockouts), who won by scores of 120-108, 119-109 and 118-110, is far from shot. He’s still world class and he still wants to please his legion of fans.
However, he’s not the mini-monster who won 15 consecutive bouts against many of the sport’s top fighters from 2005 to 2011 while climbing from junior lightweight to welterweight.
The soon-to-be 35-year-old veteran moved well against Rios. He put his punches together well from the fifth round on. However, the speed and intensity he had against Marquez just last December was not there.
And even though he was able to hit Rios at will down the stretch of the fight, he never appeared to step on the gas and pursue the stoppage.
Pacquiao says he did attempt to put away Rios (33-2-1, 23 KOs).
“I (tried) to finish the fight,” he told HBO’s Max Kellerman after the fight, “but my opponent is very tough.”
This is true. Rios, who relishes battle and even claims to “love” getting hit, has never been stopped. However, the impetuous version of Pacquiao that won two out of three bouts against Erik Morales or even the volume-punching maniac who kept Joshua Clottey in a defensive shell for 12 rounds would have likely forced a stoppage on Saturday in Macau.
It’s clear that the risk-taking incarnation of Pacquiao is gone.
“I don’t want to get careless in the last round,” he told Kellerman when asked why he appeared to take it easy on his outclassed opponent in the final minutes of the bout, “so I just backed off and just finish the round.”
It was the smart thing to do, especially for someone who has suffered such a devastating knockout in his previous bout. However, a “careful” mentality just doesn’t seem to suit Pacquiao.
The fight wasn’t boring by any stretch of the imagination but compared to his past performances it lacked drama. It was mildly compelling; it wasn’t wildly entertaining.
It wasn’t the kind of fight that leaves fans hungering for more or asking what’s next?
What’s next is probably a showdown with Ruslan Provodnikov. Pacquiao’s promoter Bob Arum floated the idea of his star attraction fighting the hard-charging WBO 140-pound titleholder Ruslan Provodnikov a few days before the Rios bout.
It’s a more competitive fight on paper as the Russian pressure fighter is quicker, more dynamic puncher than Rios, but Ruslan’s scary power is also reason for Pacquiao to box an even safer bout than he did on Saturday.
Pacquiao admitted that he was aware, perhaps even leery, of Rios’ power.
“He hurt me a few times,” he said. “I forgot the round but he hurt me.”
Provodnikov, who almost had Bradley out a few times during their wild fight in March and is coming off a scintillating stoppage of Mike Alvarado last month, could conceivably hurt Pacquiao more than a few times.
Or he could force Pacquiao to box an even more reserved fight than he did against Rios, who he praised during his post-fight interview.
“He’s not an easy opponent,” Pacquiao said of Rios. “He’s a good fighter, a strong fighter.”
Pacquiao proved that he’s better than a good opponent, and his vaunted speed is still enough to befuddle a guy who is merely strong, but he no longer has the look of an “elite” fighter.
Rios would probably disagree with that opinion.
“Manny did a great job,” he said. “I fought one of the greatest fighters in the world besides Mayweather.”
Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather were considered to be on the same level just two and half years ago.
Now they’re not even close.
Photo / Chris Farina-Top Rank