No one knows quite yet when Manny Pacquiao will return to a boxing ring, but it's clear his next bout will be the most critical of his career. The Filipino legend is coming off consecutive losses for the first time in his career, with the most recent being a Dec. 8 knockout at the hands of Juan Manuel Marquez.
While there was some retirement speculation initially after Pacquiao's loss to Marquez, the 34-year-old southpaw has put that to rest. He will return to the ring and look to reclaim his crown as the world's best pound-for-pound fighter.
It's just unclear when Pacquiao will fight again or against whom. Marquez looks like the most logical choice, but the battle over the almighty dollar has come in the way of logic plenty of times in the past (see: Mayweather, Floyd).
So with that in mind, here is a look at a few of Pacquiao's most likely opponents for his next fight, whenever that may be.
Timothy Bradley (29-0-0, 12 KOs)
After Bradley defeated Pacquiao via a controversial split decision last June, many expected it to be him, not Marquez, who would be Pac Man's opponent in December. Based on the fact that Bradley took the remainder of 2012 off and is now scrambling to close up a non-pay-per view bout with Ruslan Provodnikov for March, it seems like his camp did as well.
Bradley is obviously a choice that would be a last-ditch resort for Pacquiao. Though he is the current WBO welterweight champion and is without a blemish on his record, the layoff did little to keep him in the national lexicon.
What was once viewed as a crowning achievement for the American has become an afterthought—especially after Pacquiao was cold-clocked by Marquez.
However, there is little chance that Pacquiao goes off the beaten path with his next opponent. He needs to face off against someone with mainstream stature, whether it's a previous opponent or a fighter who holds clout in their own right.
Bradley definitely has the former, and if he can stay undefeated against Provodnikov, then there may be some intrigue. With Bradley's schedule likely reopening around September (assuming he fights in March), the timing may just be too good to pass up.
Floyd Mayweather (43-0-0, 26 KOs)
This couldn't be a possible opponents list for Pacquiao without the obligatory Mayweather mention. The two have been doing the media tussle for years now, only to continually disappoint fans by failing to meet in the squared circle.
While some thought that Pacquiao's loss to Marquez would once again put a matchup against Mayweather on the back burner, that may not actually be the case. Roger Mayweather spoke with HustleBoss.com's Chris Robinson on Feb. 1 and said that a Pacquiao fight is still very much on the table.
“The Pacquiao fight has to happen with Floyd,” said Mayweather. “People want to see it. People don’t care whether he got knocked out. Floyd will knock him out and that’s the fight they want to see.”
Whether that can happen for Pacquiao's next fight remains to be seen. Mayweather is expected to take on Robert Guerrero on May 4, and he has only fought one time in each of the past four years.
However, if Leonard Ellerbe is to be believed, Mayweather actually plans on bucking his recent trend and fighting twice in 2013. The first would come in May, as expected, with the second coming on Sept. 14.
If Team Pacquiao winds up officially taking April off the table, then September has long been thought to be a backup option. With Mayweather gearing up for two fights in 2013, Pacquiao may well serve as the perfect capper opponent.
Juan Manuel Marquez (50-6-1, 40 KOs)
A fifth fight has long been the most likely and sensible option for Marquez and Pacquiao. The fourth iteration caused arguably the biggest boxing ripple in the mainstream in years, although some of that certainly had to do with the never-ending supply of knockout memes.
If the two meet in the ring for a fifth time, it would certainly have the pre-fight hype that the fourth iteration lacked. Though the result certainly raised eyebrows in the mainstream, there was a noticeable "meh" reaction in both the boxing and mainstream world when the fourth fight was announced.
Pacquiao and Marquez wouldn't have that problem this time around. From the moment Pacquiao hit the canvas, mainstream and hardcore fans alike have been clamoring for a fifth installment of the series.
That means a hefty paycheck for both fighters and a chance for Pacquiao to exact sweet revenge. The southpaw was in control throughout much of the fight, but he allowed his aggressive nature to take control and paid the ultimate price.
Luckily, Pacquiao may get to cash in on his unfortunate mistake.
It took a long time for the boxing world to find a "superfight" that would help the mainstream world forget about the seemingly fictional Mayweather-Pacquiao bout. Marquez and Pacquiao's camp would be best served to not screw this one up, both for themselves and the sport as a whole.