It's hard to believe that Filipino star Manny Pacquiao, who previously won 15 consecutive fights spanning seven years, has now lost two fights in a row.
It's harder still to believe that the last time we saw him in a ring, he was snoozing face down on the canvas.
There are more questions surrounding Pacquiao than ever before as he prepares to fight Brandon Rios in China. What did that vicious knockout at the hands of nemesis Juan Manuel Marquez take out of him? How much does he have left? Does he have the same desire to fight that he once had?
Will a victory over Rios allow him to reclaim his superstar status? The answer isn't a simple one. The truth is, it really depends on how he wins.
When the fight was announced this week, it was met with a surprising amount of frustration from many fans, most of whom claim that Rios is tailor-made for Pacquiao to look good against. It's true, Rios won't be dancing around the ring attempting to counter punch.
He'll come straight forward, offer little head movement and try to pound out a victory. Critics of the fight are calling Rios a smaller version of Antonio Margarito. Some criticism might be warranted; Rios has never been in with a fighter as skilled as Pacquiao. He's also coming off an exciting but clear loss to Mike Alvarado.
But if we look closely at Pacquiao, one could argue that he has been far from his old self lately. He hasn't scored a knockout since 2009, and he really hasn't put in a great performance since he fought Margarito at Cowboys Stadium in 2010. That, and he was just vaporized with one punch in December.
It's understandable that he would want a tune-up fight, as some are calling it. But one could tune-up a lot easier than throwing down with Brandon Rios.
So if Manny is to ascend back up the ranks of the boxing world immediately, he'll have to turn in a performance that is nothing short of vintage Pacquiao. Indeed, a close-decision win would do nothing to dispel the notion that he is a sliding fighter.
Not only does he need to win, he needs to win definitively. A smashing, highlight-reel knockout would put Pacquiao back into the realm of the elite. If he's expected to beat Rios—if Rios is nothing more than a smaller fighter who isn't of Pacquiao's stature—then Pacquiao needs to do what great fighters do to good ones—ruin him.
If Pacquiao still has the speed and footwork, and if he isn't gun shy from the knockout, Rios could be in for a brutal night. But Rios won't go away easily, and Manny could very well have to go to war, at least in the early rounds.
That would actually be the best case scenario for Pacquiao—giving the fans an incredible fight before drilling his opponent into the mat with a classic straight left hand.
Pacquiao's status as an elite fighter may be up in the air at this point, but his star power is still shining strong. When an entire country's crime rate disappears when you fight, you're pretty popular. But to prove he's not just a star, but a star who is still an elite fighter, he needs nothing less than a ten count.
The reason that this fight is so compelling is that no one is really sure how much of the old Pacquiao is left or if the only thing left is an old Pacquiao.
If Pacquiao wins in a less than conclusive manner, then clearly he's not the same fighter, and he'll likely never be the same again. In that case it won't matter how many fights he takes after that. But if he can be the first fighter to stop the seemingly steel-chinned Rios, then perhaps there still is some magic left in those fists.
If there was ever a way for him to get the fire back, watching the videos of his last fight where he was left unconscious on the mat should do it. But sometimes, all that's left of a fighter is the fire burning inside, while the rest of him has already burned out.
The truth is that if he's all there, Manny Pacquiao will reaffirm his status as one of the best fighters in the world. If not, at the very least he'll give us one more exciting brawl. As boxing fans, it's a win/win for us.
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