Yao Ming, or at least the expression on his face, spoke for many fans as he looked down on the unlikely pairing of Manny Pacquiao and Brandon Rios. Ming may not know enough about boxing to have a solid opinion about the bout, scheduled for November 24 in Macau, China. But those of us who do, boxing's hardcore fans and media, are shaking our heads in wonder.
Can HBO and promoter Bob Arum really pull of this sleight of hand, offering fans hamburger steak but charging them like it's a rib-eye? Time will tell—but they're sure going to try, putting this fight on pay-per-view despite the fact Pacquiao hasn't won a fight since 2011 and Rios dropped a decision in his last contest earlier this year.
"I know that the fans without question are going to want to see the fight. Fans like to see action fights with two guys going balls-to-the-wall, as they say," Arum told Bleacher Report. "Pacquiao and Rios is that kind of fight. Rios only knows how to fight one way, and that's going forward and throwing punches. And Pacquiao is an all-action fighter."
Pacquiao, without question, was one of boxing's brightest stars—"was" being the operative term. Whether he remains so after consecutive losses is an open question.
His legion of fans could ignore his loss last June to Timothy Bradley. They may have even been correct to do so. It came, after all, by way of split decision, a decision openly derided on television and throughout the media. The blame for that one could easily be seen to rest squarely on the shoulders of boxing and its grotesque behind-the-scenes manipulations and shenanigans.
His loss to Juan Manuel Marquez, however, had a more lasting and visceral effect. A blistering right hand sent Pacquiao down and out. So out that referee Kenny Bayless didn't even offer a perfunctory 10 count.
There can be no doubt about it. There were no crooked judges or incompetent referees to blame. When a fighter ends up face-down on the canvas, there is only one man appropriately held responsible—himself.
Of course, a series of losses doesn't necessarily cripple the career of a legitimate box-office draw. Mike Tyson remained in demand long after it was clear that he was no longer a threat to anyone but himself. Oscar De La Hoya continued to blaze new trails to box-office success despite high-profile setbacks against Shane Mosley and Bernard Hopkins. Perhaps Pacquiao belongs in their class: a fighter who maintains his popularity in the face of, or even because of, adversity in the ring.
But even so he requires the right opponent to keep interest up and skeptics at bay. Is that opponent really Brandon Rios, a fighter coming both up in weight and off a nationally televised loss?
Rios faced defeat for the first time in March against Mike Alvarado, a 12-round rematch of their 2012 fight-of-the-year candidate. Rios had been behind on the judges' cards in that first fight before rallying to finish Alvarado in spectacular fashion. In the second bout there would be no comeback.
He's sure to provide fireworks—and an easy target for Pacquiao, who perhaps needs a confidence booster before stepping back in with the best welterweights in the world. Rios gets hit a lot. That's not always the key to success in boxing, but, as Grantland's Jay Kaspian King contends, it is the key to Rios's popular appeal:
This is not to say that Rios is unskilled or lacking in intelligence, but his plodding feet and his static stance offend the eyes of fight fans who see boxing as a brutal, balletic act. His considerable popularity instead comes from his refusal to engage in anything but a brawl — there isn’t a fighter out there who enjoys getting punched in the face more than Rios. Guys like that tend to have short careers marked by epic bouts against other guys like that. After watching his first fight against Mike Alvarado from ringside, I didn’t think much of Rios's chances as a legitimate pound-for-pound contender — sure, he was exciting and he certainly had the ability to put together tight, powerful combinations on the inside, but I couldn’t see him ever beating a fighter who could dictate the pace and the distance of the exchanges. It seemed that if you could just keep your cool and circle around Rios’s slow advance, you could win a pretty easy decision.
Arum admits that Rios's reputation made the fight appealing.
"The fans know they are going to see an action fight and they will see an action fight," Arum said. "Everybody will be pleased."
The promised action fight might, however, be short-lived. There's a good chance Rios gets blown out, especially if the 34-year-old Pacquiao still has it. His trainer Freddie Roach believes that Manny is still at the top of his game, telling Yahoo's Kevin Iole:
The thing is, people look at the losses and they think the reason is that he's getting old. That's not the case, not from what I see. Look, we all thought he beat Bradley, so throw that out. And in the Marquez fight, I thought he was doing well and was looking like he was going to win by knockout when he made a mistake and ran into a shot. That happens. That's boxing. It didn't happen because his skills aren't the same as they used to be. It happened because he made a mistake. It doesn't matter what age you are, you can make a mistake.
If that's true, and Manny is still Manny, Rios doesn't belong in the ring with Pacquiao. He's a lamb being led to the slaughter, albeit a lamb who will walk away with more than $3 million. But if Rios proves he can hang with Pacquiao? Then it simply shows Manny doesn't belong in the ring at all. In fact, Roach told Iole that Manny should retire if he falls short against the likes of Rios.
That's hardly a ringing endorsement of this fight. And there is one other thing worth noting: Pacquiao's historical rival Floyd Mayweather is taking on the very best fighters in the world. If he wants to be considered in the same breath, Pacquiao has to do the same.
And Rios? He doesn't quite make the cut.