Let's go back 17 months. Before Manny Pacquiao was robbed of the WBO Welterweight title, partly by a judge who just stepped down from her post. Before the desperation fourth Juan Manuel Marquez fight. Before Marquez showed up looking cut from marble and turned Pacquiao into one big uproarious internet meme.
Seventeen months ago—May of 2012 for those of you without a Gregorian calendar handy—Manny Pacquiao was arguably the best and most influential boxer in the world. Floyd Mayweather wears the crown now, but in that period there were droves of supporters who would verbally flog you for even taking May over Manny.
Pacquiao had the flashy knockdowns. He had enough power to make sand of diamonds.
Pacquiao was also the new(ish) kid on the block. Mayweather has been perhaps the best-known active American boxer from the moment Mike Tyson unlaced his gloves a final time. (The competition is between him and Oscar de la Hoya.) Pacquiao was new famous, a guy beloved by insiders but who hadn't reached that dude status running on a decade when their two paths were expected to collide.
Mayweather-Pacquiao was supposed to save the sport. The oft-negotiated, never-consummated fight seemed (and still seems) perfect. Power versus precision. Aggressive versus calculating. Socially conservative versus burning Benjamins.
Seventeen months can obviously change a ton. For Manny Pacquiao, he's gone from topping pound-for-pound lists to staring at a career on the brink. His loss to Timothy Bradley remains a sham, but a loss nonetheless. And when Marquez, expected to be but a mere patsy on the comeback trail, knocked him unconscious, the entire conversation changed.
Pacquiao is now left to pick up what's left of his career against Brandon Rios, the 27-year-old Lubbock, Texas native who will attempt to give the Pac-Man three straight losses. If you're having trouble locating Rios on your mental rolodex, don't worry—many fans are. Rios is absent from any major publications' pound-for-pound rankings, and hasn't really found a weight-class home yet. This will be the third time he's moved up in class in the past three years.
There will be much pre-fight bluster because, well, that's what happens. But there's no mistaking that the purpose of this fight is a ship-righting for Pacquiao and a money grab for Rios. Pacquiao's camp went looking for the first semi-young patsy who was looking for a chance and a payday and landed on Rios. Had his camp been looking for anything else, Marquez-Pacquiao V would have already been scheduled. Marquez can say he doesn't want a rematch until he's blue in the face, but one has a hard time seeing him refusing a truckload of money.
As it stands, Pacquiao is looking to beat the holy hell out of Rios on Nov. 23 and regain some of the national respect he lost while lying on the canvas last December. It's an understandable move from Pacquiao's camp.
It's also a dangerous one should things go awry. Make no mistake: If Pacquiao loses to Rios or even comes close, his status as one of the world's best fighters and bankable stars dies.
In many ways, the sport has already moved on without him. Marquez and Bradley are headlining their own pay-per-view event this weekend. Mayweather went out, found another foreign-born fighter with a massive following and created a sport-rejuvenating fight by himself—with the drug testing and without having to split the revenue pie down the middle.
Say what you will about Mayweather's battle with Canelo Alvarez—OK, it was an utter evisceration that only held viewers for 12 rounds because, like, that's $70, man—but it proved Mayweather could set records without Pacquiao's help. Money May set the guaranteed purse record and the highest-grossing pay-per-view mark with a completely unproven Canelo Alvarez at his side.
Boxing, for all of its waxing nostalgic about the glory years, is always moving forward. Pacquiao, at age 34, with long-term political aspirations in his native Philippines, would be on the decline of his career whether he had won these past two fights or not. His powerful, lightning-quick hands will soon begins slowing, and with that goes a decent percentage of his effectiveness. Pacquiao has never been mistaken as a masterful in-ring adjuster or tactician, but rather as someone who will leave you with a bloodied face and a rung bell.
These past two losses have damaged that reputation. Two of the three judges say he was out-boxed by the defensive Bradley last June (they were wrong; but they still said it), and then Pacquiao was out-punched by Marquez a half-year later.
The damage was so great after the Marquez bout that Manny's wife, Jinkee, implored her husband to step away from the sport.
"I know he is still (capable) of fighting, but for me there is nothing to prove," Jinkee told USA Today's Jon Saraceno. "He already has eight (title) belts. He can retire—stop—at anytime. I want him to stop now. But he is the one who has the last say. Boxers risk their lives; (some) end up in wheelchairs. I don't want that to happen to Manny.''
There's no questioning the impact that Jinkee has had on Manny's life. He's recommitted to his Catholic faith, stopped drinking and been more active than ever in politics since the couple was on the brink of divorce in 2011. Some people have wondered about how those changes have altered Pacquiao's commitment to the ring. Which, of course, is as insane as it sounds.
But there's no questioning that Pacquiao is at a different place in his life. He's at peace personally, spiritually and has millions of dollars in the bank. No matter the result against Rios, he'll be able to live off his boxing contributions in perpetuity. And that, in theory, should make it easier to walk away.
But if we've learned anything from the Bernard Hopkinses of the world, it's that a boxer never feels his job is finished. There is always one more challenge ahead, droves of more doubters who need proving wrong. For Pacquiao, I think that's driving him more than anything. That and the riches that come with a potential Mayweather bout.
Against Rios, Pacquiao's challenge won't be winning. It'll be proving that he still belongs in that hallowed conversation he was on top of a mere 17 months ago. Another slip-up next month, though? We may be witness to one of the biggest fall from graces in recent boxing history.
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