Brandon Rios was either going to be the perfect opponent for Manny Pacquiao or the worst imaginable one. It was obvious right away which it would be. Pacquiao, utilizing his fast feet and even faster hands, pitched a shutout in Macau, China, a big first step on the road back to relevance.
Rios, all the experts agreed, was there to be hit. It was a weakness he had turned into a strength of sorts, wading through hell and back, eating punch after punch, for the pleasure of throwing his own.
But it was a weakness nonetheless.
Tops among Paquiao's myriad talents as a boxer has always been his hand speed. He throws punches with reckless abandon, using his incredible footwork and unorthodox angles to confuse opponents before landing power punches. The question was would they have enough on them to stop Rios in his plodding tracks? Did Rios stand the slightest chance against one of the best fighters of his generation?
The answers, quite clearly, were "yes" and "no," respectively. Pacquiao blistered Rios with rights and lefts, punches coming from every imaginable angle and in every conceivable combination.
Of course, Pacquiao was supposed to beat Rios silly. Rios, a limited boxer but a legitimate tough guy, was never going to beat Manny Pacquiao. He's a fighter who, within a couple of years, will be main-eventing bouts on ESPN 2. It was a solid win, but, ultimately, a forgettable one.
So, does beating the likes of Rios mean Manny is back? Does he matter again?
"I feel that," Pacquiao said simply, telling HBO announcer Max Kellerman he wasn't sure what was next, leaving it in the hands of his promoter Bob Arum.
Pacquiao has reason to be confident. He certainly looked like he was a fighter who mattered, landing power punches over and over again over 12 rounds. If he's lost a step, it's only just.
His demise, perhaps, was largely fictional in the first place. Yes, he lost by brutal knockout to Juan Manuel Marquez. Before that, however, he actually beat Timothy Bradley in the eyes of everyone in the world but two of the ringside judges.
He looked like the same fighter against Rios, the same fighter who, over the last decade, has marched through the boxing world, one weight class at a time, collecting title belts, glory and scalps in equal measure.
At each stop, it was thought Pacquiao might finally meet his match, that the undersized Filipino might finally have bitten of more than he could chew. A persistent boxing maxim, after all, had survived the test of time—a good big man beats a good little man every time.
Pacquiao didn't just prove the conventional wisdom wrong. He made it seem downright foolish, becoming an unlikely superstar in the process.
And, at 34, he's still doing it—and presumably will be for some time.
The young fighters who might challenge him like Keith Thurman, Kell Brook and Adrien Broner are safely in the Golden Boy and Showtime camp, as is Floyd Mayweather Jr., Pacquiao's personal white whale.
Among the fighters he might actually step into the ring with, there's no reason he can't run the table. Short of another batch of certifiable judges, he should beat Bradley again in a rematch.
He's beaten Marquez before too. The other likely opponents on Arum's radar, fighters like Ruslan Provodnikov, Mike Alvarado and Miguel Cotto, don't have the speed to keep up with him.
That means, competitively and commercially, Pacquiao is in a good position to remain relevant for a couple of more years minimum. He's still among the biggest stars in boxing, in part because Pacquiao has become much more than a mere fighter.
Pacquiao is a worldwide icon, a star who transcends nationality, able to attract a following in China as easily as he can in the United States. And, in his native homeland in the Philippines, he's something even more.
Pacquiao is not just a rags-to-riches story—he's a bona fide superhero, more myth than man.
Barring a handful of Marquez-style knockouts, Pacquiao should continue to attract a crowd, both to arenas and on pay-per-view. He may not be the best Manny Pacquiao he's ever been—but he's still Manny Pacquiao.
That should be more than enough to matter in today's welterweight scene.
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