What a difference a year-and-a-half makes.
When Michael Buffer stepped through the ropes at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 9, 2012, he held in his hands a piece of paper that would rock the sport of boxing and evoke a firestorm that reverberated across the entire sports world.
When the words "split decision" escaped his lips, you could almost hear the collective gasp of millions of boxing fans across the globe, and when the words "and new" were read, that shock turned instantly to outrage.
On that night, Manny Pacquiao did enough to beat Timothy Bradley in the eyes of virtually everyone watching in the arena and at home on television. The only two people he failed to convince—judges Duane Ford and the recently stepped-down C.J. Ross—were, unfortunately for him, the only opinions that mattered.
It was almost farcical, when in the immediate aftermath of that bogus decision, all parties involved began dropping the word rematch.
You could certainly understand it from the fighters' point of view. Pacquiao certainly had the right to feel he had gotten jobbed by a pair of incompetent judges. His desire to right a wrong is easily defensible.
And Bradley was already receiving a fair amount of flak for the biggest—at least on paper—victory of his career. And, of course, there was also the issue of his desire to collect a huge payday for the second consecutive fight.
But as far as the public was concerned, this was a non-starter from the minute it was floated. It was almost insulting to ask fans, many of whom had just shelled out upward of $60 to watch a fight, to pay again when the fight seemed so one-sided and the wrong guy won.
In the public's perception, Pacquiao may have ended up with a loss on his official ledger, but the fans understood that he was the real winner on that night.
It certainly didn't help that the decision was panned across social media by fans, media, current and former fighters, and stars from other sports.
I dont even know what to say.— Dan Rafael (@danrafaelespn) June 10, 2012
No, that fight wasn't ripe then, and it remained a serious question of whether it would ever be so.
Amazing as it seems, and given all that has happened since, the fight is not only ripe today, but it's one that Pacquiao simply cannot afford to avoid.
When you look at the potential options for Pacquiao's next fight—currently slated for April 12, 2014—you always seem to settle on the same three options.
Juan Manuel Marquez knocked out Pacquiao in December of 2012 after going 0-2-1 against him in their previous four bouts. A rematch would obviously be intriguing and highly lucrative, but he has, thus far, maintained that he's content to end the series with the knockout and has no plans to fight a fifth time.
Ruslan Provodnikov earned his nickname, "The Siberian Rocky," with an aggressive style based on landing as many punches as possible without regard to how many come back his way. He's a fresh face and a potentially explosive stylistic matchup, but both are trained by Freddie Roach and have become close friends.
Instead, the Russian appears on course to defend his 140-pound title against Brandon Rios sometime early next year.
That leaves Bradley as practically the last man standing, and that's not a bad thing.
Heading into their first bout, "Desert Storm" was something of an insider pick to score the upset. A lot of that had to do with his quickness, high boxing IQ and toughness.
And despite what appeared to be a pretty lopsided defeat, Bradley certainly enhanced his toughness quotient among fans by fighting the majority of rounds with two bad legs.
Granted, it certainly didn't help the perception of the decision that the victor appeared at the post-fight press conference in a wheelchair.
But to stand in there for 12 full rounds against a fighter the caliber of Pacquiao with two bad legs is an impressive feat unto itself.
Since that fateful night, the career trajectories of both men have taken drastically different paths. Pacquiao went on to lose his next fight—decisively—and then take nearly a year away from the sport before shredding an overmatched foe, while Bradley has been extremely impressive against two high-level opponents.
In March—after his own long layoff—Bradley would defeat Provodnikov by a razor-thin unanimous decision to retain the welterweight belt he lifted from Pacquiao. The fight—unlike many previous Bradley affairs—had a great mix of action and drama, with the champion eating serious leather but refusing to back down in a slugfest with the Russian.
When he chose to box, Bradley was light years better than his foe. But he often chose to fight at close quarters and had to survive a final-round knockdown to win the fight. You can argue the strategic decisions made in the fight, but it clearly showed that Bradley has the ability to compete outside of his normal comfort zone and win.
It was a huge boost in terms of his popularity and marketability.
He then moved on to fry an even bigger fish in October, besting Marquez by a substantially less controversial split decision.
Now, you'll find those who would argue that Bradley is lucky to not to have gotten the short end of the stick in each of his past three fights. It's true—as has been gone over ad nauseum—that the Pacquiao verdict was bogus, but his victories over Provodnikov and Marquez were close but justifiable.
Not every close fight is a robbery, and you can easily make the case that Bradley deserved the nods in two of those three affairs. When you face that level of opposition in succession, winning even two of three is a substantial accomplishment.
Most importantly, in those fights, Bradley proved that he belongs on a world-class level.
In fact, largely as a result, he ranks third on both ESPN.com and The Ring Magazine pound-for-pound lists and on each is rated higher than Pacquiao. Given his rising stock, and the corresponding fall from grace suffered by the Filipino icon, it wouldn't be terribly surprising if Bradley once again entered the fight with more than a few people tagging him as the favorite.
That makes the fight much more meaningful, much more attractive and much more enticing for Pacquiao than it would've been immediately following their June 2012 debacle.
It's exactly the type of fight he needs to re-classify himself as elite and, at the same time, settle an old score.
Bradley deserves a chance to "avenge" their first fight and prove that he can score a clean victory over Pacquiao.
As for Pacquiao, he needs to decisively prove that their first fight was an aberration, and he still has the stuff to compete with the fighters at the very top of the sport.
It's a fight that needs to happen.
For both guys.
But especially for Pacquiao, who is now in the rare situation—at least for him—of needing to prove he still belongs.