Manny Pacquiao's evolution as a fighter has come so far that he will have to get back to his roots to find success against his April 12 opponent Timothy Bradley.
Bradley himself helps highlight this. Following Pacquiao's last fight, a victory via unanimous decision over Brandon Rios, Yahoo Sports' Kevin Iole passed along the following Bradley quote:
Manny didn't look the same against Rios. He didn't have his usual killer instinct. That's the first thing I noticed. I don't think he has the hunger anymore and it's never coming back. He no longer has his killer instinct.
Pacquiao (55-5-2, 38 knockouts) will have a chance to prove Bradley wrong when he attempts to avenge his controversial loss to Bradley in 2012 when the two meet for the WBO Welterweight Championship at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada.
For the 35-year-old Pacquiao, this fight will show the world whether his evolution as a fighter has him on the inevitable downward trend or if he's still one of the sport's dominant figures.
Meanwhile, Bradley (31-0, 12 KOs) is not only trying to add legitimacy to his victory over Pacquiao, but to his legacy as well. Considering he is undefeated in his 31 fights, it's an odd position for him to be in. Still, Bradley is 30, and the quality of his performance in this fight will play a large role in his drawing power for the latter stage of his career.
Let's start by looking in on Pacquiao. After all, the Filipino legend has had one of the more interesting evolutions in the sport.
Pac-Man built his reputation and titles with a fierce attack. He has always been a wonderful combination of speed and power. He has used these tools to win titles in an unprecedented eight different weight classes.
His ability to overwhelm opponents led him to his first title by the age of 19. It also led to slow development of other skills. Pacquiao relied heavily on his left for the early part of his career, and he didn't seem to care about defense.
Although he was able to ride that style to championship belts and fame, Pac-Man still hadn't reached his dominant best.
Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach has been instrumental in Pacquiao's evolution. The two began working together in 2001, but it wasn't until 2008 that Pacquiao really found his right.
As Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix notes, Roach believes "everything just came together" in a 2008 fight against David Diaz. "That night," Roach added, "Manny learned that all the stuff we had been working on could work for him in a fight."
Pacquiao added a deadly right to his arsenal while maintaining his all-out attacking style. It was that attacking style with little regard for defense that helped make Pacquiao so effective and popular. It was the display of that killer instinct that Bradley says is now gone.
Bradley's claim is not without merit. Pacquiao hasn't finished a fight since stopping Miguel Cotto in late 2009. He hasn't even been all that close to a stoppage in three years.
That lack of a drive for the finish left him vulnerable to losing the controversial decision that handed Bradley the victory in their first fight.
Whatever edge Pacquiao had left after that fight got rounded off during the vicious knockout Pacquiao suffered against longtime rival Juan Manuel Marquez.
After the two straight losses, Pacquiao showed up for his fight against Rios as a different fighter. Famed boxing commentator Larry Merchant, via The Ring's Lem Satterfield, offered up this assessment of Pacquiao's performance and how it will translate against Bradley:
In that fight, against Rios, he fought just as a boxer. But he's not going to be able to beat Bradley just as a boxer. …
The question is whether he can make as big a change in doing that as he would have to beat Bradley. The question for Manny is whether he will have the ability and the fire to force a fight, and to return a little bit to his previous incarnations.
Pacquiao is not oblivious to all of this. As Satterfield notes, Pacquiao has vowed to have his "killer instinct" back for this fight. He's going to need it.
Bradley's Quiet Ascent
Timothy Bradley's evolution is a tiny journey compared to Pacquiao's. That is a big reason why Bradley has not garnered anywhere near the attention of Pacquiao.
Bradley is an excellent boxer. He doesn't put himself in a lot of risk, and he doesn't go for knockouts. He fights smart and hard, and he does it for a full fight. Bradley, however, has never been forced to change his style because he has never been forced out of his comfort zone.
Bradley's resume lacks the kind of elite opponents that it would take for him to be a legendary fighter.
In the quotes captured by Satterfield, Merchant had this to say about Bradley: "Bradley wins every place that he goes. If there is any resistance, he wears you out. He's a damn good fighter."
Bradley has been stepping out of his comfort zone. His fight with Pacquiao was an obvious step up. Then, in his last two fights, the 30-year-old has gone out and put on two wonderful fights that saw him more eager to brawl.
He outpointed Ruslan Provodnikov via close unanimous decision last March, and it was a brutal bout that most felt was the fight of the year.
He followed that up with an excellent performance in a split-decision victory over Marquez. Bradley wasn't looking to go toe-to-toe in that fight, but he followed a smart and aggressive fight plan against the counterpunching specialist.
Pacquiao will be standing there waiting for Bradley if Desert Storm wants to go punch for punch. We'll see if Bradley has evolved into a fighter who welcomes a brawl or one who wants to outbox his opponent.
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