There would be no controversy this time around. No C.J. Ross. No befuddled looks from the crowd. No jettisoning of one of the world's best boxers to also-ran status.
Manny Pacquiao got the job done this time against Timothy Bradley, earning the unanimous-decision victory many thought he earned in June 2012, when Bradley captured the WBO Welterweight title with a split-decision victory. Pacquiao, dominant throughout and displaying an aggression missing in his first fight with Bradley, recaptured the strap with a 118-110, 116-112 and 116-112 decision from the judges at the MGM Grand Saturday night
For most, it was a bit of a redemptive decision. Pacquiao came in, conquered and this time left an unassailable performance on the table. There was no judge malfeasance this time around—mostly because the two fighters were separated to such a degree it'd be impossible to turn in a scorecard favorable to Bradley.
"You deserved it," Bradley said to Pacquiao, per Yahoo! Sports' Kevin Iole. "You won the fight."
Pacquiao (56-5-2, 38 KOs) has won two straight fights since his knockout at the hands of Juan Manuel Marquez in December 2012. Few would categorize the 35-year-old Filipino as being at his peak inside the squared circle, but it's clear he's still a class above a majority of the fighters worldwide. At least those not named Floyd Mayweather.
The first Bradley-Pacquiao fight was defined by its wild error in judging. The second was defined by Pacquiao's continued re-insertion into the national conversation, whereby rumors about a Mayweather fight are certain to pop up.
The two most famous faces in the sport have stoked the fires of the rivalry for years. Both have called each other out publicly. Both have seemingly backed away at different junctures when it looked like a fight was imminent. Both have a whole lot of money built into a cottage industry of creating hype around events that, frankly, rarely live up to their pre-fight standing.
Pacquiao made a minimum of $20 million for Saturday night's bout, per ESPN's Dan Rafael, which seems like and is a heaping pile of cash. But it's one that actually represents Pacquiao's shaky reputation at this point. He took a $6 million pay cut in guaranteed cash from the pair's first fight. Bradley took $1 million less than the $7 million he raked in 17 months ago.
The final figures for both fighters will be determined by pay-per-view buys but considering the relative lack of hype surrounding the bout, it's hard to say just how much the pair will earn. Pacquiao carries the worldwide buys, of course. Bradley, who is widely known in the sport as a strong tactical mind but not someone who draws causal eyeballs, probably stands to lose even more of his cache thanks to no longer holding an undefeated record.
Beyond a Mayweather fight, though, the big question coming out of the MGM Grand is whether Pacquiao is "back."
We probably won't know the answer to that for months.
Once viewed by many in the same strata as Mayweather—and to some on a plane higher—Pacquiao's last couple years have done possibly irreparable harm to his brand. His last three fights prior to Saturday night have averaged a paltry 800,000 pay-per-view buys, per Forbes' Kurt Badenhausen. Mayweather has averaged almost double that total, including a record-setting bonanza in his last bout against Saul "Canelo" Alvarez.
There are remnants of a rivalry here. But that's all they are. At this point, few within boxing's hierarchy would argue Pacquiao is the better fighter. He's been very good in consecutive unanimous decision wins over Bradley and Brandon Rios, but there is still a clear difference between who Pacquiao is and who Pacquiao was.
The guy who showed up Saturday was more aggressive, but still in a lot of ways subdued from his peak. Bradley attempted to dictate the action with a series of aggressive habits—almost weirdly deviating from the plan that had allowed him 31 wins before his trip to Vegas. He punched hard and often, though rarely did those attempts land anywhere significant.
"He gave me a good fight. He's not that easy," Pacquiao told reporters. "I listened to my corner about keeping my hands up and timing. He threw a lot of punches. He threw wide, wide, wide hooks. I got hit one time and said it's not good to be careless."
Pacquiao, meanwhile, settled into what could be his late-career destiny. He picked his spots, landed key power punches and rarely looked out of control against the younger fighter. Few would confuse Pacquiao—in his prime capable of wild fits of seeming rage inside the ring—with a Mayweatherian outlook. The two are just far different fighters.
But, at this point, perhaps Pacquiao is finding a comfortable middle ground. One where he can still fight with the world's best without the obsession of knocking their eyes into the back of their heads. The power is still there in fits and starts, but Pacquiao is not able to dominate fights with only his left hand anymore. There needs to be a cogent plan of attack and perhaps that's where Pacquiao went off the rails a bit in his back-to-back losses in 2012.
Going forward, I honestly doubt much about the landscape changes. Pacquiao was still the favorite over Bradley, even though the latter became a popular underdog pick as the fight drew near. Pac-Man is still going to have the second-most cache among boxers internationally, which won't change unless Mayweather somehow loses to Marcos Maidana—a seeming patsy ready to collect his millions of dollars in May.
And while the relative proximity of their fights leaves open the possibility of Mayweather and Pacquiao finally coming together, let's be real here. If it didn't happen when both men were at their peak—when both stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars, regardless of the result—it's probably not happening. The industry of talking about a possible bout has eclipsed the intrigue of the duo actually getting in the ring.
What's next for Pacquiao is, hopefully, a continued late-career renaissance. More stat-padding (and wallet-padding) wins, followed by a firmly-etched place in history. We came into Saturday night wondering whether Pacquiao could atone for arguably the blackest mark on his resume. We left knowing boxing's hierarchy is safely back in place.
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