It's interesting how a few years can reshape perspective in the world of boxing. In a land where a fighter is only as good as his last performance, there are few truths in the sport that aren't built on perception.
So while Top Rank promoter Bob Arum spends this week in the Philippines with Manny Pacquiao picking over a list of three potential November opponents for the fighter to choose from, the best option -- for boxing, at least -- might not seem so apparent.
There's the fight we think we want (Juan Manuel Marquez), the fight we know we don't want (Timothy Bradley Jr.) and the fight that we're convinced we shouldn't want (Miguel Cotto).
Yet after weighing the merits of each against the others, there's just one (surprising) choice that makes the most sense.
Mostly lost in Pacquiao's 12th-round TKO of Cotto in November 2009 -- the apex of the Filipino star's implausible run through four weight classes in less than three years -- was an opening four rounds that had the makings of an all-time great action bout.
Let's take a look back at the highlights from this high-level slugfest:
ROUND 1: While the opening round provided the least amount of toe-to-toe action among the fight's first four, it was equally intriguing. Cotto controlled the round with a thudding, accurate jab that snapped Pacquiao's head back in the opening seconds and consistently moved him backward. Cotto also established the legitimacy of his hand speed by stinging Pacquiao with counter hooks. It took Pacquiao, who rallied in the final 30 seconds, nearly two full minutes to land his first clean shot in a round dominated by Cotto.
ROUND 2: Pacquiao landed a string of lead left hands early, which slowed the use of Cotto's jab considerably. The round -- and ultimately the tenor of the fight -- hit a turning point with 1:45 to go when Pacquiao landed consecutive flush combinations. It was vintage PacMan: at his most dangerous when attacking from deceiving angles. Cotto responded immediately by stepping up his intensity, and the result was breathtaking two-way action highlighted by Cotto's hard left hooks to the side of the head (Pacquiao's right ear required draining after the fight due to a blood clot.) Cotto's premature entry into fight-or-flight mode, however, came with a cost by playing perfectly to the strength of his quicker, countering opponent. Pacquiao's granite chin was supremely tested, and it passed with flying colors.
ROUND 3: Cotto found early success by returning to his jab. Pacquiao responded in the ensuing minute with an immaculate display of boxing, darting in and out to land a series of stiff shots. The punches set up a stunning three-punch combination to the head and body (so quick that the punches appeared to land simultaneously), which Cotto never saw coming. The final punch -- a short right hook -- floored Cotto with ease, although it stunned him more with confusion than power. A resilient Cotto regained his feet and continued to brawl, snapping Pacquiao's head back with a vicious uppercut to dramatically close the round.
ROUND 4: The action was amplified as both fighters gave as good as they received for nearly three full minutes in the center of the ring. If this wasn't the most exciting round of the fight -- and arguably the year -- it was just as good as the previous two. Twice Pacquiao was forced to fight his way off the ropes in a violent, two-way drama that also proved to be Cotto's last stand as a threat to hurt his opponent. Pacquiao's half-hook, half-uppercut with 25 seconds to go nearly decapitated Cotto en route to the canvas. It was the single most devastating punch of the fight, capping a wildly entertaining four rounds.
Pacquiao went on to pitch a virtual shutout over the final eight rounds as a wounded Cotto never recovered from the early onslaught. Talk of a rematch by Arum at different points over subsequent years were rightfully dismissed by fans as a potential money-grab for Top Rank.
But time is a tricky thing, and just enough of it has gone by to help redefine what we now consider to be the reality of the fighters' current levels.
With their first fight contested at a catchweight of 145 pounds, there's no telling the impact it had on the naturally bigger Cotto. (Arum said he believes Pacquiao would be willing to do a potential rematch at 150 pounds.)
Pacquiao is also clearly not the same dynamic force who once steamrolled Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Cotto in consecutive bouts, as evidenced by his past three fights. At 33, Pacquiao not only has been unable to duplicate the same relentless pace for full rounds, which was once his staple, he also noticeably faded in the second half against Shane Mosley and Bradley.
Cotto, meanwhile, appears completely removed from the version of the fighter who had been labeled damaged goods in the aftermath of a brutal loss to Antonio Margarito, and has rebuilt his confidence at 154 pounds.
At 31, Cotto has seen his stock as a fighter soar under new trainer Pedro Diaz, with the duo fresh off an inspired performance in which Cotto roughed up Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a May defeat -- the same fight that a large portion of the general public believed Cotto would be embarrassed in.
A rematch with Bradley would do nothing to advance Pacquiao's legend or the sport. And as much as many would enjoy seeing Marquez get a chance to validate his three impressive showings to date against Pacquiao, a fourth meeting adds little to the legacy of their rivalry.
For fans of both Pacquiao and boxing, the danger in holding on too tightly to the dream of a Mayweather bout is that there's no reason to anticipate a change in the poor matchmaking that has slowly wasted a good bit of Pacquiao's prime.
In Cotto's recent bout with Mayweather, we were reminded just how exciting and galvanizing a marquee fight with two crossover stars who never fail to deliver can be for the sport. Pacquiao and Cotto have an opportunity to do the same thing.
Three years ago, they gave us a sample of an explosive meeting between all-time greats. The plotlines surrounding them may have changed, but a high-profile rematch that promises excitement just might represent the best fight that realistically can be made.