- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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When last seen in the ring in December 2012, Manny Pacquiao appeared on his way, at long last, to a definitive victory against his great rival, Juan Manuel Marquez.
They had already fought three blazing fights, and each ended in a controversial outcome -- a draw in the first match followed by two razor-close decision wins for Pacquiao, boxing's only eight-division titleholder and one of the sport's all-time greats. In the fourth fight, Pacquiao would finally have a clear win.
Except he didn't.
That's because although Pacquiao was doing damage and seemingly on the verge of an imminent stoppage, Marquez, with blood dripping down his face from a crushed nose, landed a flush right hand in the middle of Pacquiao's face just as the sixth round was coming to an end. Pacquiao never saw the punch coming and dropped hard, face-first, to the mat. He was out cold as Marquez celebrated his biggest victory.
Nearly a year has passed, and Pacquiao is ready to return, but the question is inescapable: Will PacMan ever be the same after suffering such a brutal knockout?
"I forgot already what happened," Pacquiao said.
Maybe, maybe not. An answer should be forthcoming when Pacquiao meets former lightweight titlist Brandon Rios in a scheduled 12-round welterweight showdown on Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET) in the CotaiArena at the Venetian Macao in Macau, China.
Pacquiao and those around him have done their best to brush off the knockout. They say that it has been business as usual throughout his training camp and that he has never looked better.
"I feel like I am 25 years old and training that way," Pacquiao said. "I feel very good. My stamina and my quickness and power are there, and I am very excited about that. "The year off has been good, and I am very excited to get back into the ring and fight and to do it for the fans. I feel very fresh, strong and fast."
Forget about that big knockout loss, he insisted.
"It won't affect me. It's part of boxing," Pacquiao said matter-of-factly. "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I have to move on and think of the next fight. I'm not thinking about the knockout. I am not thinking about what happened in my last fight. It's not the first time it happened in my boxing career."
Indeed, when Pacquiao was a 17-year-old flyweight prospect in 1996, he was drilled in the third round by Rustico Torrecampo in a major upset. And in 1999, a weight-drained Pacquiao, who had been stripped of his flyweight world title for not making weight the day before, was stopped in the third round on a body punch by Medgoen Singsurat.
"That's boxing," Pacquiao said. "I am not going to complain or worry about what happened. That's boxing."
When asked if he had gone back and watched the video of Marquez knocking him out -- something no fighter likes to see, especially when it's as violent as the Marquez shot -- Pacquiao didn't hesitate with his answer.
"I saw the replay," he said. "I saw the replay, and it just happened. That's boxing."
That has been his refrain, or some variation thereof, throughout the buildup to the fight with Rios, and Pacquiao (54-5-2, 38 KOs) at least sounds convincing.
So does Freddie Roach, the fighter's Hall of Fame trainer, who has said numerous times that if he saw slippage in Pacquiao's performance or during training camp that he would talk to his fighter about retirement.
"If I see he is slowing down and slipping in the fight, I will be the first one to tell him," Roach said. "We have an agreement that I will tell him that and he will retire. I don't see him slipping in the gym at this moment, and he's doing really well. He's fired up and anxious to get back in the ring, and I see good things. If things don't go well, we will talk about retirement and going into politics full time or something like that."
So far the talk hasn't been necessary because Roach said Pacquiao has looked as good as ever while preparing for the Rios fight, even as he dealt with the devastating impact of Typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged his beloved Philippines toward the end of his camp (although where he was training wasn't affected).
"He has definitely put the knockout behind him," Roach said. "Manny Pacquiao knows that the knockout is part of the sport. He realizes that if you aren't able to handle the knockout, you picked the wrong sport. He is totally recovered and is brave as ever in the ring."
Maybe he has recovered, but it has been a little more than two years since Pacquiao has had his hand raised in victory, going back to his third fight with Marquez on Nov. 12, 2011. In his next fight, in June 2012, Pacquiao was on the losing end of a hugely controversial split decision to Timothy Bradley Jr., a loss that cost him the welterweight world title.
A third loss in a row, on the heels of a bad knockout, could spell the end. Nobody knows that more than the 34-year-old Pacquiao, who will earn at least $18 million for this fight -- money that he doesn't have to pay taxes on in Macau.
"I want to prove to everyone that I still can fight like the old Manny Pacquiao," he said. "I need to restore the public's confidence in me and my abilities. It's important that this be an impressive victory."
Rios (31-1-1, 23 KOs) appears to be the perfect opponent for Pacquiao to be impressive against. He is a straight-ahead brawler who is moving up a weight class. Although he is regarded as having a good chin and a huge heart, his defense is porous, to be generous, and he is slow. But he's also confident.
"I'm retiring Pacquiao," Rios said. "I said it before and I'll say it again: Pacquiao's time is over. Marquez took the last bit of life out of him. I'm going to get all of that Manny money when I win and get ready for my next fight."
Rios has embraced his underdog role.
"Everybody looks at me as a punching bag, but that's alright," said Rios, who will earn a career-high $4 million. "[Trainer] Robert [Garcia] and I are going in with a great game plan and we are going to shock the world and show them what kind of a fighter I am. We are just ready, man. To be honest with you, I don't care what people think, if I have a chance or not.
"I am just going to prove everybody wrong. And that's good; they are not giving me credit. That makes me train harder and gives me the drive to show them and shut them up."
Having pored over video of Rios' fights, Roach disagrees.
"The more I see of Rios in the tapes, the better I feel," he said. "He's just a tough guy, and tough guys don't win fights. Manny can outbox him and he can do it with ease."
Like Pacquiao, Rios, 27, of Oxnard, Calif., is also coming off a loss, a hard-fought decision in March against Mike Alvarado in a rematch of a previous Rios knockout win. Their rematch in a junior welterweight world title fight ranks as one of the leading fight of the year candidates. But because Rios lost, he is also looking for redemption.
"I love it when they doubt me and I can prove them wrong," Rios said of being an underdog. "I proved them wrong against [Anthony] Peterson. I did it again against [Miguel] Acosta. I did it with [Urbano] Antillon and I did it with Alvarado. So I'll be ready."
Rios said his mindset is that he is taking on the prime Pacquiao, not a guy who was flattened last time.
"I'm ready for the Pacquiao that was dominating the game," Rios said. "That's the guy I'm ready for. I am not looking at his last fight when he got knocked out by Marquez. That could happen to anybody. That could happen to me. We cannot go in thinking Pacquiao is done, he's old."
Pacquiao knows that there are many, however, who do believe that's the case.
"I'm inspired now because they think my boxing career is over," he said. "But I tell you this: It's not done yet. If you don't want to lose, then don't box, don't fight. I lost. It's OK, I lost. I'm not thinking, 'Oh, my next fight, I'm scared I'm gonna get hit again.' No, I'm not thinking about that."
Roach believes Pacquiao can fight like the Pacquiao of old, rather than an old Pacquiao. The trainer points to the fact that before the stoppage against Marquez, Pacquiao was fighting brilliantly.
"Manny was fighting one of the best fights he has fought in a long time at the time he fell into the punch," Roach said. "If Manny had waited one second more, Manny was going to win that fight by knockout. Nothing carried over. Manny has looked great in training. I know people are skeptical about him, but knockouts are what they are. Manny Pacquiao is a realist. He understands it is part of the sport.
"So he accepts that, and I don't think it's going to affect him at all. But we probably won't know until the fight."