Channeling the PacMan of old

Is Pacquiao still capable of the electrifying in-ring style that once defined him?

Originally Published: April 9, 2014
By Nigel Collins | ESPN.com

"Who bravely dares must sometimes risk a fall."

-- Tobias Smollett

Not long after his Dec. 2012 knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez, Manny Pacquiao strolled into the swank Sofitel Philippine Plaza Hotel in Manila, surrounded by a cluster of bodyguards and assorted functionaries. The occasion was the 13th Annual Gabriel "Flash" Elorde Awards and Banquet of Champions, sponsored by the family of the late junior lightweight champion. It's Filipino boxing's biggest social event of the year and Manny, as is invariably the case, was the center of attention.

Except for an old scar that runs diagonally through his right eyebrow, Pacquiao showed no overt signs of his occupation. Nevertheless, the burden of representing the hopes and dreams of the impoverished people of his homeland seemed to have taken a toll of another kind. His brown eyes darted around the ballroom, as a swarm of people tried to push past his entourage, yelling his name and jostling for attention. It has been like this for more than 10 years. Everybody wants a piece of Pacquiao, even in defeat.

"It's got to the point where it's almost impossible to speak with Manny," said Ted Lerner, an American journalist who lives in the Philippines and has known Pacquiao since the beginning of his career. "But as he passed, I called his name and he stopped, turned around and leaned in close so he could hear me.

"I told him that after he got up following the third-round knockdown in the last Marquez fight, he turned into the old Manny Pacquiao for the next three rounds -- the one who used to go for the knockout every time he fought. When he heard that, his face lit up with that child-like grin of his, and he said. 'That was it, Ted! Wasn't it?'"

[+] EnlargePacquiao/Manuel Marquez
Al Bello/Getty ImagesFor three rounds against Juan Manuel Marquez in their December 2012 fourth fight, Manny Pacquiao transformed into the PacMan of old.

Yes it was, Manny. Yes it was. I'm only guessing, of course, but Lerner's remark was probably the first honest words Pacquiao had heard about the fight since he returned to the Philippines. Everybody had been fawning over him, making excuses and saying it was a "lucky punch" or that he tripped over Marquez's foot. It started at a homecoming news conference and has continued unabated, fueled by the pro-Pacquiao media, eager to ride the PacMan gravy train as long as possible.

Lerner's comment was not only true; it contained a legitimate ray of hope. Sure, Pacquiao ultimately lost in spectacular fashion, but for a few rounds he had indeed reverted to the style that made him rich and famous. Although this was overshadowed in the excitement of Marquez's one-punch knockout, it suggested that the predator still lived somewhere inside of Pacquiao, like a sleeping tiger waiting for someone to rattle his cage.

Pacquiao was a kid from the streets who fought with an abandon born of desperation. He flung himself into battle with little or no regard for his personal safety, overwhelming opponents with sheer aggression and a left hand from hell. It was a style that Filipino fans adored and one that would eventually carry him to the pinnacle of his profession. His cavalier attitude had its roots in his poverty-stricken childhood -- he had nothing to lose and fought accordingly.

Although trainer Freddie Roach gradually refined his style -- improving his right hand, footwork and upper-body movement -- Pacquiao retained the same daredevil attitude in and out of the ring as he tore through eight divisions like a shark in a goldfish pond. Manny's modus operandi was to fight like there was no tomorrow and party just as hard. It's a common theme among great fighters from Stanley Ketchel and Mickey Walker to Aaron Pryor and Mike Tyson, and is intrinsic to who they were and how they fought.

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Chris Cozzone/AFP/Getty ImagesAs Pacquiao's life began to mellow with age outside of the ring, fans began to see less and less of the daredevil attitude that was once his calling card.

It's understandable, perhaps inevitable, that prosperity and the passing of time have changed Pacquiao. Outside the ring, politics and religion have replaced gambling and drinking. Instead of extramarital affairs and late nights out on the town, he has rededicated himself to his marriage and spends a lot of time reading the Bible. This transformation is all well and good, but you can't separate the fighter from the man. They are a reflection of one another, and as Manny mellowed, so has his lust for total domination.

It was no coincidence that Pacquiao's less belligerent ring persona coincided with his gradual retreat from a hedonistic lifestyle. The first hint came during the second half of the Miguel Cotto bout. After exchanging wicked blows early in the fight, Pacquiao scored two knockdowns and assumed full control. As the fight progressed, Cotto absorbed an appalling amount of punishment, and several times down the stretch Pacquiao looked at referee Kenny Bayless imploringly, reluctant to punish his rival more than necessary.

Few would have guessed, however, that when Bayless finally ended Cotto's suffering with less than a minute remaining in the fight, Pacquiao would go more than four years (and counting) without scoring another knockout.

To one degree or another, "Merciful Manny" was a factor in a number of post-Cotto bouts. Joshua Clottey, Antonio Margarito, Shane Mosley and Timothy Bradley Jr. all appeared to benefit from Pacquiao's tendency to ease up after he had the fight well in hand. Whether a more vigorous finish would have altered the outcome of the Bradley fight is debatable, especially with judges Duane Ford and C.J. Ross wielding pencils.

It's also a possibility that Pacquiao has been compelled to coast home in recent years in order to compensate for his age and the wear and tear of a 19-year professional career. He would not be the first aging fighter to attempt extending his career by changing his methodology. Former foe Marco Antonio Barrera, for example, prolonged his time at the top by boxing more and slugging less.

Pacquiao's fight with Brandon Rios certainly looked like the beginning of a late-career metamorphosis. It was a polished, almost flawless performance that focused more on speed, footwork and upper-body movement than relentless aggression. Pacquiao ducked, dodged or blocked most of Rios' offerings and scored frequently with jolting punches of his own. But he abstained from the toe-to-toe stuff and never really tried to finish his man.

Yes, Rios was relatively unsophisticated compared to most of Pacquiao's recent adversaries, but he was tough, determined and packed a dangerous punch. If nothing else, the landslide decision in Pacquiao's favor put to rest talk of him being gun-shy.

Still, you've got to ask yourself whether the same sort of approach would be good enough to beat the quicker, far more skillful Bradley. Fighting "smart," as some have advised, is tantamount to "fighting not to lose." He's Manny Pacquiao, for crying out loud, not Floyd Mayweather Jr.

It's perfectly acceptable for Mayweather to win every round but fail to stop his opponent. No knockout, no problem. That's what people have come to expect when Floyd fights, and as long as he keeps winning, his formidable constituency will be along for the ride.

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Chris Farina/Top RankPacquiao and trainer Freddie Roach have promised, once again, a more aggressive PacMan in Saturday's rematch with Timothy Bradley Jr.

It doesn't work like that for Manny. He rose to fame as a happy assassin whose ferocious assaults left foes sprawled on the canvas. Winning almost every round is not enough when it comes to Pacquiao. People have become addicted to the raw violence of his earlier years and the visceral rush it gave them. Nothing less will do.

"Maybe I have been too kind to my opponents," allowed Pacquiao, when asked about the absence of knockouts since 2009.

Throughout the buildup to Saturday's rematch at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Bradley and Pacquiao have stayed on script. There has been much ado concerning whether Pacquiao has lost his "killer instinct." Bradley is positive he has, and Pacquiao said he hasn't and will prove it in the rematch. It's a tune that has been in such heavy rotation, it sounds played out, even when Liev Schreiber of HBO's "24/7: Pacquiao-Bradley II" is saying it.

Much more revealing was an exchange between Pacquiao and Roach that took place in the dressing room after the first Bradley fight, which was caught on camera and used in Episode 1 of the "24/7" episodes.

Pacquiao, flushed from battle and still dressed in his ring togs, held up his forefinger in front of Roach's face and said, "What did I tell you? I told you he would run."

Roach laughed and replied, "Yes, you told me that, and I said no." Then, still laughing, he added, "The next fight he's going to run the whole time."

Manny grabbed his head with both hands in mock horror and buried it in the towel he was holding.

One would assume Bradley plans to fight in the speedy, cerebral style he used to outpoint Marquez, rather than endure another grueling slugging match like the one he had with Manny's old sparring partner, Ruslan Provodnikov. This time around, however, the style in which Bradley fights might not be the crux of the matter. How Pacquiao fights very well could.

[+] EnlargeManny Pacquiao
JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty ImagesCritics of Manny Pacquiao point to his turning to politics as the tipping point toward his shift in focus from winning fights to winning elections.

Roach and Pacquiao have been making the same old promises they've been making for the last few years: Manny's going to be more aggressive. Manny's going to throw a lot more punches. Sounds good in theory, but so far intent alone has not been enough to change the status quo.

Lerner said there's no doubt in his mind that Pacquiao's plunge into the byzantine and treacherous world of Filipino politics was the tipping point, when his focus shifted from winning fights to winning elections. Boxing became a means to an end, a way to pay for everything else.

Regardless of his mindset going into the Bradley rematch, there's a reasonably good chance that the 35-year-old Pacquiao is past the point of no return, physically incapable of doing what he did so splendidly in the past. On the other hand, it was only two fights ago when he teased us (and tormented Marquez) with a handful of rounds in which he looked an awful lot like the Manny of old.

When Marquez dropped Manny on the seat of his trunks in the third round, something primordial kicked in and the go-for-broke PacMan emerged from hibernation. Naturally, no fighter goes into the ring wanting to get buzzed in the early going, but if that tiger within can be roused and still has all its teeth, such an occurrence might not be the worst thing that could happen to Pacquiao on Saturday.

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