<
>

Pacquiao transitions into savvy boxer

"The things I used to do; some I won't do no more." -- Guitar Slim

When ESPN's Bernardo Osuna asked Manny Pacquiao about the right-hand rocket from Timothy Bradley Jr. that staggered him in the fourth round, Pacquiao grinned mischievously and rubbed his jaw. "I saw stars," he said without a hint of compunction.

Nine out of 10 boxers in similar circumstances would have denied being hurt. But Pacquiao is so comfortable in his skin that he just laughed and told the truth. Although Pacquiao stayed on his feet this time, when your life is a high-wire act, there are bound to be falls. It's the price you pay for the view from the top.

Pacquiao has experienced life to the max, reaped the whirlwind and come out the other side hungry for more. His unanimous decision victory in Saturday's rematch with Bradley not only righted a wrong, it further reinforced his standing as arguably the most unique boxer of his generation.

Dos Equis' "Most Interesting Man in the World" is just a fantasy figure portrayed by actor Jonathan Goldsmith, part of a clever marketing campaign to link a product to a practically unobtainable lifestyle. Pacquiao, on the other hand, is as real as it gets, and he is the most interesting man I've covered during more than 40 years on the boxing beat.

From superstar boxer and Philippines congressman to mega-pitchman and philanthropist, there are few things Pacquiao hasn't experienced during the first 35 years of his life. Like the imaginary beer salesman, Pacquiao has kept company with a bevy of exotic beauties and survived hair-raising feats of derring-do. Although he's never shot a cue ball out of the mouth of a man lying on a pool table, PacMan is an accomplished stickman who has been known to play billiards from sundown to sunrise. Then there's breeding fighting cocks, making cheesy movies, a karaoke-style singing career, a sitcom called "Show Me Da Manny" and a TV giveaway show called "Manny Many Prizes."

All of the ancillary activities are rooted in Pacquiao's boxing success, and now he is attempting the most difficult challenge of his fighting career: a metamorphosis from whirlwind knockout artist to savvy boxer. It's a transformation only the very best can accomplish, but when they are successful, it can extend their careers and keep them winning well past the point where sticking with their original style would have sent them prematurely shuffling off to Palookaville.

When he could no longer float like a butterfly, Muhammad Ali came up with the rope-a-dope and other stalling tactics to preserve his energy. Bernard Hopkins understood that he was getting too old to punch it out with the best young studs in the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions and figured out a way to win by taking away what his opponents did best. Marco Antonio Barrera held off Father Time for a handful of lucrative years by ditching his macho style and using his neglected boxing skills. It's simply a matter of adaptation or extinction, and Pacquiao shows every indication he's striving for the former.

The pundits who claimed his knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez would send Pacquiao into a debilitating funk badly underestimated his strength of character. Pacquiao shrugged off the Marquez and Bradley defeats as just "part of boxing."

At the highest level, boxers are all fairly equal in ability, and the fighter with the strongest character usually wins. That's why Mike Tyson could never beat Evander Holyfield, no matter how many times they fought. Despite his formidable physical presence and frightening persona, Tyson was never really able to overcome adversity and never came from behind to win.

Pacquiao is made of sterner stuff, a quality that played a substantial role in the Bradley rematch. It's a mindset of which the seeds were planted long before he ever pulled on a pair of boxing gloves.

Bradley's father trained his son to be a boxer, and a damned good one at that. Pacquiao's father ate Manny's dog and deserted the family. Bradley might have had only $12 in his bank account when he flew to England and beat Junior Witter, but Pacquiao stowed away on a freighter when he left Mindanao, arrived in Manila penniless and was temporarily reduced to living on the streets.

It was Pacquiao's emotional resiliency that helped him survive both those turbulent teenage years and Bradley's fourth-round shot. Conversely, when it dawned on Bradley that gunning for the knockout wasn't going to work, he seemed almost paralyzed with indecision and never really found his groove again. Pacquiao, on the other hand, has "seen stars" before and did what he's always done in such circumstances.

"Manny seems to only get serious when he's in trouble," said Ted Lerner, a Philippines-based American journalist. "He buckles down, focuses like a laser and comes back to thrash his opponent. Back in the day, he came off the floor to stop Nedal Hussein and Serikzhan Yeshmagambetov and rallied back to win after Oscar Larios almost took his head off with a left hook."

In a prefight column, I mentioned that it could be to Pacquiao's benefit if he was rocked early, as it might awaken the sleeping tiger within. And that's what happened. Bradley's fourth-round right sent Pacquiao stumbling back a step or two, and as soon as he could clear his head, the tiger emerged from his lair.

It was not, however, the same old tiger that ripped opponents to shreds in days gone by. It was, instead, a calculating predator, dangerous enough to get the job done but careful enough to avoid costly mistakes.

It is fair to say that Pacquiao has lost some of the pop behind his punches, but judging by the semicomatose look in Bradley's eyes as he floundered around the ring on unsteady legs, the Filipino's blows were far from inconsequential. As in his previous bout with Brandon Rios, Pacquiao's footwork and underrated boxing skills were as much responsible for his success as the 198 punches he landed. The reason Bradley was still standing at the end was a credit to his toughness and courage, not an indictment of Pacquiao's punching power.

As expected, there were dozens of postfight stories that honored Pacquiao's unanimous decision victory but also went to considerable lengths to point out that he didn't score a knockout and that he's not what the used to be. Of course he's not what he used to be. Who is? Those hoping see the old, maniacal Manny are doomed to disappointment and would be better served falling back on their video collections.

The salient fact is that Pacquiao has learned to modify his style in a manner befitting a fighter who is no longer in his physical prime. That he could still vanquish a younger man, widely considered to be among the top five pound-for-pound fighters in the world, is proof beyond a shadow of a doubt that the fire in his belly still smolders. He just turned down the thermostat a tad to prevent catching himself on fire.

Pacquiao's uncanny knack of eluding calamity and roadblocks extends beyond the ring. It was virtually unprecedented when he escaped the grasp of the late Rod Nazario, who managed Pacquiao throughout most of his early career and brought him to America. Nazario was a powerful force in Filipino boxing, and his wife was a Supreme Court justice. In the Philippines' feudal culture, a street urchin like Pacquiao would normally have stayed under the thumb of a figure of Nazario's stature his entire career.

And how about the way Pacquiao somehow skirted disaster after he took Oscar De La Hoya's bag of money while already under contract with Bob Arum? Such chutzpah! No wonder he continues to confound critics.

Some would say Pacquiao has led a charmed life, but that would ignore the adversity that molded him and his willingness to take tremendous risks without a second thought. The big difference is that from now on they will be calculated risks. But don't think for a moment that his fights will become an elaborate game of tag.

To paraphrase Dos Equis' Most Interesting Man in the World, Pacquiao's recent performances clearly say: "I don't always brawl anymore, but when I do, the guy in the other corner wishes I didn't."

Stay thirsty, Manny.