- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- Even when Timothy Bradley Jr. was just another anonymous fighter, boxing in six-round bouts in hotel ballrooms in Corona, Calif., in the early days of his career, he always had faith that he would make it to the big time of the sport.
"I knew someday I would be here," Bradley confidently said on Wednesday. "But I didn't know how long [it would take]. I knew it would be a long way, a long journey to get here."
Now, the journey is complete.
Not only has Bradley made it -- he has won three junior welterweight world title belts, fought in main events on HBO and Showtime and earned a few million dollars -- he has reached the pinnacle of the sport as he readies to step into the ring for one of the year's biggest fights when he challenges welterweight titleholder Manny Pacquiao on Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET, $54.95) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
"Getting prepared for this moment has been 18 years of my life, eight years as a professional," Bradley said. "I fought in California on the Thompson [Boxing] cards in Corona. I came from the lumberjack yards in California fighting in little ballrooms probably about the size of this place right here."
Bradley was surveying a nightclub at the MGM Grand that served as a spot for him to meet with reporters before the final news conference for the Pacquiao fight. He was the center of attention for the reporters and seemed quite pleased about it.
"Now we're in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand hotel and we're going to be fighting in front of thousands of people," Bradley said. "It's been a lot of hard work, determination and believing in myself regardless of if anyone else didn't believe in me. As long as I believe in myself and believe in God and just keep on working hard every single day, I knew someday I would get to this point."
Bradley recalled his early days of fighting for tiny purses on the Southern California circuit, confident in his ability but hoping for a big break.
"Sometimes I would sit back, and I had like eight fights [in 2005] and I would ask a journalist, 'You think I can make it?'" he said.
The 28-year-old from Palm Springs, Calif., said he never got much of an answer from the writers, who stumbled over their words, perhaps not wanting to tell him no. But now he has a clear answer: He has made it.
"It has a lot to do with hard work and it has a little bit to do with luck," Bradley said. "Gotta be lucky."
Things didn't always look so bright. Bradley was boxing but also working as a waiter to make ends meet. He was 21-0 and on the verge of a title shot against highly regarded Junior Witter of England.
To concentrate on his training for the fight, Bradley quit his job, and by the time he went to England for the fight in 2008, he said he and his girlfriend, Monica, whom he married in 2010, were down to their last $11. This while they were also supporting her two young children from a previous relationship.
As much as he wanted to win the title, Bradley was desperate to win just to survive financially. He was in a place a long way from where he stands now, earning a minimum $5 million against Pacquiao.
"At that time, I had just a little change in the bank," Bradley said. "We spent the majority of our cash and savings preparing for the fight, [paying] sparring partners and things like that and paying our bills. It was a hard time. But I couldn't be denied. I had to take care of my family. I had to provide. I was sick of my wife working hard, and me having this opportunity, I didn't want to let it go. So I fought as hard as I possibly can that fight and got the victory, thank God."
Bradley dropped the heavily favored Witter in the sixth round and went on to take a split decision victory. Bradley said his purse for the fight was $65,000 and that he took home about $40,000, fluffing his $11 cushion nicely.
With that win, Bradley began to appear regularly on Showtime, making better purses under the co-promotion of Gary Shaw, who became partners with Bradley's original promoter, Ken Thompson.
Bradley made his first defense against tough veteran Edner Cherry and then landed a 2009 title unification bout against Kendall Holt, a big puncher who dropped Bradley twice. Bradley climbed off the deck twice and hung on for a unanimous decision. It was another must-win fight, in Bradley's mind, and taught him just how far he could reach into his heart to keep alive his dream of reaching the top of the sport.
"I learned that I can get up off the canvas and still go to a guy that hits extremely hard and apply the pressure that needed to be applied, because I had to win," Bradley said. "I had to go to the next level. I wanted to get to this point [against Pacquiao], so I had to freakin' go through this guy [Holt] to try to even get to this point where I am right now. I just bit down on my mouthpiece and was like, 'If I'm going to go out, I'm going to go out in flames. This guy is going to have to knock me out.'"
That determination was instilled in him at an early age by his father, Timothy Bradley Sr., known to all by his middle name, Ray.
"When we first walked into the gym when he was 10½ years old, the coach recognized his talent right away and said he would be a world champion," Ray said. "I didn't think anything of it, but through the years, I truly believed it. I knew the hard work and determination and a lot of sacrifice would pay off. This is his time to shine. He wants to be where Manny's at right now.
"When he won the title from Junior Witter, he said this is what he dreamed of and he was happy, but he also told the team that he wasn't satisfied. He wanted folks to recognize who he is. Beating Manny Pacquiao is the ticket, the dream come true."
While Bradley continued to win and moved into seven-figure purses when he jumped to HBO, he also went through an acrimonious split with Shaw and Thompson following his January 2011 unification victory against Devon Alexander. Bradley and manager Cameron Dunkin, who began working with him in late 2009, rejected a fight with then-titlist Amir Khan.
Bradley had called out Khan in the first place, and when Khan agreed to fight him and give him 50 percent of the money -- a stunning offer considering how much more Khan brought to the promotion than Bradley did -- Bradley declined. He said it wasn't because he didn't want to fight Khan, but because he didn't want Shaw and Thompson involved.
Dunkin took Bradley to Top Rank with the understanding that Bradley would be a possible opponent for Pacquiao. In his first fight with Bob Arum's company, Bradley made more than $1 million for his eight-round knockout of faded former lightweight champion Joel Casamayor on the undercard of Pacquiao's third fight with Juan Manuel Marquez in November.
After the usual talk of a Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight ended and other supposed candidates were scratched from the list, Bradley got the call to face Pacquiao.
He said it made up for the massive criticism he took for not fighting Khan.
"I've already been bashed in the media enough to where I can accept anything," Bradley said. "I'm not losing any damn sleep. God put me through that just for this moment. I had to go through some things to get in this position, so now I'm groomed and I'm ready for it. I can accept criticism. I take it with a grain of salt. It goes in one ear and out the other. I just use it as fuel now and that's how I operate. I like when people talk good about me, but I like it better when they talk bad about me."
Bradley credits Dunkin, one of boxing's most experienced managers, for guiding him to the Pacquiao fight.
"He delivered everything he promised me from day one," Bradley said. "I'm just grateful that I got a guy like Cameron Dunkin to look out for my interest and my family's interest and my career. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be sitting in this position. Without him, I was lost. I feel I was getting ripped off, but it's a learning experience. I'm happy that everything worked out for the best."
Dunkin had followed Bradley during both the fighter's amateur and professional careers.
"I thought he could be something special, but I really didn't know until I met him," Dunkin said. "He called me on the phone and asked me to manage him. I went down and met with him. When him and his wife walked in, they smiled and he hugged me, and in five minutes it was like I knew the guy for 20 years. It was incredible.
"He's someone you really want to bust your ass for, and you want to make him money and, God willing, I hope he wins. He really deserves it."
Timothy Bradley Jr., who not all that long ago was fighting for meager purses in hotel ballrooms, waiting tables and hanging on to his last $11, will bask in his big moment Saturday against Manny Pacquiao.