By Jake Donovan
Manny Pacquiao proved he has plenty of fight left in his 35-year old body after beating on a tough and game Brandon Rios for 12 rounds Saturday evening in Macau (Sunday evening, local time).
The jury is still out, however, on whether or not the former eight-division champ can return to past accolades as one of the very best in the world.
Things went as advertised for the Filipino superstar, who dished out 12 rounds of punishment against a willing opponent in Brandon Rios. The end result was a landslide unanimous decision win in their HBO PPV headliner. Scores were 120-108, 119-109 and 118-110 in favor of Pacquiao. No knockdowns were scored, though certainly not for a lack of trying.
“He’s one of the toughest opponents in my career. He took a lot of left hands and kept coming,” Pacquiao acknowledged of Rios while offering his opponent praise for going the full 12 rounds.
On locations reports throughout fight week matched the demeanor of both fighters once the bell rang – Pacquiao was all business and perhaps a little too wound up, while Rios was carefree no matter how great the odds were stacked against him.
The opening round set the tone for the 12-round affair. Pacquiao scored four times as many punches in the round, never allowing Rios to settle in and impose his will, the secret to the former lightweight titlist’s success for much of his career. A war of attrition never favored the California-based brawler, who was fighting at the welterweight limit for his first time.
The heavily pro-Pacquiao crowd went ballistic in round two when Rios hit the deck, although referee Geno Rodriguez correctly waved it off. A left hand from Pacquiao cupped Rios behind the head while his right hand helped push his outgunned opponent to the canvas. The non-call hardly quieted the crowd, vocally pleased with the performance of their ring hero, cheering his every move while raining down boos anytime the focus dare switched to Rios.
Pacquiao relied on his boxing skills to get him through the third before opening up the vault in round four. A straight left hand prompted a s(p)it-eating grin from Rios, an in-ring acknowledgement that the punch – Pacquiao’s best of the fight to that point – caught his attention. The offense ramped up from there, as Pacquiao never stopped throwing.
However, his defense also proved to be his offense, as Rios was able to land on the occasions he would have room to let his hands go. Pacquiao absorbed the shots well, answering to some degree the bout’s lingering question of whether or not he was mentally recovered from last year’s devastating knockout loss to longtime adversary Juan Manuel Marquez.
“I’m very careful. I learned in my last fight that the knockout will come. I wanted to land some good punches; that’s what I did in this fight,” Pacquiao said of his performance. “Recovering from the knockout and giving a good show like the old Manny Pacquiao is what I wanted to show tonight.”
As the bout progressed, two things became clear: Rios wasn’t the punching bag everyone assumed was going to be the case, and Pacquiao was smart enough to realize when to accept a victory rather than try too hard for a knockout that isn’t there.
That isn’t to say that Rios wasn’t overwhelmed. The battle scars were evident, with cuts on both sides of his face, while Pacquiao looked like he barely broke a sweat. The 35-year old southpaw was as energetic by fight’s end as he was during the first bell.
There were moments when Pacquiao believed he could live up to expectations of taking out Rios, including a free-swinging 12th round that prompted the capacity crowd to rise to its feet. His free-swinging attack was a tribute to his countrymen in the Philippines, many of whom are still suffering the after effects of a deathly typhoon that ripped through the nation earlier this month.
“It’s really important to bring this honor to my country,” noted Pacquiao, whose record improved to 55-5-2 (38KO) in picking up his first win since November ‘11. “Those people affected by the typhoon, they are happy today because I won the fight.”
Rios, unbeaten at the start of 2013, has now lost two straight as he falls to 31-2-1 (23KO). The outspoken former lightweight titlist, who earned a career-high $4 million, fought at welterweight for the first time in his career, though had nine pounds of natural body weight (159 lb. to Pacquiao’s 150 lb.) by the time the two stepped into the ring.
While Rios remained happy-go-lucky throughout the promotion and the fight itself, there clearly isn’t a happier person in the boxing world than Pacquiao at the present moment.
The former pound-for-pound king fought for the first time this year, with a near 12-month layoff coming on the heels of a two-fight losing streak in a career-worst 2012 campaign. A controversial points loss to Tim Bradley ended his reign as a welterweight titlist last June, but it was the one-punch 6th round knockout loss to Marquez in their Fight of the Year entrant last December which threw his career – and the boxing world – for a loop.
Saturday’s ring return was largely celebrated by his legion of diehard fans, his popularity enough to generate a guaranteed payday of $18 million, tax-free. The night also marked his first fight outside of the United States in more than seven years, when he outpointed Oscar Larios in his native Philippines in July ’06.
The promotion at the Cotai Arena within the Venetian Macao proved a largely successful venture, even without any early pay-per-view returns or forecasts. Still, as much as Pacquiao craves to return to past glory, also hoped for is a return to the corner of the world that helped transform him into an international superstar, no matter the opponents in store in his future.
“As of right now, I don’t have an idea (who will be next). It’s up to my promoter Bob Arum,” Pacquiao stated after the fight, before expressing a desire to return stateside. “That’s what I want. I miss fighting in Las Vegas.”
The question for the moment is who be lined up next for Pacquiao. With Bradley’s big win over Marquez in their own pay-per-view headliner last month in Vegas, a chance for the Filipino icon to avenge last year’s loss generates even greater interest than when the bitter taste of the disputed outcome was still left in the mouths of the boxing public.
Also floated was the possibility of facing boxing’s latest cult favorite, current 140 lb. titlist Ruslan Provodnikov. Getting the two in the ring seems to be on the agenda of the HBO brass, but the fact that both are trained by Freddie Roach and are good friends – Provodnikov was on hand and in Pacquiao’s locker room to lend his support – tramples on the reality of that matchup materializing.
Even less realistic is, of course, the one dream matchup that has been discussed since 2009. While Pacquiao remains loyal to HBO (largely due to his relationship with Bob Arum and Top Rank), pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather – the former face of the self-proclaimed Network of Champions – is now the top money maker for Showtime.
Whatever is in store for Pacquiao, it’s clear that – two years in between wins and approaching his 36th birthday, he’s still very much game for the cause.
“My time is not over yet,” Pacquiao insists.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, Yahoo Boxing Ratings Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox