By Jake Donovan
It may seem glamorous at the top, but the problem Manny Pacquiao has endured in recent years is finding new ways to re-establish his lead without growing bored.
A new wrinkle has certainly been added as the current welterweight titlist and longtime pound-for-pound entrant prepares for his showdown with unbeaten Tim Bradley this weekend at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Training hasn’t necessarily changed, although Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach continues to find new ways to keep his superstar client on his toes. The out-of-ring distractions and chaos are still there, as evidenced by the musical chairs game that strength and conditioning coach Alex Ariza was forced to play before being allowed to remain in the circle.
The greatest change has come within Pacquiao himself, who has not only fully embraced his recent spiritual awakening, but has incorporated it into every facet of his life.
“[H]is focus is very good,” insists Roach of his star pupil since his religious makeover. “We don’t have days where he comes in tired a so forth because he has no nightlife whatsoever, besides the bible study. He is very focused on the fight.
“He and God are very close right now and he is just a better athlete.”
The last part is quite a statement to make of a fighter who has already been named Boxer of the Decade by the Boxing Writers Association of America. The honor came on the heels of Pacquiao racking up his third Fighter of the Year award in a span of four years.
However, the past couple of years has shown a bit of a dropoff in the career of a man who has won major titles in a record eight separate weight classes. It’s been more than two years since Pacquiao has scored a stoppage, with that feat coming in the 12th and final round of his Nov. ’09 catchweight bout with Miguel Cotto.
The past four opponents – Joshua Clottey, Antonio Margarito, Shane Mosley and Juan Manuel Marquez – have all extended Pacquiao the distance. Mosley was even credited with a questionable knockdown, while Marquez was viewed by many as the winner of their third fight last November in Las Vegas. The end result was a majority decision in favor of Pacquiao and saw a rare exhibit immediately afterwards – the Filipino superstar being loudly booed by the capacity crowd on hand.
The full time fighter and Congressman appears to be bullet proof, however, as this weekend’s event comes with the usually massive buzz that has surrounded nearly all of his fights through the past several years. With pound-for-pound rival Floyd Mayweather Jr. locked up in prison for the next 12 or so weeks, Pacquiao is the only relevant superstar in town for a while.
Now comes the hard part – not relinquishing his lead any more so than has already been the case.
Pacquaio’s close call to Marquez last November – the third in three tries against his longtime in-ring rival - prompted many to hail Mayweather as the superior fighter. Status quo was found after Mayweather moved up to 154 and soundly outpointed Cotto in their title fight last month, despite grumblings from some that the fight was much closer than the final scores.
Saturday night provides the perfect opportunity for Pacquiao to reclaim the lead. Bradley is unbeaten (28-0, 12KO), in the heart of his prime and is always in peak physical condition. The only knock on the fight that can be offered is that the undefeated Californian is moving up in weight, although he seemed to handle the seven extra pounds well in a decision win over Luis Carlos Abregu two years ago.
Granted, beating an untested fighter like Abregu and an all-time great in Pacquiao are two different games entirely. At the same time, beating bigger name fighters who aren’t any longer at their very best isn’t the same thing as conquering a young fighter at the top of his game such as Bradley.
Despite more than a decade of success at the championship level, Pacquiao has not lost sight of the task at hand, viewing Saturday as the most important fight of his career
“That’s why this training camp we did our best, training like I’m 26 years old,” commented the 33-year old Pacquiao during the final presser on Wednesday afternoon. “I need to bring everything into the ring. I’m happy with this training camp.”
Many fighters have claimed to enjoy their best ever training camp prior to a big fight, only to prove otherwise once the bell rings. Pacquiao and his team are certainly guilty of past claims not quite panning out, most notably his less than impressive showing against Marquez last November.
A knockout was guaranteed for the catchweight fight, only for a sea of excuses to follow in the aftermath of arguably his weakest showing since his loss to Erik Morales in their first fight more than seven years ago.
Confirmation of his readiness won’t be provided until late into Saturday night, but there is certainly a new air among the southpaw star and his handlers. While some are nervous that his religious awakening will affect him as a fighter, Pacquiao insists that the changes will only come in a good way.
“When I committed my life to the lord I gave up many things that were not in keeping with what the Bible teaches,” Pacquiao explains, speaking of his habits beyond the ring. “Boxing is a job and I do not look at it as anything more than that. It will not affect my job.”
Just as confident in the holy makeover is the man who has promoted him to the top of the box office.
“From somebody who has visited the training camp a few times, the difference in Manny’s face is so apparent,” insists Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum, who presents this weekend’s blockbuster event. “He’s not as tired as he was and he’s not as worn as he was. There is a glow in his face.
“I think this religious awakening has been all good on his part. I am a little prejudiced because I am religious myself but I believe when young athletes find religion it will greatly enhance their careers.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments via e-mail.