By Keith Idec
The thing Timothy Bradley likes most about Stephen A. Smith is that his new broadcast partner speaks the truth, regardless of the consequences.
Bradley has taken that very approach to assessing the Manny Pacquiao-Jessie Vargas fight the former two-division champion will call from ringside alongside Smith and Brian Kenny on November 5 in Las Vegas. He would like to paint Pacquiao-Vargas as a 50-50 encounter either fighter could win, particularly given their age disparity.
But based on what Bradley experienced in the ring against both boxers over the past 15 months, he doesn’t think the roughly 8-1 odds that favor Pacquiao are quite wide enough.
“My thoughts on Vargas winning are slim to none,” Bradley told BoxingScene.com. “I’m gonna be honest with you. Yeah, it’s a competitive fight. Vargas is gonna show up and do what Vargas is gonna do. But it takes a certain kind of style to beat Manny Pacquiao.
“Granted, Vargas had a sensational win against Sadam Ali. He had a sensational right hand against me in the last round, even though I was dominating that fight. But he feels that he has a puncher’s chance. He feels like he can land an overhand right on Pacquiao. And he definitely has a really good chin.”
The 33-year-old Bradley knows all too well about Vargas’ right hand. He was dominating their June 2015 fight in Carson, California, when Vargas drilled Bradley with an overhand right that buckled Bradley’s legs with approximately 20 seconds left in the 12th round.
Bradley appeared on his way to surviving the trouble, but referee Pat Russell denied Bradley a decisive victory when he mistook the 10-second warning for the final bell and called an end to the HBO bout eight seconds too soon. Vargas (27-1, 10 KOs) campaigned for a rematch thereafter, but Bradley (33-2-1, 13 KOs, 1 NC) went on to dominate Brandon Rios (33-3-1, 24 KOs), who lost by ninth-round TKO, and lost another unanimous decision to Pacquiao (58-6-2, 38 KOs) in a 12-round WBO welterweight title fight most boxing fans and media criticized promoter Bob Arum for making earlier this year.
Though Bradley beat Vargas pretty easily other than that aforementioned right hand (115-112, 116-112, 117-111), Bradley respects Vargas’ skills, especially the Las Vegas native’s sometimes-jarring jab.
“One of the things that Jessie Vargas does very well and has in his arsenal, is he has a solid, stiff jab,” Bradley said. “And he’s gonna need that against Manny Pacquiao because he’s gotta control range and distance against Manny Pacquiao. If he uses that range and jab, he’ll be able to keep Manny Pacquiao off of him a little bit and move and control the distance.”
Even if Vargas’ jab is effective early in their scheduled 12-rounder at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center, Bradley doesn’t think that’ll be nearly enough to disarm Pacquiao. Bradley admits he was surprised how fast and powerful Pacquiao was during their third fight, which took place nearly four months after Pacquiao’s 37th birthday.
“As soon as Manny Pacquiao figures out that range and that distance,” Bradley said, “and figures out what he’s doing, then I think Pacquiao’s gonna come and press him and press him. He’s quick and he’s explosive, man. He’s a completely different fighter from when I faced him the first two times. Just more patient, more precise on his punches. It seems like he got his power back, full-fledged. He punched pretty hard the last time I faced him. I didn’t feel him punch that hard in the first two fights. But man, that third fight, that dude had some lightning speed and some great punching power.”
Pacquiao basically beat Bradley three times, though Bradley won their infamous first fight by split decision in June 2012 at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. With trainer Teddy Atlas in his corner, the Palm Springs, California, native thought he had a legitimate shot at winning their third fight, a bout even Bradley was surprised Arum arranged.
Once Pacquiao scored a seventh-round knockdown, however, Bradley believes he subconsciously conceded defeat to the Filipino superstar in Pacquiao’s first fight following his unanimous-decision defeat to Floyd Mayweather Jr. in May 2015. Pacquiao scored two knockdowns during their April 9 bout, the second of which occurred during the ninth round, and won by the same large margin on all three scorecards (116-110).
“I was on point, man,” Bradley recalled. “If I was gonna win a fight [against Pacquiao], it was gonna be that night. I was in superior shape and I was on everything he likes to do. And I knew everything he liked to do. But you’ve gotta be mentally tough all the way through. And for some reason, man – I’m not sure if it’s the history of it with Pacquiao – I’m not sure what happened. But during the course of the fight, I gave in. I don’t know why.
“I think it had to do with the knockdown in the [seventh] round, when I thought he pulled me down. He threw a punch, but he kind of grabbed my glove and pulled me forward to the ground. I think that kind of discouraged me a bit because I was just like, ‘Here we go. I’m in the fight or this fight is even right now, going into the [seventh] round, and the ref [Tony Weeks] called a freakin’ knockdown when it was a slip.’ I’m just like, ‘Here we go again.’ I think that had to do with the rest of the fight and the kind of discouragement I had because of that particular knockdown. But my trainer always says, ‘You’ve got to be a professional at all times.’ And I wasn’t a professional that night.”
Pacquiao connected with a short right hand around Bradley’s left glove during the sequence to which Bradley referred. Their arms got tangled thereafter, Bradley fell forward and his gloves touched the canvas, which caused Weeks to call it a knockdown with just under 20 seconds to go in the seventh round.
Regardless, Bradley fully expects Vargas to be a professional when he encounters the greatest opportunity of his eight-year pro career five weeks from Saturday night. It just won’t be enough, according to Bradley.
“Pacquiao is the favorite and he should be the favorite,” Bradley said. “Manny Pacquiao is on a whole different level. There are levels to this game, man, and Jessie Vargas will find out.”
Keith Idec covers boxing for The Record and Herald News, of Woodland Park, N.J., and BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.