By Jake Donovan
Rare is the occasion when an undefeated defending titlist with a win over an opponent who is now on the decline, heads into a rematch as the betting underdog and as the B-side of the promotion.
Tim Bradley is well aware of what he is up against this weekend when he faces Manny Pacquiao nearly two years after the controversial outcome of their first fight. To this day, you still hear the arguments that Bradley was the luckiest man alive when two of the three judges found seven rounds to score in his favor at the MGM Grand that June ’12 evening.
He knows that – even with recognition as one of the very best in the sport and with a still-pristine record – the burden of proof is as much on him to set the record straight as it is on Pacquiao to prove he still has what it takes to serve among the cream of the crop.
“[B]oxing is not only a sport it is a business as well. All parties need to understand that,” Bradley explains as his role in this weekend’s Pay-Per-View event comes into question. “It could have been Bradley-Pacquiao, but my team and I, we worked together to put on the best possible show to make sure that everybody included - my team, Top Rank, HBO - is happy with the results at the end of the day. They came to me to ask me and I said I don't have problem with it.”
In an era when alphabet titles have become little more than bargaining chips at the negotiating table, Bradley (31-0, 12KO) barely carries championship recognition into Saturday’s headliner at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the same site that played host to the Californian’s split decision win over Pacquiao nearly two years ago.
The official verdict netted Bradley a welterweight title, one he retains to this day thanks to follow up wins over Ruslan Provodnikov and Juan Manuel Marquez. Even if course correcting came into play, Bradley still became the man who beat the man with his Oct. ‘13 victory over Marquez, who ten months prior had knocked Pacquiao out cold in their epic fourth encounter. That bout came six months following Bradley’s controversial win over the still wildly popular Filipino icon.
No matter which way you slice it, Bradley still remains the leading candidate to Floyd Mayweather’s lineal welterweight championship, at least in a world where the best would face the best regardless of promotional affiliation. But because – as Bradley himself mentioned – boxing is a business first, who carries the belt, the prestige and personal bragging rights means far less than who claims the most clout at the box office.
“I know Pacquiao is a big name and everybody knows it so Pacquiao-Bradley is OK,” Bradley says, noting that he’s hardly the exception when it comes to such situations. “I just basically negotiated everything else that I wanted to be treated like a champion. I want to walk out second. I want to be announced second. I want to pick my corner.
“It is all part of negotiations, that's what it's about and I have no problem with it. I know Sergio Martinez has a problem with it but (Miguel) Cotto is the name (for their June 7 middleweight championship; Martinez is the reigning champ). Just like Floyd Mayweather-Canelo (Alvarez); Canelo was the champion but who is the bigger name?”
Despite posting his biggest win to date at the time, Bradley endured a dark period in his career as a result. Already sidelines for his injured ankles suffered during the bout, the unbeaten welterweight somehow became an afterthought with promoter Top Rank.
Given that little of interest was offered, it would have made the most sense to just do it again with Pacquiao. Another career-high payday (Bradley made $5 million for the first fight and is now guaranteed $6 million for the rematch) and a chance to prove he was the better fighter despite commentary suggesting the judges got it dead wrong in the first fight.
Instead, he and his handlers decided to let such a fight marinate.
“Because of the controversy in the first fight, if we had done an immediate rematch I think most of the time being spent by the media would have been on 'was the first fight fixed?'” Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum believes. “Therefore, getting a second fight and now you don't hear any of that because obviously the fighters went on to do their thing against other opponents. Now we have a great fight and there is no adverse commentary as to any kind of manipulation in the first fight.”
The move proved to be the correct one. Bradley has since further proven his warrior’s mentality in the ring, as evidenced in his narrow win over Ruslan Provodnikov, a bout which garnered honors as Boxingscene.com’s 2013 Fight of the Year. The fight saw Bradley rocked early, dropped late and spending most of the fight unknowingly fighting with a concussion.
A far cleaner performance was offered in his most recent effort, as a well-earned split decision nod over Marquez cast Bradley’s career in a different light. No longer was he the guy who got a gift win against a beloved icon in the sport, or who went life-and-death with an opponent viewed as an ESPN2-level fighter heading in to their bout.
These days, Bradley’s name is rightfully mentioned along with the very best in the sport. Still, he is no worse than in the same position as Pacquiao, who has yet to full rebound from his disastrous 2012 campaign – a near-shutout over Brandon Rios last November revealed little. The onus should be on Pacquiao – who stands to lose so much more with a third defeat in his last four fights.
Instead, it’s a crossroads bout for both fighters. One loss should not ruin Bradley’s career, nor will it. Still, there exists the belief that he has to prove in the ring that he’s the better fighter. Being younger, on a better role, a lot closer to his prime and also the defending welterweight titlist isn’t enough; Bradley has to leave no doubt this time around and he knows it – perhaps even more, given the growing concern of Pacquaio being given a “favor” in return during any close rounds.
“At the end of the day all I can do is my job and that's it. I can't worry about judges - can't be worried about what it this and what is that,” Bradley insists. “That's not my job to worry about any of that. The fans are going to scream out if something is not right. The fans are going to tell everybody what's not right. Isn't that what happened in my fight, the controversy? Everyone is like you didn't win.
“I won the fight. I wasn't the one judging the fight. Everyone said I didn't win the fight. I didn't win. I didn't get any credit. I lost the credit form the fans. I lost the credit from the world. I lost the credit from boxing by beating this guy. And I am going to beat him decisively this time. No questions asked. I want it to be to a point where nobody can say 'who you got?' No I want everyone to be able to say "Bradley won the fight.' That's it. 'Bradley clearly, handily, won the fight.'”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox