It’s always special when an all-time great returns to the ring and it’s an indication of the esteem in which Manny Pacquiao is held that Timothy Bradley, an unbeaten world champion who holds two belts at his natural weight, can go into this fight as the big underdog (5.25 to Pacquiao's 1.17).
Still, Bradley's not lacking confidence; a YouTube video of him commentating on his own mitt work with trainer Joel Diaz shows Bradley explaining how Juan Manuel Marquez caused Pacquiao so much trouble in their last fight. Counterpunching and the right uppercut are key, he tells his audience, while defensively, it couldn't be simpler: "All he did was step back, guys!" Do that and circle to the left as you always should against a southpaw, and Bob's your uncle. Thank God for that – we don't need to turn up at the MGM Grand Saturday night… meet Tim Bradley: new WBO welterweight champion of the world!
Of course it's rarely that simple but Bradley is right about one thing. More so than Erik Morales, who decisioned Pacquiao in 2007, or the two fighters early on in his career who KO'd him with body shots, Juan Manuel Marquez created the blueprint to beat Manny Pacquiao. In their first meeting he survived three first-round knockdowns to control the rest of the fight and gain a draw. In their two subsequent battles Pacquiao was strafed again and again by Marquez counters, particularly by his straight right. Although he lost two razorthin decisions, many observers believe he won both these fights and everyone agrees that nobody gives Pacquiao a stylistic headache like Marquez.
Bradley is a good counterpuncher and, crucially, fast. It's rare for Pacquiao to not have a significant speed advantage – both of hand and foot – in a fight, but Bradley is lightning. Many good commentators feel Bradley has the tools to give Pacquiao all he can handle in this fight. But here's my problem with the Bradley as Marquez thesis: Marquez is no ordinary counterpuncher – he's a master of the art. In the modern era only Toney, Mayweather and Hopkins are in the same league. Bradley may counterpunch well but he's no Marquez and it's worth remembering that Pacquiao scored four knockdowns, two victories, and a draw against his nemesis. That's what people talking up Bradley as upset material forget. He can be every inch as good as Marquez and still lose.
Pacquiao has been in with Bradley-level fighters before but, much like Lucien Bute had never faced a Carl Froch, Tim Bradley has never faced a Manny Pacquiao. Devon Alexander and Lamont Peterson are fine scalps for Bradley but there's a big leap in class between facing that level of fighter and facing the devastating straight left that felled Barrera and Marquez, and the counter right hook that dropped Ricky Hatton.
Nonetheless, I feel this fight will go the distance. When Kendall Holt almost decapitated him in the first round, Bradley took a knee-count then bounced back up with clear eyes and steady legs. He's always in phenomenal condition, recovers from big shots well and has the speed, mobility and ring smarts to avoid further punishment should he get in trouble. I do see Pacquiao's heavy hands as a big factor here just not necessarily by ending the fight early. Power isn't just about knocking guys out, it's also about keeping your opponent honest. Having that nuclear deterrent in your fists makes him think two, three times before launching his own attacks and forces an offensively minded fighter on the defensive. Many a points decision has been gained after one fighter felt the other's power early on and decided to play it safe - Pacquiao's lopsided defeat of Shane Mosley being a good example. "Everyone has a plan until they get hit" as Mike Tyson noted. Bradley for his part has a modest 12 career knockouts and only one in his last 10 fights. His power won't be a significant factor. He outpoints Pacquiao or he loses.
Manny will have to be extremely sharp for this one, not least to avoid the accidental headbutts that seem to miraculously happen in every Tim Bradley fight. I definitely see Bradley making it awkward for him and I see both fighters making the final bell. What I don't see is Bradley's arsenal beating the experience, ferocity, competitiveness, power, angles and accuracy of the eight-division world champion. Pacquiao on points at evens is the best boxing bet of the weekend. Fill your boots gentlemen.