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Aftermath: Pacquiao vs. Bradley II

pac948888By Jay McIntyre: Everyone thought that Manny Pacquiao (55-5-2, 38 KO’s) would demolish Timothy Bradley (31-1-0, 13 KO’s) in June of 2012, and 82% of the respondents for HBO’s online voting system thought that it would happen again last night. Not one to let prevailing opinion discourage him, Bradley trained determinedly to prove – once and for all – that he was truly the better man.

There were question marks going into this fight, to be sure. Was Bradley the better boxer who paid for the sins of the judges with near universal scorn? Was Manny Pacquiao still dedicated to his craft and capable of taking a punch? Sure, Bradley had his hunches about Pacquiao’s fading ability, and Pacquiao made the customary assurances that it was all hearsay – but it is in the boxing ring where the truth comes out. What happens then, when both men are right and wrong at the same time? What truth can be gleaned from such a paradox? Now that the dust has started to settle, let’s take a look at what worked, and what didn’t work as Manny Pacquiao battled to successfully reclaim his WBO welterweight title from Timothy Bradley.

What worked?

Bradley came into this fight with what looked to be a very specific and very effective game plan. Initially, in the first round he was content to box Pacquiao from the outside and not give the Filipino an angle to work with. This was Bradley’s best bet at beating Pacquaio for several reasons. To begin with, Bradley lost almost every exchange when he and Pacquiao chose to ‘stand and deliver’ in their first fight nearly two years ago (and the same thing happened again this time). Secondly, he was able to keep up with the Pacquiao’s ability to manipulate angles, and used his jab to effectively pressure the Filipino. Thirdly, while Bradley was indeed getting tagged with left hands, he was able to competitively throw back with his own right hands, making Pacquiao a bit more tentative.

Bradley and his trainer Joel Diaz clearly pored over every minute detail of footage from the first fight and knew that Pacquiao had some glaring weaknesses. They looked to exploit them, and were on their way to forcing a rather competitive fight. In my pre-fight analyses of both men I stated that Bradley’s movement is quite exceptional and it would behoove him to utilize it to create opportunities for himself, and for the rounds that Bradley was able to fight unencumbered with injury, he was able to do just that. I also frowned on Bradley’s reluctance to throw his right hand. Perhaps the penultimate example of Bradley figuring out Pacquiao came in round four when he lifted his dangerous adversary off the ground with a crunching overhand right.

In addition to his use of movement and new-found right hand, Bradley was putting a lot of miles on Pacquiao’s body with a consistent display of body punching. It wasn’t so severe that he forgot to punch upstairs, but it was consistent enough to keep Pacquiao guessing where the punches were going to go (good defense is, after all, largely predicated on anticipation).

In winning this fight Pacquiao proved again that he is in many ways the fighter he has always been. His movement was still exemplary – both offensively and defensively. He also operated behind a very shrewd jab to either draw a counter from Bradley (or in turn counter that), or to set up his nefarious left hand. At the centre of the ring, and along the ropes, Pacquiao’s handspeed was still very obvious and something that is still as sharp as ever. Pacquiao has a way of putting combinations together that is frustrating to watch – he looks almost bored as he strafes his opponent with blistering speed. He also has a rather reliable success rate of knowing just when to stop punching and to flutter away using some kind of exit that isn’t backing straight up (though he sometimes does that too). If he was in the centre of the ring his combinations were usually brief (unless Bradley ducked and gave up the initiative), but along the ropes he could been seen standing over the hunched form of Bradley fanning his shots from the hip, and then slipping out, awaiting another opportunity.

One final note regarding what worked for Pacquaio concerns his mastery of distance. While a relatively hidden detail in the grand scheme of things, it is important to note how often Pacquiao was able to hit Bradley while he was just at the very end of his punch. Bradley, seemingly out of the way, was pelted from jabs and left hands throughout the fight and these gave Pacquaio something of an edge when they were skirmishing at the centre of the ring. Pacquaio was able to do this with by leaning a bit onto his front foot to add an inch or two to his shot, by making subtle quick steps forward, or by staying just outside the end of Bradley’s punch and using his one inch reach advantage with a quick step-in when countering.

The last thing that made the fight work – for the fans – was the fighters’ willingness to make it a real fight. One significant difference this time around compared to their first fight was how both men were more inclined to fight flat-flooted. The reason was rather clear as each man vowed to try and knock the other one out. It was not a purely reckless stratagem, but it did lead to both men eating some clean power punching. So, why did they put themselves at risk? The answer comes down to simple punching mechanics. If you’ve ever seen a catapult fling its ammunition (perhaps not real life, but probably on History Television or in the film Kingdom of Heaven) you will no doubt have observed how it needs a platform of flat, firm ground. This is precisely what a puncher needs – a stable base. Fighting up on your toes makes you fleet of foot, but it doesn’t give you enough of a base to put your full body weight into your punch. Planting your feet, conversely, gives you a stable base to put your whole body weight behind the punch (the drawback to this, however, means you lose mobility).

What’s didn’t work?

Bradley goading Pacquiao into attacking him along the ropes seemed to be his only hope for a knockout win following his calf injury. Unfortunately for Bradley, the Filipino was unwilling to shrug off his composure and throw caution to the wind. Bradley also still doesn’t have a skillset which should encourage him to exchange punches in the pocket. Although he has a left hook and a chin, he still doesn’t move his head enough and mix up his shots beyond alternating left and right hooks. Bradley lost most of the exchanges along the ropes and these were defining moments during the rounds. Out in the open Bradley still struggled to find an answer to that southpaw left. He could counter it on occasion, but he seemed puzzled in looking for a way to avoid it. Lastly, Bradley ended up ducking more than circling away when Pacquiao would come in to attack and if you get a chance to re-watch the fight, you will notice that Pacquiao was keen to stay on top of Bradley and make him pay for it. Bradley would struggle to move away effectively while he was hunched over, and Pacquiao was able to punch downward onto his opponent, only having to worry about a curving right hand as a counter.

Pacquiao is not free from criticism, however, as several of his defensive gaps were exploited on numerous occasions. As it stands there is usually a correlation between what worked well with one fighter, and what didn’t work so well with his opponent. Pacquiao’s problem was the consistency with which he was clipped and hammered by body shots and right hands. Roach was mindful of this and admonished Pacquiao on several occasions to “get [his] defenses up”. One reason the body punches were landing was due to the slightly slower pace with which Pacquiao now fights at. The head shots from the right hands landed because Pacquiao has the bad habit of dropping his hands and shooting his punches from the hip. Pacquiao has been able to get away with this for the early and middle parts of his career due to his speed, but the first thing to go on a boxer is his speed. Harold Lederman said it best in round seven when he observed that Pacquiao doesn’t cut back and forth with angles – constantly turning his opponents into his punches – like he used to. With this in mind, Pacquiao and his trainer Freddie Roach should consider how to best adjust his style as he continues boxing into his thirties. After all, Muhammad Ali knew that he couldn’t be the same boxer the retired Liston on his stool when he returned years later against men like Joe Frazier and George Foreman – he had to reinvent himself and tap into other potential.

What did we learn?

The CompuBox totals show us a fight that was close, but clearly in the hands of Manny Pacquiao. Similar to their first outing Bradley threw more jabs, while landing fewer than Pacquiao, while Pacquiao threw more power punches and landed at a higher rate as well. These aren’t enough to dictate the outcome of a fight, but they are symbolic of how the fight played out: great determination by both men, with Pacquiao taking a decided lead.

I guess, from a certain point of view, Pacquiao and Bradley were both right and wrong. Pacquiao did indeed have the focus, heart, chin and desire to finish his opponent. He took a tremendous punch in the fourth round which lifted him off the ground and though he was hurt, he kept gamely fighting back. He also stuck to a pretty scripted game plan, only losing himself on a few occasions over the course of the full twelve rounds. Bradley, for his own part, showed us that he does indeed belong with the very best at welterweight. He has grit, great movement when it is used, more power than I gave him credit for, and a very well-rounded style. Had he not suffered an injury, who knows how the fight could have gone?

While Pacquiao looked good there was some cause for concern. Two things in particular could prove to be foreshadowing for later trouble – his proclivity to get hit by right hands (in particular the looping cross-counters) and his inability to rattle his opponents in the way that he used to. Both of these things are probably good indicators of two things. First of all, Pacquiao is not as energetic as he once was, and this leaves him a bit easier to pinpoint when punching. Secondly, he is not young anymore. While he punches fast, uses angles well, and moves his head to get out of trouble, he is, as Max Kellerman said last night: “a half step behind” what he once was.

Where do we go from here?

Pacquiao – though getting long in the tooth – has staved off Father Time with another important win. Meanwhile, Bradley has earned respect from the boxing public with his display of heart in the ring, and displayed grace in defeat. The prestige of both men has been left intact, and even though Bradley lost, I think he salvaged a moral victory of sorts from this defeat. Meanwhile, as Manny keeps coming back, the fans keep wondering: when will he and Floyd touch gloves at the centre of the ring? When will the fight of fights finally happen? Sadly, the future is not so sunny when looked at through the lens of this question. The real victims are the fans. As long as the cold war between Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions continues, interesting matches that could bring public interest back into boxing are thrown away as casually as an apple core. While Top Rank has three of the top welterweights in Manny Pacquiao, Juan Manuel Marquez and Timothy Bradley, the depth of its welterweight ranks quickly thins out. Conversely, Golden Boy Promotions has a great deal of talent at welterweight and light-welterweight, but we won’t know how truly great they are with the three aforementioned top welterweights corralled in Top Rank’s stable. A rubber match between Pacquiao and Bradley would be intriguing to me simply because there are still some question marks, but it seems more than likely that Bradley will await the loser and Pacquiao will face the winner of the Juan Manuel Marquez vs Mike Alvarado fight in May.

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