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Manny’s back on track

Coming off nearly a one-year layoff and two setbacks in a row, Manny Pacquiao knew losing wasn’t an option in battling roughhouser Brandon (BamBam) Rios at the Cotai Arena inside the Venetian Resort Hotel in Macau last Sunday morning. A defeat would quash hopes for an ultimate megabuck showdown with Floyd Mayweather and probably signal an end to his storybook boxing career.

While experts saw it as a crossroads fight for Pacquiao, Rios grabbed the opportunity to shine on the big stage. BamBam had lost only once before facing Pacquiao and was a former world lightweight champion. But he wasn’t the first choice to confront Pacquiao. Juan Manuel Marquez asked for too much money, pricing himself out of the picture, and WBO welterweight champion Timothy Bradley opted to stake his crown against the Mexican instead of engaging Pacquiao in a rematch.

When Rios was offered to fight Pacquiao, he cried because he never thought the chance would come after losing to Mike Alvarado last March. The defeat was his first ever and Rios thanked his lucky stars he could rebound with a big win over Pacquiao. A butcher’s son, Rios was a juvenile delinquent who once served a jail sentence for breaking someone’s jaw in a street brawl. He hooked up with trainer Robert Garcia when he was 18 and brought his mean streak to the ring. Rios finally found stability in his life when he married a professional therapist Victoria Lopez, who is nine years older, in 2010. He now has five children, three with his wife and two from a previous relationship.

Rios vowed to make Pacquiao regret choosing him as an opponent. “They think I’m a tune-up fight, a walk in the park,” said Rios. “But I’ve never been anybody’s walk in the park. Pacquiao hasn’t knocked out many guys lately. Three years ago, he was a monster. Now, it’s different.”

The apprehension was Pacquiao, who turns 35 on Dec. 17, may be past his prime. He hasn’t scored an abbreviated win since stopping Miguel Cotto in 2009. His trainer Freddie Roach said, “if it does not go well, we will seriously talk about his retirement and possibly going to politics (full-time) … I will be the first one to tell him to retire and we have an agreement that as soon as I tell him that, he will retire.”

So clearly, the future was on the line for Pacquiao. His marketability took a hit with the losses to Bradley and Marquez and for Pacquiao to regain his drawing power, a convincing victory over Rios was the only solution.

Top Rank chairman Bob Arum chose Macau as the site for Pacquiao’s re-emergence. To drum up interest for the fight, Arum took the protagonists on a press tour through Macau, Beijing, Singapore, Shanghai, New York and Los Angeles. “You can’t be considered a major sport unless you translate that sport to China and all the Asian markets,” said Arum. “That’s why the NBA is getting involved in China and so is major league baseball. And now, so are we in boxing.”

Fighting in Macau ended a steak of 14 straight bouts where Pacquiao performed exclusively in the US. Arum’s gambit wasn’t just to court the huge Chinese market but also to set the stage for Pacquiao to rebound before a predominantly Filipino audience at the Cotai Arena. It was like handicapping Rios with a hometown disadvantage.

For a while, there was cause for concern that Roach wouldn’t be in Pacquiao’s training camp in General Santos City until six weeks before the fight. Pacquiao opened camp with Buboy Fernandez and Nonoy Neri then Roach came in from Los Angeles and was later joined by training assistant Marvin Somodio and conditioning consultant Gavin McMillan. The quality of Pacquiao’s sparmates was questionable with Liverpool’s Liam Vaughan and Filipino superwelterweight Dan Nazareno his primary punching partners. Roach said the focus in camp was to work on Pacquiao’s speed, defense and combinations — factors that would blunt Rios’ pressure tactics.

At the morning weigh-in on the eve of the fight, Pacquiao looked in better shape than Rios and scaled 145 pounds. Rios tipped in at 146 1/2, the heaviest in his career. After the weigh-in, Rios gulped down two one-liter bottles of electrolytes to rehydrate, indicating he burned himself out trying to make the weight.
When the fight started, Rios was 17 pounds heavier and Pacquiao, only six. The added weight made Rios even slower and an easier target for Pacquiao.

The atmosphere at the Cotai Arena was reminiscent of Las Vegas. Scantily-clad round girls, celebrities and of course, ring announcer Michael Buffer contributed to turn it into a virtual Vegas experience. David Beckham, Paris Hilton, former NBA star Norm Nixon and Stephen Baldwin were at ringside. Filipino VIPs who made the trip to Macau included Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, Sen. Tito Sotto, Rep. Bing Leonardia, Rep. Rey Umali, Rep. Amado Bagatsing, Davao City Mayor Rudy Duterte, Isabela Vice Governor Tonypet Albano, former Ilocos Sur Governor Chavit Singson, former Rep. Hermilando Mandanas, former Rep. Noli Fuentebella, former Rep. Romy Jalosjos, William, Wilson and Willie Tieng of Solar, Vic Sotto, Tony Tuviera, Dingdong Dantes, Joey de Leon, Eddie Gutierrez, Annabelle Rama, Ruffa Gutierrez, Derek Ramsay, Manny Paner and Daisy Romualdez.

American Idol star Jessica Sanchez sang both the Philippine and US national anthems in the ring before the fight. Filipino fans in the building joined Sanchez in an emotional rendition of Lupang Hinirang.

As it turned out, Pacquiao administered a thorough beating on the flustered Rios who was dazzled by the Filipino’s blinding speed. Rios could’ve argued to win up to two rounds as Pacquiao dominated the rest of the way. In the first round, Rios went down from a shot to the body but referee Geno Rodriguez ruled it a slip. Pacquiao had Rios on queer street at least thrice and in the last two rounds, BamBam looked ready to go. Pacquiao, however, held back and allowed Rios to finish the fight on his feet in what Roach said was an act of compassion. There was no point in sending Rios to dreamland, he was battered and punished enough as it was.

The judges’ scorecards reflected the one-sided nature of the fight. Michael Pernick of Miami saw it a shutout, 120-108 while Lisa Giampa of Las Vegas had it 119-109 and Manfred Kuechler of Germany, 118-110. Attendance was announced as a sell-out at 13,101.

Rios wept in the end although he defiantly insisted he was never hurt. Nobody believed his claim as Rios left the ring with a badly disfigured face swollen around both eyes. During the fight, Rios bled from the nose, mouth and cuts near his eyes. He looked a bit like Frankenstein in shades facing the press when the smoke of battle cleared.

Fans wondered if Pacquiao’s power had diminished because he didn’t knock out Rios. Roach and Fernandez said Pacquiao opted to take it easy and not risk walking into a sneak punch. Besides, he needed the workout after a long layoff. Singson said the Filipino icon might be losing his killer’s instinct because of his Christian compassion but quickly qualified that against Mayweather, it’ll be a different Pacquiao. Pacquiao’s Argentine cutman Miguel Diaz said it’s not as if Rios isn’t durable — BamBam proved he can take a punch and kept his record intact of never being knocked out.

With Pacquiao back on the winning track, Arum said he’s looking forward to arranging two fights next year, possibly in Las Vegas. The first will likely be against the unbeaten Bradley in a rematch on April 12 and the second, perhaps a much-awaited encounter with Mayweather.

Meantime, Pacquiao hastily returned to the country a day after mauling Rios to attend to the typhoon victims in the South and the tax complaint filed by the government. “With great power comes great responsibility,” as Pacquiao often quotes from Voltaire and the Spiderman movie, and that adage applies to his obligations to his constituents in Sarangani, his less fortunate countrymen ravaged by Yolanda and yes, the Bureau of Internal Revenue.

Click here to view a list of other articles written by Joaquin Henson.

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