If tonight was the end of Manny Pacquiao's in-ring career, it was a good end. Pacquiao defeated Timothy Bradley by unanimous decision (116-110 from all three judges), scoring two knockdowns in the fight and putting an end to what has been at times a controversial but overall a very friendly rivalry between the two fighters.
It all started in 2012, when Pacquiao, then on a massive run of success that had seen him climb several weight divisions dominantly, winning an array of world titles, was matched against Bradley. What appeared to be another clear Pacquiao win over 12 rounds became a sport-shaking controversy, as two of the three judges saw it going Bradley's way, awarding "Desert Storm" a split decision.
When they met again in 2014, a lot had changed. Bradley had been in a career-changing war with Ruslan Provodnikov in 2013, which won the Fight of the Year award, and had beaten Juan Manuel Marquez. Pacquiao had been knocked out cold by the same Marquez in December 2012.
That night in 2014, Pacquiao got the win almost everyone felt he deserved in 2012. There was, though, still at least a little unfinished business. Not enough to make this a mega-huge-special event, but still a big fight. Coming off of a loss to Floyd Mayweather last year, a shoulder surgery after that, and 11 months out of the ring, the two met again on Saturday night.
Again, it was different than it had been before. The aura around Pacquiao had been lessened not because he lost to Mayweather, but because it truly signaled the end of an era in boxing. Mayweather retired four months later following an easy goodbye win over Andre Berto. Pacquiao announced that his next fight, against Bradley once more, would be his last.
There were other options. Rising star Terence Crawford was considered, as was Amir Khan. But Bradley was the choice. Some felt it was because Bradley, a familiar opponent whom Pacquiao had bested over 24 rounds already, was the safest choice. A dynamic, young, hungry fighter like Crawford could have been real trouble. Khan, a former Wild Card gym stablemate of Pacquiao's, has legitimate elite-level hand speed, a dangerous thing against a 37-year-old fighter coming off of a long absence.
Bradley (33-2-1, 13 KO) came into this fight with trainer Teddy Atlas, who had replaced longtime second Joel Diaz last year. In their first fight together, Bradley dominated Brandon Rios. The hope was that Atlas, one of the most knowledgable boxing minds in the world and a master motivator, could get something more out of Timothy Bradley. Sometimes, too, fighters just need a fresh set of eyes in the gym.
Atlas did his job. Bradley had the game plan tonight, and for four rounds, things were going fine. It was a tactical bout, a chess match, one that saw both men a bit tentative. There was early concern about Pacquiao's shoulder, as he seemed to be favoring it a couple of times. If that took the right hook out of his game, it could have been a major concern.
Pacquiao, though, erased those concerns pretty quickly, and from the fifth round on, largely had his way. He was faster than Tim Bradley, which he'd always been. He was a harder puncher than Tim Bradley, which he'd always been. He was simply a more dynamic fighter than Tim Bradley, which he'd always been.
So yes, things were different. But they also were the same as they were in 2012 and again in 2014. Pacquiao scored a knockdown late in the seventh round, a clipping shot where Bradley's glove touched the canvas. In the eighth, Bradley hurt Pacquiao for the first time in their three fights together, and had Manny covering up and looking to hold and get his bearings, which he did. The ninth round saw Bradley down again, this time with no doubt about it, as he did a back somersault once he hit the canvas, and later laughed when telling HBO's Max Kellerman, "I don't even remember, man."
Pacquiao will now head back to the Philippines, where he's preparing for a Senate election this summer. He's served as a Congressman for years, pumped money into the poverty-stricken areas of the nation, and become more than a simple sports legend or even cultural icon.
If he loses the election, he may fight again. If he wins, he may fight again, anyway. Boxing is a sport that always draws its fighters back, even past the point of no return. One of tonight's commentators, Roy Jones Jr, is a living legend, once a marvel of speed, power, skill, and athleticism, the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. Now 47 years old, Jones can't let go, despite the last 12 years of fights telling him repeatedly that he should. Most recently, he fought an amateur boxer and novice MMA fighter named Vyron Phillips in front of an apathetic, small crowd in Phoenix, Arizona, on a card that also featured a grappling contest, a pro wrestling match, and some bad mixed martial arts.
Pacquiao is unlikely to fall that far down the ladder. He does have a serious career waiting for him if he decides that his boxing days are over. But with this game, you just never know. The allure of the fight is often too much to let go, and Pacquiao has always loved a fight.
Is he done? He says he is. The doubts are widespread, the same as they are regarding Mayweather's retirement, which is not his first. Manny Pacquiao may not be able to end his career any better than this, though. He beat a good fighter in a good fight, and at times looked like his younger self. This could be the best possible ending.