NEW YORK — All the elements were in place Thursday afternoon in the Theater at Madison Square Garden: the opposing fighters, their respective trainers, the HBO brass, the stage-wide logo-covered banner, the two Top Rank Knockout models with their skimpy outfits and relentless smiles, promoter Bob Arum at the dais holding forth about the “spectacular” event in the offing, the crowd of reporters and photographers. Yet, in the end, this press gathering, the second stop on a coast-to-coast tour to promote the April 9 welterweight championship bout between Manny Pacquiao and Tim Bradley, felt strangely subdued, more a valedictory than a let’s-get-it-on precursor to the rubber match of a significant trilogy.
The less-than-fiery—almost wistful, in fact—nature of the moment stemmed, of course, from the fact that Pacquiao had announced, even before signing with Bradley, that his next fight would be his last. And now here he stood on the Garden stage, trim and natty in a gray plaid suit, one of the finest fighters—certainly the most popular—of his generation, repeating his promise that he would, in his words, “hang up my gloves” after the Bradley bout. Contrary to the intended purpose of these sorts of extravaganzas, it all kind of made one less eager for fight night to roll around.
That Bradley will be the opponent against whom Pacquiao closes out his remarkable 21-year-career has not helped. Their first two bouts—a 2012 split-decision victory for Bradley that most observers considered a robbery, and a rematch in ’14 that Pacquiao won handily—hardly left boxing fans clamoring for a third. When Pacquiao confirmed last fall that this April’s date would be his farewell ring appearance, several other fighters were mentioned as possible and more exciting opponents, including Amir Khan, Danny Garcia and Terence Crawford. But Bradley got the nod. The fight will be held April 9 in the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas (tickets go on sale on Friday) and will be shown on HBO pay-per-view.
Yet, vague sense of anticlimax aside, there’s every reason to believe that this bout could be a competitive and entertaining one. The 37-year-old Pacquiao (57–6–2, 38 KOs) insists that he is fully recovered from the shoulder injury that, he says, contributed to his lackluster showing against Floyd Mayweather Jr. in last year’s long-anticipated megabout. (“He’s got 100% clearance from the doctor,” says Arum, “complete range of motion.”) Pacquiao says that he wants a “clear victory” to prove that “Manny Pacquiao is still in his prime.”
What could make this fight truly interesting, however, is the fact that, at age 32, Bradley (33–1–1, 13 KOs) feels he may be reaching a new prime. This is his second fight working with Teddy Atlas as his trainer. In the first, last November, he stopped Brandon Rios in the ninth round in Las Vegas, seemingly fighting with more focus and precision than we were used to seeing. “I never felt like that before,” says Bradley of his performance that night. “I knew exactly what to do every second in there.” He credits Atlas with remaking him as a fighter. “I think that before I really didn’t have an identity as a fighter,” Bradley says, “I didn’t really know what I was as a fighter. Now I do.”
A convincing win over Pacquiao would establish the personable Bradley as a central figure in a crowded and exciting welterweight scene and pave the way for big-money bouts against any or all of those fighters passed over for Pacquiao’s swan song.
And Pacquiao insists this will indeed be his final outing. But Arum, for one, isn’t so certain. “I don’t believe any fighter completely,” says the 84-year-old promoter. “But I believe he believes it.”
Arum points out, though, that unlike so many other fighters he has seen over his 50 years in boxing, Pacquiao, a two-term member of the Philippine congress, has a completely different and meaningful career waiting for him beyond the ring. In May he will stand for a Senate seat. Clearly, bigger fights still lie ahead.
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As Pacquiao said on Thursday, “I started out in boxing because I wanted to help my family, my mother. Now I’m ending my boxing career because I want to help my countrymen, the Filipino people. I’m ending because I want to serve the people.”