The image was simply frightening. Last December, Manny Pacquiao lay face down in a Las Vegas ring, unconscious. A perfectly placed right hand from Juan Manuel Marquez put him there, a violent punch that punctuated one of boxing's longest and most savage rivalries. It was a shot on par with the one Sergio Martinez delivered to Paul Williams, the one Nonito Donaire delivered to Fernando Montiel, the one Pacquiao himself once delivered to Ricky Hatton. And as Pacquiao lay prone, his cheek kissing the canvas, many wondered: Would he ever be the same?
Nearly a year has passed and the question still lingers. Pacquiao has done his best to dispel any doubts. Beginning in August, when Pacquiao (54-5-2) began his seven-city press tour to promote Saturday's fight against Brandon Rios at The Venetian's Cotai Arena in Macao, China (HBO PPV, 9 pm ET), Pacquiao has gone on the offensive. He has dismissed any lingering effects of the knockout. He has cited, somewhat amusingly, the fact that he has been knocked out in the past. He has said that after an 11-month layoff, he has regained support from his wife, Jinkee, who is back on board with his continuing his career after publicly urging him to retire on the heels of the defeat.
"That's boxing," Pacquiao said. "Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. I am not going to complain or worry about what happened. That's boxing."
Added Pacquiao's longtime trainer, Freddie Roach, "He has definitely put the knockout behind him. Manny Pacquiao knows that the knockout is part of the sport. He realizes that if you aren't able to handle the knockout you picked the wrong sport. He is totally recovered and is as brave as ever in the ring."
Roach claims that even with the knockout -- and officially with two straight losses on his resume -- Pacquiao is still sharp. He points to the loss last year against Tim Bradley, a fight most boxing analysts believe Pacquiao won handily. And before getting dropped by Marquez, Roach insists, Pacquiao was fighting "one of the best fights he has fought in a long time."
"Those things happen," Roach said. "In that fight, if Manny had waited one second more, Manny was going to win that fight by knockout."
Count Bradley among those who believe Pacquiao can bounce back. Last March, Bradley engaged in a brawl with the rugged Ruslan Provodnikov. Bradley suffered a concussion early in the fight and admits to having speech problems in the weeks after. Seven months later Bradley was back in the ring, outpointing Marquez.
"I overcame a brutal fight with Provodnikov," Bradley said. "I took a lot of punishment in that fight. I bounced back and I fought smart [against Marquez]. I got hit with some shots in that fight and I was OK."
Others are not so sure. In 1994, Teddy Atlas was working the corner for Michael Moorer's fight against George Foreman. Moorer was cruising to a lopsided decision against the 45-year old Foreman before a straight right hand from Foreman in the 10th round knocked him out. In his next fight, Moorer outpointed unheralded Melvin Foster, a fight Atlas says was crucial to Moorer's ability to bounce back.
"To get knocked out like that was devastating on a lot of fronts," Atlas told SI.com. "It was a very difficult to overcome. He needed a tuneup. Sure enough, [against Foster] there were moments that Michael wasn't sure he was still Michael. One thing I'm certain of is that Manny Pacquiao doesn't know if he's OK. I don't care how many press conferences, how many 24/7's, how many times Bob Arum says he is fine, [Pacquiao] doesn't know. And he won't know until he gets in the ring."
Unlike Moorer, Pacquiao isn't in position to take a tuneup. To earn the eight-figure purse he has become accustomed to, Pacquiao needed a marketable opponent. Enter Rios (31-1), the tough-talking brawler who made a name for himself in a pair of slugfests with Mike Alvarado. Rios can take a punch and has shown an ability to wear opponents down in the later rounds with his aggressiveness. But his straight-ahead style appears tailor made for Pacquiao, which was why he was hand-picked.
"The more I see of Rios in the tapes, the better I feel," Roach said. "He's just a tough guy and tough guys don't win fights. Manny can outbox him and he can do it with ease."
Much is at stake for Pacquiao. An impressive win hits the reset button on a tumultuous two-year stretch and restores Pacquiao's status as an elite fighter. Pacquiao is guaranteed $18 million for the fight and could earn as much as $30 million. Driven out of the U.S. by high taxes, Pacquiao is hoping that Macao -- and Asia in general -- can become a lucrative home.
Seeking to add to the U.S. pay-per-view revenue, Top Rank is tapping deeper into Asian markets. And the site revenue is significantly higher than anywhere else in the world. Given Pacquiao's popularity, and his opponents' desire for the pay day that comes with him, Pacquiao could return to Macao several more times before he retires.
Of course, any such future will vanish with a defeat. Pacquiao's international appeal will keep the checks coming, but his popularity will be significantly diminished. It's an inescapable truth that everyone in Pacquiao's camp -- from Bob Arum to Roach to Pacquiao himself -- is all too aware of.
"If I see he is slowing down and slipping in the fight, I will be the first one to tell him [to retire]," Roach said. "We have an agreement that I will tell him that and he will retire. I don't see him slipping in the gym at this moment, and he's doing really well. He's fired up and anxious to get back in the ring and I see good things. But if things don't go well, we will talk about retirement."