LAS VEGAS -- As the final rounds unfolded on Saturday night, Manny Pacquiao stalked Timothy Bradley. He followed Bradley into corners, around the ring, everywhere but into Bradley's lap between rounds. Pacquiao wanted a knockout. In many ways, he needed a knockout. He looked for the knockout.
He did not find one.
This is where Pacquiao is at now: not at the end of his career, but near it. He is still an elite boxer, one of the two best of his generation, still very, very good. But the old Pacquiao, the guy whose left hand dizzied and dismantled foes, the guy who knocked out Ricky Hatton and stopped Miguel Cotto? He's gone. Has been for a while now.
The old Pacquiao has been replaced by an older one.
That happens. That's boxing, perhaps the sport where the aging process is most pronounced. No one is immune, not even a transcendent talent like Pacquiao.
He beat Bradley on Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and that beat the alternative, like when they met here in 2012 and Bradley secured a victory that seemed to surprise even him. Pacquiao won the rematch by unanimous decision, no controversy evident or necessary, the fight not all that close.
"I didn't want to get careless," Pacquiao said.
Pacquiao stung Bradley with left hands. He backed Bradley into corners. He took some shots, too, even one that hurt him. But in every measurable way -- pace controlled and blows landed and shots dodged -- Pacquiao out-classed another challenger who insisted he would retire him.
But Pacquiao and his handlers and his promoters spent all week, spent months, really, emphasizing the importance of aggression and brutality and, ultimately, a knockout. Pacquiao, for all the skill he displayed again on Saturday, never came close to that.
He did land 148 power punches at a 43-percent clip. He did throw way more power punches than jabs. He looked good. Just not Manny Pacquiao 2009 good.
Those in boxing that have not yet accepted that fact should do so now. They should appreciate Pacquiao for what he was and what he now is. Even if that is no longer a knockout king.
You could make the argument that Floyd Mayweather Jr. also won on Saturday, the same as he won when Saul "Canelo" Alvarez dominated Alfredo Angulo the way that Mayweather dominated him. I like 2009 Pacquiao's chances against Mayweather. The Pacquiao of 2014? Not so much.
Pacquiao entered the ring first, a strange sight owing to his status as the challenger. His entrance music -- again, with the Katy Perry -- did little to dispel the notion he had gone at least softer.
The dispelling started in Round 2, as Pacquiao shook Bradley with a left and pounced. He backed Bradley into a corner, landed left after left on Bradley's face.
In Round 4, Bradley loaded up and stepped into a vicious right hand that wobbled Pacquiao. He tapped his gloves together afterward, as if to say, didn't hurt that bad. Unlike in their first meeting, when Pacquiao let up near the end, he controlled the rematch more as it went on. He ducked a right from Bradley that sent Bradley spinning into the ropes in Round 9. He dominated the rest of the way.
For years now, every Pacquiao fight has felt like a step closer to the end. His will to finish off opponents went missing first. Like when he battered Antonio Margarito at Cowboys Stadium and could be seen in later rounds asking, "Are you OK?" Or when he played patty cake with Shane Mosley in what amounted to a glorified sparring session. Some of Pacquiao's sting went next. Not speed, but that power that came with it.
That is how Pacquiao arrived here, at another career crossroads, at another referendum on the prospects of his (Impeding? Nearing? Far away?) retirement. His last knockout occurred nearly five years ago, in 2009, when so many sharp left hands shook, bruised and bloodied Miguel Cotto's face.
Bradley joined the legion of observers to cite Pacquiao's turn away from the aggression that defined his Hall of Fame career, his killer instinct -- whatever that means -- gone according to the critics. Bradley told Pacquiao that as they prepared for their rematch, and his comments, direct, honest, pointed, ruffled the normally unflappable Pacquiao. Truth is, Bradley angered him. Truth hurts.
Thus when Pacquiao entered the ring Saturday, even his advisor, Michael Koncz, said he needed to not only win but win by knockout. Victory alone no longer appeared sufficient. By night's end, it would have to be.
Even as Bradley bothered him, Pacquiao seemed looser, happier and less fatigued by the events of another fight week than in recent years. He posted playlists of his favorite training songs on Twitter. He smiled more. He hosted Bible study sessions at night.
His entourage had returned to its previous swollen size -- "like the old days," said Bob Arum, his promoter, and by old days, he meant the glory years, circa 2008 or 2009. To Freddie Roach, Pacquiao's trainer, the size of Team Pacquiao spoke less to potential distractions and more to Pacquiao's performance in his comeback fight last November against Brandon Rios. After judges gifted Bradley victory over Pacquiao in their first meeting, after Juan Manuel Marquez knocked him out cold, he needed an emphatic victory -- which he got, sort of, diminished only slightly because Rios went the distance.
"A lot of people gave up on Manny a little bit," Roach said earlier this week. "Because he looked so good in that last fight, they all came back."
Bradley's "victory" in 2012 seemed to bother Roach more than it did Pacquiao. He watched their first fight several times and each time he struggled to see what the judges had seen -- Bradley winning. Pacquiao out-landed Bradley 259-159. Three people in the boxing world said Bradley won, namely the boxer and the two judges who scored it in his favor.
Not this time. Roach said Pacquiao was "a little sloppy" on Saturday. That's fair.
Soon, Pacquiao will head back to the Philippines and return to his political duties as a Congressman. His wife is scheduled to give birth to their fifth child, a boy named Israel, later this month. He is likely to surpass $700 million in Pay-Per-View revenue generated when Saturday's total is included. A run for Senate looms.
All that begs the question that will loom over Pacquiao from now until he retires. How much longer? How much longer can he fight, and at what level? Pacquiao says two years. That sounds about right. The end is near, just not here yet.
Ultimately, Bradley was wrong. He could not beat, could not retire Pacquiao. But he was also right. The Pacquiao who once ruled boxing with savage aggression seems gone now. For good.