(Manny Pacquiao connects on Brandon Rios; credit: Chris Farina, Top Rank)
Manny Pacquiao buried Brandon Rios in an avalanche of punches Saturday on HBO pay-per-view, in the process shoveling dirt on memories of his astounding knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez last year. Rios was, as expected in one of the two most likely scenarios for how the fight might go, a sitting duck for Pacquiao's speed, movement, experience and overall talent and ability. Yet I was left with the view that Pacquiao could've done much more, and would've done much more at the absolute temperature of the supernova that was prime Pac-Man.
If another fighter does this to Rios, we're all dazzled. Rios has only one official loss on his record, a 2013 Fight of the Year contender against Mike Alvarado. While Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach derided Rios beforehand as a "punching bag," he's an especially belligerent one. His physical talent level might be low, but his grit and power have been more than enough to make up for it against top lightweights and junior welterweights.
Pacquiao was far, far too much for him at welterweight, despite coming off a loss that left some wondering whether a pressure fighter like Rios would turn the crack in Pacquiao's eggshell into a full-blown scramble. Alvarado, Rios' best opponent, is a top 10 contender at 140, but he's nobody who, say, spent some years as the best fighter alive like a certain Filipino. The 1st round was Pacquiao's, as Rios probably tried to get a touch too clever and box intelligently when he needed to turn it into a brawl. The 2nd and 3rd drew increasingly closer. But essentially after that, Pacquiao had his way. The fight began to resemble an extended game of paddleball with Pacquiao smacking Rios at will with his two-fisted fusillades courtesy his trademark in-and-out movement. The judges had it 120-108, 119-109 and 118-110, each card increasing in its generosity to Rios.
Yet because he is Pacquiao, as impressed as I was that he was able to bounce back from such a devastating defeat, I found myself wanting more of that old greatness. Maybe Pacquiao, who hasn't scored a straightforward knockout since moving to welterweight, just doesn't have the power at 147. Maybe rust played a factor, after a layoff of a year. Maybe Rios coming in on fight night at 159 pounds gave him punch resistance beyond reason. Maybe Rios' inherent toughness, potentially as dangerous to his long-term physical health as the Marquez knockout of Pacquiao, came to play — his face sure showed the damage, and his post-fight interview was a bit on the punchy side. And maybe Pacquiao's killer instinct is long gone, thanks to his religion and desire to do public good as a congressman in the Philippines. Early in the 12th, Pacquiao had a pained Rios in retreat and backed him into a corner, cowering and covered. A boxer who wanted a knockout would have seized that moment, or at least tried. Pacquiao did not. Instead, he deliberately strolled backward and let Rios escape unconsciousness.
If you were looking for signs that Pacquiao could still be the Pacquiao who enraptured not only boxing fans but the general public, they were there against Rios. But Pacquiao of 2009 incinerates Rios by the middle rounds if not sooner. Whether we'll ever get that truly great Pacquiao back is hard to say. Saturday, we got a very good version of him, and that was more than enough to leave tendrils of smoke smoldering from the half-demolished ruins of Rios.