By Graham Houston
Eleven months after crashing face-first to the canvas against Juan Manuel Marquez in Las Vegas, Manny Pacquiao is back in the ring tonight, meeting Brandon Rios in a 12-round welterweight fight in the Chinese Special Administrative Region of Macau, with TV coverage on HBO PPV in the U.S. and BoxNation in the U.K. The fight takes place on Sunday morning in China to allow for peak-hour TV viewing in the U.S., as happened when Ali met Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila.
Pacquiao is the clear betting favourite, and I’m expecting him to win this fight. Bob Arum’s Top Rank organisation promotes both men, but Pacquiao is the big moneymaker and this match hasn’t been made to get him knocked off.
Rios is in many ways the perfect opponent. He is tough and game and always comes forward, so the fight should be entertaining. However, Rios is rather slow, and he’s hittable. Also, Rios is moving up in weight from 140 pounds whereas Pacquiao has been boxing at 147 pounds for the past three years. Although Pacquiao is seven years the older man at the age of 34 he still looks speedy and sharp in video footage from his training base in the Philippines. I see Pacquiao as having a clear speed advantage in the fight, both in foot speed and in hand speed.
Although Pacquiao got knocked out in his last fight it was a one-punch finish, the sort of ending that can happen almost to anyone. Up to the sudden finish, though, Pacquiao had been showing his best form in more than a year, and even though Pacquiao suffered an early knockdown he was coming on strongly. Marquez suffered a bloody nose and was under increasingly severe pressure, and a stoppage win was starting to look possible for Pacquiao — but then Marquez drilled him with that perfectly timed right-hand through the middle.
Rios has heavy hands but we don’t think of “Bam Bam” Brandon as an explosive, one-punch banger. He usually stops opponents by breaking them down with pressure and punch-accumulation. As I see this fight, Pacquiao will be landing fast, sharp shots, getting off first and then getting away before Rios can come back at him.
This doesn’t mean that this will be an easy fight for Pacquiao. Rios will keep ploughing straight ahead and I’m sure he’s going to land punches, maybe getting in some right hands and left hooks and perhaps surprising Pacquiao with some stiff jabs. I just think, however, that Rios will be taking much more than he’s giving, and in this scenario I don’t see Rios taking Pacquiao’s punches for 12 rounds although the prediction by Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, of a four-round win for Manny seems extremely unlikely — I think we can settle down for a long fight.
The well-publicised gymnasium scuffle between the rival camps has heightened the tension. I’m just wondering if what occurred will see Pacquiao enter the fight in a meaner mood than is his norm, because I get the feeling that Pacquiao feels protective towards Roach and I don’t think he will be too happy about Alex Ariza, formerly Manny’s strength and conditioning coach and now with the rival camp, aiming a kick at Roach in an incident that reflects credit on no one involved. In fights with Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito we saw Pacquiao displaying mercy and clearly easing off on the punishment he was dishing out. Perhaps Pacquiao will be out to make Rios pay for Ariza’s indiscretions.
I’m sure that Robert Garcia, Rios’s trainer, will have been working on tightening his fighter’s defences. We might see Rios moving his head a bit more than he usually does, perhaps adopting a more measured approach and not just charging ahead. The problem here, though, is that habits can become ingrained with a fighter. Rios is accustomed to walking down his opponents and breaking their will — and if he takes punches in the process, so be it. Once the punches start flying tonight, I believe we’ll see the same old Rios — fighting in a gutsy, hit-or-be-hit, defiant-to-the-end manner. This, I believe, will be his undoing.
Rios is very tough, but he was getting hit all too easily in his two fights with Mike Alvarado, and now he’s meeting the biggest, fastest and hardest-hitting fighter he’s ever faced. I’m thinking on the lines of Pacquiao by TKO around the ninth or 10th round.