Superficially, things were the same for Manny Pacquiao as he arrived in the U.S. to prepare for another fight, one that will earn him tens of millions of dollars yet again.
There was the Saturday evening arrival in Los Angeles from the Philippines, where he was greeted by a throng of cameras and well-wishers. There was the staffer waiting at the entrance of the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood on Monday to park his luxury car as he reported to training camp.
There was the elongated workout with trainer Freddie Roach and the constant clicking and whizzing of cameras that record virtually every move he makes.
But beneath the surface, things are vastly different for Pacquiao as he prepares for his Dec. 8 match with Juan Manuel Marquez in Las Vegas. There is a palpable sense of concern within his camp that he's not the same rampaging guy he was in 2008 and 2009, when he literally destroyed the likes of Ricky Hatton, Oscar De La Hoya, Miguel Cotto and David Diaz.
Since battering Cotto into submission on Nov. 14, 2009, there has been a very noticeable, but subtle shift in his game. Pacquiao routed Joshua Clottey, Antonio Margarito and Shane Mosley by wide decisions, then scored a questionable decision win over Marquez before losing an even more questionable decision to Timothy Bradley in June.
Clearly, Pacquiao is still one of the elite fighters in the world, but it's hard to say that he's lapped the field any more. He's no longer No. 2 in the ratings behind rival Floyd Mayweather Jr., and there's a growing feeling it would take some sort of miracle for him to beat Mayweather, should that long-awaited fight ever occur.
When the fourth fight with Marquez was announced, Pacquiao vowed he'd spend the entire camp working in Los Angeles in Roach's steamy gym. Instead, he remained in the Philippines for the first few weeks to do some conditioning work, where he said the weather was more suited to getting into fight shape.
All of it was enough to worry his longtime guru Freddie Roach, at least until Roach climbed into the ring with Pacquiao on Monday.
"I definitely was a little concerned why he wasn't here, because he was the one who said he'd be here the whole time," Roach said. "But he was clearly working in the Philippines. He was tanned and dark skinned, so that showed me he was doing his running, putting the hours in.
"We did 10 rounds on the mitts today and he went hard. So whatever concerns I had, they were put to rest once I saw where he was with his conditioning."
Pacquiao has gone 2-0-1 in three compelling fights with Marquez, though there are many who believe Marquez deserved the decision in all three bouts.
The 2011 bout, in particular, sticks in the craw of many fight fans, who felt Marquez clearly outboxed Pacquiao.
Pacquiao knows that, which is why he's vowed to win by knockout.
"What I'm trying to do in this fight is end any doubts," Pacquiao told Yahoo! Sports. "I worked on the conditioning so hard so I could do whatever I need to do in my fight. My opponent is claiming he won the fight the last time, so I want to give a knockout so the people know for sure who won this one."
Pacquiao pretty much always promises a knockout, though. That's hardly different. But after watching the carnage he wreaked in his brilliant 2008-09 run, opponents are no longer willing to run to the center of the ring and stand and trade blows with him.
Of his five post-Cotto opponents, only Margarito relentlessly bore forward and tried to attack. Margarito, though, was physically bigger and believed he could walk through Pacquiao's punches and ultimately corner him and then impose his will. He turned out to be wrong.
Clottey simply kept his hands very high and essentially turtled, unwilling to throw punches. Mosley, Marquez and Bradley, though, incorporated far more movement and far more nuance into their games. When they failed to slug, Pacquiao was unable to mount the offense he had against guys like De La Hoya and Cotto.
It has to be a bit troubling to Pacquiao supporters to hear him blame his opponents' style for his lack of recent stoppages. Yes, it takes two to make a fight, but Pacquiao's rise was all about finding a way to make opponents fight his fight.
"My opponents were running away from me," he said. "After three rounds, maybe five rounds, they were running, running, running. They didn't want to fight toe-to-toe with me. A fight like that is not impressive compared to the others."
Marquez, having been in the ring with Pacquiao for 36 rounds, knows how to fight Pacquiao better than anyone. And Roach said after all the controversy surrounding the scoring, he believes it would take a minor miracle for the judges to score a close bout Pacquiao's way.
That's why Roach's plan for training camp is to work on finding ways to turn the bout into a slugfest where Pacquiao's power will have a great impact.
"I flat-out 100 percent told him, 'Look Manny, you're not going to win a decision,' " Roach said. "He told me he knows he needs a knockout to win, and I told him I agreed. I must have repeated that point 10 times. Judges are humans and they're aware of how the other fights went and all that has gone on."
So, Pacquiao vows to get the knockout. To actually do it is another matter, entirely, particularly against a seasoned veteran like Marquez.
But both Pacquiao and Roach use the same word when they talk about their intentions. If Pacquiao is a man of his word, there will be not subtlety to his plan.
"I need to be more aggressive," Pacquiao said. "That's what I'm focusing on now, more motivation [to get a knockout] and more aggressiveness. That's the most important thing I had before, when I was 25 or 26 years old. I went after my opponents very aggressively and I'm trying to get that back now."
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