LAS VEGAS – For a champion boxer, every round of every fight is overtime of Game 7 in the finals.
It's even tougher for Manny Pacquiao because beating an unbeaten, in-his-prime opponent such as Timothy Bradley won't nearly be enough, no matter how good he may look Saturday when he defends his welterweight title at the MGM Grand Garden.
He may be fighting Bradley, but he'll be ceaselessly compared to Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Did Pacquiao look as good against Bradley as Mayweather did May 5 in a win over Miguel Cotto? Did Pacquiao sell as many pay-per-views as the 1.5 million Mayweather tallied against Cotto? Does he deserve a 50-50 purse split for a potential bout with Mayweather?
Every move he makes in the ring, every word he utters at the post-fight news conference, every dollar he brings to the till, will be examined against the backdrop of what Mayweather did, said and earned.
The idea that Pacquiao needs to do anything other than defeat Bradley and retain his title to land a fight with Mayweather is ludicrous. Mayweather needs Pacquiao and Pacquiao needs Mayweather. It would only be the richest fight of all time.
The problem they face, other than the obvious – that Mayweather is serving time at the Clark County Detention Center after pleading guilty to domestic violence charges – is that it seems the inevitable slow decline because of age has begun for each of them.
Mayweather is 35 and was hit more by Cotto than he'd been in any fight in a decade, perhaps more. Pacquiao is 33 and coming off a fight in which he was lucky to win.
In Bradley, he'll be fighting a man five years younger with 30 fewer fights. Most significantly, Bradley doesn't have the wear and tear on him that Pacquiao has.
[TopRank.TV: Watch Manny Pacquiao fight Timothy Bradley live on PPV]
Unlike Mayweather, Pacquiao has always been an offensive fighter, eager to mix it up. And true to form, he said he hoped "we fight toe-to-toe to give the fans what they want, a good fight."
Those kinds of bouts bring fans out of their seats, but they come at a premium price. Fighters can take only so much abuse before the decline begins.
And Pacquiao hasn't been the same since he fought Antonio Margarito on Nov. 13, 2010, in a super welterweight bout. Margarito, who announced his retirement from boxing Thursday, was a naturally bigger guy. Pacquiao has been fighting at welterweight for about four years, but he's never really been a welterweight.
The catch for the Margarito fight was that it would be at 154 pounds, giving Pacquiao a chance to fight for a super welterweight belt and win a world title in an eighth class.
Most boxers do everything they can to fight at the lowest possible weight, believing that once they rehydrate after the weigh-in, they'll be bigger and stronger and have a great advantage.
But Pacquiao, who for years ingested 7,000 calories a day in order to keep his body around the 147-pound welterweight limit, could easily make 140. And, if the big fight were at lightweight rather than at welterweight, it's probable that Pacquiao could make 135 pounds. It would be a difficult weight cut, and he'd be plenty ornery in the final 24 hours of it, but likely he could make it.
Fighting bigger guys is something he does because it's good business. Fans like the David vs. Goliath nature of those matches. Margarito was a hulking welterweight, very big for the division, and was a decent-sized super welterweight.
While he was slow and ponderous and often easy prey for quick-fisted fighters such as Pacquiao and Mayweather, Margarito's punches were bone-chilling shots that could shake a man to the core.
He landed enough of them in the fight with Pacquiao that Pacquiao spent several days in the hospital afterward, recuperating, even though Pacquiao took a lopsided unanimous decision. The punishment he absorbed effectively ended any chance he'd fight again above 147. Top Rank's matchmakers were adamant about that.
Pacquiao beat up on Shane Mosley in his fight after Margarito, but Mosley was so far gone by that stage it was hard to assess where Pacquiao stood. When he struggled to beat Marquez in November, though, it raised the question of whether the world had seen the best of Pacquiao.
"I'm still at my peak," he insisted.
He'll have to be to defeat Bradley, who has quietly positioned himself for this big moment. It's another fight for Pacquiao, but it is the fight of a lifetime for Bradley.
That prompted a curious exchange of words at the final news conference. Bradley is short, at 5-6 one of the few fighters in the class shorter than Pacquiao. He's by no means small, a thickly muscled guy whose abdomen looks it was purchased at the nearest brickyard.
This is his one, perhaps only, chance, and he's thrown every bit of himself into it.
"Training camp was hell," said Bradley, a noted fitness buff. "I've never trained this hard in my whole life."
That's saying something, because Bradley trains like a demon when he's preparing for the charity 5K fun run, let alone when he has the chance at one of the sport's two cash cows.
Pacquiao is very aware of it, which is why he pushed himself in training. He spoke after Bradley, and use a slightly different tone to describe his preparations.
"My training was amazing," Pacquiao said. "It was heaven."
It took a little heavenly intervention, or an angry wife, to turn Pacquiao from a boozing, womanizing party guy into an evangelical Christian who leads Bible study groups and quotes scripture.
He obviously didn't pray for an easy fight, because he didn't get one. As it is, though, Pacquiao didn't have a much of a choice when it came to who he wanted to fight Saturday. Top Rank was pushing Marquez, but after 36 rounds over three fights, Pacquiao is smart enough to understand that their fights will always be cliff-hangers. He wasn't interested in going through that again, at least not so quickly.
He of course hoped for a miracle and a bout with Mayweather, but Mayweather's offer of $40 million with no pay-per-view upside was a non-starter and Pacquiao dismissed it out of hand. For Pacquiao, it's 50-50 or no fight.
"As a businessman, if I took that, they'd be laughing at me behind my back," Pacquiao said.
He talked to Cotto about a rematch, but Cotto had moved up to 154 pounds and preferred to fight there, so he took Mayweather's offer.
That left Bradley, a much lesser known fighter but one no less dangerous.
If he beats Bradley, the Mayweather sycophants will dismiss it as meaningless, a win over a fighter from a smaller weight class. If he should lose, or even win a close fight, they'll heap abuse on him and tag him as nothing more than a well-marketed, carefully matched fighter.
It's once again overtime in Game 7 for Pacquiao. And even if he scores the winning points, it may not matter all that much.
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