LAS VEGAS – On Jan. 25, when news broke that Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley would rematch for the WBO welterweight title on April 12 at the MGM Grand Garden, a reporter noted to Bradley that it had been more than four years since Pacquiao had scored a knockout.
Bradley was hardly surprised. Pacquiao remained a great fighter, Bradley said repeatedly during the nearly 30-minute conversation, but he wasn't the same fighter he had been.
"He's great, man, and I really, sincerely mean that," Bradley said. "The guy is a great boxer. He has a lot of skills. But he's not destroying guys like he was at one point. He's just happy to go the 12 rounds and box and get his [win] and go home. He's not going out there trying to kill guys any more. He's lost that killer instinct."
They'll meet against Saturday in a title bout promoters expect to total around 1 million buys on pay-per-view. One of the mysteries of the fight will be whether Pacquiao's killer instinct has been committed to the history books or whether he can summon the speed, power and finishing ability that made him an international icon.
Much of Pacquiao's fearsome reputation was made in 2008 and '09, when the congressman from the Philippines went on an extraordinary run.
He began 2008 by taking a decision over Juan Manuel Marquez on March 15 in a thrilling, razor-thin super featherweight match in which the outcome swung on Pacquiao's power. Pacquiao knocked Marquez down in the third and staggered him in the 10th. In a close fight, the guy who landed the harder punches got the victory.
Next up was WBC lightweight champion David Diaz on June 28, 2008, in Las Vegas. It's hard to believe now, but there were questions going into that bout whether Pacquiao could succeed at lightweight or whether Diaz would be too big and too strong for him.
Pacquiao was dominant and took out a quality but overmatched fighter in the ninth round after delivering a brutal beating over the first eight.
That garnered quite a bit of attention – at that point, he'd won title belts at 112, 122, 130 and 135 and had beaten the linear featherweight champion – but it was nothing compared to the acclaim that would come his way in his next fight.
Pacquiao went on to stop Oscar De La Hoya on Dec. 6, 2008, in a welterweight bout, battering the Golden Boy over eight rounds as savagely, or worse, than he had Diaz. De La Hoya wisely quit on the stool after the eighth when his corner wouldn't stop it for him.
That led Pacquiao into a May 2, 2009, bout with Ricky Hatton, whom he knocked cold in the second round. Pacquiao had brutalized Hatton in the first, knocking him down twice and looking for all the world like a stone-cold killer.
He wasn't just winning his fights, he was beating the fight out of the men he was facing.
But arguably the most epic victory of the remarkable streak came on Nov. 14, 2009, when he made the great and tough Miguel Cotto look ordinary in a welterweight bout.
Cotto was regarded as one of the top five or 10 pound-for-pound fighters in the world going into the fight, but he was no match for the speed and power that Pacquiao brought to the battle.
Referee Kenny Bayless mercifully halted the carnage at 55 seconds of the final round.
So, in a 21-month span in 2008 and '09, Pacquiao went 5-0, defeating three future Hall of Famers while scoring four knockouts. Considering the level of competition – De La Hoya has already been elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and Marquez and Cotto will be elected five years after they've retired – it was one of the most remarkable runs in boxing history.
"Manny was an extremely bad dude," Bradley said.
But that stoppage of Cotto has been the last he's gotten, and now he must provide answers. Trainer Freddie Roach said Pacquiao's compassionate side is to blame for his vanishing knockout rate, although Pacquiao has offered no real insights into what has changed.
Of course, it's hard for anyone to keep up the pace he was on in 2008-09.
Although he pummeled Antonio Margarito in a 2010 fight at super welterweight, he seemed to take his foot off the gas as the fight went down the stretch, allowing Margarito to make it to the finish line.
He had Juan Manuel Marquez in trouble in their 2012 bout, but he got caught by a tremendous counter shot and was knocked out himself.
In his seven fights since the TKO of Cotto, Pacquiao is 5-2 with no knockouts. He never came close to putting Joshua Clottey, Shane Mosley, Bradley or Brandon Rios out.
A boxer leaves a piece of himself in the ring every time he climbs through the ropes, and in Pacquiao's case, the damage he took in battering Margarito might have been more significant than anyone could know.
In retrospect, going to 154 pounds to fight Margarito was far too much to ask of Pacquiao, who weighed 109 or less in eight of his first 10 fights. Margarito's punches unquestionably had an impact.
Pacquiao doesn't see what the big deal is about his recent lack of knockouts, and is only motivated to get one on Saturday because Bradley has talked so much about him losing the killer instinct.
"Bradley is saying these things, but he has to back up his words when we fight," Pacquiao said. "We'll see."
One of the many reasons Bradley didn't get an immediate rematch was Pacquiao's assessment of his style in their first fight, which Bradley won via disputed split decision.
Pacquiao often talks of going "toe-to-toe" with an opponent, but rarely did he have such an opportunity the first time he met Bradley.
"He ran," Pacquiao said. "He ran the whole fight."
Bradley had injured feet and didn't run, though he used lateral movement and angles to create problems for Pacquiao.
But Roach told Yahoo Sports that Pacquiao had been concerned throughout training camp for the first Bradley fight about whether Bradley would stand and fight.
"I remember on the night of the fight, maybe the first thing Manny said to me when we got back to the locker room was, 'Didn't I tell you he would run?' " Roach said.
But even if Bradley had run, a fighter of Pacquiao's level and experience should understand how to cut off the ring and make him fight.
Pacquiao has been, and remains, one of the sport's most significant figures for the last decade-plus. All of those hard-fought battles have taken a toll and perhaps are to blame for the lack of finishes.
Only Pacquiao knows why he was unable to stop reeling and on-the-verge-of-going opponents, but it's not an unreasonable guess to think it's been the abuse he's taken in 62 pro fights, many of them against the toughest men alive.
Pacquiao isn't done as a high-level competitor, but he could be going through a transition, turning into a boxer with pop rather than a blazingly quick KO artist.
It's usually not wise to take anything a boxer says about strategy before a fight too seriously, because he knows the other side is listening. Bradley could be taunting Pacquiao about his lack of killer instinct because he wants Pacquiao to attack him.
Pacquiao became one of the world's most popular fighters in large part because of his exciting, fan-friendly style.
If he wants to get back to the halcyon days of 2008 and '09, when there were some astute boxing people who felt he could defeat the great Floyd Mayweather, he'll need to start by putting Bradley away on Saturday.
The story is whether he can still do that.
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