Manny Pacquiao is not perfect. He's not unbeatable. He's not impossible to root against. Imagine that.
In the last seven months, nothing has quantitatively changed for Pacquiao, who is still on a winning streak and still one of the most insanely famous people in the world. And yet it feels like things are on the precipice of changing. There's no need to trot out the "oh, how the mighty have fallen" cliché for him just yet. But there's something vaguely in flux about the Filipino living legend's aura, and the idea of the mighty falling is suddenly conceivable.
We came into Pacquiao's last couple of fights simply asking "how" and "when" with regard to the result. As Pac-Man prepares to enter the MGM Grand ring June 9 against Timothy Bradley, the word "if" is creeping into our collective vocabulary.
Part of that is a testament to the danger Bradley presents. And part of it is a testament to what a difference one fight, and a few subsequent controversies, can make in our perception of Pacquiao.
Last November, Pacquiao, not just unbeaten in his previous 14 fights but untested in nearly all of them, barely eked out a majority decision win over Juan Manuel Marquez. As we all know, Marquez is a future Hall of Famer who had twice previously proven to pose stylistic problems for Pac-Man. So it shouldn't have been shocking that Pacquiao looked mortal against him. But because of the level of dominance we'd grown accustomed to seeing from Pacquiao, it was.
And that display of mortality was followed by a series of public-relations hiccups: Allegations of tax problems. Assorted legal accusations. Revelations of marital issues heading into the Marquez bout. Polarizing statements about gay marriage.
One fight ago, Pacquiao was unimpeachable. Now the pedestal upon which he stands seems a few inches closer to the ground-which is good news for Bradley, and for fight fans who prefer intrigue to foregone conclusions.
"Because Pacquiao, in his last fight or two, has not been the same destroyer that we saw against [Oscar] De La Hoya and [Miguel] Cotto, there are both expectations and questions going into the fight," observed HBO color analyst Larry Merchant. "There are questions of whether Pacquiao is still at the top of his game, whether he still has the high motivation and ambition that he once did, whether all of the distractions that come with being Manny Pacquiao in the Philippines might have affected him, and whether his most recent [religious] conversion and interests have even suggested to him that he has to find out whether he still has his best stuff. If he has his best stuff, this may be an opportunity for him to rewind the clock in everybody's head. But there are questions. And we won't get the answers until the fight."
As for questions and answers before the fight, one guarantee in boxing is that when you ask a fighter and his trainer how camp is going, you'll be told the boxer has never looked better. So we should take this with a grain or two of salt, but Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, insists the changes in his charge are all positive.
"His focus is very good," Roach told the media a couple of weeks before the fight. "We don't have days where he comes in tired and so forth, because he has no nightlife whatsoever besides the bible study. He is very focused on the fight. He and God are very close right now and he is just a better athlete-with no distractions."
Even if we're to take all of that at face value, the reality is that Bradley presents certain stiff challenges for even the best version of Pacquiao.
In Bradley, Pacquiao is facing an opponent five years younger than he is, something Pac-Man has never done before. (Granted, it's hard to find opponents five years your junior before you're at least middle-aged as a fighter.) He's also facing just his third undefeated opponent in the last 10 years, as Bradley joins Jorge Solis (KO 9, 2007) and Emmanuel Lucero (KO 3, 2003) on that short list.
Bradley, though not a one-punch knockout artist, is physically imposing in his own way; Roach said, "I don't think we have fought anybody that muscular." Bradley is also highly intelligent in the ring, awkward, notoriously dangerous with his head, and as promoter Bob Arum acknowledged, that rare Pacquiao opponent who is in his absolute physical prime.
"When you look at Manny's opponents, the freshest guy he has fought will be Bradley," Arum said. "The others he has fought have been great names like Cotto, [Antonio] Margarito, De La Hoya, and [Ricky] Hatton, but Bradley is ... young and fresh. When you have a fresh fighter who has not taken a lot of punishment, he can be dangerous. The most important element with Bradley is his mind. He is a very, very determined young man. He is confident in his abilities and determined, and that is a tremendous plus for any athlete. He feels as if his mind can take over."
And to Bradley's credit, he has prepared for the left-handed Pacquiao (even if he didn't realize at the time that he was preparing for Pacquiao) by facing two consecutive southpaws, Devon Alexander and Joel Casamayor. Bradley prevailed over both of them.
But it's safe to say neither Alexander nor Casamayor really approximates Pacquiao.
In fact, it's safe to say nobody on Bradley's unbeaten dossier is of Pacquiao's caliber.
"It's natural that we think of the equation as what Pacquiao is facing," Merchant said. "But what is Bradley facing? Has he ever seen anything like this? I don't think so. So that may be the more salient question."
As much as the perception of Pacquiao has subtly transformed since his last bout, he's still universally regarded as one of the two most bankable stars in the sport of boxing and as one of the two best. Sure, he might hear a smattering of boos this time out. He might appear a tad less explosive than he did in, say, 2009. But he's still Manny Pacquiao. And that's a frightening proposition for anyone, even a young, strong, undefeated fighter like Bradley.