It is nearly impossible to talk about either Juan Manuel Marquez or Tim Bradley without talking about Manny Pacquiao. After Oct. 12, it might also be nearly impossible to talk about Marquez without talking about Bradley, or to talk about Bradley without talking about Marquez.
Pacquiao is the common thread who elevated the names of both Marquez and Bradley through his pay-per-view bouts with them, and part of what has drawn Marquez and Bradley together for their PPV-headlining showdown is their shared status as the only men to defeat Pacquiao in the last eight years. However, their victories over the Filipino icon couldn't be more dissimilar. In December 2012, Marquez flipped the switch on Pacquiao's senses with a single counter right hand, scoring a one-punch knockout that will be replayed for decades, perhaps centuries, to come. Six months earlier, Bradley was awarded one of the most controversial decisions in pugilistic history, a split nod over Pacquiao that, to most observers, wasn't just debatable; it was inexplicable.
The 40-year-old Marquez (55-6-1, 40 KOs) and 30-year-old Bradley (30-0, 12 KOs, 1 No-Contest) have arrived at this destination via decidedly different angles, but here they are, both looking to build on wins over Pacquiao with the most meaningful bout they can take that doesn't involve Pac-Man. Marquez vs. Bradley is loaded with questions, controversies, and subplots. And if their most recent performances are any indication, the action might just live up to the intrigue.
That's because on top of Marquez's knockout of Pacquiao being 2012's Fight of the Year, Bradley's narrow decision win over Ruslan Provodnikov is arguably the leading candidate for 2013's honors. Bradley, previously considered a defensively sound strategist with a tendency to maul and headbutt, was all heart and heroics against Provodnikov, fighting some 11 rounds in a concussed fog. "I think if I would have just boxed, it would have been, ‘Oh, Tim Bradley just boxed another guy, got another win, who cares?'" Bradley reasoned on a recent episode of 24/7. The man known as "Desert Storm" might have lopped years off his career with the Provodnikov fight, but he also reached new heights of popularity. The question is whether the lingering effects of that fight will announce their presence just seven months later against Marquez.
The future Hall of Famer from Mexico City, meanwhile, faces questions of his own. Chief among them is whether the milestone birthday he recently celebrated is anything more than a number. "I've just turned 40, but I feel 25," Marquez said. "I feel great. Physically and mentally, I feel like myself. Being 40 doesn't mean anything."
HBO boxing analyst Max Kellerman would like to believe Marquez, but he's reluctant to make any such assumptions heading into the Bradley fight.
"There's always a chance that a great old fighter grows old overnight," Kellerman noted. "And by the way, usually that happens when either fighting another great fighter or a really good young fighter. And Bradley kind of splits the difference. He's still in his prime, and he's really good. Bradley has good mobility. He's just the kind of guy that can make you look old. Any fighter in the world, I don't care who you are, if you get in there with Tim Bradley, you have your work cut out. Period. Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, I don't care who it is, if you sign to fight Tim Bradley, he's going to find out about you. His talents are a B-plus across the board, but he's A-plus-plus determination, and I think that makes him more than the sum of his parts."
Marquez's parts, meanwhile, have come under scrutiny of late, since he showed up for the third Pacquiao bout sporting an improved physique and for their fourth fight even more chiseled. Few sports fans are naïve about the presence of performance-enhancing drugs anymore, and Marquez's transformation into a shredded one-punch knockout artist raised questions, naturally, about how natural he is. The drug testing protocol has been a central plotline in Marquez-Bradley from the moment negotiations for the fight began, and in the end, it was decided that the testing would be conducted by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which supposedly is testing as stringently as any independent organization does.
Fans are skeptical, of course. How Marquez's body looks and how damaging his punches are against Bradley might impact whether people attach an enduring asterisk to his knockout of Pacquiao. So, even coming off the greatest win of his career, Marquez has a lot to prove and should, theoretically, be motivated enough to avoid an emotional letdown.
"Will he be as emotionally invested as he was against Pacquiao?" Kellerman wondered. "Pretty hard to do that, considering who Pacquiao is, what he'd done to other great Mexican fighters, and the fact that Marquez felt he'd been ripped off every time against Pacquiao. It's hard to imagine that Marquez could be as amped up for Bradley as he was for Pacquiao. But I think Marquez will be fully prepared here. He knows he can't take Tim Bradley lightly."
The shadow of Pacquiao looms over this fight for both men. If Pacquiao defeats Brandon Rios a month later, then a fifth war with Marquez or a rematch with Bradley, depending upon who prevails on Oct. 12, will make a great deal of sense. But Marquez-Bradley is one of those matchups that's so fascinating on paper, so potentially explosive if the action-oriented versions of each warrior show up, that a new iconic rivalry might be born.
In other words, don't go penciling in Marquez-Pacquiao V or Bradley-Pacquiao II on your 2014 calendar. Marquez-Bradley I could turn Marquez-Bradley II into the hottest future matchup in the welterweight division.