by Kieran Mulvaney
Brandon Rios shook his head and smiled every time Manny Pacquiao hit him flush. Sunday morning at The CotaiArena in Macau, he shook his head and smiled a lot.
They say that, in boxing, speed kills, and Pacquiao's speed killed any hope Rios had of walking away from Macau with an upset victory in front of an energized sellout crowd of over 13,000. Long before the final bell rang at the end of 12 one-sided rounds, Rios must have felt like Bill Murray with a swollen face, each frame much the same as the last as the American was forced to endure a succession of painful, pugilistic Groundhog Days.
The rounds took on a familiar rhythm. In the first, Pacquiao connected with a left uppercut and a strong left hook. At the end of the second, he exploded with combinations. In the third round, he showed nice footwork, turning Rios as he looked for a clean shot. The fourth saw Pacquiao land a straight left, then a combination that snapped back Rios' head. In the fifth, another big straight left. And so it went.
Early in the fight, there was a sense from ringside that Pacquiao's punches, though fast and landing with repetitive accuracy and effectiveness, did not carry quite the explosive power of years past. It seemed then that Rios was perhaps the less vulnerable and more heavy-handed of the two, that a Rios combination to Pacquiao's jaw might have an effect similar to the right hand that Juan Manuel Marquez landed to render the Filipino unconscious at the end of their December contest. Maybe that was the case, but Rios never had a chance to put the theory to the test, never came close to landing testing blows, and was obliged instead to chug after his opponent in an increasingly futile effort to cut off the ring and get his foe where he wanted him.
Pacquiao was having none of it. He moved effortlessly from one side to the next, his footwork setting up his offense and proving to be exceptionally effective with a defense that left Rios punching at air on more than one occasion.
And while Pacquiao may not have detonated the kind of blow that left Ricky Hatton prone or Miguel Cotto wanting no more, he landed enough that, by the end of the contest, Rios had a badly swollen right eye and a slow blood trail from his left for his troubles.
"All I can say is, many Manny punches," smiled Pacquiao's trainer Freddie Roach. "He fought the perfect fight. He let him off the hook. I wanted him to knock him out. But I was very happy with his performance."
Indeed, there is a case to be made that, if Pacquiao's punches weren't always quite as heavy as they once they had been, that that was by design, the result of a decision not to become too excited or to over-commit and risk walking into a counter punch of the kind that Marquez threw. The evidence for that supposition came in the final round, when Rios, seemingly badly hurt, staggered backward into a corner and Pacquiao, knowing victory was his and risk was unnecessary, backed away.
At the end, there was no doubt. The winner was clear, and it was Pacquiao - amazingly, the future Hall-of-Famer's first conclusive win since early 2011. And yet, even in his latest finest hour, the congressman from Sarangani province turned his thoughts elsewhere.
"This isn't about my comeback," he insisted. "My victory is a symbol of my people's comeback from a natural disaster, a national tragedy. It's really important to bring honor to my country with this win."