boxing: Pacquiao vs Rios

Tonight is Manny's big comeback fight following the devestating KO loss to a version of Juan Manuel Marquez full to bursting with a mystery substance (gamma rays?) which transformed his physique along the lines of this famous Charles Atlas cartoon:

(He should perhaps have reserved some of that magic for his next fight, in which a noticably less Hulk-esque Marquez lost to Timothy Bradley.)

The consensus for the fight looks like this, with Manny as Kool Aid Man & Rios as the wall:

And that's the safe, savvy position to take.

Manny is world class and while Rios is a quality fighter he isn't on that level.  Under different circumstances (i/e, an alternate reality where the fourth Marquez fight had ended in another close decision rather than a KO loss) it would be a decent enough keep busy fight, but other than perhaps Rios & his immediate family everyone would be expecting a Pacquiao triumph, the main question how many round Rios would survive before being KOed.

But in handicapping a fight, you look for variables.
And that KO loss is a big one.

There are many unknowables in boxing, which is part of its fascination.  In particular, there are certain events and mishaps which happen in a prizefight, the reaction to which cannot be intuited beforehand.  The only way to find out if a guy can take a big punch is for him to take a big punch.  The only way to find out how he'll respond to a bad cut is to suffer a bad cut.  How will a young fighter respond to going 10 full rounds for the first time? You'll know after the final bell.

And the only way to find out how a guy reacts to a huge KO loss is to see what happens in his next fight.

This bout puts me in mind of Roy Jones Jr vs Glen 'The Road Warrior' Johnson, a perceived walkover for Roy which ended like this:

Roy & Manny have nothing common stylistically- for most of his prime Roy was extremely cautious, both in terms of his matchmaking and his ring style while Manny is a risk taking, seek & destroy fighter.  What unites them is a mutual reliance on physical ability over ring savvy, on innate talent over acquired knowledge.  

That's what makes this Rios fight dangerous.  
Technical, cerebral fighters have a relatively predictable career curve- when their physical abilities start slipping, they can cover for it.  They aren't what they once were, but they can still be elite.  Guys like Floyd Mayweather Jr, Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, can still do well for many years after their physical primes are gone.  Technical brilliance has a much longer shelf life than the physical variety.

When Roy lost it, he lost it all in one round:

Now, Manny isn't necessarily Roy.
But we can't know for sure until tonight's final bell.

Rios is aggressive and he can bang and that makes this a dangerous, interesting fight even though he's not objectively on the same level as Manny.

Boxing fandom being how it is, nobody wants to go out on a limb and pick Rios: if Manny is still Manny the fight will be, to quote Thomas Hobbes, "nasty, brutish and short".
Since we all want to look serious, and smart, and knowing, we hesitate to pick an underdog who's liable to end up as roadkill.

But this fight has an unknowable at its center.  
I'm not waffling on picking Rios because I don't want to look bad, I'm waffling because it's entirely possible that Manny is one of those guys who takes losses, even devastating ones, in stride, and he'll go through Rios like a wrecking ball through a stage prop wall.

But when you see all those other folk making bold, concrete predictions about Paquiao destroying Rios, keep in mind the coin has two sides.  Rios is no slouch, and if there is any hesitation or uncertainty in Manny's return to the squared circle, Rios is well equipped to exploit it.

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