Brandon Rios is the Latino everyman. There are countless Hispanic Americans who probably see a lot of themselves in Rios — his “I don’t give a fuck” attitude, his gritty approach to life and his blue-collar work ethic. I feel like my childhood was filled with Brandon Rios’s when I lived in SoCal. What distinguishes this Rios from the masses and many other boxers is his fanatical passion for getting hit. I’m not talking about boxing. I’m saying he likes getting hit in the face. It turns him on. After taking some heavy blows from Mike Alvarado in their first fight, Rios came back to his corner with a huge grin and told his coach, “Me gusta,” I like it. In more recent interviews, he’s gone as far as saying that he loves fighting more than he likes sex. Clearly, Rios’s outlook on a fight is unique.
Although Rios has better defense than he is given credit for, he is a come-forward pressure fighter who likes to scrap. His pride is bigger and more important to him than anything else. Despite his amateur background and his ability to show finesse in the ring, when Manny Pacquiao eventually rings Rios’s bell, Rios will more than likely throw out his game plan and his finesse and instead return fire as fast and as hard as he can. He’ll embrace what’s natural, what feels the best — his balls-to-the-wall style that has earned him a cult following and opens him up to hard counters.
What if, and this is the “if” that makes this fight compelling, Pacquiao has not been able to mentally and physically recover from the devastating knockout he suffered in his last fight to Juan Manuel Marquez? Conventional wisdom says that Pacquiao should be able to use his speed and ability to punch at odd angles to win the fight. But part of the problem with even that thinking is that does not take into account that Pacquiao has not fought someone like Rios, who combines grit with heart, bloodlust and power, in a long time.
Pac-man lost his two most recent fights, but his opponents did not pose the particular threat that Rios does. Marquez is a tactician with all-time great credentials who was long in the tooth and the farthest thing from a brawler that there is. Rios will come forward where Marquez retreated. Where Marquez would weave, shift and wait for a precise moment, Rios will take one or two or three of Pacquaio’s punches to deliver one of his own. Timothy Bradley, another elite boxer, lacks the power to intimidate in the way Rios can. Shane Mosley was basically shot, Antonio Margarito too slow, Joshua Clottey a living statute and Miguel Cotto drained. Rios has some boxing skill, decent power, an underappreciated defense, a chin second to none and a fervor for the most grueling moments of a fight that is unique to him. Although Rios does not have the same level of peak skills as some of Pac-man’s recent competition, he does not have any of those men’s great weaknesses either. If Pac-man has doubts about himself, if he’s not in top shape, if he isn’t the same man as he was before the Marquez knockout, Rios’s unrelenting pressure will expose it. And in the process, the fans will see an epic fight, and maybe the end of a historic boxing career.
Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s celebrated trainer, has said on numerous occasions that if Pacquiao struggles, or loses, he will ask for the Filipino icon to retire. A bold proclamation. Bob Arum has said that if Pacquiao wins he’s finally ready to sit down with Floyd Mayweather’s team to put together the greatest fight that never was. Whether Roach or Arum are serious about their pre-fight hype is besides the point. They represent the two paths on this crossroads fight for the guaranteed first-ballot hall-of-fame fighter from the Philippines: redemption or retirement. One way or the other, Pac-man takes the first steps into the proud final chapter of his historic career, potentially setting up a true fight of the century against Mayweather, or he recognizes that even the best of careers, maybe especially those memorable careers, have an end. Tomorrow night, fight fans around the world will see what happens when Rios tries to push Pacquiao down one path, and the Pac-man tries his best to walk down the other.
A former college wrestler, Taekwondo black-belt, and wannabe boxer, Paul Navarro (aka Fight Like Sugar) is now a full-time lawyer, part-time fight scribe, and high school wrestling coach.