Manny Pacquiao worked Brandon Rios over for 12 rounds early this morning in a fight that more resembled sound check at a reunion tour than a match in contest. Whether or not that's enough to launch Pacquiao back into the realm of "men who might actually be able to knock Floyd the hell out" remains to be seen.
As lopsided fights go, this one wasn't half-bad. Pacquiao led end to end—you'd have to try very hard to give even two rounds to Rios—controlling the fight and moving around the ring generally unthreatened, which was expected, if not quite certain. Rios, whose aggressive, stalking style was put into hibernation by Manny's own offense and speed, never really threatened to make this much of a fight. But obviously, the intricacies of the fight itself don't matter as much as the look into the state of Manny Pacquiao, championship-caliber fighter. And Pacquiao looked like good, like he belongs in a fight with someone much more talented than Rios.
Rios didn't look like he belonged for much of the night. Even early, before Pacquiao's body work made the hand speed difference even more lopsided, he couldn't muster any sustained, credible pressure. Near the end of the second, he ate a straight left counter to the face while trying to throw a jab, just completely befuddled by Pacquiao's setup and speed. It's almost comical on the slow motion replay.
By the fifth, the mismatch was obvious. In the first minute, Manny feinted a jab, Rios tried to throw one of his own, and Pacquiao slipped in and tagged him with a massive straight left to the face. Rios recovered—he didn't look good, but he took a few shots in this fight that would have at least staggered most fighters—and lumbered forward with a few looping swings, but Manny had already danced away. Pacquiao looped around to his right (he was getting outside of Rios at will for most of the fight), and started in again, punching through Rios's defense, moving him backwards, wearing him down.
The rest of the fight looked more or less like that, with the exception of Manny sort of taking the 8th off. This wasn't the menacing, bloodthirsty Pacquiao from last December, who was stalking Marquez, looking for a knockout before walking into that cement mixer right hand. He was cagey, keeping Rios's left hook under control, and throwing combinations more or less when he wanted. Rios kept coming forward, but it was mostly empty aggression, often moving with no intention of throwing; no real danger, but never completely safe either. And as in control as Pacquiao was for the night, you never really shook off the Well, I hope Manny doesn't literally die in this fight state of mind until the final bell.
Still, it's hard to watch Pacquiao fight, and fight well—strong, fast, dangerous—without admitting that the old power didn't flash like it used to. Even throwing out the Hatton bloodbath, when you'd see the old Manny wear a guy down like he did Rios this morning, he wound finish him off—and you know he wanted this KO badly enough to be hunting for it. Some of that is Rios being genuinely tough and walking through big shots (and some more is him being the rare, delightful fattish welterweight), but in the 9th and 10th, Manny was punching through and around Rios's defense with shots that, at one time, probably would have put him down.
Maybe Manny gets back to that form in another fight or two. Maybe he doesn't quite, but runs on anyway as a damn good fighter fighting damn good fights. But that we're here asking that, standing on the given that Manny is again, or still, a world class fighter, is a good enough start. We can get back to the Floyd (or Bradley) dick-mutilating contest later. Manny's back. And God, Manny's fun to watch.