By Bill Dwyre
Las Vegas -- Let’s be realistic. The sports Richter Scale reading for Saturday night’s Manny Pacquiao-Tim Bradley boxing match is about a 3.1. There are a few jiggles of interest, but nothing is falling off shelves.
But while you are sweating it out with your favorite baseball team or praying for the right draft choice for your NBA favorites, Pacquiao - Bradley is worth a moment of attention. That’s because, while this may turn out to be a really good fight, it has become a model of athletic humanity and sportsmanship in a game that has thrived for years on a blueprint of the opposite.
Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s trainer and a man of few words, hit it right on the head a few months ago when he said, during yet another stop in a seemingly interminable promotion, “There is no villain in this fight.”
At the time, it seemed like an ordinary statement. Play nicey, nicey until it gets closer to the time to start throwing punches, both verbal and literal. But as time has passed, and with the fight just three days away, Roach’s quote might as well be the slogan hung up in huge letters over the MGM Grand ring.
Wednesday brought more proof. They held a news conference and a lovefest broke out.
If you have covered boxing for many years, this was jolting. The very core of the sport is conflict, anger and greed. To even write about it in another light is stunning to a comfort zone that has always leaned on sarcasm and cynicism. Muhammad Ali called Joe Frazier an Uncle Tom. Mike Tyson threw punches at his opponent at news conferences; then bit off a portion of Evander Holyfield’s ear in a fight. Floyd Mayweather Jr. approached fights with three axioms: Hate the other guy, flaunt your money and win at all costs.
Bob Arum, Top Rank Promotion’s chief, may have had Mayweather in mind when he said at Wednesday’s session, “There is no wise guy here. Both are down-to earth people.
This is a sport that would have sent Mother Teresa, screaming into a cave to do penance on its behalf. But she certainly would have emerged here Wednesday, refreshed with hope.
It has been mind-blowing for a few weeks now. But moments before the proceedings began, it reached new levels. There were Bradley and Pacquiao, standing on stage, chatting each other up like two old fishing buddies. How’re the kids?...Have you been to that new restaurant on the Strip?...What did you think about Trump getting beat in Wisconsin?...
This sort of socialization doesn’t occur in boxing. Nor in most sports.
It brought to mind the quote from the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, when huge tackle Jerome Brown led a walkout of his Miami teammates from a promotional dinner with their opponent, famously saying: “Did the Japanese go sit down and have dinner with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?”
Here were Pacquiao and Bradley, three days from attempting to commit mayhem on each other’s bodies, defying their sport’s tried-and-true practices. To be ready to punch and slug and eventually win, you have to hate. Or at least dislike.
These two don’t. They have lives. They are adults who act like it. Even Pacquiao’s strange and misguided statement a few weeks ago about gays and lesbians seemed driven by religion and culture, more than animosity.
In various gatherings with the media, both spoke articulately about life. At this stage of most promotions, the topics are only left hooks and who has the most guts.
Pacquiao talked about his first fight as a pro, where he earned $20 dollars and had to take a three-hour boat ride to get there. He remembered his first fight in Las Vegas, when the ring announcer couldn’t pronounce his name. He recalled how, as barely a teenager, he became the family breadwinner. “I needed to send my brother to school,” he said. “There were days when there was no food, so I had to find enough water to stay alive.”
Bradley told of fighting in ballrooms the size of the one he was now speaking in, and hoping they could squeeze in a couple thousand people. “I started fighting four-rounders for $800,” he said.
Pacquiao repeated, almost as if nobody had been listening, that his desire that this be his last fight is driven by family. “My mother has been after me for three years now to retire,” he said. “I just want to stay humble, and live with my family.”
Bradley talked -- make that gushed -- about the role his wife/manager/confidant/best friend has played in all this. He said he is amazed at how Monica Bradley can be up at 2 a.m., paying bills, and have a one-year-old who doesn’t sleep well at night and be getting the other four kids to school the next day. “She has a lot of common sense, business sense,” he said. “I’m just a boxer.”
Normally, the boxers’ speeches at the formal function run about two minutes and focus on thanking God and Arum, not necessarily in that order. Bradley’s was ten minutes of eloquent perspective, more about life and good fortune than left jabs and game plans for bloodying his opponent. He ended by saying that Pacquiao was the kind of humanitarian who deserves to be elected a senator in the upcoming Philippine election. He endorsed him to become “governor of the Philippines,” but the title mis-statement was nowhere near as important as the sentiment behind it.
Pacquiao, similarly eloquent, said the Philippine people knew his story of poverty-to-podium and hoped it would be inspirational to them. He called Bradley a good person and a much-improved boxer.
Then Arum, who in his next life as a baseball player will be a closer, wrapped it up by telling the story about Pacquiao buying outboard motors for an entire Philippine fishing fleet, so the fishermen would not have to take long hours rowing out to the prime deep-water tuna banks.
“If you’ve been to the Philippines,” Arum said, “you know how much Manny gives back. The social welfare system in the Philippines ought to be called the Manny Pacquiao.”
Having heard all this; how does one root? This is, after all, Peyton Manning versus Aaron Rogers. What’s not to like?
A hotly contested fight, maybe one knockdown each, that thrills the fans, leaves them feeling they got their money’s worth, and brings a judging draw. That would allow Pacquiao to retire with the honor and legacy of a great effort and great career, and Bradley to carry on for a few more big-money fights as Top Rank’s star, knowing that his legacy will include a record of 1-1-1 against one of the best fighters of the era.
Nobody roots for a draw, and it won’t happen, of course.
But we can dream.
Bill Dwyre will be writing a series of weekly columns on the Pacquiao vs. Bradley world championship event. Bill was sports editor of The Los Angeles Times for 25 years, ending in 2006. He was a sports columnist for 9 1/2 years at The Times, ending Nov. 25 with his retirement. Boxing was among his most frequent column topics. Bill can be contacted at BillPatDwyre@gmail.com or via Twitter at @BillDwyre.