MACAU -- There was no shortage of storylines during the build up to, and passage of, fight week in Macau:
• The first pay-per-view boxing card from China.
• Manny Pacquiao's understandable concern for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in his native Philippines.
• The tension between the camps of Pacquiao and opponent Brandon Rios, culminating in The Kick Heard 'Round the World.
But purely from a boxing sense, the biggest question was whether Manny Pacquiao was still Manny Pacquiao. Did the loss to Juan Manuel Marquez either reflect or presage a terminal decline of a fighter whose career now spans 62 fights, many of them -- especially over the past several years -- hard fought against top-level opposition? If Pacquiao was even 75 percent of the Pacquiao he once was, the thinking went, he would likely be too much for Rios. But what if he wasn't? What if the damage was more extensive than realized and the end was near -- was, in fact, just one solid Rios combination from being brought to a dramatic conclusion?
The immediate verdict, after Pacquiao scored a dominant 12-round victory in front of 13,200 delirious souls in the Venetian Macao's CotaiArena, was that the final day of reckoning is some way off yet.
"This is still my time," Pacquiao said afterward. "My time is not over."
It was a verdict with which Rios' trainer, Robert Garcia, concurred.
"Pacquiao still has it," he said. "He has quickness and great speed. He'll be around for a long time."
The reality is, as reality often is, a little bit more nuanced. From ringside, Pacquiao's punches, though undeniably fast and clearly effective enough to lump up Rios' right eye and cut the left one, didn't appear to have quite the explosive power of his prime years. Rios rarely, if ever, appeared in danger of being overwhelmed like Lehlohonolo Ledwaba or Marco Antonio Barrera, let alone knocked cold like Ricky Hatton. That is as much a credit to the American's iron chin as to any changes in the power of the Filipino, and it may, candidly, also have been a matter of design. After all, the last time Pacquiao over-committed to his offense, he walked into a counter right hand from Marquez and spent a few minutes asleep in the ring. And indeed, in the 12th round against Rios, when the accumulation of punches appeared to finally be too much, when Rios' attempts to pull victory out of the hat resulted in him walking into Pacquiao's buzzsaw and he sagged into a corner, Pacquiao briefly appeared to contemplate moving in for the kill before deciding that the risk wasn't worth it and backing away.
Perhaps what happened against Marquez means that, with reflexes ever-so-slightly slowing with age, and wear and tear, Pacquiao will fight in a marginally more restrained style in the future, seeking to inflict damage on his opponent while minimizing the risk of incoming artillery.
Rios was certainly the perfect foil for such a strategy: He chugged slowly forward in straight lines, hoping to close the distance and land hard, mauling punches on the inside, but was able to do little except swat at air as Pacquiao slid effortlessly and smoothly from one place to another, dodging Rios' fists and finding a home for his own, over and over.
Time and again the pattern repeated itself: Pacquiao looking for a way through Rios' tight guard, seeking the right angle that would enable him to land and then suddenly breaking through with a straight left or an uppercut and then, more often than not, taking advantage of the breached dam to unleash one punch after another, pounding away with combinations that had Rios shaking his head as if unaffected but able to offer little in response.
That sequence might not work quite as well against more mobile or versatile foes, but for now that doesn't matter. He may no longer be the Manny Pacquiao of 2009, but this version of the man is plenty enough Pacquiao to be vastly superior to any number of contenders and pretenders for a while yet. After two years of disputed wins, disputed losses and shocking knockouts, Pacquiao was finally back where he wanted to be: winning decisively in front of an adoring crowd, and doing so with combination punching that left his opponent looking as if he had been arguing with a spinning propeller.
On that level, Manny Pacquiao is certainly back. But defeating Rios was not his most important achievement on a Macau Sunday morning. It paled in significance when placed side by side with a photo of a huge crowd in the devastated town of Tacloban, watching the fight unfold from a distance and finding solace in their most famous countryman's achievement. That ability to fight for and inspire his nation has always been the key part of the Pacquiao narrative, and on this day it was in evidence, in Macau and the Philippines, as much as ever before.
For Manny Pacquiao, that was the biggest victory of all.