We'll never again see the seemingly unstoppable whirlwind Manny Pacquiao of 2007 to 2011. That was the Manny Pacquiao who zoomed up the scales to win five of his world titles in a record eight weight classes, laying waste to superstar fighters such as Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto by knockout and torturing Antonio Margarito and Shane Mosley in one-sided, virtual shutout decisions. That Pacquiao is undoubtedly gone forever, losing the battle to the only undefeated force ever, Father Time.
But this Pacquiao -- the 34-year-old version coming off a gargantuan one-punch, sixth-round, face-first, go-to-sleep knockout against his great rival Juan Manuel Marquez in their fourth encounter a year ago -- is still pretty damn good.
Pacquiao returned to a lingering question: Just what did the Filipino icon and shoo-in Hall of Famer have left? As it turns out, quite a bit, as he ravaged former lightweight titlist Brandon Rios in a one-sided beating on Saturday night (Sunday afternoon in China) before a sold-out crowd of 13,101 at the CotaiArena at the Venetian Macao in Macau -- Pacquiao's first fight in Asia since 2006.
All three judges scored it overwhelmingly for Pacquiao, a 120-108 shutout, 119-109, 118-110, the last two cards being generous to Rios. ESPN.com had it 120-108 for Pacquiao, a southpaw whose straight left hand was extremely effective.
"This is still my time," Pacquiao said. "My time is not over."
It was a good enough performance to rekindle thoughts of the one showdown that so many wanted to see that has yet to happen: Pacquiao against Floyd Mayweather Jr.
The year layoff surely helped Pacquiao's body and mind recover, and also gave him plenty of time to recharge his batteries. He returned to boxing hungry and was as serious about his training as he has been in ages, putting in a full 12-week training camp with Hall of Fame cornerman Freddie Roach. Against Rios, Pacquiao (55-5-2, 38 KOs) showed no ill effects of the brutal stoppage he suffered against Marquez. But he also didn't show his erstwhile huge power and electrifying style.
This was still a fast and accurate Pacquiao, but one a bit more reserved and careful, and it paid off as he staved off a dreaded, possible career-killing three-fight losing streak -- even if his 2012 split-decision loss to Timothy Bradley Jr., widely regarded as a robbery, doesn't count to most.
Put it this way: Before Pacquiao bombarded Rios with every shot in the book for 12 rounds, Roach had said that if his charge lost, he would have a long talk with him about retirement. That conversation isn't going to be necessary yet. It seemed clear that this would be Pacquiao's night as early as the end of the first round, when he outlanded Rios 20-5, according to CompuBox statistics.
"Manny fought the perfect fight," Roach said.
At the end of the 10th round, in fact, after taking a shellacking from Pacquiao, Rios shrugged his shoulders as if to say, What else am I supposed to do against this guy?
Now it will be up to Pacquiao and his team to figure out what's next. Top Rank promoter Bob Arum has floated an April 12 return date in Las Vegas, but against whom? That remains to be seen.
"It depends on my promoter, Bob Arum. I don't know yet," Pacquiao said of his next opponent, and he didn't mention any names.
One obvious possibility would be Bradley, who picked up his welterweight title with the controversial win against Pacquiao that was so widely rejected that Arum asked for an investigation of the judges in a fight involving his own boxer. Since then, Bradley has outslugged Ruslan Provodnikov in a hellacious battle in March and then outpointed Marquez in a close fight on Oct. 12.
A rematch with Pacquiao seems obvious, but Arum has never been too enthusiastic about it, in part because the amount of money he would have to pay both fighters in relation to what he believes it would generate on pay-per-view isn't to his liking.
Also mentioned has been Provodnikov, the Russian brawler who shook off the loss to Bradley and returned to junior welterweight to stop Mike Alvarado in the 10th round to win a world title Oct. 19. That match could be tricky, however. Provodnikov and Pacquiao were sparring partners, and Provodnikov was rough on him. Provodnikov is also trained by Roach, complicating matters.
Rios (31-2-1, 22 KOs), who lost his second fight in a row after also losing a rematch to Alvarado in March in the possible fight of the year, was beaten so comprehensively by Pacquiao that a rematch has no merit.
"It is what it is; it's part of boxing. Manny did a great job," Rios said. "He's very fast, that's it. Power-wise, I didn't feel that much. I'm good, man. Manny Pacquiao is very fast. I fought one of the greatest boxers in the world besides Mayweather. Very fast, very awkward. I stuck to my game plan, but the speed got me a little bit."
Rios said the magic word: Mayweather.
For years, a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight is the one fans have begged for, but it hasn't happened. Both sides deserve their share of blame for multiple failed negotiations.
Make no mistake, even if they do fight one day, it will never be what it should have been in early 2010, when the proposed bout was being planned before falling apart over Mayweather's drug-testing demands. That's when the fight was red-hot and might have generated 3 million pay-per-view buys in a dream match between the world's top two fighters.
But even now, with Mayweather out of interesting opponents and Pacquiao in decline (although seemingly back on track and without any obvious opponent), the match is once again the most compelling potential fight in boxing.
There are huge issues, of course. Pacquiao is represented by Top Rank and fights on HBO. Mayweather does business with Golden Boy, has a contract with Showtime and despises Arum (his former promoter).
And then there are the same old issues, be it specific drug-testing protocol (although Pacquiao is now willing to participate in random blood and urine testing, as he did against Rios), the financial split and other details that could waylay the match.
Before Saturday's fight, Arum spoke of trying to make Mayweather-Pacquiao. He has been known to embellish from time to time, but this is what he said: "On our side, the answer is yes [the fight can be made in 2014]. We're very open to it. There are ways it can get done. They have to dumb down the rhetoric. We are prepared to dumb down the rhetoric and get it done. There is no real impediment to having that fight happen. Whether it will or not depends completely on the Mayweather side. I can see it happening, but I can't predict that it will happen because it takes two to tango."
After Pacquiao's win over Rios, Arum reiterated about a possible Mayweather-Pacquiao matchup: "If all sides cut out the crap, it can get done. Where there's a will, there's a way."
The network issues are real, but there is precedent for a solution: In order to make one of the biggest fights in boxing history -- then-heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis against Mike Tyson -- the networks came together for an unprecedented joint pay-per-view in 2002.
For years, fans begged for the fight. The fighters wanted it, too. Finally, the networks got together in a deal that made peace in the Middle East seem possible. If the fighters, promoters and networks want it, Pacquiao-Mayweather could be made.
Now, for a little wisdom from Lewis. He knew how important the fight with Tyson was for his legacy, even if Tyson was no longer close to his prime. (Neither was Lewis, by the way.) As he said years ago, "Anywhere Lennox Lewis would go, people would say, 'When are you gonna fight Mike Tyson?' So it was something we both really couldn't run away from."
Mayweather and Pacquiao hear a similar refrain. All the time. Their legacies are incomplete without each other. So the question is: Will they run from each other, or will they be like Lewis and Tyson and finally get it on?
Time's a wastin'.