Just seven months after his epic slugfest with Ruslan Provodnikov, in a dramatic bout hailed as 2013’s best, Timothy Bradley Jr. put on a boxing clinic to outpoint Juan Manuel Marquez by split decision.
The performance was a clear surprise. Bradley relied on his quickness and skill to largely avoid confrontation against Marquez, who entered the fight at the peak of his danger after stopping Manny Pacquiao cold with one punch.
Bradley also showed no signs of wear and tear from the brutal win over Provodnikov, despite being refreshingly candid about his post-concussion symptoms. By reminding us how truly elite he was as a boxer, Bradley reached his pound-for-pound peak at No. 3 on most lists.
The performance led many to believe, entering 2014, that the Provodnikov fight was an aberration fueled by Bradley’s overwhelming desire to silence critics. But three fights later, it’s the Marquez performance that feels like it doesn’t belong.
As Bradley sets to defend his welterweight title Saturday against all-action Brandon Rios at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas (HBO, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT), there’s reason to wonder whether the version of himself from the Marquez fight still exists.
Bradley (32-1-1, 12 KOs), who has never been a big puncher at 147 pounds, has shown an increasing willingness to stand and trade in recent fights, often to his own detriment. While the change in strategy has strengthened his fan base, it will inevitably shorten his career.
It’s a philosophy that new trainer Teddy Atlas agrees with and the reason, he believes, Bradley reached out to him two months ago after parting ways with Joel Diaz.
“That’s the reason I’m here, let’s be honest,” Atlas said Monday, as a guest on ESPN.com’s Making the Rounds. “The reason he made the phone call is because he’s a smart kid and a smart kid knows he’s getting hit. He has known very well what the repercussions of that are and what it can be even when you’re surviving.
“He has gone to the edge of the cliff in several fights and his great, great resolve and character have saved him. But how often can you go to the edge of that cliff? This is a very unforgiving business.”
Bradley was rocked badly in the closing seconds of his June victory over Jessie Vargas, in which he claimed an interim title. He also suffered grotesque swelling to his left cheek after trading punches (and head butts) against Diego Chaves in December.
The switch in trainers from Diaz to Atlas, on the surface, seemed a peculiar one considering Diaz had long been the steady voice of reason in Bradley’s ear, pleading with him to box instead of brawl. Atlas, on the other hand, built his name as a trainer on intensity by motivating talented, yet passive fighters to maximize their abilities.
As one of boxing’s most fit performers and certainly among its most intense and determined, one could argue Bradley might benefit from a bit less motivation. Yet Atlas maintains he has preached strict abstinence from warfare, in support of longevity.
“All sports have that certain window and then it starts to close and he’s 32 years old now,” Atlas said. “He has been taking -- and everybody knows this -- a lot of hard, clean punches that have impacted him in fights and taken him, as I’ve said, to the edge of the cliff. There’s a price to pay for those punches. And that has to be corrected.”
That’s all well and good, of course, until Bradley gets hit, which has often been the trigger point for his urge to test himself. It would be a dangerous strategy against Rios, who has built his name on an ability to absorb punishment and keep stalking forward. Considering Bradley’s advantages in speed and skill, it would also play into his opponent’s hands.
It’s a dilemma which turns Saturday’s fight into a crossroads of sorts for Bradley, who remains a large name in a shallow pool of welterweights able to do business, from a political standpoint, with his promoter Top Rank -- something that increases his value financially.
"He has gone to the edge of the cliff in several fights and his great, great resolve and character have saved him. But how often can you go to the edge of that cliff? This is a very unforgiving business." Teddy Atlas
Can Bradley fight the urge to exchange in hopes of extending his career, even if it means stunting the entertainment value of his own fights? It’s an interesting question to pose.
For years, Bradley fought for acceptance from an unforgiving fan base which labeled him at different times as boring and dirty, and ridiculed his punching power. His controversial victory over Pacquiao in 2012, which should have been the highlight of his career, instead cast a dark shadow on his name and led him into a dark depression.
Bradley exercised those demons by the manner in which he fought against Provodnikov, and by doing so, finally won over those same fickle fans with his courage and other-worldly recuperative abilities. In the process, he became an unlikely action star.
But it’s a role Bradley is simply too skilled to play and an addiction that takes far more from him than it will ever give back.
Most fighters adopt a brawling style because they need to, while some have the special gift to not just walk through hell and survive in a boxing ring, but thrive in doing so.
Bradley has a few of those gifts, too, only he was smart enough to avoid showing them against Marquez.
When Rios begins to tempt him with the very drug that threatens the future of his career Saturday, Bradley should just say no.