On Saturday night, Manny Pacquiao steps into the professional ring for the 60th time, but for the first time in a while he has some searching questions to answer.
Not least of these is the question of motivation. Already a multimillionaire, feted around the world as an icon of the poor and disenfranchised, the darling of talk shows and of show business glitterati and the chosen political representative of the folks back home in the Philippines, Pacquiao has an awful lot on his plate.
Timothy Bradley is about to add his own peculiar brand of fistic brilliance to Pacquiao's "to do" list.
Congressman Pacquiao last swapped pugilistic barbs with Juan Manuel Marquez last November, and was widely felt to have lost that argument against the sharp and pointed ripostes of the Mexican, even if he walked away with two of the three judges' votes that counted on the night. This scribe didn't share the almost feverish criticsm that greeted Pacquiao's victory that night (I had Marquez up by a round), but it was difficult not to recognize a slight diminishment of the little Pinoy's exceptional powers over the 12 rounds.
Pacquiao's proponents would, of course, point to the fact that by any standards Marquez represented a stern challenge, and had done so in two previous encounters, but Manny's recent assertion that he "underestimated" the Mexican is the latest in a long trail of inconsistencies that seem to have beset the WBO welterweight champion's preparations for Saturday.
For many, Pacquaio has the appearance of a tortured soul as he approaches his 34th year, and for once HBO's "24/7" trumpeting of the Bradley fight has been less about the exuberance of a campaigning pair of pros and more about Pacquiao's search for inner peace and Bradley's plea for recognition.
It is clear that Pacquiao's religious conversion (actually, more of a renewal, since he's always claimed to have God on his side) has more to do with a desire to save an ailing marriage than it has to do with serious conviction, even if Manny has convinced himself otherwise. Pacquiao claims to "hate the old Manny" -- the womanizing, pool-playing, cockfighting, hard-drinking fighter who set the ring alight with performances that defied history, physics and human biology. It may be that with the dismantling of that Manny Pacquaio comes the inevitable dissipation of a rage that burned brightly enough to carry the man across several weight classes and innumerable title fights.
It could be argued that Pacquiao's recent ring excursions have been more about his bank balance than securing any long-lasting legacy. He's opened himself up to reasonable criticism that he's been turning back the aged and infirm (Shane Mosley, Oscar De La Hoya, Antonio Margarito and Marquez) or made too full use of his bargaining power to force fighters craving a payday into ill-advised catchweight contests (De La Hoya, Cotto, Margarito). Traditionalists would argue (as would this scribe) that Pacquiao's WBO welterweight and WBC light-middleweight belts were illegitimately won when those two money-grabbing, integrity-lacking governing bodies allowed their baubles to be fought for at a lower contracted weight.
Of course, Bob Arum couldn't care less. Pacquiao is big bucks in anyone's language, and his crossover appeal renders belts, rules and morals obsolete in the grubby world of boxing politics. Arum, who promotes Pacquiao, cares only that he retains the services of his cash cow for as long as it generates cash, and the promoter is smart enough to know that those opportunities are dwindling as time slips by. He also knows that by far his biggest earning opportunity lies at the door of one Floyd Mayweather Jr., currently languishing in a Las Vegas jail.
Which makes Bradley's selection as Pacquiao's next opponent all the more perplexing. Bradley is unbeaten, unbowed, in his prime, and he exudes confidence befitting a fighter who has won three world titles. Perhaps Pacquiao has pulled rank and insisted that it's time to silence the naysayers and prove his mettle against an up-and-coming fighter with the credentials to cause a mess of problems.
It's clear that over recent fights Pacquiao has imposed himself on his own camp, forcing through many decisions contrary to the views of Freddie Roach, his famous trainer. The "24/7" show positively salivated over the rift in the camp brought about by strength and conditioning coach Alex Ariza's skittish commitment to the cause, but Roach, who at one point vowed to persuade Pacquiao to fire Ariza, found himself in the undesirable position of having to climb down when his fighter refused to do any such thing. Roach was stung into childish spite, confiding to the cameras that he wouldn't be including Ariza in his list of cornermen. It's clear, too, that in the last year Pacquiao's insistence on beginning training camp in the Philippines has rankled Roach, but he's given way on that point, too.
So Manny Pacquiao has a split in his camp to deal with, and it's pretty obvious that he's been preoccupied with repairing the holes in his marriage. Jinkee, his wife, has been a silent injured party over the years as persistent rumours spilled out of the Pacman's amorous exploits, and the fighter admitted to indiscretions when he guested on Jimmy Kimmel's show last week. Jinkee herself fronted up on "24/7," looking discomfited and uneasy as she insisted she'd reclaimed her husband through the medium of religion.
The fighter himself comes across as a man who has tied himself up in a straitjacket and handcuffed himself to God so as to remove all temptation. Religious awakenings usually point up a restless, dissatisfied view of the world, with spirituality filling the void that the physical simply can't reach, and while no one can doubt Pacquiao's sincerity, since he is undoubtedly an honorable man, one suspects he is fooling himself.
Already he's got himself into some trouble with some ill-judged comments regarding the Bible's fundaments, and he appears ill at ease when asked to justify his faith.
Furthermore, Pacquiao has had to endure the kind of personal scrutiny that only political ambition can attract. Since the Marquez fight, he's had to answer questions about yacht purchases in the face of poverty-stricken constituents, and he's been forced to counter electoral opponents who have cast doubt on his tax affairs in an attempt to thwart his overwhelming popular appeal in his home country.
So, on Saturday, when Pacquiao laces up and finds himself across a ring from Bradley, he'll have a range of issues pounding in his brain equally as pressing as the punches his excellent young challenger will be throwing at him. Part politician, part preacher, part family man and part fighter, Manny Pacquiao may finally find he's bitten off a little more than he's able to chew.