Manny Pacquiao, Timothy Bradley — Carlito’s Way on the Canvas


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Fans of the Brian de Palma classic Carlito’s Way don’t need prompting to remember the scene in which Benny Blanco from the Bronx, sick of being serially disrespected by his idol, Carlito Brigante, confronts him in an upstairs office of the nightclub Brigante owns.

The staredown that ensues is brief but as intense as you’ll see in any title fight and after an exchange of bitter words the confrontation ends with Carlito cuffing the younger man, sending him somersaulting down a staircase and tumbling out into a damp alley.

For Carlito it’s a battle won, but if you’ve seen the film you know Bennie Blanco more than evens the score when he guns Carlito down on a Grand Central Station train platform. And if you need a clue as to how this power struggle would end, focus on the moment of silence during the shouting match when the camera cuts from Carlito’s face to Bennie Blanco’s.

Notice the red light bathing Bennie Blanco’s face as he sneers at Carlito, then notice that as Carlito coolly stares back at Blanco half his face is lit in red and the other half in white.

He’s ambivalent.

He’s back in the drug game for one last big score but half his mind is already on what comes next — running away with Gail and opening up car rental shop in the Bahamas.

Meanwhile, Benny Blanco’s focused.

Is he the calibre of gangster Carlito is?

No at all.

But he’s not distracted, either. No wife. No retirement dreams. No life to plan on the other side of this transaction.

He just has the game, and he’s immersed in it.

As I watch Manny Pacquiao and Timothy (Desert Storm) Bradley prepare for Saturday’s fight I’m reminded of Carlito and Benny Blanco and that staredown, and it’s not tough to figure out which fighter fits which role.

When I look at Pacquiao I see divided priorities.

His devotion to a job as a congressman is admirable, as is his apparent commitment to leading a cleaner life through the bible. But when spreading the Word keeps you out of the gym — Pacquaio says he didn’t train at all between November and April — I wonder how fixated you are on keeping your skills sharp enough to stay in contention for the pound-for-pound crown.

Bradley’s not in Pacquiao’s league as a boxer; he received this opportunity because his record contained the perfect balance of danger (undefeated in 29 bouts), safety (only 11 knockouts) and vulnerability (he hit the ground hard when Kendall Holt cracked him with a left hook).

But he brings a singular focus to training for this fight, and will enter the ring with an intensity Pacquiao can’t ignore.

It doesn’t mean hunger alone will win Bradley the fight, but if you believe in the value of intangibles you can’t deny Bradley’s advantage there.

While Pacquiao has a Nike contract and a line of apparel emblazoned with his initials and image, Bradley still buys workout gear and uses iron-on decals to apply his logo to Nike dri-fit shirts.

When Pacquiao speaks, media members from Dan Rafael to Piers Morgan to Jimmy Kimmel grab their microphones.

An hour after the greatest triumph of his career, a 10th-round technical decision over Devon Alexander in January 2011, Bradley and his small retinue pushed their way through the crowd that had gathered in room in the bowels of the Pontiac Silverdome for the post-fight news conference. A butterfly bandage held together a split in his brow and a Lakers baseball cap balanced on his bulging, bald skull.

When he reached the table at the front of the room he shouted to whoever would listen that he was the top 140-pound fighter on the planet, and ready to face the sport’s superstars.

Shouted because in putting together this news conference the event’s organizers never bothered setting up microphones.

To whoever would listen because by then it was clear only a handful of the 80 or so people in the room were actually working media. The rest were friends, fans, hangers-on and Silverdome employees who had managed to convince security they belonged at this “exclusive press event.”

I said all that to say this:

Bradley’s used to feeling slighted, and he hates it. He has a chip on his shoulder the size of Odlanier Solis and a need for validation that rivals Aaron Pryor’s. In a weight division full of small guys his Napoleon complex still stands out.

Does any of that mean he wins the fight?

Hardly.

If a deep-seated need to prove you belong were all a fighter needed to topple a hall-of-famer, Victor Ortiz would have handled Floyd Mayweather last September.

But Bradley’s intangibles do position him to take advantage of a less-than-prime Pacquiao.

And if you think Pacquiao’s armour hasn’t been dented over these last eight months you’re not paying attention.

I can’t be the only observer who watched the opening episode of 24-7 and noticed a startling deterioration of Pacquiao’s physique. He looked fit for a civilian, but little like the rippling and rock-hard fighting machine we’ve grown used to seeing.

Granted, this isn’t a bodybuilding contest, but a radical change in a fighter’s musculature usually signals an equally significant change in training methods or dedication to the sport.

Or both.

When Buster Douglas flattened Mike Tyson in February of 1990 he weighed 231 1/2 nearly-sculped pounds.  But when he faced Evander Holyfield that October he looked more like the “before” picture in a HydroxCut ad, a clear sign that whatever his priorities were in the eight months he held the heavyweight title, training wasn’t among them.

When the normally pudgy Fernando Vargas entered the ring against Oscar De La Hoya sporting a chiseled upper body that looked borrowed from Marvin Hagler, we wondered what changes he had made to his training and nutrition.

After losing that fight he tested positive for the steroid Stanozolol.

Question answered.

Nutrition, indeed.

This isn’t to imply that Pacquiao has used juice in the past. Absent a positive test I need stronger circumstantial evidence than a gradual increase in lean muscle mass from a talented athlete who employs a team of trainers and nutritionists working to turn his body into a weapon. Show me some bacne or a doctor’s note authorizing Testosterone Replacement Therapy and I’ll raise an eyebrow.

But we don’t have any of that with Pacquiao.

We have a fighter who says he didn’t train at all between his narrow November win over Juan Manuel Marquez and the April opening of training camp for the Bradley bout.

His newfound dedication to Catholicism might be an admirable reason for staying out of the gym, but a noble cause won’t protect him from the possible consequences of fiddling with the formula that made him one of the world’s two best boxers.

Since 2008 Pacquiao has buzz-sawed his way through welterweights because of a blend of speed and power not seen since Tyson was fit and focused and firing punches in combination. He has managed to pack on muscle mass without sacrificing quickness, blossoming into the rare fighter who punches in volume and with authority.

And he did none of it by accident. Pacquiao’s transformation into a power-punching welterweight is the result of an equation that includes trainer Freddie Roach and strength coach Alex Ariza. Changing any of the variables also alters the outcome.

Which is why Pacquiao fans should be at least a little concerned with Ariza’s intermittent presence in training camp for the Bradley bout. Prepare differently in camp and you risk performing differently on fight night.

If Pacquiao’s camp hasn’t considered that possibility , it’s because they’re so used to success they’re no longer seeing the angles.

Didn’t Carlito Brigante say the same thing?

Except in the lead-up to this bout Pacquiao has expressed a keen awareness of the dangers of changes to his pre-fight routine.

When cameras began rolling for 24-7 he told producers he struggled so mightily with Marquez because in training for that bout he overruled Ariza and decided not to perform plyometric drills.

Later he told us he underestimated Marquez.

Then in fight week came a flood of stories attributing Pacquiao’s sub-par performance that night to a bitter argument he’d had with his wife, Jinkee, in the hours before the fight.

The timing of these staggered revelations isn’t curious at all. Pacquiao’s brand doesn’t just depend on him winning; it depends on him winning big. To convince casual fight fans that Pacquiao’s dominance and brand are intact, you first have to convince them that his razor-thin decision win over Marquez was a one-off, a fluke borne of the convergence of the absolute worst circumstances.

Fine, but do you wonder if Pacquiao’s also trying to convince himself?

Think about the scene in episode three of the latest edition in of 24-7 where Pacquiao and Roach rhyme off a roll call of allegedly more muscular fighters Pacquaio has vanquished in recent years.

Ricky Hatton. Josh Clottey. Shane Mosley.

All dismantled by Pacquiao.

The implication is that Bradley and his fearsome physique are next to fall, and the moral of this call-and-response is clear.

It takes more than big muscles to win a world title.

Which is true, otherwise Bruce Seldon and Frank Bruno would be the two greatest heavyweights ever.

But you know who else also had big muscles?

Juan Manuel Marquez, when he faced Pacquiao last November. Yet somehow Roach and Pacquiao omitted him from their list.

And you know who else had bulging muscles?

Pacquiao, before his hiatus from training this past winter.

When Pacquiao weighed in at a career-high 147 pounds for the Bradley fight he looked fit, but wasn’t the same tightly-bound bundle of fast-twitch muscles we’ve seen the last three years.

Bradley, meanwhile, weighed 146 pounds, with enough muscle definition to make an anatomy chart jealous.

Granted, the weigh-in says nothing directly about either man’s ability to attack, defend and strategize on the fly. This is the sweet science, after all, where tactics and technique will defeat a flawless physique. And while Bradley is a solid boxer the weigh-in doesn’t tell us whether he’ll be able to bridge the sizeable gap in skills between himself and Pacquiao.

But it does offer clues about how seriously each fighter is taking this task.

Bradley, clearly, is prepared. He has a focus as narrow as Bennie Blanco’s and something to prove anyone who has ever doubted him.

None of those factors necessarily mean he wins.

But all of them make him dangerous, especially to an opponent distracted by distant goals and trying to convince himself he can handle the challenge directly in front of him.

Follow Morgan Campbell on Twitter

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