THERE is no denying that at age 37, and after 66 fights as a pro, Manny Pacquiao is already in his dog years in pro boxing. According to CompuBox, which compiles post-fight statistics, the average number of punches Pacquiao has thrown has significantly dipped in his last two fights against Floyd Mayweather Jr. (May 2015) and Timothy Bradley Jr. (April 2016).
From an average of 56 punches per round in his five fights before the mega match with Mayweather Jr., Pacquiao's punch output was down to 36. There is a ready explanation for this, however: Mayweather and Bradley both employed lateral movements and Pacquiao had to exert extra efforts to find them. In the Mayweather bout, Pacquiao also suffered from a torn rotator cuff that prevented him from throwing his right hand.
Pacquiao is supposedly back in the pink of health and ready to rumble this Sunday (Manila time), when he takes on Latino Jessie Vargas for the World Boxing Organization (WBO) welterweight title (147 lbs.) in Las Vegas. Amid the lukewarm reception the fight has been receiving, not a few believe that this 12-rounder might turn out to be an exciting knuckle-fest owing to the aggressive approach of Vargas.
It has been awhile since Pacquiao took on an adversary who is willing to stand up and trade. His last four fights (Mayweather Jr., Bradley, Chris Algieri, and Bradley again) have been against fighters who employed hit-and-run tactics. The last time Pacquiao fought a slugger was 2013, when he carved out a lopsided decision win over Brandon 'Bam Bam' Rios. But coming off a devastating knockout loss to Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez, Pacquiao was understandably cautious against Rios.
Against Vargas, the presumption is that Pacquiao is all set to rumble again. The bum shoulder is arguably healed and Pacquiao has fully exorcised the demons of the concussive loss to Marquez. In Vargas, Pacquiao is facing a young, hungry champion who is more than willing to take the fight to him. Vargas, 27-1 with 10 knockouts, has been belittled for his lack of punching power, but it is possible that he may be discovering the crunch in his punch just in time. Vargas owns a deceptive overhand right that is thrown while he dips; it's the same punch that almost knocked out Bradley in the last round of their scuffle last year. Having gained confidence in the Bradley fight, Vargas threw the right hand with more authority and knocked out Sadam Ali in his last fight to collar the WBO title in March.
Southpaw Pacquiao is a sucker for the right hand, as evidenced by the loss to Marquez. But Pacquiao is confident that he can take Vargas' right hand as he has faced far more heavy-handed punchers in his career. In stark contrast, the quality of Vargas' foes leaves a bad taste in the mouth. With the exception of Bradley, who beat him real bad except for that near-collapse in the final round, Vargas has not fought anyone who goes beyond the pedestrian category.
Vargas does offer above-par defense; keeping his guard up and close to his jaw as he moves his way inside. He does not throw bunches in punches like Pacquiao, but Vargas is not one to be left behind when it comes to close quarter exchanges. The key for Vargas in the fight will be patience and timing; he will have to throw just enough to get Pacquiao's attention and wait for that moment when the Pac-Man makes that reckless lunge. Vargas is expected to take a page off the strategy Marquez used.
Pacquiao will likely employ movement and create angles for his punches to befuddle and open up Vargas' defense. It is not innate power alone that makes Pacquiao's punch devastating; it's the speed and the angle by which he delivers it. Pacquiao is one of the few gifted fighters who can move and stop on a dime to deliver a punch.
Pacquiao is expected to wear down Vargas with his combinations and go for the jugular in the middle rounds. Vargas, who is no stranger to going the distance, will be more than willing to test Pacquiao's fitness in the trenches. Vargas' overhand right will be a constant threat and Pacquiao cannot afford to be cocky or complacent.
All told, Pacquiao remains the smart money bet favorite to prevail. Truth be told, Vargas was picked because of the observation that his style is tailor-made for Pacquiao. The overhand right of Vargas is a potent one, but it is occasionally thrown in a telegraphed manner and Pacquiao can readily beat him to it with his lightning-fast left. Vargas is some five-inches taller at 5'10," and Pacquiao will have to get under the jab and bombard the former with short punches and then get out of the way of the counter right hand. Pacquiao will have to keep Vargas guessing, in the same way that his hand and footspeed befuddled taller foes like Oscar De La Hoya and Antonio Margarito.
Pacquiao has not scored a knockout since 2009, when he stopped Miguel Angel Cotto. At this stage in his career, he needs a knockout win over Vargas to prove that he still has the punching power to excite the crowd. Another ho-hum decision win will not be palatable and will make Pacquiao's next fight tougher to sell, especially if it comes against movers like Mayweather.
More than bringing his best against Vargas, Pacquiao must bring out the beast against Vargas.