MACAU - It was just like old times on Sunday, when everything stood still in the Philippines while Manny Pacquiao delivered another masterful performance inside the ring against American Brandon Rios.
Pacquiao, weeks short of his 35th birthday, looked like the Pacquiao of old - quick on his feet and quicker with his hands. The punches came in bunches and from every conceivable angle, finding the mark more often than not, the outstanding defense of Rios notwithstanding.
Only one thing was missing, really, to complete Pacquiao's renaissance: a knockout.
That Rios was able to finish 12 rounds on his feet was a tribute to the brash-talking American's toughness and granite chin. The guy sure can take a punch. As Pacquiao's longtime trainer Freddie Roach said after the bout, "(Rios) took his beating like a man."
But the bout going the full distance has also raised questions on whether the years have finally taken away the power from one of the greatest knockout artists in the fight game, or Pacquiao simply didn't go for the kill - either out of compassion or by being cautious.
Rios, for one, claimed Pacquiao "didn't hurt me one bit" even if the evidence said otherwise: a cut above one eye and a lump on the other, conveniently hidden behind sunglasses during the post-fight press conference.
Rios may have shown that he can take a punch, but a number of fighters Pacquiao had faced in the past who were several times tougher and a lot more skilled than the tattooed American have fallen under the sheer power and volume of the Pacman's punches.
Some analysts claim that Rios - who bloated to 160 pounds on the day of the fight - was built and trained to withstand Pacquiao's punches, and hopefully last long enough to land that one punch that could win him the fight, like what Juan Manuel Marquez did last December.
Still, other experts were quick to point out that Rios isn't even a natural light welterweight and wasn't even half as tough as someone like Antonio Margarito, who the Pacquiao of a couple of years ago came close to knocking out had he not let up out of compassion in the late rounds.
Did Pacquiao feel compassion for Rios this time?
Roach's Filipino assistant Marvin Somodio thought so, saying Rios was ripe for a knockout by the 10th round but pointing to some instances during the late rounds when Pacquiao recoiled to throw one big punch, only to lay off Rios.
“Nakita niyo ba yung ilang incidents na hindi niya tinutuloy (yung suntok)?” asked Somodio. “Tingin ko naawa ulit si Manny. Kaya niyang tapusin yun anumang oras.”
“Nakita naman niya na panalo na siya, so hindi na lang niya pinabagsak si Rios. Nagbigay na lang siya ng magandang laban, sinulit ang fans,” said the cornerman from Baguio City.
Pacquiao's longtime friend, Ilocos Sur governor Chavit Singson, is still seething over that tendency by the Pacman.
“Mali 'yun eh. Kinausap nga namin siya. Pag boxing, boxing. Hindi siya dapat naawa. Kung hindi boxing oo, okay, pwede kang maawa,” said the controversial political kingpin.
Asked for his thoughts hours after the fight, Pacquiao admitted not going for the coup de grace in the late rounds - partly out of compassion, but more because of instructions to stay out of harm's way.
"Oo (naawa ako), pero sabi ni Freddie … relax na kasi winning na kami,” said the eight-division world champion. “Sa last round kasi yun ang instruction sa akin, na relax lang."
That alone revealed a change in strategy within the Pacman camp in the wake of the devastating knockout loss to Marquez.
Regardless of the bluster Roach stirred about wanting and expecting a knockout, the priority on Sunday was to win against Rios, exorcise the demons of the Marquez horror setback, and avoid a loss that would've in all likelihood spelled the end of Pacquiao's glory days.
Pacquiao, at least, was smart enough to stick to the plan.
The Pacquiao who showed up in the ring on Sunday was nowhere near the gung-ho fighter who went for every opening, no matter what the cost. Against Rios, he picked his spots and rarely left himself open - down to the late rights when he could've gone for the kill.
“Mas nag-ingat kami kasi ngayon eh. Dati kasi si Manny, sugod ng sugod. Kita mo nangyari sa atin kay Marquez,” said assistant trainer Buboy Fernandez. “Yung Rios kasi may mga hablik ng suntok na hindi natin alam eh. Kaya kailangan talaga natin mag-ingat.”
No wonder Roach looked like a very happy man at the end of the fight, visibly relieved to see his beloved fighter get back on his feet after the Marquez loss - knockout or no knockout.
“It doesn’t matter, knockout comes when it comes. You can’t wait for knockouts," said Roach. "I didn’t get my bonus tonight … but maybe next time.”