[PHOTO FROM MANILA BULLETIN- ICON:Students pass a statue of boxing hero Manny Pacquiao outside the Mall of Asia on Saturday Pacquiao faces American challenger Timothy Bradley in a WBO welterweight title fight in Las Vegas Saturday evening, (Sunday morning in Manila). (Photo by Jacqueline Hernandez)]


Manny Pacquiao faces a young, brash American challenger in Tim Bradley not only to defend his World Boxing Organization (WBO) welterweight crown, but to prove that he remains the iconic fighter adored by millions of boxing fans.

Pacquiao and Bradley square off Saturday night (Sunday noon in Manila) in the 16,300-seat MGM Grand Garden Arena.

The scheduled 12-round bout has been billed as a crossroads fight and while that description may be precise, it doesn’t really begin to describe how significant the fight really is.

There is pressure on both fighters but the load on Pacquiao’s shoulders is definitely heavier.

Pacquiao is coming off one of his worst outings in 10 years last November, when he struggled in defeating Mexican nemesis Juan Manuel Marquez, leaving even his hardcore fans doubting if he is nearing the twilight of his legendary career.

“I had personal problems during the last fight and even if I was in shape physically, mentally, I was not,” said Pacquiao, who will be bringing his 54-3-2 win-loss-draw record with 38 knockouts.

He admitted making a blunder in thinking that Marquez will fall apart easily.

“I even made the mistake of taking Marquez lightly,” said the 33-year-old Pacquiao, who will be fighting for the 22nd time on US soil since his sensational debut at the very same venue he’ll be fighting almost 11 years ago.

[PHOTO - Filipino boxing icon Manny Pacquiao looks on as U.S. boxer Timothy Bradley Jr. strikes a pose during the official weigh-in at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on Friday night. Pacquiao is favored to retain his WBO welterweight title against the undefeated Bradley . Photo by Steve Marcus, Reuters]

Against Bradley, Pacquiao is looking forward to giving his fans a treat as he has been forced to go 12 rounds in his last four fights.

Pacquiao’s last stoppage win came more than two years ago and it took him almost 12 rounds to dispatch of Miguel Cotto, with the fight stopped with less than a minute remaining in the final round.

Although bristling with confidence, Pacquiao refuses to make a prediction against Bradley, pointing to Biblical verses as his source of inspiration.

Despite his religious transformation, Pacquiao insists he remains hungry for recognition and that retirement will have to wait until after a few more fights.

Bradley will be the gauge as to whether Pacquiao is saying the truth or is putting on airs.

A 3-1 underdog, Bradley is being ridiculed for being cannon fodder but the Palm Springs native believes it is his time.

“I will shock the world,” said Bradley, who holds a 28-0 card with 12 knockouts.

Assigned to referee the Pacquiao-Bradley duel is Robert Byrd, while the three judges are CJ Ross, Duane Ford and Jerry Roth.

Pacquiao claims to be a changed man, and the people around him say he really is. What no one really knows, though, is how it will affect him in the ring, something that makes this fight a bit more intriguing than most.

“It’s 100 percent good,”’ insists Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach. “He’s much more focused now. From all the distractions he had, the trade-off is unbelievable.”

Oddsmakers aren’t so sure, making Pacquiao a relatively short 4-1 favorite against the unbeaten Bradley. He was a 7-1 pick against Marquez, but was lucky to come away with a majority decision in a fight that could have gone either way.

Pacquiao knows he not only needs to win but to win impressively if he is to retain his spot alongside currently jailed Floyd Mayweather Jr. as one of the two best fighters in the world.

He risks a 15-fight winning streak when he defends his piece of the welterweight title against Bradley. He hasn’t lost in seven years and his recent fights have all been big pay-per-view events that made him millions.

Bradley, a 140-pound (63.5-kilogram) champion moving up in weight for his biggest fight yet, is the kind of fighter who could give Pacquiao trouble. He fights going forward, isn’t afraid to mix it up inside, and has yet to be beaten in 28 fights.

Yet Roach sees him as a mediocre fighter with limited skills. He said if Pacquiao loses or doesn’t look good against Bradley he will tell him it is time to retire.

``Timothy Bradley is made for Manny,’’ Roach said. ``He’s slow and he doesn’t punch hard, but he tries hard. Manny should eat him up as he comes forward.’’

Bradley hardly seems overwhelmed by the hype that surrounds his biggest fight ever. He freely talks about his game plan for beating Pacquiao, and the motivation that has helped him win fights when he was in trouble. (Additional report by AP)

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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