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Rubino: Once-beloved Manny Pacquiao becoming a lot less likable

Manny Pacquiao, left, and Timothy Bradley pose for photographs during a news conference to promote an upcoming boxing match Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

ROBERT RUBINO,

So, who do you like in Saturday’s big fight?

Putting aside the always knotty who-vs.-whom infighting among grammar geeks, back in the day that question was common currency among boxing fans. It simply required the respondent to pick a winner.

But the question steps up a weight class or two when approaching Saturday’s welterweight pay-per-view extravaganza between Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley. It takes on some extra muscle, some moral heft.

Thanks to his disappointing punching-at-air performance from nearly a year ago against the always crafty, rarely exciting, now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t Floyd Mayweather Jr., combined with his recent piously pitiful anti-gay pronouncements followed by half-hearted apologies, Pacquiao has achieved something even more impressive than his astonishing ring record.

The once universally adored fighter has become unlikable.

And that’s not even counting the Hennessy cognac television ad he appeared in last year, an ad all dressed up in highfalutin production values and pseudo dramatic integrity, featuring a supposedly born-again sports celebrity who fancies himself as politically and religiously relevant — pushing booze.

Oh, no doubt there are millions who will cheer for Pacman on Saturday, millions of fans for whom Pacquiao can never do any wrong, millions blind to his declining talent and hateful fiats disguised as divinely inspired righteousness.

But the more discerning boxing fans likely see Pacquiao as a variation on so many former champions before him: fueled more by ego than skill, confused about how the wider world works, in love with his own legend.

Pacquiao, whose professional career spans 65 fights over 21 years, has lost three of his six most recent bouts. He carries considerable wear and tear into Saturday’s fight, which he claims will be his last.

But don’t bet on it. Great champions — and make no mistake, Pacquiao was a great champion — find it mighty difficult to leave the gloves off. Muhammad Ali, both Sugar Rays — Robinson and Leonard — Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson and countless others have reneged on “last fight” promises. Don’t expect Pacquiao to be any different. For the right price, he took money from a liquor company. For the right price, he’ll take money from a boxing promoter. And never discount the adrenaline factor. After all, which figures to be more exciting for Pacquiao: wrangling behind the scenes with fellow Philippines politicians or duking it out under the bright lights while thousands cheer?

Who do you like in Saturday’s big fight?

Consider Timothy Bradley.

At 32, he’s seven years younger than Pacquiao. In a 12-year pro career, he’s won a world championship, including a split decision over Pacquiao four years ago. The only blemishes on his record are a loss by unanimous decision two years ago to Pacquiao and a draw against Argentine contender Diego Gabriel Chaves.

Bradley isn’t lacking for boxing bona fides.

But here are insights into Bradley the person.

He kept his dignity intact and his disappointment to himself following the draw against Chaves, a decision most boxing observers felt was a travesty. His victory over Pacquiao in 2012 was generally considered a generous decision, at best. Virtually all boxing experts at the fight scored it unofficially for Pacquiao. Bradley, though, was gracious in the controversial win, even humble. When he lost the rematch, he offered no excuses (unlike Pacquiao after losing to Mayweather, when we suddenly heard about a previously undisclosed shoulder injury and when he apparently became delusional, claiming he had beaten Mayweather anyway).

More to the point of Bradley’s character, he had the following to say to the Los Angeles Times in reaction to Pacquiao’s Bible-thumping anti-gay rhetoric that included a statement on Philippines television that gays are “worse than animals,” followed by an Instagram post that quoted an Old Testament verse justifying the killing of homosexuals:

“Judge people by their heart,” Bradley said. “That’s how you judge people — by what they do, by what they show.”

Bradley, who actually lives in the real, wider world and counts gays among his friends, associates and family members, also spoke to the L.A. Times about a late uncle, who was gay:

“My uncle loved me. Great guy, was always there for me, always cheering for me, always there to encourage me. I still miss him today.”

Bradley and Pacquiao both have skill and experience going for them. But Bradley has authentic character and, if not exactly youth, far less mileage than Pacquiao. Bradley also has trainer Teddy Atlas, a scar-faced Machiavellian mix of blowhard and badass who once stood up to Mike Tyson and got fired for his trouble.

Who do you like in Saturday’s big fight?

In this corner, it’s Timothy Bradley. What’s not to like?

Robert Rubino can be reached at RobertoRubino@comcast.net.