When the welterweight champion defeated Manny Pacquiao two years ago on two injured feet, he thought for an instant that he had reached the pinnacle of boxing. He hadn't even left the MGM Grand Garden ring before learning that practically nobody agreed with the two judges who gave him that split decision.
After death threats, depression and a remarkable personal transformation, Bradley (31-0, 12 KOs) returns to that ring Saturday night in Las Vegas for a rematch with the Filipino congressman. Bradley intends to let out two years of humiliation and frustration with a decisive win over Pacquiao, finally earning the credit that was two years deferred.
"I always believed you only get one chance, but this is my second chance here," Bradley said. "It's my second chance to be a part of greatness and defeat a guy like Manny Pacquiao, who is one of the top fighters of all time. This guy has fought everybody. To get a win over a guy like this who's an icon, it would be epic."
Yet the fight might be even more important to the career of the 35-year-old Pacquiao (55-5-2, 38 KOs), whose ascendance through the sport slowed with two losses in 2012. The eight-division champion is fighting both Bradley and the widespread perception that he has lost his competitive fire, becoming more interested in politics and compassion than the brutal business of boxing.
Pacquiao and his trainer, Freddie Roach, insist HBO's pay-per-view buyers will see the Pacman who ate up every opponent in front of him on a 15-fight win streak before Bradley's debatable decision.
"This time around, I think I have to finish the business first before I become friendly to him," Pacquiao said. "We have our business to do in the ring. I have to do all I can do."
There's little doubt both fighters will be completely prepared for this rematch after two years of incessant talk about what happened in those 12 rounds. They're also both in top shape: Bradley weighed in at 145½ pounds Friday, while Pacquiao was hydrating even before weighing 145 pounds on the MGM Grand Garden scales.
"The first time around, I was injured from the second round on, and I still found a way," Bradley said. "This time around, I'm not injured. And I'm wearing socks. I will be wearing socks."
Indeed, Bradley infamously slid around the canvas in the first bout because he didn't wear socks, inexplicably choosing the biggest fight of his life to emulate Mike Tyson's sockless ring style. Roach, who trained Tyson, could have told Bradley that Iron Mike actually wore low socks.
Roach once rejected the idea of a rematch with Bradley, saying the Palm Springs-area fighter couldn't sell a ticket to help Pacquiao. Along with the rest of the boxing world, Roach gained a new respect for Bradley last year after his sensational brawl with Ruslan Provodnikov — also trained by Roach — and a crisp win over Juan Manuel Marquez.
"Bradley is a better fighter than some people give him credit for, and we know he has a lot of heart," Roach said. "That doesn't change the fact that Manny has a plan that will beat him again — this time for real."
Bradley's offensive strengths are in volume punching and combinations, making up for his lack of knockout power with superior counterpunching skills. He expects Pacquiao to come straight at him, and Bradley realizes the best response to the Pacman's aggression is smart counterpunching in the style of Marquez, who was beaten by Bradley's own tactical skills last fall.
"Manny is going to try to get me to fight with him," Bradley said. "He's going to try to knock me out, try to get me to exchange with him. I know that already. But the fact that I've got so many dimensions, I may fight with him, I may outbox him, I may move on him."
Pacquiao got to the top with dizzying speed and all-angles punching ability, charging through a long list of talented, larger opponents. The speed still seems to be there, but seemingly everyone outside the Wild Card Boxing Club doubts Pacquiao's ability to finish what his speed starts.
Bradley has verbally prodded Pacquiao during the weeks leading up to the rematch, saying his killer instinct is gone. Pacquiao, who hasn't stopped an opponent since 2009, quietly insists he can still finish.
And at Friday's raucous weigh-in, Bradley — who has stopped one opponent in seven years — said a knockout is the best way to erase the 2012 decision from his mind.
"I've got to knock him out," Bradley said. "That's what I have to do."