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Manny Pacquiao is slated to return to action this November in a bout likely to take place at the Venetian in Macao, China, but who will his opponent be? Better yet, who should it be?

Pacquiao is currently riding a two-fight win streak. After getting knocked out by Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012, Pacquiao returned to the ring almost one full year later to outclass Brandon Rios over 12 rounds in China. Earlier this year, Pacquiao avenged his 2012 loss to Timothy Bradley by outworking the previously undefeated Bradley over 12 rounds.

The two wins put Pacquiao right back where he was before getting hit by Marquez’s perfectly timed counter punch two years ago. Pacquiao is considered by most pundits to be one of the top three pound for pound fighters in the sport.

But Pacquiao is 35 years old now. While he has maintained most of his speed, agility and technique, he certainly isn’t the same fighter he was back around 2009. No, Pacquiao is a fraction of a second slower than the prime version of himself. In boxing, that’s huge. In addition, Pacquiao does not seem to carry the same explosive power he did back then, and he does not throw punches with as much reckless abandon.

The good news is that Pacquiao seems to have improved greatly as a technician over the last year. He played it cool and smart against both Rios and Bradley, and did little things here and there to show an older Pacquiao is also a wiser one.

That should be good enough to keep Pacquiao elite for the near future, but it will remain important for him, as it is for any fighter nearing the end of his career, to maximize his earnings. That means Pacquiao should go for only the biggest, best and most historically important fights for the rest of his career.

With those stipulations in mind, it seems a bout against Chris Algieri needs to be off the table. Look, Algieri did well for himself in his win over Ruslan Provodnikov last month and deserves another TV opportunity against a good foe, but a Pacquiao-Algieri fight would mean almost nothing to Pacquiao’s legacy. The fight would be a tough sell to fight fans who are sick of spending 75 bucks a pop on PPVs every single month, and there’s almost nothing Algieri did against the limited Provodnikov to make me think he’d be competitive against Pacquiao.

Ditto to former Pacquiao sparring partner Amir Khan. The ambitious Khan has moved on from calling out Floyd Mayweather to start calling for a bout against Pacquiao. Khan has fast hands and a lanky body. He’s trouble for anyone so long as he can keep them on the end of his punches. Khan’s problem is that he can’t seem to do that against elite competition, and while Pacquiao-Khan would be more palatable and likely do better numbers than Pacquiao-Algieri, it’s still a bout no one is clamoring for and for good reason: Khan has done nothing to earn a shot against Pacquiao.

In a perfect world, Pacquiao might get a rematch with Miguel Cotto. Poor Cotto was walloped by prime Pacquiao back in 2009. But Pacquiao seems to have regressed since then, and some believe the Cotto that destroyed Sergio Martinez for the lineal middleweight title last month is the best version of Cotto ever seen. But Cotto is now also trained by Freddie Roach, and it would be hard to imagine either man trying to make that fight while other lucrative and historically important clashes remain on the table for each. Still, there would be no more historically significant bout for Pacquiao to land than one against Cotto for the middleweight title.

In an even more perfect world, Pacquiao would at long last get a fight against Mayweather. The two have been linked as possible opponents since Pacquiao destroyed Oscar De La Hoya back in 2008, but the fight has never happened thanks to the rival camps’ unwillingness to work with each other. If you’re a Pacquiao fan, you blame Mayweather for the bout never taking place. If you’re a Mayweather fan, you take the opposite position. There’s a good enough argument for either case to be plausible, but at this point, who really cares? The fight has never been made and probably never will be.

Now that the cold war is thawing a bit, there’s been some talk of matching Pacquiao against Canelo Alvarez. That’d be a huge promotion, but there are several kinks that would need to be worked out for the fight to take place. First, Pacquiao would have to be comfortable moving up to junior middleweight. Alvarez made 152 for his loss to Mayweather last year but seems to be outgrowing that possibility more and more every day. Moreover, the fighters are linked to different cable networks. Alvarez fights on Showtime while Pacquiao performs on HBO. Who would air the fight? Perhaps most importantly, though, Alvarez would need to get past Erislandy Lara on July 12. If he loses to Lara, it would seem silly to pit Pacquiao against Canelo at all, and beating Lara is not a given.

Pacquiao has technically split fights with Tim Bradley. But almost everyone in the world that saw the first fight back in 2012 knows Pacquiao should have been given the nod then. If they didn’t before, they got a better idea of it after seeing Pacquiao easily outpoint Bradley earlier this year in the same fashion. The judges got it right in this one, and Pacquiao was awarded a comfortable decision. It’s conceivable the two might meet again before Pacquiao retires, but Bradley would first need to do something big to earn the opportunity.

It is here, perhaps, the seemingly muddled view of options becomes almost overwhelmingly clear. For as much as Pacquiao and Mayweather will be tied together forever for what they didn’t do together in the ring, Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez will be tied together forever for what they did do together over four prolific fights. Each fight was brilliant. Pacquiao holds a 2-1-1 edge over Marquez, but the great Mexican champion put a stamp on his belief that he deserved the nod in all three previous decisions by knocking Pacquiao out in fight number four.

Pacquiao and Marquez are two of the best champions of the era. They have every reason in the world to give fans one more exhibition of their brilliance against each other, and there’s no better time for it than now. The fight has significance for both fighters. A Pacquiao win would solidify his standing over Marquez as the better fighter. Another win by Marquez, though, would flip the coin over to him.

The two sides have yet to agree to terms for the bout. No doubt, Marquez wants to be paid handsomely to face Pacquiao a fifth time, and he should be. He’s earned that. Moreover, the two would need to agree on pre-fight drug testing as well as all the other specifics that go into putting a fight of this magnitude together. Whatever it takes to make the fight happen, it’s the only one that makes sense for both men in the fall. Pacquiao should fight Marquez for the fifth time in his career to round out 2014.


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