By Jason Keidel

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Before boxing was remanded to the back alleys of the sports pages, nestled between horse racing and high school wrestling, there were a phalanx of fighters who stood in the front row of American dialogue.

Fight Night was essential television and a high society flytrap, a bejeweled ringside audience from Frank Sinatra to Woody Allen to Rocky himself. Whoever had cable or bought the fight was the main nerve of the neighborhood for an evening.

Now there’s such a dearth of decent talent we often plunge down the bowels of cable TV, for a few rounds of subpar pugilism. The sport is so headless we often have first-rate fighters in second-rate fights, mismatches of grotesque contours.

A few boxers, however, still move the needle based on their own power, persona and celebrity. Like Manny Pacquiao, who is fighting Timothy Bradley in Las Vegas this weekend, for some iteration of the welterweight title.

This is a rematch, of course, necessitated by a controversial split-decision awarded to Bradley in 2012. Well, it was a heist. Even Bradley himself was seen murmuring moments after the fight that he just couldn’t catch Pacquiao. Bradley’s tune changed, obviously, once he was awarded the stunning decision.

Even the stats backed up a Pac Man victory, with the Filipino star landing 253 punches to Bradley’s 149. Yours truly had Pacquiao winning eight of the 12 rounds.

The irony, of course, is that the very mechanism that commanded this rematch is the same one that wiped the sport off the map. Manny Pacquiao defeated Timothy Bradley the first time, and just about everyone knew that except the two judges who scored the fight in Bradley’s favor.

The pre-fight propaganda has boxing media luminaries, like Tom Hauser and Tim Smith, musing over a close decision that could have gone either way, but if you heard the crowd, Jim Lampley and Max Kellerman, the original reaction was collective, gasping disbelief.

So now they’re asking you to dig deep into your pockets, again, to watch the two men fight, to bring closure to a matter that was resolved two years ago. And enough fight-starved fans will comply, aware that even if we can’t get the fights we want, we will at least see the fighter we want.

Bradley has the belt, if that matters. The world titles have been obscured beyond recognition, a cluster of consonants that have half the heft of the old-world champions. For every weight there are myriad champions, which means no champions.

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There was a time when each world title was manned by a monolith, from Sugar Ray to Sugar Ray, from Ali to Hagler to Hearns to Tyson. So now we are relegated to quarterly bouts that tickle our boxing funny bone. Even if this isn’t an ideal fight, it does warrant our attention.

And while Bradley (31-0, 12 KO) has the titular perch in this rematch, the bout is a referendum on Pacquiao (55-5, 38 KO).

Does Pacquiao, still have the power, the mojo, the all-in desperation that made him so great in the first place? At 35, does he have the essential speed to snap the jab and land the lead left? Does he have the white-hot fervor and reflexes that made him a superstar to begin with?

Timothy Bradley is from Palm Springs, and is a perfect product of the streets that made him hard, cut and ornery. He has the exaggerated contours of the desert, a light man with a bodybuilder’s frame.

Bradley, 30, has all the prerequisites of a fine fighter. He’s got the toughness and the temerity. But he’s a bit short on talent.

In all likelihood, Bradley has hit his ceiling, which was never as high as Pacquiao’s. But they are fighting on the ground this Saturday, ceilings be damned. And as the champion, Bradley is likely to get the benefit of the doubt he didn’t deserve last time.

Pacquiao has become something of an anomaly. A devoutly religious man, he admittedly had drinking and gambling issues that dimmed the lights on his training. He looked dominant against Brandon Rios, but was also knocked unconscious by Juan Manuel Marquez, whom Bradley recently defeated.

So which man wins depends on which Pacquiao shows up. As famed trainer Freddie Roach asserted, the best result for Pac Man is to end this fight long before the judges get their dubious hands on his destiny. At least that would still leave a dark sport with a star.

Twitter: @JasonKeidel

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.

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