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Unbeaten Bradley still fighting for respect

Timothy Bradley is taking life’s journey seriously, following the idea that our legacy should be etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about us.

The ones about him as a boxer have fluctuated between impostor and warrior.

The dark cloud arrived one evening in June of last year not 10 minutes after the celebration began, an ominous and yet predictable mass of gray and contention hovering over Bradley’s proudest and greatest victory in a professional career that began in 2004.

“He could have gone into a depression,” said Joel Diaz, Bradley’s trainer. “We were fighting the best guy in the world in that weight division — the cash cow. It was going to be very hard to get a decision. And yet when we did … his friends and family told him what happened was not his fault. I tell you straight from the heart — when the 12th round ended, I told my corner guy, ‘Get in there and pick him up. We won this fight.’”

Two of three judges agreed.

Most everyone else, except those in the Bradley camp, didn’t.

He still carries it with him, a split-decision victory against Manny Pacquiao that was so controversial, so ridiculous in its finality that an investigation was conducted by the attorney general. Nothing sinister was found to have occurred — foolish judging ranks more common than illegal in these parts — and yet that didn’t stop most from believing Bradley lost the fight. That it wasn’t close.

That’s the impostor part.

He is still trying to prove himself, all the while owning an undefeated record over 30 fights and wearing the WBO welterweight champion’s belt.

That title is on the line again tonight, when Bradley meets Juan Manuel Marquez, when he engages one of the greatest Mexican fighters in history, a man whose knockout of Pacquiao last December was anything but disputed.

Bradley last fought in March, a brutal exchange that earned him a unanimous decision against Ruslan Provodnikov that left him damaged enough to be slurring words months later.

It was the sort of fight Bradley felt was needed to put the Pacquiao debacle further and further away.

That’s the warrior part.

“I had to earn the respect of fans, because they’re the ones that pay the bills,” Bradley said. “It’s definitely why I fought the way I did against Provodnikov. I wanted to make a statement across the world and think I did that with the punishment I took. Nobody gave me respect after Pacquiao. The fight ended and one person said it was highway robbery, and that (opinion) just spread like wildfire.

“I’m looking at my legacy now, fighting for that respect, where I leave my place in boxing. If I beat (Marquez), you can’t deny me being one of (the best) in the world. If you do, I’ll prove it again. You will get tired of losing your money, tired of going against me. I want to make people believe in me. Doubters motivate me.”

I get it this time. Athletes throw the R-word around like some tired cliche, which becomes even more pathetic when offered by those who have enjoyed great success and triumphs. It’s like an Alabama football player insinuating others don’t believe his program to be dominant.

Hogwash, mostly. A contrived way to motivate oneself. But the part about Bradley being humble resonates throughout the sport, and the idea that he still feels a need to impress those who aren’t completely sold on his resume seems genuine.

He cares about what others think. He wants those watching to embrace his talent like nobody’s business.

Marquez, then, is the perfect opponent to help such a pursuit of acceptance, but only if Bradley can figure out a way to beat the four-division world champion who is 10 years his elder and yet a narrow betting favorite.

“Things were bad after the Pacquiao fight, a lot of negative comments from the outside, a lot of pointing fingers,” Diaz said. “But we overcame it. Timothy Bradley is going to go into this fight with a superstar in Juan Manuel Marquez, and he is going to do his job and win. And at the end of the day, you’re either going to like him or hate him, but he needs to get the credit he deserves. I don’t know what else he has to do.

“After what happened with the Pacquiao fight, there is nothing we can’t handle.”

It’s a tough thing, creating one’s legacy. How that of Bradley eventually reads — impostor, warrior, Hall of Fame champion — has much to do with what occurs tonight.

Said Marquez: “Beating someone like me would be very important for his career.”

Not to mention for gaining a lot of the R-word.

Sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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