There has been so much talk of Saturday night’s Floyd Mayweather–Manny Pacquiao bout “saving boxing” that an observer might expect Money and Pac-Man to arrive in the ring wearing surgical garb and carrying respirators.
In actuality, the much-heralded “fight of the century” will likely do more harm than good to a sport that is already on life support. There is always an off chance that the fight will be a battle for the ages and reintroduce casual fans to the vicious beauty of the sweet science. One or two good shots from Pacquiao to Mayweather’s mouth might even be enough satisfy the many haters of the unbeaten champ. More likely, though, the fight won’t possibly be able to justify the $100 surcharge it costs to watch, much less win any new fans who might be willing to dole out such cash to witness future combat.
That this fight is being considered one of the all-time great matchups is ludicrous overhype even by the standards of the fight game and speaks to the desperation boxing fans and media have for a return to the great battles of yesteryear. Circa 2009, such talk would have been justified. At the time, Pacquiao was a pocket powerhouse, a whirlwind who devastated excellent fighters like Ricky Hatton and Oscar De La Hoya. Mayweather was untouchable, a defensive wizard who could step up and knock opponents around should the mood strike. They were both at or near the height of their respective powers. An all-time great megafight à la Hagler-Hearns might well have been in the offing had it simply happened.
But, of course, it did not happen. Fans can thank the usual nonsense that has turned boxing from the national pastime to a niche sport. For a brief moment six years ago, Pacquiao was the people’s fighter and would have demanded at least an equivalent (if not slightly higher) cut of any purse between the two men. Mayweather thus employed a delaying campaign that included insistence on Olympics-strength drug testing, not so subtly implying that Pacquiao gained his powers illegally. (This gamesmanship even resulted in a defamation lawsuit.)
The stalling tactics worked. The upper hand passed from the cuddly, lounge-singing Filipino to the far-from-cuddly American. Pacquiao crested and began a downward trend, one that increased sharply in 2012 after Juan Manuel Márquez knocked him into next week with the kind of shot from which few fighters ever truly recover. Pacquiao is now 36, with a ton of mileage on his tread, noticeably slower, and less able to overwhelm opponents with his trademark barrages.
Mayweather’s recent outings have also shown signs of the inevitable slippage brought about by age (he is 38), but despite his cartoonish Daddy Warbucks villainy and his all too real and all too horrific history of violence against women, he remains the sport’s ultimate drawing card. He doesn’t need to fight Pacquiao, but now that Pacquiao isn’t nearly the threat to his unbeaten record he once was, Mayweather can deign to step in the ring with him. It’s the same cynical approach that the largely lawless sport has been plagued by for decades. Imagine if Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard had met in their primes, or if Roy Jones Jr. had ever tangled with Bernard Hopkins in theirs?* Denying fans these types of fights is one of the main reasons the sport has lost so much of its luster.
“Who cares why it didn’t happen before” and “better late than never” are two sentiments that appear to be overriding common sense in the buildup to Saturday. Fair enough, but this is no ordinary brawl. It is a fight tasked with not only justifying the incredibly expensive ($100 for HD, $90 for standard definition) pay-per-view rate, but also with revivifying a lifeless sport, and with providing the culture at large with a unifying event on par with the Super Bowl (or, to pick a more aptly niche, tonally appropriate example, the finale of Breaking Bad).
That’s a lot to pin on athletes in the autumns of their careers. Casual fans drawn to Saturday’s spectacle are unlikely to encounter a high-action affair. Much more probable is Mayweather playing his usual keep-away game, one that is effective but dull. Ironically, given his persona out of the ring, inside the squared circle the welterweight champ is staid, a technician with impeccable skill who offers little of the high voltage that Pacquiao used to deliver in his heyday. Pacquiao should at least attempt to give us some fireworks, but it’s difficult to see the considerably diminished fighter offering enough to solve Mayweather’s impenetrable defense.
Oddly, Pacquiao doesn’t seem to care all that much. He hasn’t engaged in the usual prefight trash talk and seems these days to be more focused on his political and basketball careers than on fighting. That’s understandable—it can’t be easy for fighters who ascend from bleak poverty to unimaginable financial heights, as Pacquiao has done, to continually find motivation for trading punches to the face. Mainly, he seems to be doing this fight because of tax troubles. The smart money is on a tactical waltz, with some occasional windmilling near the end of rounds. Given the money involved, both men will fight with an eye on the all-but-foreordained sequel.
If it plays out like I expect, such a relatively drama-free evening would disappoint the huge audience watching worldwide, the majority of whom will be less than hardcore fight fans. If that happens, then caveat emptor may actually prevail the next time the hype is turned to 11.
Regardless of what occurs in the ring, we’ve all already been treated like suckers by the fight’s organizers. The dislike between the two camps, personified by Pacquiao’s fight broadcaster HBO and promoter Bob Arum versus Mayweather broadcaster Showtime and promoter Al Haymon, led to amateur-hour logistical nightmares involving the contract (incredibly signed just late last week) and tickets (which went on sale the following day).
The potentially colossal embarrassment of delay or even cancellation prior to last week’s contract signing was only prevented by the work of Les Moonves, president of CBS Corporation and signer of massive Showtime checks to Mayweather. (Moonves was also heavily involved in making the fight happen in the first place.) The broadcast exec had to take a break from brainstorming the next spinoff of CSI to broker a deal between the two continuously warring camps, who were feuding over when to release tickets. Whatever the precise reason for the contretemps, it was just another reminder of why the public can’t stand the inevitable sideshows that surround boxing. When Arum was congratulated on getting the tickets out at long last, he responded, rightfully, “Why congratulations? It’s a … disgrace.”
Hovering over all of this is the noxious stench of greed. The list price on the ducats is between $1,500 and $7,500, with secondary market prices skyrocketing into six figures. Tickets to the prefight weigh-in were being offered for upward of $1,000 on the secondary market (they are usually free). Hotel and airline rates have been jacked up outrageously. And of course, there are the record pay-per-view and closed-circuit price tags.
If it all sounds like Mayweather-Pacquiao will be a fistic version of notorious Broadway catastrophe Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—bargain basement entertainment at Rodeo Drive costs—that’s not far off. If anything, the fight might be less violent than the ill-conceived Julie Taymor production. Possibly the best thing for the sport to come out of a Saturday night snorefest would be the lack of discussion around the sweet science’s main long-term problem—that the sport’s only goal is for each participant to repeatedly concuss his opponent until he gives up or falls over. A dearth of clean shots to the skull will help quell talk about the inherent sickness of a sport based upon badly pummeling people—sometimes to the point of death. (Full moral disclosure: I remain a big fight fan, though not nearly to the degree I once was as a youth.)
No matter how good this matchup turns out to be, boxing can’t ever really be “saved” from this unpleasant reality.
Boxing is also different from other sports in that high-stakes matchups aren’t mandated and thus happen with cicada-like rarity. That this fight is happening at all should be the giveaway— though Mayweather and Pacquiao are the sport’s biggest names, they can’t credibly be called the two best fighters, not anymore. The hysteria is overwhelming rational thought. Remember that on Sunday morning when you wake up feeling like a mark.
Correction, April 29, 2015: This post originally misstated that Roy Jones Jr. and Bernard Hopkins never fought. They never fought in their primes.