Last Saturday I was at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas to see Floyd Mayweather take on Manny Pacquiao in “the fight of the century.” For me, a former boxer, the chance to watch Mayweather, the best of our time, was a revelatory experience. There wasn’t a single moment in which I was not on the edge of my seat. With every bob and weave, I anticipated one of the two greatest boxers of their generation getting caught with the proverbial punch they never saw coming. For better or worse, that punch never came. When Mayweather’s unanimous victory was announced, the disgruntled crowd booed and jeered; boxing fans want to see a fight.
Based on commentary after the bout about how “boring” it was, the public also felt robbed. After all, upward of 5 million people spent about $100 on the broadcast—shattering the previous pay-per-view record—as the sports world held its breath in anticipation of the biggest fight in boxing history.
And it’s true: As masterful as the fight was, action-packed it was not. Mayweather’s perfect strategic execution and ability to dash away from Pacquiao’s wild flurries led to what some dubbed a “track meet” for its lack of thrilling moments. There is no disputing the fight could have been more exciting. But Mayweather’s performance was, for better or worse, exactly what the sport needs.
Several weeks ago Lucas Matthysse fought Ruslan Provodnikov in what many boxing fans were calling the real “fight of the year.” The ability of Provodnikov, the “Siberian Rocky,” to sustain punishment is only comparable to that of his namesake, which was fully in evidence against Matthysse. But while Rocky was a great movie, it was just that. When Stallone-esque levels of brutality occur in a real ring, as they did between Matthysse and Provodnikov, it does harm to the sport. In the post-fight interview, a long gash left Provodnikov’s eyelid grotesquely disfigured and drooping like the Toxic Avenger as he proceeded to apologize to the fans for his lackluster performance in a vicious 12-round affair. This was a match that saw many of the big-punch moments that never materialized in the Mayweather-Pacquiao bout, and Provodnikov still felt guilty about not fighting hard enough. The fight was jaw-dropping for no other reason than the fact that Provodnikov sustained an inordinate number of punches without being rendered unconscious, barely losing the decision. While other sports have made progress in recognizing that this sort of violence is not sustainable, boxing has not.
After various lawsuits and public outcry, the NFL has begun to attempt to change the way the game is played to seek to minimize brutality to the extent that it is possible.
But in boxing there is no organizing league or players union, and it’s never been a secret that the punishment sustained in the ring will leave fighters brain-dead, suffering from “dementia pugilistica.” Even worse than the possibility of long-term brain damage, is the reality that men die in the arena. When Ray Mancini fatally injured Kim Duk-koo live on network television in 1982, the incident played a significant factor in the sport’s banishment from primetime. And Kim was by no means the last man to die of in-ring injuries. As recently as 2013, a man died from one of the most violent punches the sport has ever seen, and just two weeks later another nearly died after suffering irreparable brain damage in the ring. When fights go the way casual fans desire, these are the types of things that occur.
Still, there is hope for the sport. More than three decades after Kim’s death, boxing has managed to return to network television with fight series on ABC, NBC, and CBS. So far those fights have been extremely competitive. But as I watched my friend, Peter “Kid Chocolate” Quillin, fight Andy Lee at the Barclays Center last month, I was once again amazed at the insatiable appetite of the fans for brutality. The two men knocked each other down several times, and the fight was ruled a draw. This too was deemed a “boring” fight, and I can’t help but wonder if the same fans who were disappointed in the outcome would be calling for the sport’s banishment if someone had died in the ring.
While Mayweather is no hero outside the ring, the way he boxes has proved to be the only sustainable model for the sport.
For years Mayweather has been able to fight at the highest level of competition by completely nullifying his opponents and leaving the ring the exact same way he entered it. If I were trying to convince my mother to allow me to box—as I did many years ago—I would surely cite Mayweather’s performance as an example of how technical and scientific the sport can be. But not enough young athletes and fans have been appreciating the fact that the best, most technically accomplished boxer in the world—and one of the best in history—is an American.
The United States is the most winning nation in Olympic history, and yet at the last Olympics the men didn’t return with a single medal in boxing. In order for boxing not to die, we need fighters like Mayweather to inspire the best athletes in our country to pursue the sport.
There are some signs for hope, though. At 6-foot-5 and 266 pounds, 19-year-old Darmani Rock is the American amateur national super heavyweight champion, and one of our best candidates to win boxing gold at the 2016 Olympics. Rock is already being compared to Muhammad Ali, and is undoubtedly a stupendous athlete. He had the physical talents to have become an all-pro NFL lineman or even a NBA player. Instead, he chose boxing. Just one week after the fight of the century, Rock will be fighting in the National Golden Gloves Championship in Las Vegas. While best known for his devastating power, knockouts are not his focus. Whenever I see Rock before a fight, I always ask him, “You gonna knock him out, champ?” Without fail, he always answers the same way: “If the knockout comes, it comes. But I’m just going to box like Mayweather.”