Excessive time spent in the game has weathered me, and, consequently, I’m not nearly the boxing evangelist I was even a year ago, let alone five. Used to be, I was insufferable in addition to being long-winded, but now I’ve bumped up against the walls and limits of indifference (and that weird species of unsolicited antagonism that fans of other sports sometimes offer up to boxing) so much that I’m generally content to live, let live, and keep the majority of my opinions to myself. I can show you an entire parade of boxing matches that might curl your toes and make your hair turn white, not that it particularly matters. I am forced to admit that the sport will probably never again have a transcendent moment in the national sun of the likes that happened so regularly in the ‘70s, ‘80s and before. It’s just a different world. Sucks, but that’s life. I still love boxing, and I’m still capable of experiencing energizing, even transformative, excitement on those nights when the in-ring product meets or exceeds my expectations, as it often does even in the midst of the sport’s more standard, wide-ranging crapshootery. I’m just past the point of trying extra hard to convince laymen that they should care anymore. Good thing, too, because if the reactions of the four friends with whom I watched Mayweather-Pacquiao Saturday night were any indication, their minds are now made up…or, more likely, their minds were already made up, yet the media hype machine had convinced them that this one event – an event that, on the basis of its likely in-ring action and competitive outcome, wasn’t even truly a match for the 5/9 weekend cards on either HBO (Alvarez vs. Kirkland) or CBS (Figueroa vs. Burns) or the 5/16 HBO card (Golovkin vs. Monroe) – was something they couldn’t, or at least didn’t dare, miss. Don’t feel bad. The hype fooled me too, and I ostensibly know better.
Normally, when the action lags in a Floyd Mayweather fight, there is nobody but Floyd to blame, though this time the narrative wasn’t quite so straightforward. Floyd’s world-beater defense is not so much astounding as it is actively confounding, both to fighters trying to penetrate it and, as I discovered, to many of the casual viewers on Saturday trying in vain to decipher it. These are often folks who cut their teeth on MMA, with its outbursts of wild clubbing disguised as punching, and, as such, are not conditioned to readily accept a world where the strictest definition of success is “to hit and not get hit”. George Foreman once opined that, “Boxing is like jazz. The better it is, the less people appreciate it.” Floyd’s elastic, fleet-footed defense and his highly accurate pot shots that pile up points while flustering opponents are, with the Pacquiao win, undoubtedly this generation’s greatest achievement in so-called “pure boxing”. That they should come from an obnoxiously wealth-flaunting, convicted serial domestic abuser who, at least in past promotions, was all too enthusiastic to portray the black-hatted villain, is, for many fans, a bridge too far. It is, by now, almost impossible to have a neutral opinion on Floyd Mayweather. People tend to either see him as a ridiculously loud and hedonistic (and thus enthralling), openly aspirational, authority-defying titan, and celebrate his victories lustily/vicariously, or they see him as an unmitigated, uncontrollable, unconscionable jackass that must be vanquished at all costs, as if to even the very scales of “good vs. evil” itself. As a marketing strategy, this is beyond canny, and has rocketed Mayweather to the top of every list of the highest paid athletes in the world, even despite his paucity of outright endorsements. The announcement of this fight, after so many years of false starts and pettiness, lit off a firestorm of hype and expectations that would’ve been impossible for any event to approximate, let alone legitimately equal, let alone historically surpass.* Boxing fans who follow the sport year-round already knew this.
*Interesting that the legitimate “Fight of the (20th) Century”, Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier I, wasn’t even the most highly regarded fight in their contentious trilogy. That would be fight three, the fabled “Thrilla in Manilla”, where an exhausted Ali retired a still feisty but functionally blind Joe on his stool at the end of the 14th, then proclaimed the evening’s warfare “the closest thing to death” he’d ever experienced. If the brilliant business minds behind Mayweather-Pacquiao were to callously bleed the last drop of public interest and somehow convert this one mismatch into a trilogy (trainer Freddie Roach, citing Pacquiao’s later reported shoulder injury, is already stubbornly calling for a rematch), that might be the only thing that would legitimately prove a death knell for boxing. Frankly, I shudder at the thought, knowing well the enmity that fight #1 engendered in some of the many millions that paid between $20 and $20K to see it. Let it go already.
There were fans from both camps at the local bar & grill. As befits the man himself, Floyd’s faction was more confident, not to mention way louder. I arrived at 6:15, and found every table in the joint spoken for, including ours, by my friend who’d thankfully arrived at 6. Our bar ran an “all you can eat chicken wings” special in a misguided effort to bring in the crowds, then, overwhelmed by demand, promptly ran out before the first undercard fight ended. I’ve heard the horror stories about cable providers (including mine) that were similarly overburdened and are this week offering full refunds of the $100 purchase price to subscribers who got frozen out. The whole thing was insanity, really, from the very concept of the fight – given five full years to marinate, percolate, and build steam, it was always primed to either succeed or fail epically – to the extensive but tenuous one-off cooperation between bitter promotional rivals and competing networks, to the resurfacing in various, conspicuously-timed journalistic “think pieces” of Mayweather’s well documented (though valid, none of this latest round was exactly Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalism) past of beating women as well as foes, to the nagging tendency to focus on the fight as an unprecedented financial bellweather first, an A+ list social event second, and a championship boxing match third.
It was a recipe, if not for outright disaster, then for disappointment, and that is what the card pretty much delivered in spades. Sorely impressed by their ability to pull off such a massive undertaking at all, it felt to me as if the event planners coasted thereafter. The two undercard fights, transparent showcases for rising youngsters Vasyl Lomanchenko and Leo Santa Cruz respectively, were criminally uncompetitive. The co-promotion forced HBO to indulge in some of rival Showtime’s worst habits, namely the interminable number of highlight and human interest packages installed as time fillers, celebrity arrivals, celebrity interviews, “text the winner” polls (Pacquiao’s 64% result serving as conclusive proof people were betting with their hearts rather than their heads), recurring segments featuring NFL emcee James Brown and a roundtable of experts, and, unsubtle, egregious, continual reinforcement of how lucrative the event was. The announcement by HBO’s Jim Lampley** (whose dignity deserved better) that the fight’s estimated take of $400 million exceeded the GDP of 29 countries has since been disproven, though it was still better than that of six tiny island nations.
**I’ll still be watching Saturday’s fight replay in full, by the way, not because the fight was anything special in terms of substance, but rather in hopes of the experience of hearing HBO’s Lampley and Showtime analyst Al Bernstein, both well-deserved IBHOF’ers, call their first and, likely, last event together as a broadcast team. The fight audio in almost any bar setting is going to be muddled mess, and Mayweather-Pacquiao was no exception. I was legitimately more interested in the commentary going in than I was in several aspects of the fight. At least with a meeting of Lampley and Bernstein’s minds, we stood a chance of learning something we didn’t already know.
Wait, wasn’t there supposed to be a fight going on here? Well, yes, and although the opening rounds were both fascinating and highly tense to fan and observer alike, the match proved anticlimactic overall. Mayweather kept Pacquiao at the end of his professional jab and clinched whenever he got touched, his defensive acumen largely limiting the famous Filipino volume puncher to one at a time swings. Pac dug to the body a little and unleashed some crowd-pleasing flurries of limited effectiveness on the few occasions he was able to trap Mayweather in a corner, but overall Floyd was in control, to some degree even in the rounds I gave to Manny. Referee Kenny Bayless could’ve admonished Floyd for excessive holding (as in reaction to almost every solid shot with which he was hit) but never really did, so far as I could tell. I had the fight even through six rounds, though not much had happened offensively. If anything, punch volumes would decrease in subsequent rounds, making those as rough to score as they occasionally were to watch. In the end, I scored the fight too generously at 115-113 (seven rounds to five) and even then had Mayweather winning.
The 116-112 score turned in by two of the ringside judges better reflects reality, because Manny did win a few stanzas. It’s just not good enough to annoy Floyd Mayweather and take a round or four from him, however. You have to fully remove him from his comfort zone (maybe even knock him down), because, if you don’t, he is, by definition, fighting his fight. The wide unanimous decision was correct. Pacquiao is a historically great offensive fighter, yet Floyd – who has insidious ways of essentially deactivating his opponents against all their better instincts – not only outlanded him but actually out threw him. Manny wasn’t active enough by a stunning margin, and struggled all night to cope with Floyd’s multi-inch advantages in both height and reach. He largely eschewed the fierce combination punching on which he’d forged his legend and utterly abandoned the unpredictable punching angles that had once made him such a formidable puzzle for opponents to solve. Pacquiao could never consistently get inside Floyd’s jab, and it sealed his doom. Across the ring, Floyd remained Floyd, cold water personified, focused only on the zero at the end of his record, oblivious to the hint or allure of fireworks or style points, masterfully efficient, maddeningly effective.
For Pacquiao, who has spent his career as the antithesis of the black hat and is essentially a walking god in his home country of the Philippines, this missed opportunity might prove a sickly bitter pill. I doubt it ruins his career – HBO can easily rehab him if his spirit is willing, his Stateside cache isn’t exhausted by any stretch, and he’s still both the best and most popular Asian fighter in boxing history – but he burned a not insignificant lot of goodwill in the loss. Possibly, though not probably, he walks off into the Filipino sunset from here, his legacy diminished but secure. Selfishly, I just wish he’d left it all out there in the ring. I love Manny as a boxer and admire him as a person, but his post-match comments, wherein he referenced a heretofore unmentioned shoulder injury (FWIW, he is going in for rotator cuff surgery soon) and affirmed he thought he’d won the fight (as so many boxers tend to do in the moment), were sunny-faced delusions mixed with sour grapes. Maybe he actually gave his all and it just didn’t matter because of the quality of his opponent, but it sure doesn’t feel that way, and it’s next to impossible to imagine anyone thinking he was up comfortably. A) There was nothing the least bit comfortable about that fight, except maybe to the champ, and B) Anybody who could beat Floyd Mayweather – who, despite his serious deficiencies as a human being, is one hell of a pure boxer – with one arm is truly the best of his generation.
For Pacquiao fans, Floyd detractors, boxing fanatics (expect some overlap there), and casual fans alike, the fight was inherently disappointing. What more than that can really be said? It coasted on its mystique, potential, and massive buzz until about the midway point, before Floyd finally, definitively, took over, which you may remember I (and any number of other, more seasoned/qualified boxing minds) told you up front was the most likely outcome. It’s not Floyd’s job to make a good fight. It’s his job to win. It’s your job to beat him. Give Amir Khan to him next if you wish – if only to finally shut the chinny Brit up – but know also that I’m officially done watching him live, now for the second time. I’ll give Floyd a moment to process what I’m sure is crushing news. It took the potential of Manny Pacquiao to lift my Mayweather PPV boycott, which had lasted through Canelo and both Maidana fights. Floyd now has my permission to ride off into the sunset in any way he chooses, secure in his place as the best pure boxer of his generation. Tying or (eventually) beating 49-0 doesn’t make him Rocky Marciano, however. Nor is he Sugar Ray Robinson, or Joe Louis, or Sugar Ray Leonard, and he’s sure as hell not Muhammad Ali, who fought the legit “Fight of the Century” in 1970 and a dozen other action fights on top of that…not to mention that a thirty-year-old Ali would’ve eaten Floyd’s lunch for him on social media, assuming the master even thought him worth his time.
The scattered Mayweather fans at our bar were predictably vocal and celebratory at the outcome, in a way and to a degree that I, personally, still find kind of amazing. Floyd, as I mentioned before, is perhaps the preeminent aspirational figure of our time. He is a season’s worth of bird-flipping, rainmaking MTV Cribs swagger and obliviousness crammed into a single, supreme athlete. Given that life throws us so many curveballs, it may just be that some people can’t help but revel in the exploits of a sure thing. I understand. I just want no part in it. It’s pretty hard to be a boxing evangelist if all you have to offer up is Floyd Mayweather. Thankfully, I know that’s not the case, though none of the millions of casual observers struggling to make sense of Saturday’s fight really do. To the many, many folks who felt actively ripped off by the PPV, please know that my thoughts and prayers are with you. Anyone who succumbs to a bottomless hype machine that ends up having only a limited reflection in reality obviously deserves a full refund. You can think of it this way, though. You don’t have to think about boxing ever again. The sport can go back to being dead, as it has been, with this lone outlying exception, for the past, what, twenty years? Or more? More importantly, boxing fans of the type that go to figurative church more than once or twice a year can go back to not having to listen to a chorus of generic mainstream voices mangle, manhandle, and misinterpret the sport they love, and can focus on the in-ring product again.
Saturday on HBO/CBS sounds like as good a place to start as any.