Boxing used to stop the world and fights were referendums beyond which man was the most proficient pugilist; fights meant more than belts and gloves, gnarled ears, broken noses – a great fight marked its era’s social and political attitudes. Saturday night in Las Vegas filled the bill, but for the wrong reasons.
Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather conspired to build a fight hyped to be the “Fight of the Century,” and concurrently a referendum on each fighter’s place relative to each other. The hype prior to the fight invigorated boxing. Roughly 15 hours before the men traded blows, The Today Show featured boxing instructors showing how properly to jump rope, and ESPN’s First Take spent Friday predicting what would happen during each round. In 2015, American culture is anchored by the cult of celebrity and the desire to be part of whatever the big event is. We are consumed and willingly consume ridiculous amounts of material related to these events. Mayweather vs. Pacquiao expertly played upon this cultural dynamic.
Promoters and trainers filled the airwaves predicting victory for their fighter in the most valiant narrative. The fight allowed well-meaning but foolhardy members of the media a soapbox to condemn Mayweather’s history of domestic violence and his remorselessness. Pacquiao was the people’s choice. The last week of hype evolved into discourse about Mayweather’s domestic violence history which made Floyd emerge as the most reviled athlete in American history since Ray Rice. Short memories became the fad; people like ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and Michael Wilbon excoriated the public’s intense dislike of Mayweather’s lack of penitence. Smith unrepentantly carried Mayweather’s water whilst Mayweather’s people refused credentials to CNN’s Rachel Nichols and HBO/ESPN’s Michelle Beadle – Howard Cosell’s reincarnation was the only thing missing from the hype.
Forgotten were Pacquiao’s sins, as though dedicating himself religiously to religion absolves his boorish comments on gay marriage, and his history of womanizing and gambling. Pacquiao’s trainer, Hall of Famer Freddie Roach, excelled providing Pacquiao the white horse to Mayweather’s black hat. Good vs. Evil narratives dominate boxing’s promotion mechanism. The 1960’s and 70’s featured the unrepentant Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson’s rise in the 1980’s and 90’s fall is another example; Sugar Ray Leonard played storylines with the expertise of a concert violinist with Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler. Mayweather and Pacquiao played the roles of heel and babyface perfectly; boxing was relevant again.
The fight’s intense demand overloaded cable providers proving there is no price too exorbitant for consumption of pop culture. Mayweather vs. Pacquiao was Kardashian-esque self-promotion. Their fame derives from each man’s ability to beat the other senseless. Except that’s not exactly true. Styles make fights.
Pacquiao’s frenetic flurries of fists are pay-per-view promotional pugilistic perfection. The Filipino welterweight’s bones are made for knocking out excellent fighters Miguel Cotto, Rickey Hatton, David Diaz, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera. Pacquiao’s fights are entertaining; his punches uncoil with extreme ferocity and undeniable effect. Pacquiao’s 65 fights bring the casual boxing fan closer to the sport similarly to Tyson’s early career – the sanctioned savage violence of Pacquiao’s punching doesn’t fit his diminutive stature. The problem with Pacquiao’s style is the exposure he opens for his opponents. An “enlarged” Juan Manuel Marquez notably capitalized on this issue with a vicious knockout in 2012. Thailand’s Medgoen Singsurat and Filipino Rustico Torrecampo also knocked out Pacquiao by brilliantly playing upon Pacquiao’s aggression. Prior to the fight against Mayweather, Pacquiao’s other losses came controversially to Timothy Bradley and Erik Morales (Pacquiao would avenge this loss with a knockout). Pacquiao’s fights are perpetual motion; Mayweather’s fights make Charlie Brown’s teacher into a charismatic showman.
Mayweather’s brilliance is cerebral. The best fighters always make it look too easy – Ali played with Foreman and danced around Liston, Leonard at his best perpetrated the most outlandish smash and grabs in boxing history, Oscar De La Hoya unsuccessfully employed the Leonard strategy against Felix Trinidad but the Golden Boy’s legacy far outshines Tito’s. Bernard Hopkins’ brilliance similarly is founded on cerebral fighting. The best fighters hit and evade responses. When a punch is released, a fight becomes a race: the winner is determined by if the initial punch lands before the response is evaded, or vice versa. Counterpunching is an art mastered by fighters deeply understanding the game of boxing. Evander Holyfield may be the most recent example of success employing this strategy. Great counterpunchers rely on their opponent’s aggression. Mayweather’s art elevates the medium.
His shoulder-roll tactic combined with his evasive footwork renders him nearly impossible to hit, let alone hurt. Mayweather’s fights are boring to casual fans, and even hardcore fans. Mayweather’s a risk-averse fighter uninterested in knocking out his opponent. His last knockout was the controversial flooring of Victor Ortiz in 2011. Ortiz and Mayweather touched gloves after Ortiz committed a foul, and before Ortiz had a chance to retreat into his guard Mayweather unleashed a hook catching a surprised Ortiz, knocking him out. Mayweather’s defense frustrates opponents and fans alike. Mayweather’s movement mutes hostile crowds, drains arenas and opponents of energy. His fights are wars of attrition for the viewer. Marcos Maidana almost beat Mayweather in their first bout, almost in this case delineates to a snowball’s chance. Further frustrating fans is Mayweather’s ferocious refusal to grant rematches. The only opponents to fight Floyd again are Maidana and Jose Luis Castillo. Detractors claim Mayweather’s afraid a second bout with the same opponent will result in a blemished record. Mayweather’s expertise is not getting hit and countering. Prior to Saturday, this risk-averse strategy worked brilliantly 47 times. No sane fan of the sport on the spectrum ranging from mostly disinterested to passionate expected Mayweather to change his style.
Mayweather did little to hype the fight this time – with the exception of his claim of being better than Ali. Pacquiao’s trainer, Roach, spent two months dogging Mayweather every way possible. Theater of the absurd is boxing’s forte – Mayweather’s disturbing silence couples with Roach’s incessant barbs allowed stratospheric expectations for this bout. After the New York Rangers dispatched the Washington Capitals, American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby, and Chris Paul’s virtuoso performance lifted the once hapless Clippers beyond the exalted Spurs, all eyes turned to Vegas for a fight most casual fans anticipated would roar to life, except that it didn’t.
The accepted wisdom beating Mayweather involves overwhelming his impregnable defenses. Similar to unleashing a siege in war, an unleashing of vicious punches connecting with Mayweather’s shoulders should wear down defenses. The fighter possessing this ability is Pacquiao – a man with a limitless amount of energy and thirst for brutality would fire cannon after cannon at Castle Mayweather causing the towers and walls to topple, exposing the King to the guillotine – except the opposite scenario occurred. Pacquiao threw fewer punches and recorded half as many connections as Mayweather. Pacquiao adopted a deliberate strategy – either by conscious decision or physical ability – of a safecracker.
The Filipino fighter used a stethoscope on the combination instead of the dynamite that dominated his earlier years. Mayweather dodged, ducked, dipped, dived and dodged. Mayweather’s wildest dreams never brought a scenario where he was more aggressive than Pacquiao. Roll the shoulder, avoid the blow, and connect with a potshot. Rinse, lather, and repeat. Twelve rounds of Pacquiao being everything except who he was, twelve rounds of Mayweather being everything he is. Millions of dollars spent by suckers on pay-per-view parties, celebrities on their private jets and tourists looking to be part of a spectacle our culture seems to crave, but upon delivery turns into a pumpkin. Haughty, “I told you so,” condemnations spewed forth Sunday, as if the masters of the hype couldn’t believe they suckered so many. The fight of the century did not occur in Las Vegas on Saturday night. Mayweather’s masterful muffling of Pacquiao’s pussyfoot punching promoted precious little for boxing. The night proved calamitous for boxing – but don’t blame Mayweather.
Leading up to the fight, Mayweather made clear through the Las Vegas Sun and other publications his disinterest in legacy and keen interest in money. After the fight, Mayweather’s joy resides not in victory, but the nine figure check earned through 36 minutes of effort. According to ESPN the Magazine an observer at Mayweather’s camp said Mayweather, “trained like he’s broke.” Roach attempted to goad Mayweather through observations about Mayweather seeming too calm and disinterested. Mayweather’s interest is focused on income. Boxing is Mayweather’s job; his job performance rates higher than nearly anyone does anything. Saturday further illustrated Mayweather’s proficiency. 36 minutes of work, nary a mark or welt, cognizant of the financial and sporting outcome. People don’t pay three figures to watch someone they hate work so effortlessly. The irony is not lost on Mayweather – fans pay astounding amount of money to watch professional boxers inflict physical beatings upon Mayweather. Mayweather avoids punches better than politicians avoid accountability; people are dismayed by the result. The same movie plays 47 times in a row, why should it have changed on the 48th?
Maybe Pacquiao’s claim of an injured shoulder holds weight – try working a speed bag for three rounds of three minutes – anyone’s shoulders will beg for mercy. Mayweather’s body tolled the same injuries. Pacquiao is a veteran of 64 fights prior to Saturday. The Filipino’s style incurs more damage, 64 fights worth of damage. The 2012 Marquez knockout and Timothy Bradley fights exposed a boxer with diminished abilities – credit to Marquez and Bradley for capitalizing. Mayweather’s career runs the opposite track. Mayweather spaces his fights out, trains harder than every other fighter, and absorbs fewer punches. Pacquiao’s boxing career must end soon for his own safety. Mayweather’s career is ending in September, not because of safety issues. Mayweather’s activity on Saturday night allowed fans of boxing to conjure another decade of dominance – the American has the ability and intellect to be the next Bernard Hopkins. Pacquiao’s status as Philippines’ hero enables him to always have a comfortable lifestyle. Mayweather’s shrewd investments (if we are to believe his claims) guarantee a lifestyle Wall Street executes avariciously covet.
Boxing after this fight teeters on irrelevancy. UFC consistently makes inroads on pugilism’s dwindling fan base. Mayweather and Pacquiao proved the antidote to insomnia. Casual fans of the sport must look further, beyond headliners in their late 30’s. There’s much to be found in boxing besides politicians fighting exotic car owners. Boxing does possess amazing talent.
The middleweight division boasts Gennady “GGG” Golovkin – a Kazakh knockout artist who started fighting grown men at the age of 8. Golovkin is 32-0 with 29 KO’s. Unlike Mayweather, Golovkin fights – a lot. He plans to fight four times in 2015. Fighters with impressive resumes like Cotto avoid Golovkin and a fight between GGG and Andre Ward is exponentially more exciting than Vegas this past weekend. Ward recently signed to his first fight in two years, he’s destined to fight British sensation Carl Froch. Deontay Wilder is an American heavyweight boasting a 33-0 record with 32 KO’s. The heavyweight division doubles as Wladimir Klitschko’s house of victims yet Wilder’s punching power exceeds Tyson’s. Sergey Kovalev is a light heavyweight notorious for his unequivocal beat down of Bernard Hopkins. Kovalev’s future is incredibly bright and he will clear out his division with aplomb. Cuban bantamweight Guillermo Rigondeaux, one of the most decorated amateur fighters of all-time is incredibly intriguing.
Boxing’s future always appears bleak compared to its past. Fights used to be cultural road signs – Joe Louis becoming the first prominent African-American champion, the Louis-Schmeling fights, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta’s wars, Ali-Liston, Ali-Frazier a.k.a. The Fight of the Century, the Rumble in the Jungle, Thrilla in Manila, Duran-Leonard I, No Mas, Hagler-Hearns, Hagler-Leonard, Tyson-Douglas, and the Ear Bite are easy examples. Mayweather-Pacquiao is also a cultural road sign – take this exit to see a self-absorbed society unwilling to accept reality for its actual contents. Mayweather-Pacquiao was advertised to be everything it wasn’t.
The next generation of boxers are under-hyped; perhaps in light of boxing’s latest Vegas Vacation, the lack of hyperbolic elocution surrounding the next great generation of fighters is cause for celebration.