In recent years, boxing has made news more often outside the ring, usually because retired heavyweight champion Mike Tyson did something bizarre—like cursing at a Canadian television host, or getting his own surreal Adult Swim cartoon series. But on Saturday, May 2, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao will finally face one another inside the ring, a fight anticipated for so long that it's thrust the sport into the mainstream spotlight more fully than in decades.
The media coverage, accordingly, is in overdrive. Mayweather’s philosophy on microwave cookery, which boxer God wants to win—you name it, it’s been revealed. Even the boxers’ respective publicists have gotten their own profiles.
You might expect boxing’s insular, long-suffering fan base to be equally excited. After all, Mayweather and Pacquiao are the two best fighters of their generation, the two biggest boxing stars of their generation, the two best men at 147 lbs., and the two best boxers in the sport, period.
For many devotees, the "Fight of the Century" is indeed a cause for celebration, a night when boxing gets the shine they believe their neglected sport deserves. But for many others, the signing of Mayweather-Pacquiao was the inspiration only for a cold and broken "Hallelujah." That’s because what was once an unbelievably desirable fight, starting around 2009, has lost some of its luster in the intervening years. That it took so long for this fight to happen, as the two fighters' prime years receded in the rear view, helps explain the troubles facing boxing itself.
Late coming though it is, Mayweather-Pacquiao is a monumental event in a sport with as rich a history as any. You can argue that it’s the biggest fight since Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali I in 1971, and while you might encounter disagreement, you won’t be laughed out of the room.
Mayweather-Pacquiao is likely to break the all-time boxing pay-per-view buy record, and could gross an estimated $400 million in revenue. That’s not just because of the caliber of the boxers, although that kind of convergence of “bests” is rare. It’s also because the storyline is irresistible: Mayweather is arrogant, flashy, and an accumulator of vulgar wealth for wealth’s sake (he's the richest athlete on the planet); Pacquiao is quiet, humble, and donates so much of his money to the poor in the Philippines—where he's been a congressman since 2010—that he periodically lands in tax trouble.
Then again, those conditions were also in place in 2009—were even riper then, in fact. Pacquiao had one of his finest years in '09, winning his record fourth true, lineal divisional championship (which can only be gained by beating the man on the throne, or facing the other best fighter in the division to crown a new king) by beating 140-pound champ Ricky Hatton via one the most sensational one-punch knockouts ever. That same year, Mayweather returned from a half-hearted retirement with his own big win, shutting out Pacquiao’s biggest and most difficult rival, Juan Manuel Marquez, in what seemed like a deliberate Mayweather set-up for a Pacquiao megafight.
Only the fight didn’t happen, despite a couple rounds of negotiations, for a host of reasons; first there was a fall out over drug-testing procedures, then over feuding between Pacquiao promoter Bob Arum and Mayweather (whom Arum once promoted), then over a bunch of other trifles. The “will they or won’t they?” soap opera got tiresome pretty quickly, with both sides teasing it before their latest separate bouts.
For anyone unfamiliar with boxing’s anarchic mess of a structure, it was hard to comprehend why the richest and bets fight in boxing wasn’t happening. But the answer is rather simple: Because no one can make them.
Unlike all major American sports leagues, there is no centralized boxing authority. And because boxing attracts a bunch of stubborn iconoclasts to the ring, including promoters, an obviously worthwhile fight can go awry with very little provocation. Prosecuting an old grudge frequently gets in the way of everyone getting rich. In late 2012, Mayweather-Pacquiao was nearly killed dead when Pacquiao’s old nemesis Marquez knocked him out with a conclusiveness that raised doubts about whether Pacquiao would ever fight again.
Pacquiao has rebounded reasonably well. But in 2009, a great many more people gave him a chance to beat Mayweather than do now. Both men have aged considerably, with Mayweather now 38 and Pacquiao now 36, yet Pacquiao looks worse for wear. He's gone from a minor underdog in 2009 to a major one in 2015. While there’s a minority view that both men being a little slower than they once were might lead to more action, the chance to see two greats at their peak vanished in 2012, at the latest. Thanks a lot, boxing.
If it looked like the signing of Mayweather-Pacquiao was at least a conditional success for the sport, it hasn’t ended the dysfunction, or eliminated some of the things that make boxing less broadly accessible.
The pay-per-view will cost fans $100 in high-definition. The cheapest ticket, in the nosebleeds of MGM Grand, opened at $1,500 (the cheapest ticket on StubHub, as of publication time, was $3,400). The tickets didn’t even go on sale until last week, thanks to yet another feud between Mayweather Promotions and Arum’s Top Rank Promotions. It took the top Democrat in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, and the head of CBS, Les Moonves, to intervene and force the sides to reconcile.
What’s more, much of the oxygen this week has been sucked up by renewed attention to Floyd Mayweather’s lengthy history of woman-battering, a controversy abetted by ESPN “sports personality” Stephen A. Smith saying some inane things about Mayweather, women, and domestic violence. During a recent "First Take" segment where Cari Champion spoke negatively about Mayweather's domestic violence history, Smith answered that it was because "you’re a woman, you should feel that way."
Few professional sports are populated by total angels, and domestic violence isn’t always properly handled by sports leagues, as the Ray Rice incident shows. But at least there are occasionally repercussions from league authorities when athletes beat women. With boxing regulated on a state-by-state basis, any state that saw fit to punish Mayweather for his sins would have only ensured that another money-hungry state would’ve licentiously sought the tax revenue that Mayweather fights bring. That’s why Nevada, which routinely treats Mayweather with kid gloves, didn’t give him so much as a slap on the wrist. While some fans will tune in hoping that Pacquiao makes Mayweather pay for his attacks on women, some others will tune out because of them.
Of course, it’s better that Mayweather-Pacquiao is happening now than never. And it’s better for boxing overall that it’s happening. If the fight’s a dud, it wouldn’t be the first time a hotly-anticipated fight didn’t deliver on the hype, and the fans have stuck around anyway.
In fact, 2015 might go down as the year more people in the United States see boxing than at any time in decades. Influential Mayweather adviser Al Haymon has engineered a revolutionary bid to put boxing back on free network television—including NBC, CBS and later, ABC—and after just a couple months, the numbers look pretty good; boxing has beaten the likes of NASCAR and the NHL in the ratings among the 18-49 demographic. It’s a risky business model, and there’s a chance it does more harm than good in the long run, and maybe boxing doesn’t want someone like Haymon trying to take over the whole sport, based on his track record. But it’s a giddy time for the sport’s public visibility, to say the least.
Even during an especially down time for the sport from the early 2000s until the emergence of Pacquiao and Mayweather, boxing survived. The mere notion that “boxing is dying” or “boxing is dead” is a cliché that itself won't die. “Yep, interest in boxing is dying out in the U.S.A.,” the Seattle Daily Times wrote—in 1914.
Boxing isn’t dead or dying. The question is whether it can even get back to the sustained popularity it had in, say, the 1980s, or if it is doomed to niche status, returning only periodically to public consciousness. As HBO's Larry Merchant said several years ago, "Nothing will kill boxing, and nothing can save it." Saturday's Mayweather-Pacquiao bout will prove just how true that is.