The Fight of the Century

Published in The Express Tribune – cover photo by John Gurzinski

The poetry of boxing, it is said, doesn’t go far. Especially at the highest levels: when the world sits through 12 rounds of grown men trying not to get hit in the face, it’s hard selling it as anything but.

So when they called it ‘the Battle for Greatness’, people shrugged. It wasn’t much of a name, but then the Fight of the Century didn’t need much marketing. And when the dust had settled in Vegas, everyone was saying what they’d been saying since 2009: this fight happened five years too late.

One could, of course, understand the hype. In one corner, getting more boos than your average axe-murderer, was Floyd Mayweather, Jr. We were told he’s the American Dream: Floyd Sr. was a convicted coke dealer, yet here stood his son, the highest-paid athlete in the world.

Sportswriters love it: the kid who once found used heroin needles in his family’s front yard now wears mouth-guards made of $100 bills. But they also enjoy ‘Money May’ because he knows how to build a brand: he’s undefeated and unhumbled — rude, crude, and inarguably gifted.

A paradox the press plays on: while ESPN was calling him ‘the last great prizefighter’; Muhammad Ali’s daughter told CBS he was ‘a little boy’ (in response to Money May suggesting he was greater than the Greatest himself). Floyd Jr. casts himself as one of the titans, and no doubt he is. But he resembles less an Ali than a Liston, the mob leg-breaker-cum-champion.

Because Mayweather boasts a rap sheet as long as his win streak, with domestic violence a recurrent theme: he’s been convicted in ‘02, ‘04, ‘05, and ‘11, more often than not of battering women. He’s also fond of comparing ladies to his car collection (‘if you’re able to take care of 20, have 20’), and blaming break-ups on abortions.

As The Atlantic’s Megan Garber put it, ‘how a man like Mayweather is able to operate, with near utter impunity, at the upper echelons of our culture [… is perhaps] for the same general reason that Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, is enjoying a second life as a cartoon T.V. detective’.

Yes, Floyd Jr. is hateable, what he represents is hateable, even the celebrities betting on him — Andy Murray, Bill Maher, Justin Bieber — are hateable. Going in, people wanted to see Money May finally fall.

Compare and contrast this with the gent in the other corner: the beloved Manny Pacquiao, pride of the Philippines. Another home run for sportswriters, Pacquiao is the poor-boy-who-made-good (unlike Mayweather, the poor-boy-that-made-bail). Too many of Manny’s bios cut to a pivotal point: the 12-year-old who ran away from home when he saw his father eat his pet dog (believe what you will).

Yet the story is an epic: how Manny slept in cardboard boxes all the way to becoming the first Filipino athlete on a postage stamp. An ‘octuple’ great, i.e. the world’s only eight-division champ, ‘Pacman’ has since diversified into business, acting, and runs at Congress. A universal icon, his magic is all too real at home in the Philippines: as the myth in Manila goes, street crime dies when there’s a Pacquiao fight on.

And all of it fed the machine: the HBO documentaries and scorecards, the blogs and betting sites, the Nevada airstrips blocked by private planes. The money the fight made was more than the G.D.P. of 29 countries combined — a surreal $138,000 per second.

It was also a snooze: 12 rounds of Mayweather running laps, as Pacquaio paced after him like an angry bear. It became clear in the early rounds that Mayweather’s strategy — light love taps, then running for his life — were irritating both Pacman and the crowd. But it was enough: Pacquiao wanted to fight; Mayweather wanted to win.

The experts had called it early: Pacman’s fierce fighting style has been through much wear and tear over the years, losing three of his past five bouts. Mayweather, on the other hand, is a wonder of boxing science, via smart scheduling (and contempt for the Roman spectators baying for blood).

Yes, the Fight of the Century was overpriced and underwhelming: Mayweather won by decision, landing 34 per cent of his punches against Pacquiao’s 19 per cent. Certain cynics were in tears: Money May, it seemed, had waited until Pacman was past his prime, then agreed to a payout finale and duped the public.

But Mayweather’s already moved on: now that he’s the best fighter in the world at an incredible 48-0, he’s going to be looking at equaling all-time great Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 — in one last fight before retirement.

That’s where Amir Khan might come in: a May-Khan fight has long been ducked, acknowledged, and ducked again by Money May. But one can hope: Pakistan is proud of the Bolton-born Amir, who flew to Peshawar to visit the children in the days after the A.P.S. attack, and vowed to build his first boxing academy in Pakistan. ‘[…] Mayweather’s the one I want,’ he says, ‘because I really believe I have his number.’

And so the Fight of the Century — the one night where boxing could claim some of its old glory — came to a close in Las Vegas, another broken dream in a city of broken dreams. But as the world watched a serial batterer of women lift his arms in victory, there were those wondering whether all of us weren’t complicit in the con.

A moral juncture Grantland’s Charles P Piece, in a stunning piece of writing, best summed up, ‘This is the long con that boxing has run for more than a century — that, as long as the corruption is right out there in the open and as long as the corruption can be assumed in every transaction, then, somehow, in some strange ethical calculus … the sport was more honest than all the others.’

If this is true, boxing may have been dead well before any of us realised.