The Last Fight That Matters

When I  was a kid, I was fascinated by boxing writer Bert Sugar. He was old-timey with his craggly face, chomping on a cigar and wearing a fedora. I was convinced he knew everything there was to know about boxing, past and present and could write about it better than any other sportswriter. He wrote about boxing as art and properly contextualized its role in sports and history as no other. As I got older, I always had a pipe dream of being the Bert Sugar of MMA writers, something that sport sorely lacks, but that’s a different story altogether.

This story is about boxing, its history and the Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao fight, the last fight that mainstream society cared about. My own memories of boxing are tied to two things: the 1990s and stories from my grandfather. He came of age in the ’40s and ’50s, when the only two sports that mattered in America were baseball and boxing. From him I heard about Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all-time. I heard about Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber. He even met Louis in Vegas back in the early ’70s when Sinatra tried to get Louis out of financial trouble by getting him a doorman gig at Caesar’s Palace.

Ali was not spoken of with real affection by my family, maternal or paternal. The politics, the fighting style, the brashness, none of that was pleasing to my conservative family. It wasn’t until years later, after countless books, documentaries and sports programs that I fully recognized the greatness of Ali as the harbinger of a new era of athlete and a true cultural force.

I never really saw boxing until 1992. That was the year of the Barcelona Olympics and the Dream Team, led by my sports hero, Michael Jordan. The other thing I remember from that Olympics is the story of a young Mexican-American boxer competing in honor of his recently deceased mother. That fighter’s name was Oscar De La Hoya.

It wasn’t until we got a satellite dish at our house that I ever really got to watch boxing. Until that point, my only interactions were through issues of Sports Illustrated, where I learned about the legendary career of Sugar Ray Leonard in the cover story prior to his failed comeback bout against Hector “Macho” Camacho, George Foreman’s middle-aged championship run and the post-incarceration Mike Tyson.

With satellite, I was able to see the last run of great heavyweights, highlighted by Evander Holyfield’s two fights against Tyson and my personal favorite Lennox Lewis’ lengthy title reign. I stumbled into seeing Micky Ward’s third fight with Arturo Gatti. The names meant nothing to me until seeing The Fighter, but I remember being astonished by the onslaught the two unleashed on each other, like something out of the Rocky franchise.

I zoned out of boxing soon after. Since the mid-2000s, I can only remember a couple of fights that stand out in terms of mainstream popular interest: De La Hoya vs. Mayweather and De La Hoya vs. Pacquiao. De La Hoya, far past his prime, was utterly dominated in both, but anyone who thought he was going to be competitive is a lunatic.

Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao has been negotiated over and speculated upon for over half a decade. It was the only match left in boxing that really mattered and it says a lot about the sport and where it fits into the American psyche.

When boxing was the pre-eminent sport in America, it told stories. Jack Johnson was the black usurper that terrified white America and broke minorities into the boxing ranks. Joe Louis’ victory over the German Max Schmeling made him one of the first black national heroes. Ali encapsulated his generation, dividing America along racial and generational lines.

The Rumble in the Jungle was the peak of Ali’s magnificence after missing out on his athletic prime due to his anti-Vietnam stance, his finest moment. George Foreman, the brooding, hulking powerhouse, was expected to crush the brash, over-the-hill black nationalist. He didn’t, and Ali went on to finish a remarkable trilogy with Joe Frazier. The Thrilla in Manilla was boxing at its most malevolent, each blow being thrown as if it would be the last.

The rise of HBO and premium cable can be attributed in part to boxing. Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard were in their primes and brought boxing beyond closed-circuit television and radio. They were men, waging in epic contests that made them household names. Mike Tyson was the first big pay-per-view star, absolutely mauling opponents until his life hit the skids and he became a sideshow attraction.

Last night’s fight had none of that drama. Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are not two men at their athletic peaks, although Pacquiao is the only one with a clear decline. Mayweather is this era’s Rocky Marciano. Marciano dominated heavyweight after Joe Louis and before the Listons and Alis, while Floyd missed out on the Haglers and Leonards of his divison. His bobbing-and-weaving, clinching to avoid going punch-for-punch style, while not aesthetically pleasing, works. You don’t get to 48-0 by getting into firefights.

Pacquaio is a scrapper, more than willing to stand and engage. It’s exciting, but not conducive to latter-day career success and the writing on the wall for him was clear when Marquez floored him a few years back. Prior to last night he had recovered with a few wins, but in no way was this a fight between two apex boxers tussling for supremacy. The result bear witness to this, as Mayweather won a safe, lopsided decision, the way he always does, the way most predicted the fight would turn out.

The fight wasn’t about pride. It wasn’t about legacy. It was about the insane amount of money behind it. Mayweather made a minimum of $180 million and his final haul will likely be close to $300 million. Pacquiaos’ will be close to $200 million. The fight sold for roughly $100 per household for pay-per-view and bars were charged a minimum of $6,000. The City of Las Vegas brought in $150 million this weekend and another $72 million was what the gate pulled. That was the story going into the fight and that was the story the morning after. The result was a blip in the news coverage, glossed over in an accounting of the sheer magnitude of the numbers.

That’s how this fight will be remembered. A gross money-making spectacle between the last two boxers publicly identifiable. With the amount of money going out and being raked back in, there was no way it would ever live up to the hype. It wasn’t meant to be enjoyed or remembered; it was meant to be purchased and consumed, tweeted and posted about on Facebook. It was meant to be jaw-dropping, not as a test of wills, but as a test of good old, empty calorie American capitalism. Talk about a zeitgeist.