The most common sight in Las Vegas early Sunday morning was that of a dejected young man in an extremely boastful Manny Pacquiao t-shirt making his way back to his hotel to change his shirt.
I watched The Biggest Fight Of Our Generation in the Excalibur Hotel & Casino’s circular basement “Tournament of Kings” arena, where they stage nightly fake jousting battles for the benefit of tourists eating cheap chicken, in a hole in the ground beneath the “Fun Dungeon.” Huge TV screens had been arrayed in a circle, and the volume turned up to earsplitting levels. Tickets were $150 face value, no food or drink included. It was sold out. Like the MGM Grand Arena across the street, it only really filled up just before the main event. The volume and enthusiasm of shouts for Manny Pacquiao overwhelmed those for Floyd Mayweather by at least two to one.
And then the fight started. In retrospect, it was pretty straightforward. To win, Manny Pacquiao would have needed to throw a huge number of punches to overwhelm Floyd’s defense, and constantly use his feet to switch angles to let those punches slip in from the side. From the very earliest moments of the first round, it was clear that Manny was not doing much of that. He had a few moments. But mostly, he stood in front of Mayweather and tried to feint and box, which no one has ever done successfully, with predictable result. Manny landed some punches early, but Floyd adapted, as he always does, and put his jab in the face of the smaller man, and gradually shut him down. It was not a close fight. The surprise of the night was not that Manny Pacquiao lost; it was that he looked just like everyone else while losing. The pedestrian outcome of The Big Big Fight was further validation of the fact that Floyd Mayweather is the best boxer of his generation. There are no saviors coming to dethrone the villainous king.
Some have suggested that Floyd is a “coward” because he didn’t stand toe-to-toe and slug it out with Manny for the benefit of the fans. I don’t know what that means. No one in history ever became a world class competitive boxer by being a coward. No one. Floyd Mayweather may well be a coward in his personal life, but that is a separate issue. He is a brilliant defensive fighter, and that is how he fought. Those coveted “casual fans” upset that there wasn’t enough rote violence exhibited on their pay-per-view screen should have just watched clips of people running full speed into their own garage doors on America’s Funniest Home Videos. It would have been cheaper.
What happened on Saturday night in Las Vegas was the culmination—and validation—of every bad trend in the sport of boxing. Fans of the sport wanted to see this fight happen five years ago, when both men were at the height of their powers; instead, it was pushed back for financial reasons, and we will never know how it might have been different had Pacquiao still had the superhuman motor he possessed in 2010. Boxing is a horrifically unequal money sport, with huge portions of the overall revenue flowing to a tiny handful of fighters at the very top; this fight was the greatest example of that that has ever been seen. Boxing has lost fans for decades by hoarding and hiding the best fighters on premium cable networks and pay-per-views, where casual viewers can’t follow them; the price for this fight was higher than ever before. And rather than work hard to give the paying fans the most for their money, boxing promoters continuously seek to crowd undercards with mismatches as PR showcases for their own stable of fighters, on the cheap; Saturday’s megafight, with an unprecedented price tag, came with only two undercard fights, and both of them were purposeful mismatches. One of the opponents in the fight shown just before The Biggest Fight Of Our Generation had taken the fight on two weeks notice. The promoters didn’t even try.
And what was the lesson that the cabal that controls boxing can draw from this widely deplored spectacle? That all of these things work. It was the total triumph of hype. The undercard was garbage. The boxing press—the small group that actually covers this unloved sport on a regular basis—was mostly denied entry to the fight. The celebrities and superfans who paid thousands of dollars for tickets, and the millions who paid $100 for the pay-per-view, were treated to a bare-bones show with lower production values than a 2 a.m. rerun of SportsCenter. The fans in Vegas, the press, and the viewing public at large were all told by the promoters and producers of this fight: “Shut the fuck up and pay your money to watch and we will give you the very cheapest version of what you want in order to line our own pockets to the maximum extent possible.”
And we all did! It all worked. Floyd Mayweather waded through all those cries about domestic violence and emerged with a nine-figure payday. What message can The Powers-That-Be of Boxing possibly extract from this except that all of the bad things do indeed make them very rich? As the press grumbles and the boxing purists wail and Middle America vows never to order another pay-per-view until the next time they get drunk, the Mayweather-Pacquiao-HBO-Showtime-Bob Arum-Al Haymon Industrial Complex counts its money.
The struggle inside the ring—even a boring, one-sided, defensive shutdown—is the only good thing about boxing. It is an irreducible human activity with a tradition dating back thousands of years. The beauty and simplicity of boxing, though, is no match for the hype. This sport may be forced to fix itself one day. But not today. Today, the hype has won. It wasn’t a fair fight.