A potentially thrilling prizefight involving the world’s finest boxer goes down on Saturday and the zeitgeist doesn’t seem to care. Floyd Mayweather will fight Marcos Maidana in a rematch of their competitive May bout, but as Rafael Garcia points out, there is a surprising, even deflating lack of anticipation for it. Discussion of Floyd Mayweather in sports media this week has focused less on what tactical adjustments he must make to offset Maidana’s aggression and more on his foolish comments about Ray Rice. Mayweather is now known more for his coarseness than his combinations, and it seems as if Floyd the fighter has finally worn everyone out.
Last May, Argentina’s Maidana gave Floyd far more difficulty than most predicted. Mayweather won a majority decision, a result I believe he earned, but it was close enough to warrant a rematch. For once, a Floyd Mayweather fight was actually exciting, replete with swings of momentum and hellacious punching, and far more interesting than recent performances, dancing around lesser opponents like Robert Guerrero or Canelo Alvarez. To everyone’s shock, Maidana made Floyd look more vulnerable than on any occasion since his first battle with Jose Luis Castillo. That was twelve years ago.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if many people saw Mayweather-Maidana 1. Floyd’s team still hasn’t released the bout’s pay-per-view returns, despite their insistence it performed well. The empty reassurance of strong numbers by Leonard Ellerbe is akin to a Ferrari engineer boasting of a new model’s top speed without telling you what it is. But it’s important to keep the charade going, otherwise the situation contradicts Floyd’s claim to be the sport’s ‘cash cow’, for whom robust pay-per-view numbers are a guarantee, given the fact everyone wants to see him perform, or so he would have you believe.
The simple fact is fewer people watched the contest because the public wasn’t interested in the match-up. Maidana earned his date with Mayweather largely because of his destruction of Floyd-pseudo-doppelganger Adrien Broner, but only after Mayweather carried out a public campaign to solicit fans’ opinions as to whether he should fight the Argentine or Britain’s Amir Khan. An unknown to casual boxing fans despite a string of exciting fights, Marcos Maidana wasn’t going to move the needle. Why would people spend $70 to watch ‘Money’ pot shot for twelve rounds against someone they’d never heard of? For the same amount of cash one can obtain more immediate thrills.
Despite being the greatest boxer of his generation, Floyd Mayweather cannot generate widespread public interest solely by himself. He is not Mike Tyson or Sugar Ray Leonard, or a boxer whose aura is so alluring people will watch him fight a nobody in a bout without serious implications. Floyd’s fame only transcended boxing after he beat Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton, fighters with huge fanbases whose high profiles raised Floyd’s. Until then, Mayweather had been a brilliant professional for ten years, but few people outside of boxing paid much attention. He was so slick and polished that he rarely found himself in the sort of gut-wrenching battles that evoke visceral reactions in fans and create instant stars out of lesser talents like Arturo Gatti (who Floyd savagely whipped in 2005).
In this sense, Floyd’s brilliant, conservative style has been as big a detriment as it has been a boon. It’s saved him from punishment and allowed for sustained success, but it’s precluded him from winning fans in the same way that Tyson’s or Manny Pacquiao’s more uninhibited styles did for them. We rightfully marvel at the sheer mastery of Floyd’s technique and intelligence, both of which are amazingly sharp and consistent, but his cold brilliance is never dynamic enough to overwhelm. And, given his obvious thirst for fame, ring success alone cannot satiate his ego. Floyd needs accolades and attention as much as wins and title belts.
This put him in a difficult situation. He couldn’t depart from the style that had made him successful, but if he was to become a mainstream celebrity he needed to be interesting. Floyd attempted this through his adoption of the “Money Mayweather” persona, which he introduced during the original 24/7 series HBO created for the Mayweather-De La Hoya promotion, but the “Money” archetype is devoid of substantive elements and quickly exhausted. That said, “Money Mayweather” is not an illusion in the sense that Floyd has grown incredibly rich in the fight game. He has done so by commanding the sport’s financial infrastructure in a way no boxer ever has before. In addition to his purse, Floyd gets generous cuts of the gate and pay-per-view receipts. However insufferable “The Money Team’s” ethos might be, its business acumen and hustle cannot be denied.
The real illusion concerns Floyd’s actual popularity. Because he is undefeated, wields so much promotional control, and is boxing’s most recognizable fighter, a false perception exists about how popular he actually is. ‘Popularity’ is a nebulous term, but the most objective measure by which to gauge a fighter’s resonance with fans is the number of pay-per-view buys he generates. If the numbers are sufficiently low that the fighter’s manager withholds their release, this indicates fan apathy. Despite this, because Floyd is an undefeated champion who’s participated in boxing’s only recent superfights, his name is invoked whenever the boxing is discussed and his career is viewed as essential to the sport’s viability. But is this really the case?
With his adoption of the “Money Mayweather” persona, Floyd cleverly created an image of himself that would help sell tickets. It’s an image predicated on ostentatious wealth, celebrity in and of itself, and manufactured controversy. But a persona this vapid remains interesting for only so long. More than his skill and talent, a fighter’s image determines how popular he becomes, but for fans to believe in the image it must feel authentic. For example, Mike Tyson’s criminal record was well-known, and this subtantiated his trash talk and supposed animalism.
It doesn’t matter if fans truly ‘know’ the fighter (an impossibility, since their relationship to him is filtered by media), only that they think they know him, and this illusory knowledge is always traceable to an archetype. Think of Arturo Gatti, whose limited skills didn’t preclude him from becoming popular; an exciting, handsome, indomitable Italian, Gatti was Rocky Balboa brought to life and fans adored him. Put another way, there was no ambiguity about who he was, and it is precisely the degree to which fans ‘get’ the fighter that will determine his popularity. Unlike Gatti or Tyson, Floyd’s image is too contrived to have lasting resonance and too inconsistent to understand.
That Floyd hasn’t made ‘knowing’ him easy is partly the result of practical calculation. There are stylistic inconsistencies in his public behaviour, which vacillates from the gangster image he sometimes affects to his friendship with Justin Bieber, who carries Floyd’s belts during his ring walks despite being completely removed from Mayweather’s element. The Bieber connection only makes sense when one understands that Floyd’s goal is nothing more than the perpetuation of his own fame and wealth, and simply by associating himself with Bieber he connects with millions of people who otherwise might have no idea who he is. In this sense, Floyd is a true businessman, whose merchandise is fame and lifestyle. Floyd’s boxing ability, which in its singular brilliance is the most redeeming thing about him, becomes merely a means to realize his entrepreneurial goals.
After his first fight with Maidana, Floyd said it was closer than usual because he allowed it to be, because he wanted it to be more exciting for the fans. He’s aware people think he’s a boring fighter but this was obvious bullshit which gave no credit to Floyd’s tenacious opponent. The fact is Mayweather wasn’t prepared for Maidana’s aggression, and while Floyd still won, it was too close to be comfortable. The comment’s value is in how it reveals his almost frantic need to control the narrative, but the narrative itself has become hopelessly contrived, long on plot and free of depth. Boxing is now a means to an end for Floyd Mayweather, and he competes not to entertain but to keep the financial juggernaut on track. Many fans realized this prior to his first fight with Maidana, which partly accounts for its underwhelming reception.
This week, Floyd, who served jail time for abusing the mother of his children, has been vilified by ESPN’s Keith Olbermann for his remarks about Ray Rice. A lawsuit was also brought against him by former fiancé Shantel Jackson, who claims he abused her. When asked about this during a press conference, Floyd shrugged it off and said, quite rightly, that he’s been dealing with controversy his entire life. But given the public’s current outcry over domestic abuse, Floyd will have an increasingly difficult time giving glib answers to such questions. He’s become less interesting, more loutish, and may see increasingly diminishing pay-per-view returns given a dearth of popular opponents. If Saturday’s bout turns into another boring Mayweather shutout, nothing short of a showdown with Manny Pacquiao will rejuvenate interest in his career.
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, I’ll still follow Floyd’s career because I love boxing and enjoy his mastery of it. But I am not the person Mayweather Promotions is marketing to. They want the casual fan, the person who “only watches the big fights” or follows the sport for its social import. But Floyd Mayweather and Leonard Ellerbe should never forget that you can only peddle a bad product for so long. Eventually nobody buys because nobody cares.
— Eliott McCormick