A fight that needs no introduction or build-up and has been in gestation for over five long years will finally hear its opening bell this Saturday night. It feels like time has rushed by since the February night when Floyd Mayweather made it official by announcing on social media a deal to finally face Manny Pacquiao, yet at the same time it feels like we’ve been waiting forever. It may seem strange to say, but after all this time, it’s fitting that Mayweather vs Pacquiao can be interpreted as, more than anything else, a collection of contradictions and conflicts.
The main conflict, obviously, is the one played out between Mayweather and Pacquiao themselves. Even though this weekend will mark the first time they compete in the ring, for years they have been engaged in a long-distance race. Ever since Pacquiao entered the welterweight picture with his victories over Oscar De La Hoya and Miguel Cotto, and ever since Mayweather cut short his “retirement” by facing and defeating Pacquiao’s nemesis, Juan Manuel Marquez, a potential confrontation between them became the narrative that drove their careers. At least as far as fight fans were concerned, everything Floyd and Manny did–inside or outside of the ring—only mattered in terms of how it affected the possibility of #MayPac ever happening.
That Floyd and Manny kept facing common opponents only served to fuel the debate, but even further than that, a major reason why Mayweather vs Pacquiao became the monster of an event it is today has to do with the way the combatants’ personalities contrast each other. On one side you have the so-called “villain”, a guy who’s been to jail for beating up the mother of his children, vilified for his shamelessness and materialistic drive, and self-marginalized by his refusal to be sponsored by any commercial brand but his own. Despite all this, Floyd Mayweather still managed to become not only an elite boxing talent, but the most financially successful sportsman in history.
Pacquiao, on the other hand, became the de-facto antithesis to Mayweather with his affable personality, his unquenchable desire to please those around him and his humble demeanor (if Pacquiao is not humble, then no multi-millionaire sports superstar will ever be). Notwithstanding his alternative careers as politician, singer, basketball player, actor and Bible-group leader–among many others–Pacquiao’s talent and dedication to boxing still allowed him to become one of the two best welterweights on the planet. That he played the role of “good guy” opposite Mayweather’s “bad guy” only made it easier for casual fans to remain interested in this fight despite the long wait and his shocking KO loss to Marquez.
Their career choices also represent vastly different approaches to boxing, and to a certain extent reflect what each of them expected to reap from the sport. Mayweather, especially late in his career, made it clear his objective was to maximize his income, and if his legacy was hurt in the process, so be it. With this in mind, his “TBE” schtick and the hollowness of his manufactured persona, are easily interpreted as little more than a branding effort, aimed at nothing else than to impress gullible casual fans and artificially inflate the significance of his undefeated record. While early in his career Money May earned his stripes by fighting tough opponents, as soon as he realized he held the upper hand at boxing’s VIP table–something that happened a few minutes after having his arm raised against De La Hoya–Money May completely changed his operating paradigm: he stopped chasing meaningful fights in favour of the most marketable and most winnable showcases.
Pacquiao’s approach to boxing remains to this day the same in kind–though not in degree—as it was when he first walked into a boxing gym as a teenager. Back then, boxing offered Manny a chance to put a roof over his head and make a living; today it enables him to make a living and sustain all his other interests. His career in politics and his demi-god status in his native Philippines are all due to his boxing accomplishments. While no one denies Pacquiao is one of the greats of the modern era—perhaps an All Time Great—it’s also difficult to shake the feeling Pacquiao stuck to boxing only because he happened to be really, really good at it, not necessarily because he considers it his calling. How else can we explain his constant wandering into other part-time occupations?
And, of course, even inside the ring Mayweather and Pacquiao inhabit opposite ends of the boxing spectrum. Every time someone calls Mayweather a defensive wizard, someone else will label Pacquiao a devastating force of nature; where Mayweather is a cold calculator, Pacquiao is a raging fire; for every Mayweather counter-right punishing an opponent’s mistake there’s a Pacquiao straight-left punishing his opponent for daring to occupy the same ring. Where Mayweather’s poise, elegance and incomparable sense of timing in the ring evoke the demeanor of a symphony conductor, speed-demon Pacquiao and his non-stop violent spectacle bring to mind vintage Metallica.
For all those reasons the fight itself—Mayweather vs Pacquiao—is a major milestone in boxing, pitting against each other not only the two best welterweights of their era, but also, arguably, two of the best pound-for-pound prizefighters today. Other such occurrences have happened in the past, but only once—maybe twice, if we’re lucky—per decade. Ali vs Frazier, Leonard vs Duran, and Chavez vs Taylor are all previous instances of this circumstance, and all of them became part of boxing lore for being great battles with epic storylines and dramatic endings. Fight fans of all stripes will be eagerly watching Saturday night with the hope #MayPac joins that exclusive club.
But #MayPac also is not at all about boxing, mainly because in rushing to cash their checks, the prizefighters and organizers of this mega-event forgot to give the fans a seat at the table. Those in attendance at the MGM Grand will be VIPs and celebrities, not the hard core aficionados who endured over five years of empty promises waiting for a fight that—despite the dreadfully long lead-time—was packaged in a hurry and rushed out the door. Tickets to the arena? Impossible to get for the Average Joe; they’re being distributed only to A-list actors, celebrities and those with six-figure lines of credit at Vegas casinos. Price of the PPV? An eye-watering $100. Credentials for boxing’s traditional media outlets? Practically null, as they were handed to fashion, celebrity or literary magazines that hardly ever cover the sport and whose writers won’t be seen ringside for the next five years, if ever again. How about one or two appealing undercard fights? Fuggedaboutit!
You can see why such an event may inspire bitterness and cynicism in boxing’s hard core fans. Whereas most of that bunch welcome Mayweather vs Pacquiao finally happening, many also point out they’re happy about it only because it will give the sport the chance to move on. It’s no secret Floyd and Manny are nearing the end of their careers and this huge event could be a swan song for one or both. We can only imagine how tempting it will be for the winner to take that win on Saturday night and ride it into the sunset, but as sweet as victory may taste this weekend, the fact remains it won’t be as significant as the mainstream media and ESPN make it out to be for the simple fact both men are several years removed from their primes.
Which brings us to our original question: what is the true significance of Mayweather vs Pacquiao for hard core boxing fans? A tricky question to answer, but we can start by getting the obvious—and obviously wrong—answers out of the way. #MayPac is not the fight to save boxing, as no sport—much less a bloodsport which elicits as much controversy as the sweet science—can be saved by any one event. Yes, Mayweather vs Pacquiao will be the most watched and commented contest in years, but that doesn’t mean the general public’s interest in boxing will remain engaged beyond Saturday night. In fact, it’s easier to argue that a sport that depends on two superstars to garner widespread attention is closer to its deathbed than to a renaissance, especially when both are a couple fights away from retirement. The overwhelming interest in #MayPac stems from both Mayweather and Pacquiao becoming—for different reasons—very famous celebrities as well as two of the best fighters on the planet. It’s a circumstance in no way guaranteed to repeat itself, but one that has made this fight a truly global event.
And despite what the army of clueless pundits may want you to believe, #MayPac won’t define the best fighter of this generation either. As stated before, both Floyd and Manny are past their peaks, and the versions of each that will climb into the ring this weekend—while still capable of defeating pretty much any other boxer in and around their division—are diminished versions of their optimal fighting selves. Short of building a time machine, there’s no way to know how the fearsome 2009 version of Manny Pacquiao would’ve fared against the razor-sharp counterpunching of 2009’s Floyd Mayweather. That’s a conversation that now joins all the mythical fights that never happened and never will.
So if #MayPac’s not here to save boxing, or to tell us whether Mayweather or Pacquiao is the better fighter of this era, then what’s the point? The answer is that Mayweather vs Pacquiao matters because it pits the two best welterweights in the world and a pair of boxers who rank highly in any current pound-for-pound list, as subjective as those can be. It matters because it’s an encounter at the summit of professional boxing, one in which two accomplished, dangerous, highly skilled and very talented prizefighters will battle it out for bragging rights. And make no mistake about it, while Floyd and Manny—and their teams, and the networks, and Las Vegas—are gleefully running all the way to the bank, that doesn’t mean they’re laughing while doing it. At least not until the fight’s over.
Anybody who earns the widespread respect and recognition of as many fans and peers as Mayweather and Pacquiao have, deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their competitive spirit. Time and again, Floyd and Manny have shown inside the ring their professionalism and dedication to their craft, reflected in their enviable resumés and track records of excellence. The fact they attain impressive victories as often as they do—against the most talented opposition of their generation—speaks to both their discipline and their faculties. This Saturday night, they will put all that on the line in front of an unprecedented audience, and there’s little doubt both desperately want to prove their superiority over the name they’ve been asked to fight a countless number of times.
So no, #MayPac will not save boxing, and it will not determine the best fighter of our era, but it will certainly crown an undisputed welterweight champion of the world, as well as the best pound-for-pound fighter today. Everything else is just hype, pumped by the marketing machine the mainstream media becomes when they talk about something they know little about. But boxing fans know better; they know that a fight to determine the true champion of a weight class among two elite talents is a rare thing. Amid all the hype and over-inflated expectations, they also know that sometimes that’s more than enough to get an unforgettable fight. We all hope that’s exactly what #MayPac turns out to be. –Rafael Garcia