By Matt Straub
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Boxing is dead, nothing can save it and no one cares.
It should be true, since boxing deserves to be done considering all it has done to itself. If you watch the actions of the men currently responsible for the caretaking of the sport, you would often think they are trying to kill it. In some ways they have, since boxing will never again be the country’s national pastime the way it once was. It, like baseball after it, has been reduced to one of the many things we watch in this country when football isn’t being played or talked about on television.
The promoters who run boxing these days have proved they care more about making every extra dollar at the expense of the sport or the boxers they’re supposed to represent, mostly in the form of avoiding the best matchups in order to feed opponents to the best boxers from their stable. This practice ensures the promoters make all the money from the fight. A star from Golden Boy, for example, will be matched with a decent fighter from the same promotion instead of a star from another company because Golden Boy will want to ensure it doesn’t have to share revenue, and vice versa. It’s not just Golden Boy, they all do it, and to the detriment of the fans denied the best matchups.
One of the reasons MMA is catching on (though it has a long way to go to match boxing’s PPV numbers) is that it’s a single entity run by the great Dana White, who originally started in boxing and knows his fans would be better served by seeing the best possible fights. If the UFC has two good fighters in the same weight class, you can believe you’re going to see them fight soon.
In boxing, we have to hope the fighters we want to see are signed to the same promoter or two rival promotions can work together to put on a fight the fans want to see.
The best example of boxing killing itself has come recently. A new series, Premier Boxing Champions, has put really good fights between future title contenders on free, national television. It has done really well in the ratings and has been a force in other networks picking up more fights on free TV.
So what does boxing do? A promotion company is going to sue to try and stop the series, mostly because it could take money from that promotion. These guys care more about their wallets than the health of the sport to the point where they can’t stay out of the way long enough to cultivate what should be a great time for the sport.
Good, free fights and the development of American heavyweights, which is the biggest thing the sport can have in this country (boxing isn’t dead, American heavyweight boxing has been dead, and that's what most people think of when they think boxing) has the sport on an upswing. It’s never going to be the NFL, but the sport is once again carving a niche in this country, or is at least on the way to doing so.
So what could boxing do to further its recent surge? How about making the biggest fight it has seen since the 1980s.
Sure, we’d all like it to have happened five years ago, but Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are going to fight Saturday night for the championship of each other, as was once said about Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, not to mention some belts and the lineal welterweight title. It’s a fight which, while unable to cure the sport’s ills on its own, will harken us back to the 1980s, when guys like Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler took turns fighting each other.
For all the (sometimes incorrect) criticism Mayweather takes for ducking guys, Mayweather is taking on the one man people have wanted him to see for years. Pacquiao has also fought some of the best of his era, but this will be the first time the two biggest names of the last 10 years will take each other on.
For the first time since Mike Tyson took on Lennox Lewis, a fight everyone wanted for a long time and one which could bring the average fan into the sport, is about to happen, and, piggybacked on top of the other good things happening for the sport, couldn’t come at a better time.
Well, unless it happened five years ago, but we’ll get to that. For now, let’s take a look at the biggest night in boxing in way too long.
First, let’s get something important out in the open and out of the way. It’s something I wish I had touched on more when I talked about the Mayweather-Canelo Alvarez fight, which was a big night for the sport. Mayweather is a bad guy. A really bad guy. He has been sentenced three times for domestic violence against women, doing jail time and several stints of community service. He routinely shows a lack of respect for anyone who isn’t Floyd Mayweather. He is one of the best fighters I’ve ever seen, as well as one of the worst people. So for the remainder of this piece, every time you see the name Mayweather, just imagine it being followed by “who is an awful human.”
If his history causes you to not want to watch the fight, I have no issue with that. He deserves every bit of scorn he receives. I don’t want to ignore that at all, nor come across as though I don’t think it’s a big deal. I am the guy, after all, who ranted and raved about Ray Rice. If Mayweather was an athlete in a league which could punish him, he’d have been shunned by now. For our purposes in this preview, however, we’re going to focus on the fighter.
So with all that said, and a number of people in the sport, including one of the fighters, properly ripped, we can focus on an incredible night. It reminds me of 1994, when Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan finally wrestled on PPV, it was a good three years after WWE missed the chance to have the biggest feud in the company’s history. They ended up fighting in WCW much later and long after they should have, but it didn’t prevent it from being one of the great nights in wrestling history. This is how I look at the fight Saturday. It would have been incomprehensibly good in 2009, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be great this weekend. It’s going to break all the PPV and revenue records and has taken boxing into the mainstream, as evidenced by how many people and media outlets are devoting time to it, particularly during the week of the NFL Draft.
Yes, waiting all these years has given us two slower fighters than we would have seen in 2009, but they are both still great. Mayweather is still the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world today, and Manny can still compete with the best in the business though to be fair he is not what he once was. He has lost a lot of his size (unlike many, I won’t speculate as to why, though it is clear he is less muscular and not as powerful as he once was) and his chin is now in question, but Pacquiao has shown he is still a champion, recently beating a solid Tim Bradley twice (though officially losing one in a joke of a decision) and obliterating Chris Algieri since being knocked out by Juan Manuel Marquez. The problem with Manny is that his recent past does include being knocked out, literally, by Marquez, his nemesis over his career. His manager has said he thought he was dead that night, and many thought his career certainly was. Not even three years later, however, he finds himself in what will be the biggest grossing fight ever.
As another dirty boxing promoter once said, “Only in America.”
Pacquiao’s chin will be one of the big questions in this fight, and his stubborn desire to come forward constantly creates opportunities for him to get hit, which is what happened against Marquez, who caught him coming in with the perfect punch and then knocked him cold. Pacquiao isn’t as active as he once was, but still wants to press the action and dictate the tempo of the fight. He will try and make Floyd play defense, pushing him back against the ropes and trying to make him duck more punches than is possible.
A few years ago, this tactic might have been enough. Perhaps someone with the right combination of activity and power could smother Mayweather and force the referee to stop the fight with an accumulation of punches which would eventually break through Mayweather’s defense and win the match. The last time he did that to someone, however, was 2009 against Miguel Cotto, who was likely still shaking off the cobwbebs of the beating he took from the allegedly illegally wrapped gloves of Antonio Margarito (he was caught cheating later in his career). It’s been six years since Pacquiao knocked anyone out. Whatever you attribute the loss of power to: age, competition or the accusations of PED use, he hasn’t finished anyone off in a long time. Pacquiao has had moments of power, and knocked Algieri down six times, but hasn’t been able to finish the job. He doesn’t punch like a heavyweight by any stretch, but he would have to stop the fight with a constant barrage, not a single flurry.
It is the contrast in styles between the two which makes this fight interesting from a tactical perspective. The two men are both perfect and awful for each other. Floyd will want to make Manny come in, then use his deft movement to deflect, avoid and counter Manny’s punches. Mayweather, like Roy Jones and Pernell Whitaker before him, has made a career of defense, especially in recent years. There may not be anyone better at the little things: the shoulder roll, creating angles, arm and elbow movements, than Mayweather. Others use great head movement, but Mayweather can let you get all the way to him, then prevent you from doing anything once you’re there. This is perfect for him to counter punch, since his opponent is close enough to get hit. Since Manny wants to come right to him, Floyd will have him right where he wants him.
The question will be the toll age has taken on Mayweather, who, while still a great defensive fighter, has been hit more in his recent fights than he has in a long time. Marcos Maidana roughed him up a little bit and nearly stole the first fight between the two. He has also looked brilliant when he has had to, winning nearly every round against budding star Canelo Alvarez in the last fight big enough for one of these previews. So has Mayweather been hit more because he hasn’t bothered getting out of the way when he hasn’t had to, or is he getting a bit slower, which is critically important for a fighter who relies on movement?
Floyd’s other problem is his own relative lack of power. He has just three knockouts in the last 10 years, and one of them, against Victor Ortiz came on a legal, though questionable, blow when Ortiz wasn’t ready. It was his fault for not protecting himself at all times as the prefight instruction insists, but it wasn’t a great example of power for Floyd.
When Marquez countered Manny, he knocked him out cold. Can Floyd counter him with enough force to do the same? At the very least, his counter punches must stop Manny’s offense and back him up. This will allow Floyd to fight from a distance, where he should be able to pick him apart with his hand speed and elusiveness. If his punches are not big enough to keep Manny off him, however, the onslaught from Pacquiao might be enough.
This fight might come down to motivation, and who can call upon their immense talent for one more night. Manny’s camp has talked constantly about how much he wants to beat Floyd on a personal level, which I believe, but I think is also mostly pre-fight banter. He doesn’t like Floyd (few outside his payroll do) but that isn’t enough of a pick me up to make Manny be at his best.
Mayweather, however, has his reputation on the line. He desperately wants to be an unbeaten fighter when he retires, and gets ripped by some for avoiding some of the bigger names he could have fought in his career. He has beaten at least nine of the best fighters of his generation, but for those who believe he missed someone like Margarito on purpose (which seems smart considering the guy was using some sort of plaster wraps) and maybe another fighter or two, including trying to duck Pacquiao himself, this is the fight which will define Floyd’s career. Win this one, and the critics will have little left to say about his in-ring record. Lose, and he’ll face the doubters of his legacy forever. That is true motivation. Manny wants this fight, but Floyd needs it to cement his place. While hardcore boxing fans already consider him special, if he wins this fight he goes down in the eyes of the average fan as an all-time great.
It’s a fight which should have happened five years ago and means more than it really should, but this is a night which can help boxing’s recent roll. Not even the promoters who have tried for years to kill the sport can mess this one up, though they did their best. So with a couple thousand words in the bank, let’s get to the summaries of how each fighter can win and, more importantly, who will pull it off.
How Manny Pacquiao Wins
Manny attacks from the opening bell the way he often does. His aggression forces Floyd to the ropes ideally, but certainly keeps him from getting off solid counter shots or any of his own first-strike offense. While his power isn’t what it once was, it’s enough to wear down Floyd, particularly when he goes to the body as Floyd does all his magic tricks to avoid being punched in the face. Floyd slows as the fight goes on, and Manny can either unleash the final flurry or force the referee to stop the fight. He does all this while being mindful of keeping his own head out of the way so he doesn’t get caught with the perfect shot like the one Marquez threw. When Floyd does hit him, it’s just a bunch of potshots which are designed to score points but can’t stop Manny’s combinations.
How Floyd Mayweather Wins
He remembers that, as great as defense is for the purist, some offense will go a long way both for the fans and judges as well as his opponent. He catches Manny coming in with consistency, preventing Manny from getting off any major offense and limiting him to a punch at a time. When the fight goes to the ropes, Floyd does his Houdini act, playing defense the way he once did and making Manny hit nothing but his arms. Manny headhunts too much and Floyd is able to protect his ribs on the ropes. Manny punches himself out or grows frustrated, gets careless, and leaves himself open to a counter which rocks him. Or, much to my fear and the dismay of the casual fan, Floyd potshots with counters and makes Manny look silly, winning an impressive, but boring, decision.
There are simply more ways for Mayweather to win, and his positive scenarios seem more realistic. Conspiracy theorists will call for Manny to win and set up a rematch, but those who followed the negotiations understand the two sides working together again is a very remote possibility. If Floyd loses, the only way they fight again is for him to say, "I don’t need more money, I just want a rematch," and Floyd doesn’t do anything for free. If you’re looking for a slugfest like Hagler-Hearns, save your $100 bucks. If you appreciate a great clash of styles like Hagler-Leonard, this one could be your fight. May we all be lucky to watch something that exciting. In the end, I see this one playing out just like Hagler-Leonard. The flashier Mayweather pulls enough tricks and counters to beat the aggressor Pacquiao in a fight which causes arguments years later. Like that one, we never get the rematch we want.
Mayweather wins a split decision