Mayweather vs. Pacquiaoby Brin Jonathan-Butler and Mickey Duzyj
pril 27, 2015. 3 a.m., Las Vegas. Driving through the night across the calm of the Mojave Desert, the first faint beacon of Las Vegas was the most powerful light in the world, shining off the tip of the Luxor’s pyramid like a shimmering kite string against the darkness. Closing in on the unfolding boom and bust hazy glitter of ancient Rome, the faux-Eiffel Tower, and New York’s skyline, the swollen beam now made a bat signal of the moon.
Finally roaming past the Gatsby-green glow of the MGM, all the haunting beauty of the Luxor’s pale light, flung hundreds of miles into the sky where an astronaut once lied he’d seen it from space, became trivial next to the millions of moths visibly contaminating its reach. In the days before this fight Las Vegas experienced a moth infestation unlike any seen in decades, and nothing built in human history, it seems, attracts them like the Luxor Sky Beam.
Local bats and nighthawks took advantage and swooped in for a genocidal feeding frenzy as sunburned, hungover tourists enjoyed their own all-you-can-eat buffets in the air-conditioned nightmare of casino hotel below. A swarm of moths chased us into the lobby of a timeshare as we tried to check in nearby, only to discover the entire staff of maids, security, and both women behind the front desk, manically swinging bathroom towels trying to murder as many moths as they could.
“You’re here for fight week?” the bloodshot-eyed woman behind the counter asked Mickey as he handed over his credit card and ID.
“We’re covering the fight.”
“I hope you’re not squeamish,” she warned, slamming her palm against a moth on her front desk. “I like to kill them with my hands.”
With an almost full moon in the sky outside, Pacquiao had gamboled into the ring like he was coming down the stairs on Christmas morning. Why wouldn’t he? After earning $2 for his first professional fight, he earned $3.3 million for each minute of the first round while landing all of three hard punches. After fending off what amounted to little more than hissy fits, Mayweather clutched and held Pacquiao like a consoling big brother. By the end, Mayweather earned $2 million for each of his eight punches landed. The smile left Pacquiao’s face as the bell ended the round and he returned to his corner.
He crushed his gloves together so they could feel the impact of something besides air.
“Little Alice fell
bumped her head
and bruised her soul.”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland
f you want to chase a runaway ambulance toward what’s left of the American Dream, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao show you that, still, somehow, boxing remains the yellow brick road in our country. While Pacquiao was auditioning for a role as our generation’s Muhammad Ali, before the ink was dry on the contract for the most lucrative fight in history, Mayweather was already a gargoyle for our era, a gleaming hood ornament on a demented limo running one red light after another, America’s id. Maybe this fight was just an opening act for the real performance. You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. After all, was there anybody out there in the culture beyond Mayweather who stands a better chance of becoming the 21st century’s answer to O.J. Simpson after the gloves are hung up? Strap in folks …
We’ve always gotten the champion we deserve, and this time is no different. Jack Johnson became the first African-American world champion at the turn of the 20th century, and inspired dozens of lynchings when he toppled Jim Jeffries, the “Great White Hope.” Jimmy Braddock epitomized a people’s champion for the working man’s struggle during the Great Depression. When Joe Louis flattened Max Schmeling with a right hand on June 22, 1938, a little over two minutes into their rematch in front of 80,000 people at Yankee Stadium, the world knew Hitler and everything Fascism had been dealt a decisive blow also. Who reflected the turmoil and unrest of the 1960s more than Muhammad Ali, or Reagan’s and Gordon Gekko’s America more than Iron Mike Tyson?
Like an inside joke that infected the collective water supply, even before the final bell, Mayweather vs. Pacquiao was already the defining fight of our generation, regardless of the outcome. As soon as the contracts were signed, we already knew who would remain the last hero left standing: the money. Win, lose, or draw: both men were guaranteed nine-figure paydays.
There is no more emblematic champion of America and what our system represents in our time than the one-note, anemic, poor-man’s Walter White, anti-hero construct of Money Mayweather. How do I know? Follow the money. Houses could be purchased clear title for the asking price of ringside seats. The live gate surpassed what was earned from Super Bowl XLIX. We’ve paid Mayweather and Pacquaio more than for any other championship bout in history and we were just getting started.
If any commodity’s price, beyond its utility, is chiefly determined by how much we desire it, then consider that watching two half-naked men not beating the hell out of each other in a ring for twelve rounds has just generated more than half a billion dollars. And that’s before we consider any of the money Vegas raked in. Factoring in gambling, hotels, hookers, and so forth, the ancillary level climbs into the billions. As author and journalist Tim O’Brien inventoried in Bad Bet about that time in our history, “Judged by dollars spent, gambling is now more popular in America than baseball, the movies, and Disneyland—combined.”
Yet Casino Capitalism is a temptress hardly anyone can resist, and there was no place on earth better suited for this fight, at this time, than Vegas. The most lucrative fight in history took place amidst the backdrop of income inequality, earthquakes, riots, and terror, one hand grabbing what it can get and on the other wrist, a gleaming Rolex. After a homeless woman gave me directions to the MGM Grand and I asked why she wasn’t employed as a tour guide she replied, “Probably because I fucking hate it here.”
Maybe they should have rung the opening bell Saturday night with a Sotheby’s auctioneer’s gavel. Last February, Paul Gaugin’s painting Nafea faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?), not even his best, sold for the record sum of $300 million, the same purse as the fight we just witnessed. Now Pacquiao and Mayweather’s endeavor will almost certainly surpass Gauguin’s as the most exorbitantly rewarded in human history. But this “masterpiece” was never meant to hang from museum walls. It was pre-packaged from the start to be sold exclusively from the gift shop in the lobby. Step right up. You know what they say about choices when you spend your money …
Hamlet offered this advice to his actors before they took the stage before the King and Queen: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action… show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” If Mayweather and Pacquiao acted upon similar counsel, what we just witnessed and bankrolled was the defining performance of their lives laid at the altar of our era. I wonder if any tragic circumstances or elevating moments of grandeur weren’t helpless from the start in avoiding the inescapably obscene bottom line our culture has imposed on this contest: an empty farce.
But the damage of this farce was and is very real and will be felt for many years to come.
Pacquiao left his stool nervous, concern painted across his face. Seconds later he nearly dove across the ring at Mayweather. Pacquiao’s urgent cornering of Mayweather and futile flurries began to resemble a man desperate to rub a genie out of a lamp. Mayweather hugged and walked the smaller man back toward the open shark-infested waters of the middle of the ring.
The pattern is set. Pacquaio coming off-balance to Mayweather, Mayweather gracefully moving away, always rounding the corners, sliding around to Pacquiao’s right leading him back out to center of the ring, no partner for the dance, standing him up, a kind of public cuckolding.
“May 2nd. Fight of the century. The best fighting the best. Manny is one of the best fighters of this era… and I’m sure he wants to win just as badly as I do. One thing I know about sport. When you lose, it is in your mind. If you lose once, it is always in your mind.”
—Floyd Mayweather, Nokia Theatre red carpet press conference announcing the fight
ike Tyson once confessed he always dreamed of losing before every fight. George Foreman laughed when I asked him about a fear of losing, “I always had the same fear in that dressing room on my way to the ring. Never lost it. I was terrified on that walk to the ring every fight. The first fight I didn’t have that fear was when I fought the butterfly, Muhammad Ali. And I lost. After in the dressing room I was terrified, walking back and forth. I kept thinkin’, ‘This is the last time I ever wanna do this again. For a short period you’re up, you’re famous, rich… then you lose a boxing match and you crawl into a hole and there’s hardly anything that can get you out of that hole. Then you’re on the verge of ‘I don’t care anything about life.’”
Entering his fight with Pacquaio, Mayweather, undefeated throughout his illustrious professional career, hadn’t lost in almost two decades, since two days before the closing ceremonies of the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996. After becoming the first American to defeat a Cuban boxer in international competition in 20 years when he notched a 12-11 point victory against Lorenzo Aragón, Mayweather, only 19-years-old, lost in the semi-final to 27-year-old Bulgarian Serafim Todorov in a controversial 10-9 decision in the 125-pound weight class. As soon as he got back home to Grand Rapids, Michigan, Mayweather dispensed with the Olympic bronze medal, but the loss did its job. For the next two decades it scared him into undefeated territory, fighting not so much to win, but to never lose again.
The first of Pacquiao’s five official professional losses happened earlier the same year as Mayweather’s last, on February 9, 1996, not long after Pacquiao left his family and abandoned his childhood as a stowaway in a boat headed for Manila where he later earned $2 for his first professional fight. Only two months after his 17th birthday, one year and eleven fights into an undefeated career, Pacquiao fought for his life in Mandaluyong City against his fellow countryman, the brawny, 5′2″ Rustico Torrecampo. By start of the third round, Torrecampo had Pacquiao’s predictable method and rhythm of attack timed. The bell rang, and seventeen seconds later, after driving Pacquiao toward a neutral corner, Torrecampo delayed countering Pacquiao’s lazy jab for a millisecond as he anticipated a lunging straight left to follow. In the flap of a hummingbird’s wings, before Pacquiao threw his jab, Torrecampo unleashed a vicious left across Pacquiao’s face. As Pacquiao collapsed forward into the impact of the blow, his brow fell into the driving force of Torrecampo’s shoulder. Torrecampo flung forward onto all fours until he regained his balance and scampered off to a discreet corner. Pacquiao’s body short-circuited that left-hand into dead weight, which helplessly windmilled back toward the bottom rope as his body tumbled down toward the canvas. As the crowd roared, Pacquiao’s lifeless wrist ricocheted off the ropes, his left glove reaching eerily toward the rafters, floating beneath the referee’s two index fingers dropping like a guillotine in time as he counted Pacquiao out.
“He’s out!” the announcers cried from ringside. “He’s out! It’s over! It’s over! It’s over! Manny Pacquiao cannot get up on time! It’s over!”
Only after the referee reached under Pacquiao’s armpits and hoisted him up, paraded him dazed and battered 180 degrees around the ring, did the announcers and the crowd see how badly crossed Pacquiao’s eyes were. Torrecampo earned the equivalent of $146 for his victory.
And Pacquiao? The lesson came hard but ultimately proved more valuable, at least financially. It wasn’t over. Maybe it’s never over.
Over much of the next two decades Pacquaio went down and then up, losing three more times, rising from the canvas, climbing in weight class, improbably and impossibly collecting titles and belts one right after the other, dispatching each defeat like another opponent, 10 titles in a record eight weight classes, light flyweight through junior middleweight.
And then, before the end of 2012, I finally had my first chance to write about a Pacquiao defeat: “After eight frustrating years, four controversial fights, 42 contentiously scored rounds, with over 500 punches landed from more than 1,800 thrown, after two grueling hours of opportunity under the spotlight, on Dec. 8, 2012, Juan Manuel Marquez finally landed the punch of a lifetime against Manny Pacquiao. It happened with just one second left in the sixth round of their mythic saga. Pacquiao charged forward to land one final blow before the bell, and instead added his own momentum to Marquez’s immaculately-timed, coup de grace right-hand, which landed flush against Pacquiao’s jaw. On TV, when the punch landed, Pacquiao’s back was to the camera. The reverberations of the impact were only datable through the sudden jolt of Pacquiao’s wet hair on the back of his head… One second Pacquiao, the 21st century’s most beloved fighter, was ahead on the scorecards and charging. The next he disappeared under Marquez’s fist just as the bell tolled to end round six. The referee certainly saw enough of the damage up close that he never bothered to count. Then, it began to register on those watching ringside that they may have witnessed what amounted to a public execution in the ring. Pacquiao remained motionless, possibly lifeless, until his corner men rushed the ring in tears, followed by a doctor.”
This chilling scene is one many point out that must plant doubts in Pacquiao’s mind and undermine the drive and courage that allowed him to enthrall the world within, to use Mike Tyson’s term, “the hurt game” like few others. Mayweather? For his part, he mocked this image of a slumped over, unconscious Pacquiao, parading it on social media, in vindication of a public daring to suggest Pacquiao was his equal. Then, further demonstrating the contrast between himself and Pacquiao, Mayweather took aim at Pacquiao’s many financial woes as the IRS and creditors moved in despite Pacquiao having earned nearly $200 million over the course of his career. Mayweather inspired the craven image of a human being who never saw a man on the ground he didn’t want to kick. Of course, that impulse only made him more marketable.
In the 19 years since Pacquiao’s first brush with defeat, contrary to Mayweather’s estimation, we’ve learned about everything we need to know about his character and how he’s dealt with adversity. Mayweather? Keep this in mind: the biggest cheer Floyd Mayweather has ever heard in his career was when Shane Mosley nearly knocked him out in the second round of their fight.
To his credit, miraculously, Mayweather looked even more composed taking the best punch of his career than Mosley did landing it. There is no athlete with a greater sense of vanity than a prizefighter. For that reason, defeat inside a 20-foot ring carries the ultimate humiliation sport can offer. The entire scaffolding of the selling point Mayweather built around himself with the construct of “Money” Mayweather is centered on teasing the public with the most satisfying wet-dream defeat in the history boxing. He’s succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
But one definition of a nightmare is when our fantasies and reality collide. Unlike Pacquiao, the hundreds of millions of dollars Mayweather has accrued in the ring are, more than anything else, a monument to his life’s slavish obsession with loss and what he’ll be left with if that ever happens: the fear he’ll be unmasked before the glare of millions and show us who he really is.
But he’s right about one thing. In the end, fighting isn’t about winning. It’s about the lingering stench of loss, a void too old and vast to ever go away. None of the greats ever stopped after just one defeat. Ultimately, no matter how great they were, the heights they reached or the fortunes they earned, no one can walk away clean.
Impoverished, damaged souls never can. It’s that way with all bad gamblers. None can leave the casino before their position is proven. They just can’t.
It becomes clear the music Mayweather and Pacquiao are dancing to is elevator music from some long since torn down casino on the strip, the only action the occasional dropped tray of drinks. This is the round where it dawned on people that Pacquiao has no ability to impose a fight that Mayweather never had any interest in engaging in, cautiously retreating into a praying mantis-like stance while Pacquiao bull-rushes along a straight line, unable or unwilling to vary a hopelessly misguided course. Referee Kenny Bayless doesn’t do Pacquiao any favors by allowing Mayweather to hug at will.
“He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”
ll fighters have skeletons in their closets; Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has a graveyard. Before he ever had a chance to choose, his life was fight or flight. Maybe because he had gloves over his hands before he could walk, he didn’t have much choice. Mayweather’s journey was always less about chasing a dream than escaping a nightmare.
If your home is burning to the ground and there is only one inanimate object you can save, most people grab the photo albums, their most treasured possession. Here’s an early family portrait no camera captured: On the night of January 21, 1979, an uncle toting a 20-gauge shotgun kicks down the door of his Grand Rapids, Michigan home and storms the living room. A month shy of his second birthday, Mayweather’s life literally turns upside down as his drug-dealing boxer father, “Big” Floyd, as he’s known to the family, four months removed from a savage beating at the hands of Sugar Ray Leonard, fights off his only son’s drug-addicted mother, desperately trying to reclaim him. Then he snatches the toddler screaming from a walker and dangles “Little” Floyd upside down by the ankles before the malignant darkness of two tunnels of a shotgun barrel.
“If you’re going to kill me,” the father warns the gunman and toddler’s uncle, “you’re going to kill the baby, too,” Mayweather Sr. told the Los Angeles Times decades later. The uncle promptly lowered the aim of his weapon and with one deafening, blinding explosion unloaded enough buckshot into his brother-in-law’s leg that it tore off most of his calf and threw the flesh and blood across the family living room. Father and son toppled together down to the ground.
Well over a thousand boxers have died from an injury sustained either training, sparring, or under the glare of a spotlight in front of an audience since the turn of the 20th century began. Nobody really raised much of a fuss about any of this until some of the deaths began being televised. Boxers don’t just walk out onto a tightrope with no net, everyone’s cheering to help jiggle the rope. And it carries on for every moment of their lives until they hang up the gloves — and even then, lasting damage often functions as poison in the wound which eventually strips them of whatever they had left.
Mayweather might well be the greatest wizard ever at shielding himself from the mortal danger of his chosen profession. Tracing the passions from his wounds doesn’t just illuminate where he came from, it’s a guide to where he’s headed, and why we bother following him.
“Me having my hand raised,” Mayweather recently told Katie Couric in an interview leading into this fight, “that don’t define me as a man.” He says it, but it’s hard to believe. It’s always been the family business.
“My father would beat me for anything I did,” Mayweather told The Guardian in 2012. “Even if I hadn’t done anything. I used to pray for the day I could become an adult and get away from it. I got tired of getting beat.” Floyd Sr. has also confessed to focusing his rage on Floyd Jr.’s mother, selling her crack and “whoopin’ her ass.”
If fear of losing is what drives him, no fuel has proved more flammable or ammunition more potent than Mayweather’s corrosive terror and preternatural obsession with loss. So where did that come from? Take a guess.
“I don’t remember him ever taking me anywhere,” Mayweather, Jr. said of Big Floyd, “or doing anything that a father would do with a son, going to the park or to the movies or to get ice cream. I always thought that he liked his daughter better than he liked me because she never got whippings and I got whippings all the time.” The only place to connect with his father was at the gym where, even if he succeeded in the ring, lessons often ended in a beating anyway.
Whatever else he owes to his father for helping make him the greatest champion of his generation, the night he was used as a human shield also offered the boy the lasting lesson of his life’s true value and worth: utterly expendable. It started when he walked out his front door. Violence and drugs were everywhere, in the house and out. When Floyd, Jr. moved with his mother to New Brunswick, N.J., he told Rolling Stone, it got worse. “There were seven of us sleeping in a one bedroom apartment. No heat, no hot water, nothing.” In 1993, at age 16, Mayweather’s life teetered on the brink of two extreme paths. He won the National Golden Gloves at 106 pounds and within a few weeks his father and trainer was arrested for cocaine trafficking. The two parted for the next five and a half years as Mayweather rose to the Olympics and broke into the professional ranks. Since then, his problem has never been in the ring. It’s been knowing where the ropes end, and who the target should be.
In the early morning of September 9, 2010, just over thirty years after the traumatic events of January 21, 1979, with 41 pro fights, 299 rounds, and just shy of 15 hours spent in ring, Mayweather, Jr. fashioned his own family portrait to hang in the heart of his son, Koraun Mayweather. Josie Harris, the mother of three of Mayweather’s children, arrived home at 2:30 a.m. after an evening of bowling. They were no longer together, but Mayweather was waiting. An argument erupted over a relationship Harris had with an NBA player.
“Are you having sex with C.J. [Watson]?” Mayweather yelled at Harris, according to police report.
“Yes, that is who I am seeing now.”
He grabbed her by the hair and punched her in the back of the head “with a closed fist several times.” Pulled her off couch and twisted her left arm.
Harris had the police remove Floyd.
At 5 a.m. Mayweather and a bodyguard returned to Harris’s home. Dan Roberts wrote of the chilling incident for Deadspin in July of 2014: “Harris was asleep on her living room couch when she was jarred awake by the sound of Mayweather screaming at her about texts he had found from Watson on her cell phone. When Harris admitted that she was seeing Watson, Mayweather exploded. He punched her repeatedly in the rear of the head, pulled her off the couch by her hair, and twisted her arm. He screamed he that he would “kill” Harris and Watson, that he would make both ‘disappear.’ Harris screamed for her children Koraun and Zion, aged 10 and 9, to call the police. Mayweather turned to the kids, according to the police report, and yelled that he would ‘beat their asses if they left the house or called the police.’”
“He was punching her and kicking her,” Zion wrote in a statement after the assault. “He was punching her in the head and he was stomping her sholder (sic).”
Koraun found a way to break out. “[I] ran back out my bathroom and then hopped over the gate and went to the main entrance gate,” he told USA Today. “I just told the guard that my mom was getting hurt and to call the ambulance and the police…” His mother credits her son with saving her life. A report from Southern Hills Hospital and Medical Center, where Harris was treated, listed bruises, contusions, and a concussion. The focus of the attack was the back of her head, Harris surmised, because Mayweather wanted to avoid the visible aftermath of the brutal assault. No pictures.
After the attack, in December 2011 Mayweather faced 34 years in prison if convicted of all charges. For the sake of her children, Harris declined to testify against him. He served 60 days. With the media offering him various platforms, he’s smeared her reputation, along with his other victims, ever since.
It was Mayweather’s refusal to accept any responsibility or accountability after the assault, which Koraun himself had witnessed, that underscored his son’s estimation of his father. “He’s a coward,” Koraun concluded in an interview with USA Today, hugging his mom.
But it went much deeper.
“When he lays his head on that pillow at night,” Harris told USA Today in 2014, “does he ever think about ‘You know I have got an 11-year-old beautiful little girl that is going to grow up and start dating men. Do I want her to start dating men like me’? I wonder does he ever question himself?’
Deadspin’s Roberts, a northern California lawyer by trade, spoke extensively about his research of Mayweather’s criminal history against women and provided PDFs of all the court documents he’d obtained on Mayweather from Nevada records. Roberts’ work has been the foundation for many media outlets finally picking up the baton and confronting a documented history of violence against women that dates back to 2001, the same year Mayweather dedicated his underdog victory against Diego “Chico” Corrales to “all the battered women in the world.” In the ensuing years, he’d added more victims to that chorus of appreciative fans. Asked what message his never having been sanctioned or suspended by the sport sends victims of domestic violence, Mayweather replied, “I just say I want everybody to tune in May 2.”
“You’ve seen the O.J. Simpson and Nicole pictures,” Mayweather told the Las Vegas Review Journal, “the Chris Brown, Rihanna pictures. You guys have to ask yourself, ‘Where are the pictures?’”
Maybe they’re hidden the same place Mayweather himself keeps the picture of what he saw, hanging upside down as his father took a point-blank shotgun blast to the calf.
Seared trembling somewhere behind a fold in his heart.
Pacquiao stalks Mayweather from the opening bell, backing him down and driving him against the ropes. Mayweather pivots free. The round half over, Mayweather leans over with a jab and in the time it takes him to blink, Pacquiao unleashes a counter left hand against the lids of his eyes. Mayweather stumbles back to the ropes as the crowd jumps to their feet, urging Pacquiao’s violent pursuit.
At first, it is unclear how much damage Pacquiao has inflicted. Could this be it? No. Quickly Mayweather instinctually raises the drawbridge of his defense and buries his face in his hands, watching carefully as the poised Pacquiao blurs the air with his fists, first to the face and then to the body, again and again and again, as if there may not be another chance.
And then? After the deluge, Pacquiao abandons the attack and retreats to the center of the ring. Mayweather doesn’t counter, but casually lowers his guard and accepts his opponent’s invitation to catch his breath. Pacquiao agrees. Later, he fiendishly tries to find a way into Mayweather’s defense, but the moment has passed. As the round comes to a close the audience is squarely with Pacquiao, feverishly chanting his name. Pacquiao wins his first definitive round against his adversary.
“When I’m gone, boxing will be nothing again. The fans with the cigars and the hats turned down’ll be there, but no more housewives and little men in the street and foreign presidents. It’s goin’ to be back to the fighter who comes to town, smells a flower, visits a hospital, blows a horn, and says he’s in shape. Old hat. I was the onliest boxer in history people asked questions like a senator.”
—Muhammad Ali, 1967
pril 24, 2015, Griffith Park, Los Angeles - Three years into Pacquiao’s tenure as a Filipino congressman, maybe even Ali would finally concede he isn’t the onliest boxer people treat more like statesman or politician than a fighter.
Fifty of his countrymen — men, women, seniors and children draped in their flag’s colors — gathered joyously around a freshly parked Cadillac Escalade, Congressman Pacquiao calmly finished tying the laces on his shoe before stepping out into the cool early morning air with Pacman, his yelping Jack Russell terrier namesake, at the base of the Bronson Canyon-Griffith Park trail far beneath the HOLLYWOOD sign.
Famously it was another family dog that was the catalyst for Pacquiao’s impossible journey, the one his father ate when life in Kibawe, in the Bukidnon Province of Mindanao, became gravely dire. Pacquiao ran away from home and slept in the streets, often in cardboard boxes, and sold donuts or whatever he could to survive. On this day as Pacquiao stretched out before the run, a broad, towering bodyguard shielded him from prying network cameras. Pacquiao’s countrymen were too busy saying hello, wishing him luck, and reminding him he was in their prayers to bother with any questions.
But what they left unsaid about the scene’s significance to them was obvious. This had nothing to do with the fight versus Mayweather. No, they were already looking ahead to a much brighter horizon three-and-a-half years away, when their hero becomes eligible to trade in his gloves and trunks for the presidency of the Philippines.
Before the run began, Justin Fortune, Pacquiao’s strength and conditioning coach, warned, “He’ll drop you like a bad habit like he does everyone who tries to keep up. The only one who stays with Manny is that dog.”
Pacquiao gave one interview to a Cuban reporter before giving into the dog’s demands to get moving. He waved to the crowd and gingerly started up the trail leading a throng of perhaps 50 attached to him. Next to Pacquiao a man held up a miniature flag that flapped in the wind. At the outset, our climb was steady but our progress mercifully not especially overbearing. Pacquiao was the first of us to react to the eerie whir of distant propellers from what turned out to be a camera drone hovering 80 feet overhead.
Then we reached the first vicious incline. Half the entourage trying to cling to Pacquiao’s inhumanly large calves abandoned hope and caught their breath doubled over. From the angle of my pursuit, behind him, above Pacquiao’s white cap all I could see was his darting, bouncing dog eagerly keeping tabs on his owner and any available coyotes in the foothills.
Fortune and his pit bulls appeared, now descending back to the base of the canyon as most of us killed ourselves to keep up.
“Fuckin’ hell mates!” he hollered, shaking his head mournfully.
Accelerating the tempo yet another gear, after 100 meters Pacquiao and the dog dropped me and all but three of his most devoted admirers and had the canyon to themselves.
A group of us dejectedly hiked the insidious incline while a deer came over to see what all the fuss was about.
As Manny and what was left of his fragmented crew pressed on in their ascent, they turned a corner and vanished from view winding around a bend but not before waving mysteriously at someone I couldn’t yet see. As they disappeared a solitary elderly Filipino man, elegant in his spotless Egyptian-blue Pacquiao tracksuit, stood proudly following the progress of the white dot of Manny’s cap against the dusty hills and leopard print shrubbery.
I gave up hiking and stopped to talk with him.
“That man is fucking fast,” I lamented, spitting to avoid vomiting off the trail and over into the gorge.
He nodded but didn’t bother to tear his eyes off Manny’s cap floating above the dust kicked up behind him.
“You with the team?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“Just going for a hike?”
He shook his head again, still meditating with his eyes open.
I looked away from his face and in the direction of his gaze and saw Pacquiao’s cap was now hovering beneath the electronic tower poking above the horizon that obscured the HOLLYWOOD sign. When I looked back at the old man he was smiling, almost a kind of beautiful karaoke of the understated, apologetically coy way Pacquiao often does when he surpasses inhumanly high expectations in the ring.
“He’s going further than before,” he shook his head again, this time at Pacquiao’s audacity and not at my stupidity. Still his eyes were magnetized to Pacquiao, dry sniping him far off on the distant trail across a precipitous gorge. “I can’t believe he’s actually going further this time.”
The tone suggested if Jesus Christ came down from the sky this old man would have shrugged and not bothered to look until he was done with Manny.
“How far is Pacquiao going?”
He put his hand to his mouth to feel the contours of the smile Pacquiao had carved on his face. Finally he took the hand away from his mouth and scratched his head before answering.
“He didn’t go this far for De La Hoya.”
“You saw him training here for Oscar?”
“No, no,” he smiled again. “Not quite Jesus. But how many wars and how much time have gone by and look at this. Look at him. He’s going further. Look,” he whispered under his breath.
I’d been staring at Pacquiao all that cloudy morning but, only right then, after catching my breath, I saw what this stranger was trying to show me. By this time, Manny Pacquiao and his dog had shattered the will of any pursuit toward his destination. Now I understood it had little to do with reaching the HOLLYWOOD sign, or even victory in Las Vegas against Floyd Mayweather, or even becoming president. No, it had everything to do with the dreamscape of 100 million people back where he’d started, this kid who used to sleep in a cardboard box and sold donuts on the street to survive, the journey of a man toward God, the champion as martyr and saint to his people.
On the way back down, as he ran, very fast, both toward something and away, his feet seemed barely to touch the ground.
Now sweat soaks Pacquiao’s hair, grease mopped over his brow. Mayweather’s skull glistens under the lights. Floyd Sr. has told his son in the corner he’s fighting scared. Junior heeds his father’s words and drives Pacquiao back against the ropes. Mayweather, ever careful of keeping his distance, wheeling free from any sign of danger, receives the first boos from the audience for his unwillingness to engage. Yet Pacquiao refuses to make any adjustments to his attack. It’s the first glimpse that age may have vandalized his foot speed and his quick spring toward insidious angles of attack.
He does not pursue as much as plods.
“How mortals take the gods to task!
All their afflictions come from us, we hear.
And what of their own failings? Greed and folly
double the suffering in the lot of man.”
he HOLLYWOOD sign peeks out from the early morning smog and far below sits the Wild Card boxing gym, just off the corner of Santa Monica and Vine, the centerpiece of a decaying strip mall, wedged in an intersection of crushing poverty- a barbershop, Alcoholics Anonymous office, a former “happy ending” Thai massage parlor, a deli, a nail salon.
Glittering fortune is activated with Freddie Roach’s arrival in a slick black Mercedes. Pacquiao’s trainer, Roach keeps his blue-collar roots hours, arriving every day at this time, 7 a.m., and usually holding court for the next 12 hours behind his desk before a rapt audience when he isn’t working with fighters in the ring.
When the action is good, he signs hundreds of autographs and poses for even more photos with visitors to the gym. He’s as moody a guy as you’ll ever meet—but in five years I’ve never once seen him say no.
Nearly all of Freddie’s fighters who went on to become world champions—from Pacquiao to Amir Khan and Guillermo Rigondeaux on down—first stayed next door to the gym, at the fleabag Vagabond Inn, but that’s been torn down. Business is better now—over 20 world champions, HBO reality series, clothing lines, sponsorship from Nike—and he’s expanded his gym into the old Chinese laundromat downstairs. Now, for fighters he likes who’ve traveled a long way, a small apartment next door to the upstairs gym is available. It’s where Freddie himself once stayed when he didn’t have enough money to stay anywhere as he pushed his chips in with the last $10,000 he had to build Wild Card.
When I walked into his new gym downstairs from his old one, he was more interested in showing me his antique test-your-strength Coney Island punching bag than May 2.
“It’s nice, right?” he laughs. “I mean, I just had it in storage for fuckin’ ever. Shit, Manny’s got a swearing jar for me and I’ve already had to pay him almost $200 bucks. But I haven’t swore in three days. Aren’t you proud of me?”
Freddie stands to make almost $12 million off this fight, not bad for a rugged contender who never made six-figures for a fight and barely that in a 53-fight career. After eight years and 406 rounds in the ring, Freddie retired from the sport as a fighter at the age of 27. Four years later he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which he’s suffered from for the last 25 years of his life.
“You talk to your guy Tyson lately?” he asks.
“He came to New York in November.”
Freddie gave me Tyson’s number five years ago, almost like a dare, to see if it could go anywhere. He has a dirty little habit of throwing lifelines out to help people find the life they want to live. When I got back to LA after interviewing Tyson and visited Freddie, I was certain he wouldn’t remember me. He did, with the gym as busy ever, he pushed aside two people he was speaking with, eager as a maniac to holler, “DIDJA GET HIM?” I nodded.
“FUCKIN’ GUY!” he slapped his counter. We’ve been friends ever since.
“How much fun is actually getting this fight for you?”
“Kid,” Freddie smiles, “everywhere, in the restaurant, on the street, wherever we go, black people, white people, Latinos—they all say the same thing. ‘Kick his ass. We hate that motherfucker.’ Not one person has said, ‘I hope you get your ass kicked,’.”
“What happens to Floyd if you beat him?” I ask.
“He might never fight again. He might never win again. He might be ordinary. If he loses he can’t say he’s better than Sugar Ray Robinson or Muhammad Ali because he’s never lost. He can’t say he’s better than those guys anyway. He’s not even top 50.”
“C’mon, Freddie. Top 50?”
“Give me one great fighter he’s looked great against. C’mon. Oscar [de la Hoya] had a good chance to beat him. It was close.”
“Some writers have suggested maybe you and Pacquiao are trying to cash out.”
“If anyone’s cashing out it’s Mayweather. Any fighter who owns 100 cars has always gone broke. Throwing money around embarrassing people. Embarrassing poor people. All his attacks on women that we know of. I mean, talk to the metro police in Vegas. Lotta people like to hit girls. He’s not the only one I ever heard of that likes to do that. I don’t know why they get off doing that. Who can’t beat up a girl?”
“Sugar Ray Leonard used to beat the shit out of his wife. Sugar Ray Robinson’s wife said she left him after so many miscarriages she attributed to him beating her up.”
“I guess Floyd has more in common with those greats than I thought.”
“Have you ever dreamed about this fight?”
“You don’t dream so much as you get older. As a younger fighter you dream about all kinds of things.”
Freddie’s mother, whom he bought a house next door to where he lives in West Hollywood walked into the gym to say hello. Freddie’s never married.
“She just beat cancer again,” he says after she leaves to head upstairs to look after the front desk. “Something taken out last week. Doing good though.”
“How’s Manny looked?”
“He hasn’t slowed down. No signs of deterioration. But I mean, sometimes I think, who you gonna fight after Mayweather? I mean, he can quit and become president or something if he wants to. Not sure how the other politicians over there might feel about that. They might kill him. Politics is a crazy fucking business over there.”
“You ever worry about him staying at the fair too long?”
“I don’t want anybody to end up like me with Parkinson’s. Ali walked into the gym 10 years ago. It was the best day we ever had.”
He goes on. “He walked in here and asked if he could work out. I was gonna call some people and let them know he was here. Decided not to. Whoever was here was here and they had a day to last their whole life. He hit the bag and the tremors went away. When he stopped, they came back. We watched him shadowbox with his daughter. You know, I don’t shake anymore. I don’t have tremors anymore. I can’t tell you why. New doctor and some new medication maybe. Not sure. I haven’t shaked in six months.”
“You were diagnosed with Parkinson’s only a few years after you left the sport. You ever worry about that with Manny?”
“I was worried about him after the Marquez fight when he was laying down. The doctor was worried too. But after when he knew where he was and I told him to get in the ambulance to go to the hospital to get checked out he said he had to go to the bathroom to wash off the blood from his face. That’s when I knew he was OK.”
“I remember you told me after that fight you were scared Pacquiao might have died when you saw him on the ground.”
“He lay there too long for me.”
“Five years ago you, when Manny was riding high, you told me Manny was broke. You said he’d never be able to stop fighting. I know he’s making nine-figures against Floyd. But do you ever worry with so many people squeezing Manny financially he might end up like all those other sad stories in boxing?”
“He’s gotta be careful. He’s a very generous guy.”
“It just seems like with Ali, he left the sport broke and damaged and it turned him into this secular saint. He got lucky with selling his likeness for $50 million unlike Frazier sleeping in his gym after he was done.”
“I hope Manny has a happy ending. They’re rare in our sport.”
Freddie’s publicist walked in and shook hands with everyone in the room. I looked around the gym at the photos of Freddie and Pacquiao hanging on the walls. Like Ali before him, Pacquiao’s charisma and ability to make you smile, conceals a lot of the darker, tragic angles of his life.
From a distance, both Ali and Pacquiao are a boy’s dream of a fighter, but up close a lot of foul dust is suspended in that dream, craving not so much victory as transcendence.
It’s a miracle Ali wasn’t assassinated for the risks he took after becoming champion of the world. During his rubber match against Frazier in Manila, Ali claimed to have been on the brink of death. Then he left boxing with barely a dime to show from his purses, wrung out like a wet towel, nothing more to give.
Only a minute earlier Roach had suggested Pacquiao risked assassination if he pursued higher office back in his home country. When he was fastened to the canvass against Marquez, many dreaded having witnessed a public execution. He fights now because, somehow, issues are still raised that he needs the money. So does his entourage, and his legacy.
Yet for both men, their symbolic value outweighs their actual worth. In many respects, their lives are almost in the way. Martyrdom remains the only deliverance and defense against fading into obscurity, long after all of life’s chips have been pushed in for the last time, immortality hanging in the balance, a final crusade.
“How much pressure is there on you with this fight?”
“Must win situation. We’ve talked enough. If we don’t win we’re gonna embarrass ourselves. We’ve made a lot of comments about their team. Roger’s health is bad [Mayweather’s brother]. But between Roger or the dad, I don’t give a fuck about either one dying. I hate both of them and they hate me.”
“Was having a chance at a fight like this why you opened Wild Card in the first place?”
“My trainer Eddie Futch told me ‘Don’t ever build a gym. Don’t ever do it.’ I did it anyway. You don’t know when the next Ali is going to walk through your front doors. Less than a year later my Ali walked through the door. I had ten grand to build a gym. I had 50 bucks left after it was built and bought 25 fliers and I handed them out there on Vine. Six months later a guy I’d never heard of named Manny Pacquiao walked through my door and that changed my life. Pacquiao was my Muhammad Ali. We’ve been together 15 years now. That’s longer than most marriages.”
“Longer than mine.”
“See? I had him for his first fight in America. We got along all the way till now.”
“When the bell sounds and this fight starts, are Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather staring across the ring at the greatest opponent they’ve ever faced?”
Freddie paused and chewed on the side of his hand. “Yep. Yeah, I think so. We gotta turn this into a fight. If he moves like he used to and just runs, runs, runs, it could be boring. I’ve fallen asleep at more than one of his fights in the past.”
“You dreamed of fighting for a championship yourself as a fighter, is this better now that you’re a trainer working a corner of the biggest fight in history?”
“I’m better at what I do now in the corner than being in there for a fight like this as a fighter. What this fight boils down, we’re doing the whole world a service knocking this motherfucker out. Not just boxing. The whole fuckin’ world.”
“What’s your swear jar up to at this point?”
“Manny’s not here. Fuck you.”
As Pacquiao sinks further on the judge’s scorecards, Mayweather seems disinterested in encountering even the turbulence felt by many in the audience, who flew into Vegas on private planes. The top fighters of their generation engage in a game of tag that only accidentally elevates into the realm of a glorified sparring session.
Pacquiao gets lucky landing a punch and tries unsuccessfully to impose his will as Mayweather contemptuously shakes his head. Many fans and the press alike shake their heads at where Mayweather is steering this contest. Fans rise once again to their feet as Pacquiao resumes a largely impotent assault, only to pause in mid-cheer. Mayweather keeps observing, recalibrating his position, adjusting the distance. The crowd sits, and many do not rise again until they leave.
“Las Vegas is the savage heart of the American Dream.”
—Hunter S. Thompson
as Vegas, the most expensive toilet in the world that still can’t flush. Dawn bruises over the Mojave Desert sky. The strip sneers neon fangs outside our window, less to hide America’s lost ability to dream, more to offer a glimpse into the hideous circuits of the dream dreaming you. The losers have already been chewed up and spit out onto the street. Everyone else is still inside where they belong.
Before rolling over to Mayweather’s gym, we conducted an informal poll of the indigenous population out front of the Statue of Liberty on the strip. A toothless drunk wore a shirt that read, “Mean people suck, nice people swallow.” Two Mexican men slapped cards off their palms advertising strip clubs. At the end of the block a girl handed out fliers for Bullets and Burgers. The lunch special included shooting rounds from the same weapons Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, used to rack up 160 kills. If fantasizing about shooting terrorists wasn’t your thing, they had another special: unloading a grenade launcher in the desert. “You’ll speak a new language after shooting that muthafucker,” she assured us. “Or we have some great platinum helicopter packages for seeing the Grand Canyon if that’s more your thing.” Total coverage.
A wobbly, broken-down sportscaster with a stained four-leaf clover visor shading his eyes was just cracking open a tall can of beer inside a brown paper bag. Why he felt the need to conceal his alcoholic beverage in this town remained a mystery.
“So who’s your pick for the fight?” Mickey asked.
“I’ll tell you what I been tellin’ everybody. Keep tell’em the same thing. That Packion ain’t got a chance in hell. Mayweather’s gonna kick his ass back to Tokyo.”
“He’s got it coming to him,” I agreed.
“Fuckin’ A,” he smiled, taking a long sip from the can and wiping his chin. “I don’t even care who wins. The fights I wanna see are the riots after. I wanna be front row for that shit.”
“You going to bother going to the fight?” Mickey asked. Ringside tickets are selling in the neighborhood of $350 grand.
“They tried to give me tickets.”
“Well, we figured,” I said.
“I’m not wasting my time. I’m Forrest Gump boys. That’s me. I’ve backed into everything my whole life.” He illustrated his point by nearly backing into and knocking over a pair of tourists. “I’ve won a million dollars, I’ve lost a million. I played with the Vols with Peyton Manning. In 1991 I was up in the broadcast booth with Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. I’ve seen it all. Been there. And you know with this fight? They’d never let Mayweather lose. Odds for a safety at the Super Bowl were 200-1. You think that was an accident? That snap over Manning’s head? There are people in this town with billions riding on that shit. Inside track.
“You guys,” he pointed up at some vapor trails in the sky, “you and all the tourists that drop in sooner or later, gotta leave. Me? I’m home right here living the dream, day after fuckin’ day…”
Mayweather’s supposed to be training at his gym in Chinatown at 2:30 p.m., likely his last sparring before the fight. No press permitted. We go anyway. Total coverage.
A hazy soul-food catering truck is visible through the China Town Arch in the strip-mall parking lot opposite Mayweather’s gym. Maybe a hundred people—media, fans, and parents spending quality time with their kids—roast in the scalding 95-degree heat, clamoring for a glimpse of the self-proclaimed TBE, the best ever. The catering truck, we soon discover, has long since sold out of beverages. Media crews melt in their suits. Sweat and tears mingle on the cheeks of kids.
Suddenly about half of Mayweather’s nine-man, man-mountain personal security detail removes the last of the disposable from the gym and onto the street. The others block off the best five parking spaces with orange cones. The security guards elevate their chins and glare at anyone looking for nearby sanctuary under the awning in the shade. “Stay across the street! Floyd doesn’t want anyone in front of the gym.”
A little girl clutching a hand-made portrait of Mayweather and Pacquiao squeals. One of the bodyguards notices a homeless man selling knock-off TBE shirts and scares him off with threats and epithets. As a few kids cower and look up at their parents, he walks back into position smirking with satisfaction.
An hour goes by. A luxury Rolls parks in one of the five designated spots. Once everyone figured out it wasn’t Mayweather, nobody gave a fuck. After the driver goes in one of Mayweather’s minions buffs the hood.
Pamela Anderson shows up in an Escalade—she gets less attention than the driver, clicking by in stilettos, 47 years old and a long way from Baywatch and Ladysmith, B.C. Unlike when she showed up at Tyson-McNeeley 20 fucking years ago, she is turned down at the door of the gym. She goes back to her car and waits for nearly an hour before her cleavage abandons the endeavor.
Another hour goes by. A Bentley shows up and two passengers nobody seems to know exit and enter the gym while the buffer attends to their hood. Floyd Mayweather Sr. follows a few minutes later, pulling in and exiting his car while immediately casing the crowd with zombie-like glare. Tight dresses and cameras hold his attention before he shoulder hugs the security team on the way to entering the gym.
Whispers trickle through the crowd Floyd Jr. has already arrived at the gym through the backdoor.
Over the next two hours a gleaming Fisker Karma and a Mercedes show up and park alongside the other spots taken, Mayweather’s girlfriend and her friend, and an elderly couple enter the gym, leaving one last space.
A massive bus, decked out in panoramic display of Mayweather disfiguring opponents’ faces, pulls up and forces everyone gathered to move further back or be backed over. When you’re the champ, even a bus driver can do your bullying.
“All they had to do was tell us he wasn’t coming out,” Mickey says. “But to sneak in the back door and then leave all these kids hanging? C’mon.”
It’s now 6 p.m., three and a half-hours from when Mayweather was due to arrive and train. Mayweather’s girlfriend and her friend leave the gym and exit the parking lot. The bus driver gets out, ambles over to the gym, and high-fives the security detail. The Ali-injected-to-Zaire, prefight Rumble-In-the-Jungle-scene this is not.
There’s some anticipation Mayweather is readying to leave on the bus. The kids’ heat-stroke epidemic temporarily wanes.
“He left from the same back door he arrived in,” a reporter from the UK laments. “The nerve of this fucking wanker.”
There’s a temporary hush when a man leaves the gym entrance with security, but he isn’t anybody. Someone back inside hollers out, “Y’all want some TMT T-shirts? Gets some genuine Money Team merchandise outside now.”
I’m nudged by another journalist from The Guardian. “He’s already long gone.”
“Why the fuck is everybody still here then?” I ask.
He throws his hand in the air. “He’s the man.”
Finally, after nearly four hours, with the sun coming down, a handful of members from the entourage get on the bus and it pulls away, leaving behind noxious fumes and no sign of Mayweather.
The crowd disperses, all sad moths and no flame.
A couple days later I run into what at first seems a groggy, heavily medicated Mike Tyson at the MGM Grand for the final Mayweather-Pacquiao press conference before the fight. A minor media circus followed him, but when he was encouraged to sit up front, he refused. “I try to stay as far away from dirt as possible.” He quietly sat near the back.
Tyson wrote in the epilogue to his memoir about finally striving for goodness instead of greatness. When I interviewed him at the Ritz for Amazon last November, he elaborated, “Sometimes we’re so desperate for greatness and what we believe greatness can give us in return that we bypass people’s generosity. We’re not generous to people. We’re not caring to people. Instead, we’re so selfish to grasp success because we believe our lives will be better once we succeed. But once you do become successful, that rarely happens. Once I became successful and famous, all the problems I was dealing with were magnified.”
Shortly after Tyson shook my hand to say hello, a reporter from TMZ asked him about Mayweather’s claim to be better than Ali, and suddenly Iron Mike snapped into focus.
“He’s very delusional.” Tyson glared. “If he was anywhere near that realm of ‘greater than Ali’ he’d be able to take his children to school by himself. He can’t take his kids school by himself. And he’s talking about he’s great? Greatness is not guarding yourself from the people, greatness is being accepted by the people.
“He can’t take his kids alone to school by himself. He’s a little scared man, he’s a very small, scared man.”
Floyd Sr. tells his son in the corner, “You gotta put it on him, because I’m telling you, man, believe me, I’m gonna tell you right now, they gonna take this fight from you.”
The fight’s a dog. He not only knows it, he’s the only person in the ring who seems to think it matters beyond the calculus of dollars vs punch stats. In the audience Mike Tyson stares off blankly, as if confronting the fact that fighting Peter McNeely for 89 seconds in this same arena 20 years ago provided more drama and action than the two greatest pound-for-pound fighters of their generation have provided in – yawn – what round is it now? Seven? Even the card girls are old and tired.
In that fight, McNeeley fell to a hook in the first ten seconds. At least he got up.
“Muhammad Ali decided one day a long time ago, not long after his twenty-first birthday, that he was not only going to be King of the World on his own turf, but Crown Prince on everybody elses… That was always the difference between Muhammad Ali and the rest of us. He came, he saw, and if he didn’t entirely conquer––he came as close as anybody we are likely to see in the lifetime of this doomed generation.”
—Hunter S. Thompson, Last Tango In Vegas
ullfighting was never intended as a sport. It was conceived as a preordained tragedy, a ballet of life and death blurring into one, the only props a scarlet cape and sharp horns attached to 1600 pounds of bull, sunlight and dark shadows, blood and sand.
There is no sensible defense of bullfighting. There are no arguments. All the same, I can’t apologize for falling in love either. It only took witnessing the savage beauty of one fight to spoil every major American sport for me. It didn’t quite rob me of boxing, but it forever changed how I experienced it.
I was a teenager the first time I approached the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas bullring in Madrid to buy a ticket during San Isidro, the most distinguished bullfighting festival in the world. I had no clue who any of the matadors were or what made one superior to another. For guidance, I consulted a group of well-dressed, cigar-smoking bullfighting aficionados huddled in the shade outside the arena in my broken Spanish.
On Sundays, as Spaniards sometimes joke, all men can wear the same suit for all three of the day’s traditional destinations: the Church, the whorehouse, and the bullfight. I was handed a brochure listing each headlining matador’s performances. As I clumsily pronounced the names, the old men spread their arms out for each, and, name after name, their hands closed in to within a foot or so with each name. I had no idea what this was meant to illuminate and found someone to translate the gesture.
“This is the clearance the matadors allow between the bull’s horns and the matador’s heart,” I was informed. “The more superior the matador, the more danger he must accept.”
“The better the matador, the more people expect him to risk death?” I asked, confused. “He’s less safe the better he is?”
The answer was unanimous: “Claro.”
It was less claro to me.
I was an amateur boxer and learned boxing required mitigating risk and danger, hitting and avoiding getting hit. Any asshole could turn a boxing match into a drunken barroom brawl, but masters of the trade who laid waste to bloodthirsty tomato cans were celebrated more for doing so with aplomb and surgical precision. About the time I started fighting, Floyd Mayweather Jr., only 21, had already won a world championship and looked to be one of the rare geniuses to grace the sport. Everyone at my gym admired him, but he always scorned risk and danger. When I was in Madrid, I remember wondering that if greatness was dependent on the exposure to danger, what kind of bullfighter Mayweather would make. Then I thought of Ali and the enormous costs that come from blood feuds that transcend sport. It was no accident Ali’s face became the most recognized on earth.
There was still one name left in the brochure, attached to the most expensive price tag to watch.
“José Tomás?” I asked.
The group of old men puffed on their cigars and shook their heads. They all knew.
José Tomás allowed the bull’s horn so nightmarishly close to his heart that nobody in Spain could bear to peek through their hands and witness what lived there, poetry in the flash of a cape.
But this wasn’t all.
One of these old men then explained why Tomás was not yet “The Greatest” in Spain: he hadn’t been gored to the brink of death and returned to be even greater. No matador could be a legend or even be taken seriously unless his legacy included this last essential act, the courting of death and the grace with which he defied it.
“No one,” said Mayweather, “can ever brainwash me to make me believe that Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali were better than me.”
Forget the headlines, forget the hotel prices, live gate, pay-per-view, and all the records. Forget the money. Maybe the real stakes in this fight were always in the fine print. Perhaps this fight was only about which fighter might assume the fatalistic mantle of Ali.
Mayweather believes he is better than Ali, yet even to have a chance at that, he needed the fight that for so long he declined to take, or make. Even this, he refused to admit.
Like Ali early on, Floyd didn’t have a popular style. Like Ali, Floyd was too gifted to take punches. Like Ali, when Floyd opened his mouth he offended most people. Like Ali, Floyd paid a high price avoiding conflict, except when he stepped into the ring. There the similarities end, because Ali’s career was never defined by victory, but by the audacity of his struggle. Floyd defined his legacy by the receipts. Just because Avatarhad the biggest box office doesn’t make it the greatest film ever made.
That is where Mayweather and Ali depart. Pacquiao is the closest echo we have of Ali today, but there has been a heavy cost to earning his place as the world’s most beloved fighter. Like Ali, Pacquiao’s toll is something he will likely pay with before our eyes for the rest of his life.
They say a hero is fortunate because, unlike a coward, he only has the one death. But Ali’s valor in the ring cruelly silenced his beautiful voice and installed him in the prison of his body. Mayweather has taken less damage than any great champion in history. No winning fighter in history has been more content to have crowds jeer a performance.
Whose legacy will we remember longer or with deeper feeling? We owe the Louisville thief who stole a 12-year-old’s bike a great debt for delivering Ali to our consciousness. Pacquiao’s father ate the family dog to offer the world his son. Mayweather Sr. robbed his only son of innocence and unleashed him, seething and bitter, on a blind crusade of revenge to assert his worth via boxing. Few fighters have been more secure in the ring than Mayweather Jr., but the essence of all security is an obsession with the intruder. You see this in his haunted eyes.
“The literature of the sports page is devoted to sizing up a man’s capacity to endure pain and humiliation,” Jimmy Cannon once wrote. “We are cruel in our appraisals and we do it with the belligerence of people who are protected from physical danger by the nature of our jobs. There are few among us who have compassion for the quitter. We make fear in a man playing a game a crime against his sport.”
For many contemporary American sports fans, boxing ended the day Tyson retired. The torch Tyson inherited, going all the way back to Jack Johnson at the turn of the 20th century, nearly went out. In the ring, Mayweather has gone to great lengths try to revive that flame. In 2007, he beat Oscar De La Hoya, Tyson’s successor in marketability, in the most lucrative fight in history up to that time, then shrewdly and with greater success, he rebranded himself to fit the winner-take-all era as Money Mayweather, the only measure that seems to matter.
Of boxing’s legendary champions, only Rocky Marciano, at 49-0, left the ring with an unblemished record. Mayweather is just shy of equaling that career total. Perhaps Mayweather thought that if he rolled over or embarrassed Pacquiao, he could turn May 2 into the most rewarding speed bump in history, two gift fights away from coasting into being, by the numbers, the greatest fighter in the history of his sport.
Still, if they were both matadors, aficionados would scoff at Mayweather’s career next to Ali’s, and be right to do so. Unlike Ali, Mayweather has never tasted defeat. He’s never been knocked down. Ali lost five fights and was knocked down four times. So what? He always got back up.
When the bell sounded, both Pacquiao and Mayweather, their generation’s defining talents, stared across the ring at the greatest opponent either had faced in their lives. Not each other, but history, and the hard lessons it teaches.
The existential clues all suggest boxing is always a dance with demons more than virtues. The questions with all three fighters—Pacquiao, Mayweather, and the deep shadow of Ali, even as he fades—are, in the end, those they ignored as children, but must confront now.
Only a child, naïve to the cost, would ever dream of boxing, of becoming world champion, of entering the ring naked. No sensible adult should ever attempt these things. The gamble is too great. Still, we celebrate and even forgive those who do.
All because of one thing: what lives between the horn and the heart, and nowhere else.
Up to this point, Pacquiao is missing four out of every five punches he’s throwing. Mayweather is dialed in to this performance and he lowers the landing gear to touch down and win the fight. Despite his dad’s pleadings to make a fight of this anemic boxing match, Mayweather seems almost gratified to not just take a nine-figure payday for a victory against Pacquiao, but to offer a stale domination over the era’s most exciting offensive fighter.
Defense wins championships. Don’t we ever learn?
“In the ring, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali were the equal of each other. Yet, today, Ali has sold an 80% interest in the use of his name and likeness for commercial purposes for $50 million and Joe is living in a room above his gym in Philadelphia. That’s an interesting look at how America treats its sporting icons. Some are accorded special status and others are largely forgotten.”
—Muhammad Ali biographer Thomas Hauser
“Ali can no longer stand,” Leon Gast, the Academy Award-winning director of When We Were Kings told me over breakfast at his house in Woodstock, New York. “He can’t speak. I saw him and his wife last November and I whispered into his ear, ‘Muhammad, do you remember the guys in Zaire hanging onto the walls screaming ALI BOMAYE! when our plane landed?’ He reacted. His expression changed. It’s all still there with him. He’s still just as beautiful a man as he ever was.”
Now four decades, 9000 miles, and a world away from Ali and Foreman in Zaire, a deafening air horn blasts across the arena here in Las Vegas at 3 p.m. signaling two men to strip and wait their turn before a scale for the latest installment of the “Fight of the Century.” “MAKE SOME NOISE!” the MC demands and most of those in the stadium obediently lose their mind. It’s during moments like this that all the unrelenting magic and orgiastic wonder of this town remind you that while you’re certainly on one of the seven layers of hell, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be clear exactly which one. The town’s charm can be found in the ways it always keeps you guessing.
Watching Mayweather and Pacquiao take the stage on the dais at the MGM Grand before 16,000 fans who paid $10 to attend, most of whom, presumably, had no hope of affording ticket prices for the actual, almost pre-sold out fight, a handful of things snapped into focus for the first time. The reaction from the audience confirmed that, despite the billing, Pacquiao was the true A-side of this fight. Secondly, a $300 million guaranteed purse did little to remove the stench of boxing’s origins, right alongside the slave auction, half-naked men weighed as specimens before inflicting harm on one another to entertain a blood-thirsty mob.
Lastly, and most eerily, when the resident MC, Doug E Fresh, hollered out, “C’mon y’all, let’s bring the street to the MGM!” a reporter I didn’t know turned to me and scoffed, “If Mayweather shits the bed tomorrow night, a lot of black people are going to be pissed off.” Fortunately, I’d had a light breakfast when I finally saw the orchestration behind the dog whistle blowing throughout the buildup of the fight. Black America recognized in Pacquiao’s cutesy, puppy dog ascension that white America no longer had, nor required, a white man as their Great White Hope. It didn’t matter, just as long as he wasn’t black.
Floyd took the scale and preened before the cameras as a “Money Team” soundtrack blared, the weigh-in yet another reminder of how this fight had been marketed and pre-packaged as a movie trailer for a film going straight to video. As the ultimate one-percent spectacle (Floyd had a gold flecked, $25,000 mouth guard he was wearing for the fight with a folded $100 bill stuffed inside), this fight would unquestionably shatter every record and create tidal waves of backend cash to line the pockets of everyone involved in the proceedings. But what then? What about the lasting impact of this fight, presented by the culture as our generation’s Ali and Frazier I, Thrilla in Manila, and Rumble in the Jungle all rolled into one?
For the first time during fight week, I felt cheered up. For all the talk of boxing being on its last legs, maybe the sport, like certain fighters, would prove most dangerous when its opponents go in for the kill. Maybe it would still transcend all of the coldblooded might marketing could throw its way.
The most magical thing about the truth is that no matter how long they’ve hidden it from you, you don’t forget it. Ali’s most generous legacy is when anyone tries to tell us something is more important merely because it made more money. The best of his fights, the best of him, tell us there are other measures.
Among sports, boxing is the cruelest and most accurate metaphor for life. In the end, you are as unprotected as the day you were born. Ali is the perfect example. He was once the most famous man in the world, constructing his own reality, altering the perceptions of hundreds of millions of people about basic values of life, war and peace, god and man and in the end, none of that protected him from the downside of this business. It may have even sharpened the knives.
He took too many chances and risks. His whole life was about risk taking. So is boxing. When the sport appeals to the public, it’s because the public relates to the power, charisma, and the mystique of the risk the fighters are willing to take. Ali took risks with everything he did in his life. Part of the crime of the three and a half year exile was that it robbed him of the skills that made him so uniquely beautiful and left him as something more like a conventional prizefighter. There was a kind of transcendence in the way that he proved he could not only be king, but the people’s champion, the everyman, too. Who took a better punch in the history of the sport?
After Pacquiao and Mayweather left the scales to approach the edge of the stage for the stare down, the “Manny” chants kicked up again. He smiled as Mayweather withdrew into himself. Apart from watching a few moths tracing the air over the fighters’ heads, I found myself wondering about The Butterfly himself, who left the hospital with a urinary tract infection only a few months before, likely somewhere watching the same thing I was. We’ll never know his thinking.
Whether or not we had Hagler and Hearns, or Duran and Leonard, or Lewis and Tyson on our hands, we finally had the best right now, whatever that was. All the fans knew that the following day had a chance to matter, something that explained the collection of American celebrity and royalty that would collect nowhere else. Forget the ESPYs, the Grammys, and Oscars. Forget the Super Bowl.
That was what the crowd cheered, that this sport might be able to take a punch as well and still stand and survive, perhaps even thrive, one more time. That one of these two men would prove worthy, or, perhaps, even both of them.
The cheering escalated to a crescendo when Pacquiao threw up his hands to acknowledge the enthusiasm. But as Mayweather looked on and gathered his entourage to pose before history, it was as if his eyes were already pressed against the glass of a future century, gazing back at an empty legacy, the beginning of the end.
“Back’im up!” Floyd Sr. barks at his son. Mayweather is on autopilot as Pacquiao continues, unable to increase the pace of the fight in his favor. His desperate attempts to locate Mayweather have begun to resemble a degenerate gambler working over a constipated slot machine. Mayweather’s composure has cooled to the sly control of a coldblooded blackjack dealer. Pacquiao has no answer to the cards dealt from the bottom of the deck. There’s nobody to complain to that will listen.
“Maybe it meant something, maybe not, in the long run. But no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing you were there and alive in that corner of time in the world. Whatever it meant …”
—Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas
plague of private airplanes infested the airports of Vegas. With the moon glowing like a beacon of reason outside the MGM Grand, all the agony and trauma of boxing still belonged to the poor, but only the wealthy had any hope of affording a ticket. The projected revenues for the fight surpassed the GDP of 29 countries around the world. Some ringside seats had been listed for $350,000. Hotels across Las Vegas had marked up their rooms as much as 1500 percent. There were rumors that the number of prostitutes flown in surpassed those who came to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. After the opening bell rang, each fighter would share, at a minimum, $138,000 per second. As a myriad of MGM spotlights probed the audience like tentacles grasping at A-listers, Paris Hilton twirled for a selfie from ringside.
After an unprecedented 15,000 press-credential requests bled down to 120 or so who were notified that morning they’d made it into press row, I washed my face in the bathroom and emerged in the MGM’s lobby only to be caught in the gravitational pull of Nicki Minaj toward my seat. Two rows away a be-scarfed Sting sat next to Magic Johnson, with Jesse Jackson hollering hello a few seats further down. The mood among the reporters around me suggested Mayweather’s performance that night would be akin to a perfunctory Britney Spears casino residency show, cashing out on what was left of a career with a phoned-in dance and pre-recorded vocal.
“Who’s your pick?” I asked the Texas reporter sitting next to me after sitting down and taking out my notebook.
“Haven’t we seen how this movie ends 47 times before?” he said.
Almost half of the arena was empty until the final fight of the evening. The celebrity funhouse mirror effect inside the arena began right then after Mark Wahlberg brushed past my chair just as he showed up on a Jumbotron plugging Pacquiao opposite P. Diddy pushing Mayweather. Liev Schreiber sat down at ringside while his majestic oratory narrated another video about the fights’ mythological ethos, beginning with Pacquiao’s genesis, where, “from that boy’s forgotten corner of the map, he could reach the very top of the world. That boxing could turn a man into miracle.”
The first chants of “MANNY! MANNY!” echoed out in the crowd. The choir kicked in as Pacquiao, the man of today, paced alone inside a church until kneeling down in solemn prayer.
Quick fade to Grand Rapids, Michigan: A boy pounding the pavement in the early morning, ready to run every inch of the world if it meant a way out. Mayweather, already his father’s prodigy despite being barely into his teens, already battling his shadow in golden oversized gloves with glee before the cameras. Cut to a montage of Mayweather maturing through life, one raised hand at a time. Then finally Mayweather today, frozen in the gilded cage of a limousine, eyes hidden behind gold plated shades, floating hypnotically toward his destiny as capitalism’s ultimate fetish.
There are few tyrants quite like the unseen masterpiece, and Mayweather sold this calibration of his identity and potential with almost as much frightening precision as the way he controls the ring. What could be sweeter than this Faustian wager, all the chips of his soul hanging in the balance, being vanquished by the forces of Pacquiao as populist conqueror and savior? In the lead up to the fight, bizarrely, promoter Bob Arum had framed Pacquiao’s significance in terms of life and death and a global diplomatic crisis averted. He cited Pacquiao’s letter to Indonesian President Joko Widodo to plead for the life of one Mary Jane Veloso, a Filipina, mere minutes before she was to be executed in Indonesia alongside several others for her alleged role in a drug-smuggling ring. “Manny explained that he was fighting on May 2 and asked him to spare her life,” Arum said. “That shows you the influence he has around the world.”
Pacquiao framed his willingness to acquiesce to all of Mayweather’s demands in taking the fight in the darkest possible terms: “There’s a joke,” he giggled before HBO cameras. “There’s a joke. ‘OK, forty-sixty [percent], agree? OK. Forty-sixty. Drug testing? OK. You know that when the people are sentenced by death penalty, before he gets sentenced by death, you have to feed him whatever he want. Anything you want. Okay, give him this then…’” Finally, Pacquiao was forced to stop elaborating further about what is commonly referred to in American prison systems as “The Monster’s Ball.” But before the cameras, he couldn’t stop laughing.
For six years the era’s defining fight had lived in an orbit of gargantuan hype and continually decaying expectations. Yet, somehow, the world was helpless to resist. Mayweather had invoked Ali, Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and other names in the hallowed history of the sport and asserted that his rightful place was even higher. When Pacquiao joined him in the ring, it would be proof that America and the world had finally accepted his terms. Ok, now prove it.
As Pacquiao and Mayweather made their entrance, mounted the steps and climbed into the ring, alone at last, the excitement inside the MGM Grand finally achieved the core objective of the city in which it resided: marvelously draining the world of all its meaning to deliriously indulge in the potion of some shameful obsession. Vegas, like this fight, knew its customers and finally had them by the shorthairs. After the last celebrity took their seat at ringside, the national anthems were sung, Michael Buffer's raw-voiced entreaty to Rumblllllle, referee Kenny Bayless's last instructions, finally Pacquiao and Mayweather tensely stared across an illuminated canvass at one another, awaiting the bell.
What strip-mining took from nature, boxing once again did with American culture, the majestic confusion between price and value never reaching more profound resonance.
Looking up at his dad from the stool, this time Mayweather is told to “Bang ’im up, man!” Big Floyd has been winging more action in front of Little Floyd between rounds than any leather Pacquiao has thrown all night. While Leonard knocked out Big Floyd decades before, Senior still seems game to take on this generations’ best, far more so than his son does.
All Mayweather’s agenda has ever been is to game the system. Pacquiao makes one last attempt at stalking but his activity remains measured and cautious, his punch rate glacial. He has nine minutes to salvage more than just his paycheck from the highest profile night in boxing history, but he cannot match Mayweather’s reach or timing or foot speed. He desperately tries to will himself toward asserting an exchange but Mayweather, by now, has unriddled his foe’s attack and found all the necessary escape routes.
“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it.”
ome matchmakers we proved to be. We all should have known Mayweather never kisses on a first date. All it cost was $74 million in ticket sales and three minutes for the audience to know these two just weren’t right for each other. With a nearly full moon fighting the Luxor Sky Beam for attention outside, perhaps the mood was all wrong.
Still, it looked promising from a distance. Many things out here do. Pacquiao had gamboled to the ring to meet Mayweather like he was coming down the stairs on Christmas morning. He even brought Mayweather a song they played over the speakers. But from the moment we saw Mayweather’s tense, chilling glare, it was clear Pacquiao had an uphill battle in getting him to put out. Once the bell rang, Mayweather refused any of Pacquiao’s earnest overtures toward taking their first date somewhere he didn’t want it to go. Whether the two had anything like the chemistry of Ali-Frazier, or almost any combination of Hagler, Hearns, Duran or Leonard—well, after Pacquiao spoiled everything by actually trying to make it a fight, we’ll never know. Even the dejected Duran-Leonard II, forever known for Duran’s dismissive rejection, “No mas,” still had more sex appeal than the tense, frigid, dinner date between Pacquiao and Mayweather at the MGM Grand.
The moment Pacquiao threw caution to the wind and pounced in, trying to inject some romance, all Mayweather offered him was one of many of the night’s awkward consolation hugs. Pacquiao threw a handful of hissy fits for the next few rounds after that, mostly at the air, and Mayweather kept the hugs coming. The so-called “Fight of the Century’s” referee Kenny Bayless, Floyd’s favorite chaperone on his bi-annual outings at the MGM, looked on like a mildly concerned, yet supportive surrogate uncle chaperoning our era’s two defining pound-for-pound champions. He was even gracious enough not to interrupt the hugging fest with anything as overbearing as a warning. He let them snuggle.
Mike Tyson looked on from ringside. He was quoted not long after as saying, “We waited five years for that?”
In the MGM, they used to complain that Tyson and Don King had cynically ripped off the buying public, knocking out second-rate competition. Oh, how those looked like the glory days mid-way through this fight. It all started with Tyson’s first fight after getting out of prison, 20 years before Mayweather-Pacquiao, against Peter McNeeley, a bout which lasted all of 89 seconds. I tried to interview McNeeley over the phone about what it felt like to share that dance card which, for its time, was the most lucrative fight in history.
“I’ve taken too much punches to talk about anything without gettin’ paid.” he said. “I’m a broke ass nigga.”
For 36 minutes, Mayweather did Tyson and King even better, and provided a master class in stand up. He demonstrated to some of the biggest names in comedy, watching from the audience, how they, too, might one day earn a nine-figure payday by showcasing an entire performance of set ups without ever delivering a punchline.
Or maybe the whole thing was one enormous inside joke. Hollywood’s A-list actors in the crowd should certainly recognize a phoned-in role, just as any music superstar considering a Vegas residency understands the virtues of lip-synching. And if they didn’t, Jamie Foxx’s painful live performance during the National Anthem provided an example.
But when it ended, neither of the fighters seemed guilty over what they had done to earn $300 million dollars to perform for only 36 minutes.
Afterward, when Mayweather’s hand was raised to a resounding chorus of boos, he congratulated his opponent and corner.
Mayweather laughed, grabbing Pacquiao, suddenly his partner, affectionately behind the neck and finally giving him a hug that meant something. George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Ocean’s 11 were never so close.
He saved his venom for his paying customers, climbing atop the turnbuckle at one point to declare, “Give me my belts! Strap me up!”
Then he took a moment to enjoy the view. Floyd Mayweather, ever the one percenter, finally enjoyed the supreme reward of the evening, savoring that he could look down on everyone.
The actors at ringside lay witness to a bloodless, soulless, third-rate blockbuster script played out in the ring, with two A-list talents content to phone in their roles. The audience has gambled more money to view this vapid spectacle of a gross mismatch than they did at the Super Bowl, and Mayweather preens with the spiteful satisfaction, knowing that only he alone in this arena could gain so much risking so little. All Mayweather’s children, even Koraan, who called his father “a coward,” sit spellbound at ringside, watching their father dominate the champion rounds. He provides a cartoonish ability to avoid any consequence from Pacquiao’s attack.
Pacquiao briefly corners Mayweather, but wherever he looks to find an opening, Mayweather’s gloves and elbow and forearms are already there. Mayweather opens up with some wide, wild rights that slam against Pacquiao’s temple, that intimate that he could finish this if he wanted.
He doesn’t. Way ahead on the scorecards, Mayweather feels no urgency to close out the show. He knows he will not lose, and that has always been the goal.
“Exaggerate the essential, leave the obvious vague.”
—Vincent van Gogh
idnight, May 3, 2015. Somewhere in the Mojave desert, Floyd Mayweather roamed under the moonlight in the belly of a limo. With a $100 million check in his pocket as a primer for the most profitable joyride in history, finished only a few hours before back at the MGM Grand, the night was still young and he had some time to kill before the backend receipts were tallied. Wrapped in the soft lambskin leather seats, even if he compared his childhood to Michael Jackson’s and one day chose to build his own Neverland Ranch-style monument to arrested development, on this day, if he drove six hours southwest, he could buy the real Neverland and still have plenty of money left over. Or, after paying Suge Knight’s bail, he might wish to pay a visit to the Ghost of Christmas Future and drive six hours or so north and visit O.J. Simpson in the Lovelock Correctional Center in Reno. There are plenty of interesting places to go and people to see now that he has some free time on his hands.
But after achieving the defining victory of his life, at the press conference, he talked about retirement. In a completely consistent gesture with his man of the people image - burning Benjamins in clubs and all - he wanted to give back all of the belts he’d won so other less fortunate folk could cut in on the action he’s enjoyed. He wanted to give back. All his children listened attentively, including Koraun, who had been quoted across all media as sizing up his father as a coward at the age of 10 after watching his mother being viciously battered before his eyes and then enduring his father’s spineless lies about it.
Mayweather and Koraun made headlines the previous year after Mayweather bought his son a gold Bentley golf cart for his birthday. “Stay on the look out for his 16th gift,” Mayweather tweeted. Well, let’s hope he’s able to attend Koruan’s party. Because without Floyd’s potential earning power at stake for Vegas, the next time Mayweather takes a swing at a woman, the “justice system” might not be so understanding. Of course, he’ll have every other conceivable advantage his money will buy, but he hasn’t made a lot of friends in the sport these last 20 years who weren’t on the payroll.
With Pacquiao more annulled than vanquished, and Mayweather threatening to find other pastures (happy voyages!), the legacy of this fight struck most observers and commentators alike as the worst rip-off boxing has delivered yet. But could the legacy of Mayweather still keep the sliding door well-oiled?
Quite likely, yes. And back at the MGM, while the cameras were still rolling, two men provided the best answer. One, Roy Jones Jr., had spent some of the evening before the cameras with HBO’s broadcast crew, and the rest behind a microphone covering the fight. The other, Al Haymon, was somewhere at the MGM, boxing’s new kingmaker, a Wizard of Oz behind a portable curtain pulling the strings of the sport’s future for the ignorant, the fearful, the lonely, and those who just want to go home and watch TV.
I only saw Al Haymon for the first time a month or so ago in Brooklyn, nervously pacing back and forth in the dressing room of the Barclay’s Center in a shirt and tie. Anyone else who noticed him back there looked as though they’d encountered a unicorn. We don’t know much about Haymon. He famously refuses to grant interviews. His brother was a pro boxer. He’s a rare public figure in our gnat attention-span age able to remain conspicuous by his absence. Boxing’s answer to J.D. Salinger, he tirelessly works behind the scenes with invisible but very real puppet strings.
Mayweather is boxing’s Roy Jones Jr. 2.0, only infinitely better stage managed and handled. The cautionary career of Roy Jones, perhaps the greatest talent boxing has had since Sugar Ray Robinson, likely provided the blueprint for Mayweather’s success. It suggested an untapped but evolving boxing audience that transcended, at least as far as income, all sport.
Jones was the most majestic force in boxing for well over a decade after he was robbed, like Mayweather, at the Olympic Games in 1988. He climbed from a middleweight championship all the way to the heavyweight crown. But for a disqualification loss, his career was unblemished and, had he retired the next day after hitting Montell Griffin when he was down in 1997, his professional resume and endless potential (he’d win a heavyweight title, after all) might have convinced hardened insiders he deserved consideration as one the top three or four greatest fighters who ever lived.
But even as he kept fighting, Jones, like Mayweather, rarely sought tough challenges in the sport. Instead, he sold himself as a personality as much as a brilliant fighter. He rapped. He played basketball on the same day he fought. The genius of Roy Jones, his unique selling point, was creating the perception Mayweather would harness with considerably more understanding and shrewd calculation: Jones was gaming the system. He defied the establishment and went his own way, mitigating risk at every step of his career path. He developed a fan base inspired as much by his various attempts to leave egg on the face of the man as they were by his victories. Take that. Even now, he defies them, age 46 and still taking their money, still not retired. And still buried in debt to the IRS.
Muhammad Ali stirred echoes of this in his early career, but, unlike Jones, Ali backed it up and fought everybody. Jones avoided most of the big fights available to him. What Mayweather has available now that Jones lacked is an unfiltered access to a broad audience via social media and the cynical undercurrent of rage behind the Money character. While it’s possible he did it on instinct, it’s more likely someone with Haymon’s gift for business strategy helped amplify Mayweather’s message and allowed it to gain traction.
They kept the message simple. Don King hid behind patriotism. Mayweather and Haymon have found an even more lucrative and more vital vein: money. They have trivialized every other value beyond the cynical talking points of “hardwork” and “dedication” to account for their success. But they found a demand and created the perfect character to satisfy it.
Mayweather may be the last resonant American boxing champion, leaving even his detractors salivating at the dog whistle and paying him for the privilege to spit. As the rest of the world dominates boxing and the sport becomes less and less “American,” just like the optics of the rest of the American population, Mayweather’s comfortable old-shoe narrative, grabbing at the life-line of boxing to save him from poverty in the ghetto, then snagging an Olympic medal on the way to turning pro, is reassuring even to those who save him their saliva.
With Mayweather on the way out, Haymon, with 200 fighters under his control and now bringing boxing to television with a war chest in the hundreds of millions, needs a star, the next “Money.”
Out in Omaha, there’s a new name, undefeated Terence Crawford, the WBO light welterweight champion, with a backstory as enchanting and resolute in today’s America as Huck Finn’s once was, another inner city overachiever reaching for the brass ring.
Unlike Floyd Mayweather, he actually likes to fight. No wonder Mayweather’s planning to stop at fight number 49.
For 11 rounds Pacquiao has haplessly attempted to remove Mayweather from the envelope of his defense, and died the death of 1000 paper cuts. Tentacles of light dangle from the rafters as Pacquiao acquiesces to his fate, being outclassed and losing a wide decision, one he will not yet articulate but surely knows as the final bell tolls – no final flurry here – and throws one round fist in the air, impossibly human and small.
He wanders the ring, a wan smile frozen to his unmarked face, and Mayweather EXULTS, fist reaching skywards as if even more money is there, somewhere, for him to grab.
Mayweather climbs a turnbuckle and exclaims, “I know I won! I know I won! He didn’t beat me!” The crowd boos relentlessly. Michael Buffer’s voice is almost gone as the victor is announced. Mayweather folds his arms and stands atop a turnbuckle with the subdued glee of knowing he has picked the pocket of everyone in the arena without any fear of arrest.
He’s the ultimate one percenter in the room, the king of the castle, enjoying, more than anything else, the opportunity to look down on everyone. Now, after 36 minutes of looking not to be hit, and dodging opportunities to hit, now he looks for a fight, his father’s son, challenging the crowd that can’t fight back except to wander off and vow never to return.
The next circle of hell? Pacquiao-Mayweather II. Thank God for a bad shoulder.
urned out and caved in, driving back to LAX at night. Thirty-six hours without sleep and the Mojave Desert feels like a dark room full of deadly objects. Better than the cracked funhouse mirror nightmare in the rearview. Yet all that darkness out in the desert still feels like a balm on my psychic wounds after enduring that fight week and all the other available debased gateway drugs Vegas tries to peddle like some Venus Fly Trap laying in wait.
There’s no complimentary upgrade offered to take the edge off of feeling like a pinned insect in that demented sideshow, an air-conditioned, over oxygenated, feel-free-to-smoke, pina colada-smelling dungeon. Nobody ever spent more money to make anything look so cheap. There’s some unplugged Don Henley steaming pile of horseshit sound track any carpeted direction you take. Every direction ends up feeling like a plank anyway.
No wonder Floyd Mayweather made it his adoptive hometown. They can have each other. He’s the only guy that ever drives away and tells the guy behind the wheel to turn around and go back.
Only now, post-fight, are the moths, the army cutworm, starting to dissipate, seeking sweet nectar from the desert flowers before they breed, migrate back east, drop their eggs and die. As a local reporter quoted a UNLV student on social media, “Two hundred years from now it’s going to be moths and cockroaches battling for supremacy. My money is on the moths.”
His work has previous appeared with ESPN, Slate, SB Nation Longform, Vice and other outlets. You can follow Butler on Twitter at @Brinicio.
Mickey Duzyj is an Emmy-nominated artist and filmmaker, well known for his sports illustrations in books, magazines and online outlets including ESPN, The New York Times Magazine, Victory Journal, Vice, Nike, and others. He lives in Brooklyn. For more, see mduzyj.com.
Author Brin-Jonathan Butler
Art/Design Mickey Duzyj
Developer Graham MacAree
Editor Glenn Stout
Copy Editors Elena Bergeron, Sarah Kogod, Kurt Mensching