Almost a week has now passed since I sat silently alone in an incipient Madrileño dawn to absorb the biggest prize fight of a generation. My solitude was a function of the general indifference the average Spaniard feels towards the sweet science: particularly bouts that take place at 6am on a Sunday morning. The silence derived from a mortal fear of waking a sleeping six month old in the adjoining room, coupled with an even greater dread of being subjected to hours of the most partisan and ill-informed pro-Pacquiao rhetoric this side of General Santos City. The Spanish may not know much about boxing, but in the past few months they have become extremely well-versed in the established Manny equals good, Floyd equals evil narrative.
Such dichotomies, forced or otherwise, are nothing new in an individual sport unable to rely upon the rabid tribal allegiances of team sports for its lifeblood. But since boxing began its slow slide out of the mainstream consciousness, right around the time the Four Kings entered their twilight and Tyson imploded, the rise of contrived polarity as a marketing tool has gathered pace.
Sport is drama and, like all good theatre, the success of the storyline is dependent upon the audience connecting with the portrayal of a character and his foe. It is largely irrelevant what emotion forges this connection – love, empathy, loathing, awe, whatever. All that matters is that enough people feel enough of something to want to watch an athlete in the boxing ring, or on the tennis court, or on the golf course etc. over and over again.
Floyd Mayweather made life easy for the boxing screenwriters when he arrived on the scene tailor-made for the role of the despicable devil. The arrogance, profanity, offensive pecuniary extravagance and, especially, the domestic abuse convictions, demanded he play the bad guy. Yet, there were signs in the build-up and aftermath of this, his 48th outing, that he has tired of being so negatively typecast.
There was precious little bombast or provocation from Mayweather this time around: it simply wasn’t necessary to sell the tickets. Despite his wealth and undoubtedly extensive wardrobe, even Floyd must be running low on headgear after the number of hats he took off to acknowledge the tough competitor he was scheduled to face, every time someone sought his views on Manny.
But a mega fight is not just an opportunity for the two main protagonists to cement legacies and line pockets, it is also the moment that every scribe and commentator, from the distinguished to the two-bit, looks to make a name for themselves.
In an era in which journalistic success is increasingly defined by the quantity of clicks, shares and comments a writer can generate, a moral-high-ground piece detailing Mayweather’s crimes and articulating why he must be shunned and hated is a guaranteed winner. And while some will argue it unfair to continue digging up the murky past of a man who was judged by a jury of his peers and served his time five years ago, many more believe you lose the right to decide what is fair the instant you physically assault a woman. For obvious reasons it is an emotive and highly charged debate.
It seemed, however, that a relatively subdued Mayweather was irked by more than just the determination to forever define him, first and foremost, as a woman beater. With the vast majority of the coverage adhering so strictly to the preordained narrative of the Money v Pacman rivalry, the Filipino was largely granted a free pass by the media hordes. The Angel’s tricky questions tended to be left unasked and this apparent hypocrisy was clearly not lost on the Devil.
Mr Pacquiao, as an elected representative of your people, how do you feel about spending so much time away from your constituency on personal non-political related matters? Mr Pacquiao, are you going to pay the $93 million in unpaid taxes that the US and Philippine governments are claiming from you? Mr Pacquiao, in a country in which a new case of HIV is diagnosed every three hours, how can you still preach against the use of contraception? Mr Pacquiao, why are you so against equal rights for homosexuals? Four questions you will never hear in a Manny Pacquiao press conference.
But this is the game and Floyd knows it. He has played it, and miked it, for almost twenty years and, with millions tuning in to every fight in the hope of seeing him bloodied and unconscious on the canvas floor, being the asshole has made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. It is a little late to start getting so sensitive about it now.
He may be on safer ground when taking umbrage at the reluctance to recognise his greatness in the ring, however. As Manny besmirched his angelic image with classless post-fight nonsense and excuses, Floyd appeared genuinely hurt by the paucity of bona fide congratulations from his pound-for-pound rival. Magnanimity always flows more freely from a victor’s mouth, of course, but even so, Manny took a one-punch defeat to Márquez and a robbery against Bradley with infinite more grace than he accepted this schooling by a vastly superior fighter than those two.
“I thought I won the fight.” “He didn’t do anything.” “I got him many times.” “He was moving around too much.” “He’s not strong like previous opponents.” Just a selection from the platter of baloney and sour grape sandwiches Manny served up in the post-fight press conference.
His trainer Freddie Roach, meanwhile, that softly-spoken provocateur and perhaps the greatest subtle-shit-stirrer in all of boxing, rarely misses a chance to caricature Mayweather’s defensive skills as ring cowardice. “He ran very well,” was Roach’s considered, and entirely disingenuous, opinion of the American’s performance at the weekend.
Huge swathes of the media, both boxing and mainstream, are also unwilling to consider Floyd’s claims of pre-eminence. The Best Ever is certainly pushing it, but he has been untouchable this generation and with a more palatable persona, stronger arguments to place him alongside Greb, Duran, the Sugar Rays et al. in the pantheon of all-time boxing greats would almost certainly be made.
Perhaps by extension, many commentators were also keen to downplay the historical significance of the fight itself. There is nothing truly historic or meaningful about this bout, some loftily opined, before describing it as little more than a great, big, dirty, corporate business transaction. But the intimation that this event lacked the social relevance of a Joe Louis fight, or Muhammad Ali’s very existence, is plainly wrong. As Ben Dirs touched upon for the BBC, boxers, like the rest of us, are simple products of their time.
The Brown Bomber fought with the spectre of World War Two casting the darkest of shadows over Europe, and ongoing institutionalised discrimination against his Black community a fixture at home. The enduring relevance of defeating the reluctant Nazi idol, Max Schmeling, or gaining acceptance from the white establishment via sporting prowess, was a function of the state of the world in the 1930s and 40s. Likewise, the turbulent backdrop of the Vietnam War and the climax of the American Civil Rights movement provided the perfect launch pad for Ali to rocket into the political consciousness and leave such a lasting mark in the 60s and 70s.
So while Louis boosted his earning potential by playing the grateful, Black, Nazi-slayer, and Ali cashed in on being the defiant and divisive racial and political firebrand, to maximise his gains in the opening decades of the 21st century, Floyd was required to be more Wolf of Wall Street than Captain America or Malcolm X.
He is a child of a time and a country and an exploitative culture that personifies the neoliberal capitalist ideals which aggressively prioritise the relentless pursuit of profit above all else. The dominance of this system has controlled the global political discourse over the past four decades and, in that context, what could possibly be more socially relevant than a Las Vegas show which generates obscene amounts of wealth for all concerned and causes privileged others to gleefully part with more than $300,000 just to sit and watch the 36 minutes of entertainment?
With the non-disclosure of Pacquiao’s shoulder injury now giving the entire spectacle the look of one giant legitimised con, was the so-called Fight of the Century in effect just another financial scam? Just a miniscule version of the collateralised debt securities trades and other dodgy financial engineering that brought the global economy to its knees seven years ago?
Manny was fully aware his damaged rotator cuff negated whatever chance he had of victory and yet he and his team laughed and selfied their way from press conference to weigh-in to ring. No doubt a sense of gallows humour comes easier when you know you’re leaving the gibbet around $100 million better off. Perhaps the Lehman Brothers’ executives who cashed in their substantial chips on the eve of bankruptcy back in 2008 can relate.
Fifty years from now, political and social historians will look back upon our generation with the same sense of wonder the past is always regarded with. And if they search for the sporting contest that best symbolises our era and encapsulates the predominant spirit of our time, Mayweather Pacquiao is what they will unearth.
That may be a pretty sad indictment of society today but neither Floyd nor Manny should be blamed for it. Of course Floyd Mayweather is no Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali: but no boxer, sportsperson, nor member of any other walk of life today is. We live in a very different time. A time in which cash, or in the sport of boxing, Money, remains king.