Off the mat: boxing’s triumphant (if brief) return in Mayweather-Pacquiao bout

Floyd Mayweather, Jr and Manny Pacquiao will face off on Saturday. Steve Marcus/Reuters

Maybe the most interesting thing about all the hype surrounding Saturday night’s fight in Las Vegas between Floyd Mayweather, Jr and Manny Pacquiao is that we’re talking about boxing at all.

If sports were music, this fight would feel a lot like Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special: that moment when an old star demanded attention again, if only for a moment.

But why is boxing’s moment now? And as the times have changed, should the media be obligated to focus on social issues raised by the fight, like concussions and domestic violence?

A dearth of personable stars

Let’s take a quick look at how we got here.

From John L Sullivan to Jack Johnson, from Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson, boxing has always been a personality-driven sport.

The nature of the game demands it: boxing is primal – it cuts right to the core of our fight-or-flight instinct – and it’s personal. There are just two fighters in the ring; only one emerges on top. It’s natural fans want to feel a connection with the power and glory of a boxing champ. The more charismatic he is, the better.

But a major problem for boxing in the era after the incandescent Ali is the dearth of personalities. Tyson was the last American boxing superstar. Known for lightning-quick knockouts, he was a full-on pop culture icon, a bully built around a menacing persona – black trunks, black shoes, no socks.

Among his famous quotes: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

But Tyson lost to the heavyweight title to Buster Douglas and was never the same. That was 25 years ago.

Mike Tyson was boxing’s last megastar, but he was never the same after being knocked out by Buster Douglas in a 1995 bout. Kyodo/Reuters

It’s not a personality deficit alone, though, that has dragged boxing down. The rise of mixed martial arts (MMA) – a quicker, full-body combat sport – has become popular, to some degree, at the expense of boxing.

MMA is seen as more in tune with the times: Bouts are typically shorter than boxing’s 10- or 12-rounders, and the sport offers a mix of fighting styles.

There are other theories about boxing’s decline. There’s no centralized governing body for awarding title belts, which would add a greater sense of legitimacy to the sport. Some have said its inherent violence is anachronistic, and there’s the new awareness of the dangers of concussions. (Such claims, however, miss that the term “punch drunk” was connected to boxing before 1930. They also don’t explain the rise of MMA.)

This week, Brando Simeo Starkey of The Undefeated argued that racial progress in the United States, as fitful as it may be, has taken the air out of the black-white tension that drove interest in boxing last century.

Starkey notes, for instance, how whites rioted when Johnson punded James J. Jeffries in 1910, and Joe Louis’s 1937 heavyweight title victory over James Braddock sparked celebrations in the streets of black neighborhoods.

It’s notable that even at a time when white fighters were not very relevant heavyweights, Muhammad Ali race baited Joe Frazier, calling him “a gorilla” and a “Tom.”

Bottom line: boxing barely registers, if at all, when Americans are asked to name their favorite sport.

The measure of money

One way to measure the unprecedented demand and hype of this fight is the record-shattering revenue it’s predicted to generate, with payout estimates ranging from $300 million to $400 million.

Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather hams it up for the cameras two days before his fight against Manny Pacquaio. USA Today Sports/Reuters

Mayweather and Pacquiao, fighting as welterweights, can each make a reasonable claim to being the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. Pacquiao, though he lost twice in 2012, has won several boxer-of-the-year awards. His record stands at 57-5-2. Mayweather is undefeated at 47-0, owns most of the welterweight belts and is the highest-paid athlete in the world. (His nickname, of course, is Money.)

For years, fans have been clamoring for a fight between the two, but a deal could never be struck: the two sides argued over drug testing, the purse and other details.

The tactic, whether intentional or not, only increased demand.

Now, a New York Times breakdown predicts hundreds of millions in revenue from a pay-per-view event priced just south of $100 and jointly produced by HBO and Showtime.

There’s also an expected $72 million from ticket sales and another $60 million from sponsorships and closed-circuit sales to US bars and international audiences – not to mention the Super Bowl-style betting or the economic boon to host city Las Vegas.

The media’s problem

So for the first time in decades, there’s a large-scale bout featuring two larger-than-life personalities at the top of their sport. But it’s made things a bit tricky for the sports media, which has gone all-in on their coverage of the superfight.

Underdog Pacquiao is the easy one, a guy who comes with a fistful of storylines. He’s a boxer, but he also sings, acts and is now a congressman in the Philippines.

The problem for the media has been how to handle Mayweather. Known for flaunting his extravagant lifestyle, Mayweather also has an extensive record of domestic abuse. In fact, he’s been convicted five times and was incarcerated for two months in 2012 for beating Josie Harris, with whom he has three children.

To be sure, top boxers have had criminal records before. Sonny Liston’s was lengthy and Tyson was convicted for raping a Miss Black America contestant.

Now, though, we’re in the post-Ray Rice era; following the video of NFL running back Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée in an Atlantic City elevator, a national conversation on domestic abuse has taken place. Should Mayweather’s abuse convictions be central to his coverage? Or is it a story many in the press are likely to skirt in favor of a boxing piece?

Mainstream media outlets seem to be following the lead of ESPN, which has played it both ways. The ESPN investigative show Outside the Lines explored Mayweather’s abuse convictions, with reporter John Barr asking Mayweather about his abusive past.

On the other hand, ESPN personality Stephen A Smith ignored the issue in a one-on-one interview and house tour with the boxer – what Deadspin deemed a “puff piece.”

“The lines between entertainment and journalism, in this and other cases, are blurry,” Travis Vogan, an assistant professor of American Studies at Iowa and author of the forthcoming book ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire, told me. “ESPN often seems content to keep them so and to shift those already hazy boundaries to fuel its entertainment and journalistic goals.”

A fight like no other

Nonetheless, on Saturday night the fight will undoubtedly be mythologized by the media.

For millennials (and maybe for some older fans) the fight at the MGM Grand will be like no other boxing spectacle they’ve ever seen. The hype is something akin to the first Ali-Frazier meeting in Madison Square Garden, a fight so big that Frank Sinatra served as a ringside photographer for Life magazine. The audience Saturday is sure to be star-studded, too.

The match itself calls to mind the second bout between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, the famous “No Mas” fight won by Leonard. As with Mayweather-Pacquiao, that match – fought at 146 pounds – involved an Olympic medalist from the United States against an international boxer carrying the hopes of his own country (Duran was from Panama). But those two fighters had met earlier the same year.

The last minutes of the ‘No Mas’ fight, where Sugar Ray Leonard humiliated Roberto Duran.

But when it’s all over, it will be hard to draw parallels to any other moment in boxing history. The money, the hype of the 24/7 news cycle, the impact of social media – the package will be unprecedented.

Boxing is ready for its comeback.

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