By Thomas Hauser
The contract weight is 147 pounds. The WBA, WBC, and WBO titles will be on the line. But the sanctioning bodies are irrelevant. On May 2 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao will be fighting for the championship of each other.
It’s an event of staggering economic proportions and almost certain to be the most lucrative prize fight of all time. But boxing fans won’t be tuning in on May 2 to see Mayweather and Pacquiao count money. They want to see them fight each other.
For most of the past decade, either Floyd or Manny has been the consensus choice for top pound-for-pound fighter in the world. For much of that time, whichever of them wasn’t ranked #1 was #2.
Mayweather’s legs aren’t what they used to be. Pacquiao is six years removed from his eleven-month peak (December 6, 2008, through November 14, 2009) when he demolished Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, and Miguel Cotto.
But Mayweather and Pacquiao are still two of the best fighters in the world. And the two most marketable.
Mayweather opened as a 5-to-2 betting favorite. The odds have dropped a bit since then but are expected to rise during fight week when the “smart money” comes in.
The case for a Mayweather victory is simple. He’s the naturally bigger man, the physically stronger man, and the more technically proficient fighter. He’s also undefeated, while Pacquiao has five losses and two draws on his record. As Floyd noted at the March 11 kick-off press conference, “When you lose, it’s in your mind.”
Mayweather has three alternative routes to success in Mayweather-Pacquiao:
(1) He can outbox Pacquiao and dictate the distance between them. Either stay too far away for Manny to hit him or smother Pacquiao’s punches. (See Mayweather vs. Juan Manuel Marquez as Exhibit A.)
(2) He can throw Pacquiao off his game by roughing him up on the inside. (See Mayweather vs. just about everyone he has fought, and contrast that with Pacquiao vs. Agapito Sanchez, where a rough, sometimes dirty, approach bothered Manny.)
(3) He might land a big punch and whack Manny out. (See Mayweather’s check hook vs Ricky Hatton and Pacquiao-Marquez IV.)
Can Pacquiao give Mayweather trouble by emulating the strategy that Oscar De La Hoya employed en route to a split-decision loss? Probably not. Part of what gave Floyd trouble against Oscar was Oscar’s size. De La Hoya used his jab effectively in the first half of that fight to score points and break Mayweather’s rhythm. But Manny isn’t as tall as Oscar, nor does he have Oscar’s reach or timing on the jab.
Add to that the fact that Pacquiao isn’t physical enough to force his way inside against Mayweather the way Marcos Maidana did. He’ll have to get inside with quickness and angles against an opponent who’s a master of angles.
Speaking of Mayweather-Pacquiao, Larry Merchant noted, “One guy [Pacquiao] throws bombs. The other guy [Mayweather] defuses them; that’s his priority. One guy's purpose is to hit and not be hit. The other's purpose is to not be hit and hit. In general, defense can shut down offense. Great pitchers shut down great hitters.”
The most forceful advocate for a Pacquiao victory on May 2 is Freddie Roach. As Manny’s trainer, Roach has a vested interest in the proceedings. But over the years, he has been constant in his observations:
* (2009) “I don’t see Mayweather as a great fighter at 147 or 154. Oscar almost beat Mayweather, and Manny didn’t lose ten seconds of any round against Oscar.”
* (2009) “I've thought about Mayweather for a long time now. His style does pose some problems because he's very good at what he does. I know he’s hard to get to, but we will get to him. Manny can match Mayweather's speed and he has better footwork and more balls. Mayweather is a fragile guy. He'll break down. He can't stand up to Manny's pressure.”
* (2015) “Mayweather fights in spurts these days. He likes to lay up on the ropes. He takes a lot of rests in the ring. One of the keys to victory for Manny is to recognize when Floyd is taking a break and to stay on the offensive and keep scoring points. But the big thing is that Manny himself has to recognize when Mayweather is catching a breather. It doesn’t help for me to see it from the corner.”
* (2015) “Mayweather can’t move quite as well as he used to. I think Manny’s power will overwhelm him. He has never been against someone with the speed of Pacquiao. Seeing it is one thing. Dealing with it is another.”
But there are times when Roach admits that Mayweather is a tall mountain to climb: “Without a doubt, it's the toughest fight in the world for us, I know that. I want to start working on some changes, some new moves, some traps we need to set. This is a whole new ballgame. Everything that worked against De La Hoya, everything that worked against Cotto, everything that worked against Hatton, will not work against Mayweather. We have to come up with a whole new game plan.”
But what’s the plan?
Prior to Pacquiao’s fourth and final fight against Juan Manuel Marquez, Roach told this writer, “I’ve had three chances to get Manny ready for Marquez, and I haven’t gotten it right yet. It works perfectly in camp. Maybe this time I’ll say, ‘Okay, Manny. Just go out and f------ kill this guy.’”
Pacquiao-Marquez IV ended with Manny face down, unconscious on the ring canvas.
That said; Pacquiao’s style is dangerous for any opponent, including Mayweather. And Floyd isn’t as good a counterpuncher as Marquez. Juan Manuel lived for the counter and committed to it. Floyd is more likely to pull away from punches without throwing back. If Pacquiao puts his punches together when Mayweather pulls away, he could nail him.
Mike Tyson knows a thing or two about boxing. People tend to lose sight of the fact that he’s a serious student of the game. Analyzing Mayweather-Pacquiao, Tyson recently declared, “Manny is going to feint Floyd out of position a lot and make him throw more punches than he’s used to, and that will open Floyd up. Floyd has never been tested. Whatever happens in the fight, I think he’s going to get hit and hurt more than he has ever before. We’re going to see how tough he is.”
Pacquiao is more willing than Mayweather to gamble in the ring. In the end, that could be his edge. But Manny will need to gamble successfully to win. And most gamblers who come to Las Vegas go home losers.
So . . . What should boxing fans expect from Mayweather-Pacquiao?
Let’s start by cutting through some of the hyperbole. This is not “the most-anticipated fight ever” or “the most important fight ever.” Yes; it will gross an enormous amount of money. But Lady Gaga does bigger numbers than Frank Sinatra ever did. That doesn’t speak to the quality or relative importance of their work. Nobody looks at New England’s thrilling Super Bowl triumph over Seattle earlier this year and says, “Wow! It was memorable because of how much money it grossed.”
There have been many fights that were more important than Mayweather-Pacquiao from a social and political point of view.
Arthur Ashe once said, “Nothing that Frederick Douglass did, nothing that Booker T. Washington did, nothing that any African-American had done up until that time had the same impact as Jack Johnson’s fight against Jim Jeffries on July 4, 1910. It completely destroyed one of the crucial pillars of white supremacy - the idea that the white man was superior in body and mind to all the darker peoples of the earth.”
More people listened on the radio to Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling in the first round of their June 22, 1938, rematch than had listened simultaneously to anything before in the history of the world. That night was the first time that many people heard a black man referred to simply as “the American.”
Millions upon millions of people carried the historic first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in their hearts. Writing in advance of that March 8, 1971, encounter, Mark Kram declared, “This is THE international sporting event of our age, one of the great dramas of our time. The thrust of this fight on the public consciousness is incalculable. It has been a ceaseless whir that seems to have grown in decibel with each new soliloquy by Ali, with each dead calm promise by Frazier. It has cut deep into the thicket of our national attitudes and it is a conversational imperative everywhere.”
Mayweather-Pacquiao pales in comparison with these celebrated encounters and others like them In terms of its social impact. With Johnson-Jeffries, Louis-Schmeling, and Ali-Frazier, the combatants represented opposite sides of a supervening socio-political issue. Here, Pacquiao represents the Filipino people. And Floyd is either admired for his ostentatious lifestyle or disliked for incidents that have left him more familiar than one might like with the criminal justice system.
With Johnson-Jeffries, Louis-Schmeling, and Ali-Frazier, depending on who fans were rooting for, the outcome affected their mood like the death of a friend or the birth of a child. One week after Mayweather-Pacquiao, the result will matter to the Filipino people. Beyond that, a handful of insiders will be counting large sums of money and the rest of the world will have moved on.
Indeed, Mike Tyson had a much bigger impact on the American psyche than Mayweather or Pacquiao. Tyson’s celebrity status exploded out of control. Everyone knew who he was. When Tyson crashed his car, got into a street fight, appeared on Barbara Walters, or was tried and convicted in Indiana, it was on the front page of newspapers across the country. When Mayweather was arrested and went to jail, it was on boxing websites and TMZ.
Because Mayweather-Pacquiao lacks the historical gravitas of boxing’s most socially important encounters, it will be remembered in direct correlation to how good a fight it is. It could be similar to Mayweather’s outings against De La Hoya and Alvarez, which were hugely successful economic ventures but contributed little to boxing lore. Or it could be something more.
In a best-case scenario, Mayweather-Pacquiao will be similar to Sugar Ray Leonard’s first fights against Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns. Those fights captured the imagination of sports fans in advance and, more important, delivered on their promise. They were epic battles.
But Leonard-Duran III (which came almost a decade after their “no mas” rematch) and Leonard-Hearns II (separated by eight years from its predecessor) are best forgotten. The fighters were too old by then.
So let’s give the last word to Ray Leonard, who recently observed, “Mayweather is 38 and Pacquiao is 36. They have looked good in their fights, but you notice them slowing down and getting hit more.”
Then Leonard added, “This fight here is more important than any fight in their life, career, everything. This fight is about bragging rights. This fight is about legacy.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (Thomas Hauser on Boxing) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.