By Kieran Mulvaney
It has been, as two songwriters of some repute once observed, a long and winding road. But after five years, several rounds of negotiations, a combined 16 fights on two continents against other opponents, and countless speculative column inches, cable TV minutes and social media postings, boxing’s biggest and most eagerly anticipated matchup is finally official.
Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather will meet at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on May 2.
At stake, nominally, will be each man’s welterweight title, but the two belts up for grabs are the least of the prizes on offer. The winner will not just be the true welterweight champion. He will be even more than the undisputed number one pugilist, pound-for-pound, in the world. He will lay an uncontestable claim to be the best boxer of his generation. Both will emerge as very rich men, earning more money in one night than even they have ever pocketed at any stage in their glittering careers. But as much pleasure as such riches will bring, the winner will surely derive even greater satisfaction from putting the debate to rest and emerging victorious against the man whose name has been uttered in connection with his own with infuriating, suffocating frequency.
For all that Mayweather’s torch-passing 2007 win over Oscar De La Hoya was inaccurately proclaimed as “The Fight to Save Boxing,” his clash with Pacquiao is almost certainly the most highly-anticipated meeting since Lennox Lewis bludgeoned Mike Tyson in Memphis in 2002. But to find a more accurate comparison we have to reach back 30 years or more, when undefeated welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard squared off against – and shockingly lost to – former lightweight kingpin Roberto Duran in 1980, or when Leonard rallied to stop fellow welterweight title holder Thomas Hearns the following year, or when Hearns battled middleweight champion Marvin Hagler in two-and-a-half astonishingly violent and captivating rounds in 1985.
The reason many boxing fans and historians look so fondly on the era of what writer George Kimball dubbed “The Four Kings” is not only that Hagler, Hearns, Leonard and Duran (and Wilfred Benitez, so often the forgotten man in the group) fought each other, but that when they did so, they were pound-for-pound the very best in the world. For all the hype that accompanied Lewis-Tyson, neither could reasonably claim such heights at that stage of their careers: one year and one fight after defeating Tyson, Lewis would retire from the sport, and Tyson – already a spent force by the time he fought Lewis – would follow him into retirement two years later, no longer able to overcome even the likes of Danny Williams or Kevin McBride.
Having the two best boxers in the world in or around the same weight class as each other is an occurrence that is all too rare, and when it happens, the desire to see them take each other on is overwhelming. That is what has sustained interest in this contest over five frequently frustrating years, and it is a testament to both men that they are now, as they were when this fight first seemed on the verge of fruition in 2010, numbers one and two on most pound-for-pound lists. There was a brief period when that was no longer the case, when Juan Manuel Marquez not only rendered Pacquiao unconscious but also seemingly knocked out the prospect of, or even the desire to see, the Filipino facing the American. But Pacquiao's six-knockdown win over Chris Algieri served notice that the fighting congressman from Sarangani province was again a force with which to be reckoned. With Marquez losing to Tim Bradley (who in turn lost to Pacquiao) and Andre Ward benching himself, Mayweather and Pacquiao are once more alone at the top of the heap.
The case can certainly be made that, like Lewis and Tyson, Pacquiao and Mayweather are past their peaks. But that likely won’t matter: after all, the best fight of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy is widely held to have been the third one, partly because by then they had both diminished enough that they couldn’t avoid each other’s punches. And if the physical gifts are a little less than they were in 2010, the stakes are arguably even higher: five years of sniping, failed negotiations and rancorous argument have only served to increase the venom. That will make the anticipation so much greater, and victory all the sweeter.