Bum’s Rush: Race, “Money,” and the Fight of the Century

There’s a taste of bittersweet in every fight, even the great ones, in that it can only end in one way. As the first bell rings there are a thousand variables and outcomes available–or at least it seems that way. By the close of every round, however, there are fewer and fewer options, until by the end the win/lose/draw–deserved or not–is revealed to be the one, inevitable conclusion all along. We hope because we must, but until we may hop freely between alternate universes beyond our own, the road can only lead where it was paved.

All of this is to say that there was no real reason to believe that the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight would not go the distance and that Floyd would not overwhelmingly outpoint Manny. There was no reason to believe that, having seen Manny’s recent conclusive-yet-non-KO wins against Brandon Rios, Timothy Bradley, and Chris Algieri, he would perform a miracle and knockout a man who had never been knocked out before. There was no reason, if we were really being honest with ourselves, to believe that Mayweather would choose, or even need, to fix a shell-and-counter defensive style that clearly ain’t broke. Yet for those of us in Pac’s corner, hope we did. We hoped that the night’s occasion, the 21st century’s first (and maybe even only) Fight of the Century, would bring out the best in both men, that their inveterate showmanship would shine through their stylistic ruts. We hoped that the millions of new eyes focused on Boxing would enjoy this one night and maybe opt for another one, and relieve us longtime fans of the feeling that we are carrying the sport on our shoulders.

Instead, casual fans were offered a bore and responded with indifference at best, and anger and bigotry at worst. Manny is an aggressive, crowd-pleasing fighter, known for making meals of fighters who were supposed to outmatch him in height and reach. Even at the peak of his powers he was often considered the underdog; consider the ringside commentary during his fights with Miguel Cotto in 2009 and Shane Mosley in 2011, as Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant seem eager to count the perceived disappointments in his performance up until the moment when they must concede that yes, Pac’s victory was conclusive and inevitable. His twin losses to Timothy Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012 seemed to put the brakes on the possibilities of a fight with Mayweather, until he came roaring with Comeback Kid energy and three lopsided decisions in a row. He and trainer Freddie Roach spent the weeks before the fight talking up a new strategy meant to neutralize Mayweather in no uncertain terms.

Mayweather responded by neutralizing Pac instead, in much the same way as he handled aggressive fighter Canelo Alvarez in 2013, by making an impenetrable shell of his left shoulder and issuing precise, responsive right jabs for which Pac seemed to have no answer. It’s to Floyd’s credit that he was able to transform what might have been the fight of his life into just another clinic. His strategy for years has been to win and not get hurt in the process, rather than to knock out his opponent, and his stylistic mastery belongs in a textbook. The problem is that his fights can often be about as exciting as reading a textbook, and for fans hoping for a war to match the hype, like Ali-Frazier I, Hearns-Hagler, or even Pac-Cotto, the night was a disappointment. For Mayweather and his partisans it was another victory in a career of nothing but, and further proof that those who continue to root against “Money” only do so out of ignorance, jealousy, or something worse.

And by something worse, of course, I mean this: a cavalcade of racists tweets and posts directed at Mayweather upon his vanquishing of Pacquiao. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people could only handle the outcome of a boxing match by taking to their devices and publicly, unabashedly calling the victor a nigger. And while we might want to think that these angry rubes are not real fight fans, only lookie-loos attracted to the shininess of the event, the truth is that this has happened before. It happens a lot. And beyond the obvious odiousness of deploying such slurs toward anyone, when it comes to Mayweather it has the unintended effect of marring some very valid reasons to not be a fan of his.

With all the constant media dust (and Justin Bieber) that follows him around like Pigpen, it can be easy to overlook what Floyd Mayweather has accomplished as a boxer and a businessman. Even before cracking open this fight’s $400+ million piggybank, Mayweather was the highest paid athlete in the world. Since leaving Top Rank Promotions in 2006 he served as his own manager and promoter (often working alongside Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions). He has effectively been his own boss for much of his career, keeping his own earnings and gaining the power to fight who he wants, when he wants. In a sport historically associated with the rank exploitation of its fighters, where even the greatest greats often leave the ring far too late, poor and broken, Mayweather stands apart as a man who is poised to retire in peak physical and economic condition.

And it must be said that he is a genuinely great fighter. Not the greatest of all time, as he claims; he very well might have wilted early on if he ever faced the greats of  just a generation earlier–Hearns, Hagler, Leonard, Duran. And he may not be even the greatest fighter of his own era; if aggressiveness and heart count for anything, then he is outranked by Pac, Miguel Cotto, and Shane Mosley. But that 48-0 record was not pulled out of the air, nor were the millions of dollars that have been paid to watch him fight. Floyd will go down in history not just as a great boxer, but a shrewd self-promoter, seizing on the power of social media to fashion himself into a superb 21st-century heel, knowing that for as many people there are who will pay to see him win, there are just as many who will pay to see him finally lose. He is proud and he is self-aggrandizing (and nicknamed himself “Money,” for chrissakes). He is not humble, or gracious, or respectful to his opponents, qualities that we too often demand of athletes, particularly black athletes, and then unduly resent when not present to our satisfaction. We cast him as the flash, the thug, for daring to spend his money and live his life without asking permission first. As it went with Jack Johnson a century ago, so it goes with Floyd Mayweather today. But where Johnson’s enemies would hang effigies from lampposts, Mayweather’s enemies take to Twitter to make their threats of racial violence.

And make no mistake, calling Floyd Mayweather nigger or pinche negro is an egregious attack for which there is no justification beyond the racist vitriol of the attacker. But at the same time, his victimhood from these particular attacks ought not to serve as a shield from the very real, very serious issues which should give his ardent supporters pause. Mayweather is a stellar professional, but that doesn’t mean one can afford to ignore his history of domestic violence, or the fact that his willingness to play the bad guy in the ring is now part and parcel with his status as an unrepentant, inveterate woman-beater. That cannot be overlooked, even as we acknowledge that this too is an area where black celebrities are often held to a less forgiving standard than their white counterparts. Likewise, the substantial wrong of racial invective toward Mayweather does not make right his own ugly social media rants over the years against Pacquiao and Jeremy Lin. And, more prosaically, he is simultaneously the winningest man in the sport today and perhaps its worst ambassador to casual fans, in style and substance. Let’s also not forget the time he sucker punched Victor Ortiz in 2011 to win a fight he was in no danger of losing. There are plenty of reasons not to like Floyd Mayweather, but his race should not, and indeed cannot, be one of them.

Speculation runs rampant as to what will happen now that the Fight of the Century has come and gone. Pacquiao had shoulder surgery this week and now faces up to a year in recovery and training if he ever plans to fight again (the presidency of the Philippines may be calling instead). Mayweather has one more fight left on his contract with Showtime, which, if he wins, will tie Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 record. Perhaps that will be enough for him. Or perhaps he will sell Fight 50 to the highest bidder and make another mint. Or perhaps Fight 49 will finally topple him, be it at the hands of Keith Thurman (new blood), Canelo (fresh off last week’s roust of James Kirkland), Cotto (armed with Freddie Roach and plenty to prove), or even Pac (if the rumor du jour turns out true and their rematch christens the new MGM-AEG arena in 2016). We can always hope, if nothing else.

 

 

 

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