On May 2, the world will be watching as Floyd Mayweather faces Manny Pacquiao. Ronnie McCluskey previews the boxing bout of the century
Floyd Mayweather. Manny Pacquiao. Two larger-than-life personalities who have, in their own unique ways, transcended the sport of boxing. The former is, by some margin, the world’s highest paid athlete, the latter a Filipino national icon who, in addition to a glittering ring career, fulfils duties as a Congressman in his homeland and as the player-manager (despite standing just 5’ 6½) of a professional basketball team. On May 2 2015, the pair will square off in the richest prizefight of all time. Two knuckleheads having a donnybrook this ain’t. You could say it’s a meeting of more than just boxers.
36 minutes from immortality
Prior to the fight being announced this past February, negotiations for a Mayweather-Pacquiao showdown had rumbled for six long years. During that time, the clamour for the contest had been ceaseless; calls from frustrated fans to ‘make the fight’ began, as time wore on, to resemble endless voices resounding in an echo chamber. The whole imbroglio threatened to resolve itself several times, with the principals bumping heads over issues as disparate as drug testing protocols and purse splits. At one stage, the mild-mannered Pacquiao even sued Mayweather for defamation, the latter’s camp having accused ‘Pacman’ of using performance-enhancing drugs. The case was settled out of court, doubtless for a sum considered princely by we mere mortals, but a drop in the ocean for the self-styled ‘Money May’.
It is not by happenstance that Mayweather-Pacquiao represents the most lucrative 36 minutes in boxing history. It is a meeting of the generation’s best, most iconic fighters. It is a clash of fighting styles, personalities and cultures. Indeed, you’d have a hard time finding two people as different to one another as Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. It’s part of the fight’s appeal: they are diametrically opposite both as fighters and as men.
Born to fight
38-year-old Mayweather, who entered the paid ranks in 1996 as an Olympic bronze medalist fresh from the Atlanta Games, has never lost a pro bout; indeed, his defeat in those home games was highly contentious – but that’s another scandal for another day. Lil’ Floyd picked up his maiden world title just two years later, as a buoyant, fresh-faced 21-year-old, and has claimed championships in five weight classes, from super featherweight (130lbs) to super welterweight (154lbs); he is currently the WBC and WBA welterweight champion. His longevity, to offer context, is pretty unique in the sport. Joe Louis is rightly celebrated for enjoying a 12-year reign as world’s heavyweight champion, but the ‘Brown Bomber’ by age 38 had been knocked out by Rocky Marciano, in as clear a passing-of-the-torch match as there’s ever been. He was also a year into retirement. More recently, Joe Calzaghe enjoyed a 10-year run as super-middleweight champion, retiring with a record of 46 wins and no defeats. Calzaghe, however, was maligned for defending his WBO belt on home turf for years, venturing Stateside to face his most dangerous opponent, Bernard Hopkins, only at the end of his career. Moreover, Calzaghe’s level of opposition – sometimes through no fault of his own – was not a patch on Mayweather’s. In summation, Mayweather’s multi-title, multi-year streak marks him a very special fighter.
[quote_center]He avoided jail time as assiduously as he did the punches of his beleaguered opponents.[/quote_center]
You’ve probably heard of Floyd Mayweather. Then again, maybe you haven’t. It makes little difference; that this bout will shatter all records is a formality. What is important to note is that he is not a simple character. Going by his original moniker ‘Pretty Boy’, the fighter’s early career was well-engineered – coincidentally by Bob Arum, the octogenarian long-time promoter of Manny Pacquiao – and he was earmarked for the kind of fame enjoyed by Arum’s then favourite son, Oscar de la Hoya. Thus it was that in the mid-to-late 90s Arum marketed his starlet as clean-cut, all-American, inspirational – just the kind of pleasing personality whom HBO, America’s premier boxing network, would be happy to showcase. The cinematic backstory, handily, was already in place – Floyd was, and is, the product of a storied boxing dynasty. His father, Floyd Snr, famously fought Sugar Ray Leonard, doing a better job than most to survive ten rounds. His Uncle Roger – known as The Black Mamba – went one better, capturing world titles in two weight classes. Even Uncle Jeff briefly held a version of the world championship. This is a fighter of proud pugilistic lineage. He was, quite simply, born to fight.
And fight he did as that decade wound to a close, capturing the super featherweight title in a dominant display against cagey veteran Genaro Hernández and picking up the accolade for Ring magazine’s Fighter of the Year in 1998, a feat he would go on to repeat in 2007. Mayweather had an easy time of it in those early years, much as he’s had since: title defences; global praise; bags of money. Of course, the landscape of boxing back then was not as it is today and Floyd, a baby in the game, was not a box office attraction. The titans of the era included Roy Jones Jr, Oscar de la Hoya, Evander Holyfield, ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed and Felix Trinidad. Mayweather, despite his obvious gifts, would have to mark time.
[quote_right]He was, quite simply, born to fight.[/quote_right]
Floyd has always had swag, an affinity for rough-edged hip-hop – he formed his own record label, Philthy Rich, in the early 00s – and perhaps, in hindsight, was not cut out for the cultivated role of safe-playing, grin-flashing ‘media darling’. While his performances in the ring were often jaw-dropping – his deconstruction of Diego Corrales in 2001 a particularly vicious example – the popular image of him began to change. Charges of battery against a succession of women dogged the fighter, though the boxing world rarely paid much attention; his actions between the ropes were all they cared about. And Mayweather, until 2012, had not really become entangled in the long arms of the law: suspended sentences, charges ‘dismissed per negotiations’, changed testimonies; he had avoided jail time as assiduously as he did the powerful punches of his beleaguered opponents.
Perhaps realising that the Pretty Boy appellation had become untenable, Floyd morphed into Money Mayweather for his clash with Oscar De la Hoya in 2007. The build-up for the contest dubbed The World Awaits was marked by Mayweather repeatedly taunting and goading the affable Oscar, a move which helped sell the pay-per-view on an industrial scale. When the promotion caught fire, setting a box-office record of 2.4 million buys, it was an indication that Lil’ Floyd – the outspoken villain to Oscar’s popular hero – had crossed over.
The bout itself had about it, like the aforementioned Louis-Marciano fight, a feel that suggested a ‘passing of the torch’ was in order. De la Hoya was 34, a year-and-a-half from retirement, with four defeats on his ledger. Floyd, meanwhile, had recently turned 30, having coasted to 37 mostly one-sided victories. It was clear as day that the younger man was Oscar’s heir apparent, boxing’s next major attraction. And while the Mexican-American had seen better days, he whipped himself into shape with the assistance of Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach and made a fight of it, losing a split decision (that should have been unanimous) on Cinco de Mayo. Floyd has never looked back.
[quote_center]To someone who had sold bread and peanuts on the steaming streets of General Santos, each purse was a brimming pot of gold.[/quote_center]
With The World Awaits, Mayweather more or less single-handedly turned himself into a box office superstar, and for years since has battened on the public’s desire to see him lose. This is not a ready-made attraction who pulled off the trick with éclat, like De la Hoya and Sugar Ray Leonard before him, but one whose loudness, bravado and volatility implored the world to take notice. A gearshift, from the self-assurance of Pretty Boy to the rampant egotism of Money May, ensured that he’d always make headlines. Around that time, Floyd’s favourite bon mot was ‘If it makes dollars, it makes sense.’ It’s a tenet that’s served him well.
His opponent on May 2, Manny Pacquiao, is two years younger and has enjoyed a similarly illustrious career. He turned professional as a skinny, dirt-poor teenager in 1995, far from the bright lights of Las Vegas, in a place called Occidental Mindoro. He did not puncture public consciousness of any kind – and then it was only the marginal world of the hardcore boxing community – until nearly four years later, when he poleaxed Chatchai Sasakul for the WBC flyweight championship in Thailand. By then he had already tasted defeat, suffering an eye wateringly brutal KO at the hands of Rustico Torrecampo in a Manila sweatbox. The fanfare was several years away.
While Mayweather’s first title win springboarded him to a kind of stardom, Pacquiao’s barely caused a ripple. He certainly wasn’t earning six-figure paydays. Even so, to someone who had grown up in a one-room hut, who had sold bread and peanuts on the steaming streets of General Santos, each purse was a brimming pot of gold. He would not let this life-changing opportunity pass him by.
[quote_center]Like a shark in the water he moved into the featherweight class.[/quote_center]
Pacquiao’s rise to boxing’s summit has not been without its difficulties. If Mayweather rode the wave with aplomb, his counterpart has been dunked under the water on more than one occasion. Less than a year since winning his world title, a weight-drained Pacquiao was stopped, again in three rounds, in a firefight with unbeaten Medgoen Singsurat. The knockout was virtually identical to the one inflicted by Torrecampo, a forceful right hand driven into the pit of his stomach, a punch that on both occasions sent him sprawling to the canvas to writhe in pain.
Was it time to call it a day? Not by a long chalk. The dogged flyweight did as before, peeling himself off the floor and re-upping, this time returning as a super bantamweight. He’d outgrown his previous division, and elected to leap both the super flyweight and bantamweight classes in favour of bigger game. Often in the sport bold fighters will ascend to a higher weight class, but rarely do they hurdle two whole divisions. The super bantamweight incarnation of Pacquiao proved to be a handful, attacking with the vigour and pace of a boxer born anew. After quickly capturing the WBC International title, Pacquiao made a string of defences, becoming accustomed to his new body and moving into position for a full title shot. It came in June 2001. This time, the Filipino firecracker battered a game Lehlo Lebwaba for the IBF crown in Las Vegas, at the same arena where he will battle Mayweather on May 2. The Lebwaba fight was his first outside of Southeast Asia, and it was also his inaugural appearance on American network HBO. The power brokers in the company were impressed. It was going to be a hell of a ride.
[quote_right]The unforgiving Pacquiao mopped the floor with him.[/quote_right]
Over the next few years, the Filipino hotshot established himself as one of the sport’s most wildly exciting fighters. He was not yet a ‘star’ in the pay-per-view sense of the word, but fans loved his reckless, swashbuckling style, his meteoric power and a personality, out of the ring at least, that was unfailingly cheerful and polite. Few could have predicted that the pint-sized puncher would one day be christened ‘Fighter of the Decade’, or that he would become boxing’s only eight-division world champion. Unlike Mayweather, he had not been marked out for such lofty heights; he had to knock down wall after wall to get there. And man, did he knock them down. Like a shark in the water he moved into the featherweight class in 2003, stunning everyone by trouncing four-time world champion Marco Antonio Barrera. Then among the sport’s best, Barrera had scalped Naseem Hamed two years prior. The unforgiving Pacquiao mopped the floor with him, stopping the gifted Mexican in 11.
Pacquiao has engaged in some of his generation’s best fights. His 2004 scrap with another Mexican, Juan Manuel Márquez, was firework-filled: after sending an overawed Márquez to the canvas three times in the opening round, Pacquiao had to cope with the experienced champion’s resurgence; the bout ended in a draw. The pair would go on to contest three more fights, Pacquiao winning two tight decisions and, in their last encounter, Márquez scoring a bone-chilling sixth-round knockout. There was the unforgettable seesaw trilogy with Érik Morales, ‘El Terrible’ winning a close decision in 2005 and Pacquiao halting his rival in the rematch; Pacquiao ended the tug-of-war with an empathic third-round KO in the pair’s final encounter. In 2009, Manny briefly took a break from beating down Mexican legends to beat down a Puerto Rican one – Miguel Cotto – in another memorable skirmish.
[quote_center]Floyd lives a hedonistic lifestyle where the dollar is the true deity.[/quote_center]
If Mayweather’s persona changed from the relatively clean-cut Pretty Boy to the outlandish cupidity of Money May, so too did Pacquiao’s, but in a vastly different sense. Where once away from the ring he led a life of partying, drinking and gambling, Manny has in recent years found God. Evangelicalism; ‘I saw two angels, white, long, big wings’; the whole shebang.
Religion elides a pointed difference between these two men. Floyd is known to thank God, in that half-bored, box-checking manner many athletes favour after a pleasing performance, but he lives a hedonistic lifestyle where the dollar is the true deity. Pacquiao, however, prays daily, preaches the Bible and has achieved a deep communion with God: as a result, he declaims that everything is ‘God’s will’; his manna and mojo are given to him by a higher power. This must grant him a serenity equal to – even greater than – that of Floyd and his beloved unbeaten record.
Six years in the making
It’s worth noting that the major breakout fight for both stars was against Oscar de la Hoya. Floyd outpointed the Golden Boy in 2007, while Manny stopped him in eight rounds in 2008. At the time of the latter bout, Mayweather was enjoying early retirement, having elected to exit the sport following his win over Ricky Hatton. With a series of juddering left-hand power shots, Pacquiao filled the vacuum and gave the Michigan native itchy feet. When a rampant Pacman subsequently knocked Hatton cold, the power-shift was complete. Floyd announced his comeback posthaste.
[quote_right]Mayweather punches with a clockmaker’s precision.[/quote_right]
The build-up to May 2 has not, on the whole, seen a renewal of earlier hostilities. The coprolaliac Mayweather has been silent, focused, respectful. Pacquiao, as is his wont, has been a model professional. A detente has been reached: the fight sells itself. There are six years’ worth of build-up powering this event and no need for present engagement between the principles.
So to the big question: Who wins? First, a brief word on the pair’s fighting styles is necessary.
Floyd Mayweather is a boxer of peerless skill and grace. His mind – what the cognoscenti refer to as his ‘boxing brain’ – is a supercomputer of complex fistic calculus. He punches with a clockmaker’s precision, evades punches like he sees the opponent’s arm twitch before he has thought to throw his hand. His punches are almost always clean and accurate and forceful without being thunderous. A stiff left jab to the body is a favoured weapon, slowing opponents down and causing them to think twice about their conviction in a forward march. If an opening presents itself, a hard right hand is dispatched without delay.
A deep-thinking tactician, the man they call Money belongs to the ‘hit-and-don’t-get-hit’ mould. It has not always been that way. In the early years, he recorded mostly knockouts and fought in an exciting, offensive manner. Not that his opponents could hit him: sometimes it was as if the poor fellow had been blindfolded, such was the rate at which his punches missed the intended target. Thus, Mayweather achieved the singular distinction of being an aggressive fighter who left few – sometimes no – openings. Latterly, when competing against bigger guys, he has reverted to pure boxing skills to get the job done, utilising his legs to wheel away from attacks and his signature shoulder-roll defence to frustrate advancing opponents. Once an active fighter who tirelessly threw clusters of combinations with seemingly no effect on his gas tank, the modern Mayweather has wised with his advancing years. With shrewd economy of movement and careful shot selection he preserves his stamina to serve him well in the late rounds. When on those rare occasions he is forced onto the backfoot or trapped along the ropes – as was notably the case versus Castillo and Cotto – Mayweather keeps a cool temperament under fire. His September 2013 fight with unbeaten Mexican Saúl ‘Canelo’ Álvarez – which is the current PPV benchmark – followed a colossal build-up, yet Floyd was undaunted by the enormity of the occasion, picking his younger opponent apart with consummate insouciance; the young Mexican, by comparison, was like a rabbit in the headlights and seemed awestruck by his opponent’s physical superiority.
Between the four ring-posts, then, Floyd is as comfortable as a dominant lion prowling the African savannah. Record: 47 wins, no defeats, 26 KOs.
Last Manny standing
Manny Pacquiao, for his part, fights with all the fury of a demented typhoon. He is extremely quick, both with his hands and with his feet, and he launches unconventional punches from unthought-of angles. Fighting out of the southpaw stance, he throws his vaunted left-hand power punch the way a primitive fisherman might throw a sharpened spear. And I’d wager the resultant blow hurts just as much. The energetic Filipino doesn’t often take his foot off the gas, skipping into punching range and bludgeoning his foe with multiples of swift combinations. He is tireless and redoubtable and unlike any fighter currently competing. In that regard, he is identical to Mayweather: an opponent virtually impossible to prepare for.
[quote_center]He throws his left-hand power punch the way a primitive fisherman might throw a sharpened spear.[/quote_center]
While Mayweather is mostly content to wait for the optimum opportunity to punch, Pacquiao’s engine is rarely given a chance to cool; if his hands are not moving, he is bouncing on the balls of his feet like an acrobat in the wings of the stage. This stylistic quirk means an opponent can sometimes, when throwing, cause the Filipino to lose his balance – but more often than not his quick feet carry him beyond the spectrum of that opponent’s attack. Pacquiao, in his inimitable way, slips continually from side to side, forward and back, sending out quick right-hand jabs and launching the left, sometimes directly to the stomach, other times down the middle. When warmed up, he likes to let the right hook go, usually to punctuate a combination. If a powerful left is uncorked, Pacquiao is known to jump into it with his whole body, ensuring he is in position to land another flurry while his man remains stunned. The attacks come in waves. Record: 57 wins, 5 defeats, 2 draws, 38 KOs.
Does Mayweather have an Achilles heel Pacquiao might exploit? It’s long been speculated that southpaws are his kryptonite, though the fact that none have beaten him essentially blows this theory apart. Demarcus Corley and Zab Judah did sting him with straight left hands, and Judah’s hand speed bothered Floyd in the early portion of the fight, before Money settled, adjusted and began to outbox him. Robert Guerrero and Victor Ortiz had less success, even if the latter was able to land a few good right hooks on Mayweather’s jaw. One thing’s beyond dispute: Pacquiao is the quickest and most unconventional boxer Floyd will have faced.
[quote_center]If boxing is a ‘dying sport’, the magnitude of this match has stayed the executioner’s hand.[/quote_center]
Alas, there are two sides to that coin. Pacquiao, for all his brilliance, has not battled an opponent possessed of such fierce ring intelligence. The only ones who come close – Juan Manuel Márquez and Érik Morales – gave him all sorts of trouble, accounting for two of the defeats on his record. They also found themselves on the floor a heap of times; Morales was never the same after Manny.
And that’s really the rub: who can predict what will happen? Will Pacquiao’s quickness and agility surprise Floyd? Will Floyd’s Fort Knox defence frustrate Manny? The Filipino is traditionally busier, but will his punch output drop when faced with such a slippery customer? Will Mayweather up his game and work-rate, or reduce the pace to contain a pouncing Pacquiao? They are untold possible permutations. Whomever they support, the fans will hope a mighty battle is in the offing.
If Mayweather accedes to the crowd’s demand for excitement, and ‘sits down on his shots’, he risks becoming mired in a storm: Manny Pacquiao is a fighter few wish to trade-off with. And if Floyd is caught and hurt and retreats to the ropes, he will be fighting against a cacophonous current – not just Manny Pacquiao and his blazing fists but a heated crowd willing him to lose, baying for his blood. Perhaps, though – with paycheck assured and nothing more than victory in mind – Floyd will ignore the clarion call and coolly go about his work, jabbing, moving, blocking punches and generally doing enough to win rounds. If so, the onus will be on Pacquiao to click into top gear, to create something out of nothing.
Then there’s the issue of weight. Floyd Mayweather is a seasoned and comfortable welterweight. He debuted at 147lbs in 2005, and it’s where he has mostly campaigned since. Pacquiao’s first appearance as a welterweight came three years later. As a 147lbs specimen, though, he is almost always the smaller guy – and is on record as saying his ‘natural fighting weight’ is 140lbs. ‘I can even make it to 135’ he claims.
With this in mind, one wonders if Floyd’s natural size advantage will hold any sway in the fight. Mayweather is deceptively strong, as evidenced in his wins over Shane Mosley, Victor Ortiz and Ricky Hatton. Pacquiao is certainly more aggressive, but when competing in close – tangled in the bricolage of one another’s arms, jostling and pushing and leaning on one another – there’s a chance Floyd’s physical gifts will bear out. There’s also a possibility Pacquiao’s speed and awkwardness will overwhelm a fighter more accustomed to functional – and predictable – attacks.
The men who would be immortal
Boxing has often been labelled a ‘dying sport’ but if that notion is true, the magnitude of this match has stayed the executioner’s hand. Numerically it is without precedent, a bout arguably more anticipated than any before. Which is not to say it is without criticism: some commentators have bemoaned that the joust is happening ‘five years too late’, and that the combatants have lost a step in recent years. Where will those people be on the night of May 2? Watching the fight like everyone else.
The principals will do battle for a combined purse totalling in excess of 250 million spondulicks, but immortality, too, is at stake. The winner will have come as close to the pugilistic perihelion as any gone before him: he will feel an indescribable elation, like Leonard after toppling Hagler, Frazier upon beating Ali in the Fight of the Century or Ali after downing George Foreman in Zaire. He will, in short, bask in a spotlight as bright as any shone throughout the annals of sporting history.
It seems certain that boxing will experience a fallow period after Mayweather-Pacquiao. One hopes that the bout lives up to expectation, both to capitalise on its exposure and to inspire the next crop of fighters capable of filling the void. I have a feeling the saga of Mayweather-Pacquiao will, in the future, be dismissed as a Munchausen and by then it might well be; a legend that expands over the years, gathering half-truths, fallacies and hyperbole about it like barnacles.
The stories of these two great fighters befit figures of myth. Next Saturday, their respective paths lead to one another. In the cool Vegas evening, the combatants will be barracked in their dressing rooms at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, following age-old pre-fight rituals. The taping of hands. The loosening of limbs. The calm before the storm. The words uttered by Floyd Mayweather Snr and Freddie Roach are likely to be similar. ‘Be strong. Be brave. This is history.’