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Before the Bell

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Before the Bell

The biggest fight in a generation has plenty to fascinate, but it’s not quite the old days. April 24, 2015
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Editorial/Getty Images

Tickets finally went on sale Thursday for the May 2 Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao bout at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas—500 tickets, anyway, at prices ranging from $1,500 to $7,500 per seat. The boxers’ promoters and the MGM control the rest, and prices on the “secondary market” will be much higher for what has been touted as “the biggest event in the history of boxing.” It’s certainly the richest: the fight should shatter records for total revenue, live gate, and pay-per-view receipts, to say nothing of the more than $100 million both boxers will haul in (in Mayweather’s case, it’s perhaps closer to $200 million). Boxing remains the only sport whose participants can top the career earnings of other athletes in one night. In fact, Mayweather and Pacquiao will make more than the total payrolls of some Major League Baseball teams.

Fabulous payouts for this most controversial of sports go back a long way. Even in the 1880s, John L. Sullivan pulled down more money than anyone in America below robber-baron status. In the 1920s, Jack Dempsey made almost as much in one fight as Babe Ruth earned in his whole career. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier earned more in their 1971 fight—$2.5 million each—than baseball or football players could earn in a career in those pre-free agency days. And Mike Tyson made over $20 million for knocking out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds in 1988, when the highest-paid major league baseball player, Ozzie Smith, made $2.3 million, and the average major league salary was $438,000.

Boxing has faded dramatically in popularity since then, and it remains to be seen whether Mayweather-Pacquiao can resuscitate general interest or whether it serves more as an echo of earlier times, when “fights of the century” happened often. Still, there is the money, which has grown to such absurd increments by now because of pay-per-view, which bestows casino-like riches on the best fighters. Pay-per-view also hastened boxing’s decline, though, by taking it off free television for a generation (it recently returned), removing boxers from the popular conversation. That’s why Pacquiao’s promoter, Bob Arum, was right to say that this event can’t compare with big fights of the past, for which “the world stopped,” as he put it, to learn the outcome. Our 24/7 media and entertainment machine stops for little anymore, and for many people, boxing won’t even be the most important sport on the menu on May 2. It’s Kentucky Derby Day and more besides.

Things were different in March 1971, when Ali and Frazier fought for the first time, in Madison Square Garden. The two rivals made the cover of Time, then an important cultural barometer. About 300 million people around the world saw the closed-circuit television broadcast, and legend has it that the warring sides in Vietnam took a break from hostilities to watch. In 1938, when Joe Louis fought Germany’s Max Schmeling, 60 million Americans—nearly half the nation’s population then—tuned in to the NBC radio broadcast. Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler listened, too. Closer to our own time, Mike Tyson’s fights enjoyed similar mass attention. Tyson was the last in a line of American boxers—Ali, Louis, Dempsey, Jack Johnson—who attained fame comparable only with ubiquitous cultural figures like presidents or movie stars.

Floyd Mayweather may be the richest athlete in history, but he isn’t famous like that. Nor, at least in America, is Manny Pacquiao, who hails from the Philippines. What separates the May 2 fight from its predecessors is that millions in the United States will have no prior knowledge of or opinion about its principals. That’s ironic considering what strong personalities they are.

Pacquiao is so easy to like that more Americans may wind up rooting for him than Mayweather, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. An explosive fighter in the ring but soft-spoken and humble outside it, Pacquiao devotes considerable resources to fighting poverty in his country. “The social welfare system in the Philippines is called Manny Pacquiao,” says Arum, and the crime rate is said to plunge there when he fights. Pacquiao’s rise from impoverishment to become one of boxing’s legendary champions—he’s won titles at eight different weights, a record—has given him a stature resembling that of a deity among Filipinos. He might become president of the country someday; he’s already a sitting congressman from Sarangani province. His interests extend beyond politics. He announced recently that he was giving up on his singing career—no great loss, given his taste for mawkish seventies love ballads—but then turned around and recorded a song for the Mayweather fight, dedicated to the Filipino people. He’s also a professional basketball player back home, where criticism of him is not welcome. One former NBA player was bounced out of Filipino basketball (and fined) when he questioned Pacquiao’s hardcourt talents; a team official likened it to insulting Martin Luther King Jr. Still, for all his popularity, Pacquiao’s penchant for drink and non-spousal affection nearly derailed his career and his marriage before he committed himself to Christianity. And allegations continue to follow him—though with no proof—that, somewhere along the line, he made use of performance-enhancing drugs.

One of those dropping such hints was Mayweather himself, who, in this and most other areas, is no courter of public affection. In his persona as “Money” Mayweather, Floyd revels in his wealth and in his own general wonderfulness. “All roads lead to Floyd Mayweather,” he likes to say, whatever that means. He has filmed himself surrounded by piles of greenbacks, and he likes the feel of, say, $10,000 in cash in his pocket as walking-around money: “You never know when you might need a Brioni shirt.” He bristles at even gentle criticism and sees adversaries and conspirators everywhere, not surprising instincts for a kid whose home life was capsized by the drug problems (and prison sentences) of those dearest to him and who learned early on to look out for Number One. So shrewd has he been in steering his own career that it seems likely that the antipathy he arouses is, at least to some degree, part of the manipulation. But it’s not all a game: he served a brief sentence in 2012 for domestic battery. His evident intelligence is no brake on his consistently boorish behavior, as when he branded Pacquiao a “little yellow chump” in a 2010 video rant. HBO boxing commentator Jim Lampley called Mayweather “an often aggressively distasteful human being whose behaviors are a blight on the boxing landscape.” In the ring, though, Floyd is a wizard, one of the great defensive specialists in the sport’s history, eager to remind everyone—including Pacquiao, at the press conference announcing the bout—that he has never lost. His 47-0 record proves, at least to his mind, that he is The Best Ever (the Greatest label is taken).

Who wins? The smart money is on Mayweather, as he would be first to tell you. (Haven’t you heard? He’s unbeaten.) But at 38 and 36, respectively, Mayweather and Pacquiao have both lost a step, and maybe more, from their career peaks. Each fights in a style that causes the other trouble. It may come down to who has the faster hands. Decades ago, boxing archivist Jim Jacobs ran film of Ali and other greats through a simulator to measure, in frames, how long it took their punches to arrive. Jacobs determined that Ali’s jab took fewer frames to reach its target than anyone else’s.

Now, if someone would replicate that experiment with Pacquiao and Mayweather, I might know which way to bet. Except I never bet.

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