This year’s Oscar-winning film Birdman is an exploration into the fragile ego of a performer whose finest days are resolutely behind him. Michael Keaton’s character is driven to prove the world he is capable of a deeper art than the Hollywood kitch he made his name in, as he struggles with his mortality and everyday failures. We see him constantly mistake praise and acceptance for love. In the end, it’s a portrait of fading masculinity that symbolizes the dents sustained to male heroes in between 2015 and when Keaton himself made millions playing Batman.
In the interim we’ve seen countless fallen men parade through sports: Barry Bonds, Joe Paterno, A-Rod, Lance Armstrong, Aaron Hernandez to name a few; and we’ve also seen a culture of sexual assault and domestic violence in arenas where young men are put on a constant cycle of praise laid bare. Hanging by the slimmest of threads in the fallen man category is Floyd Mayweather Jr., a one-man dynamo of brilliant boxing and loathsome character. Mayweather appears youthful but tells his 38 years when he opens his mouth: he’s a relic of an age where the male athlete could go unchallenged on social issues, and his current role in 2015’s spotlight is an uncomfortable one.
Watching CNN’s Rachel Nichols’ interview with Floyd last fall is just painful to watch. If boxing had an organizing body of control like one of the major league team sports, chances are excellent he’d be relegated to some quiet corner of the world burning the remainder of his athletic skill in relative obscurity. Instead he’s the best boxer in the fight game and world’s highest-grossing athlete.
One can forgive Floyd his third-person narcissism because it serves as insight into a man who has spent about thirty years in nonstop training mode, crafting his body into an eponymous but seperate extension of himself. In between fights, Floyd Mayweather rests from all the work that Floyd Mayweather has done, but he keeps training. Getting paid more money than any god for practicing a constant and devout form of self-worship seems like an even-handed trade off, but it’s shameful to suggest he be forgiven his acts against women on the same grounds. No, Floyd hasn’t cheated or lied or killed anybody, but he did beat up his children’s mother in their presence at least once, and no good vibes over his long overdue sanctioning to allow Floyd Mayweather to fight Manny Pacquiao should forgive that. That kind of thing sticks with you.
We know that Mayweather is obsessed with his undefeated record, with his branding of “TBE”, willing himself somehow to the dais of Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong, Archie Moore. But when his fighting days are done, he’ll be remembered as one of sport’s most cynical superstars; a man who built a brand out of a self-centered misanthropy he felt compelled to establish in order to get rich. Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, mistaking a chip on his shoulder for a 4 x 4; “determined to prove a villain, and hate the idle pleasures of these days.”
I suppose you can’t argue with money, even if you have a bone to pick with Money. It’s hard to tell the line where shrewd marketing meets sinister politics, so for his part in the self-management of his brand and arc, he’s approaching a class of business art we haven’t seen since Muhammad Ali. The man who has been nothing but a pseudo-rival all these years until now, Manny Pacquiao, builds his brand out of a practiced humility that somehow remains relatable across time, culture, and language. But Pacquiao’s considerable fortune doesn’t even come close to Mayweather’s.
But give him this: Floyd earned every cent.
The biggest money in boxing has been in the heavyweight division since the 60s featuring stars with violent knockout power. There’s something very natural about the curiosity around who the baddest man on the planet is. Even though boxing entered a dark age of heavyweights, it’s damn near miraculous that a 5’8” welter who really hasn’t knocked anyone out since 2007 has achieved what Mayweather has. His success isn’t only due to his endless self-promotional shenanigans, he’s taken the “defensive fighter” label to new heights of marketability. It’s not just that he doesn’t get hit, it’s how he doesn’t get hit and how manages to land brush-stroke counter shots. His head movement, hand speed, and blocking are peerless. His performances are masterpieces. Even if most viewers tune in to see if Mayweather finally gets beat, his athletic skill is universally recognized. He’s never really been hurt in a fight, but the moments where we’ve seen him uncomfortable are amazing enough that rematches become valid possibilities.
On top of his ring prowess, you have to also hand it to Mayweather on the business front. He handles his own promotions and he’s careful who he let’s into his circle, avoiding entirely the rancorous disputes between fighter and promoter that’s woven into the sport’s fabric. He doesn’t pay rent, he owns.
For years we’ve been hearing the story about Floyd ducking Pacquiao, about him being scared of the Filipino Congressman. We all needed some story to explain to ourselves why the most lovely of matchups in recent fistic history couldn’t happen, but it’s a load of mularkey. Champion boxers don’t live in fear of punches or losses; a boxer who fights scared or timid has usually already lost before the first bell. The real reason, only Floyd could tell, but having this fight always in the background helped TMT promote his more useless fights against Guerrero, Maidana, and Ortiz. It kept the Mayweather-Pacquiao question in a constant hot-take rotation that made most self-respecting boxing writers virtually boycott the topic.
We haven’t seen such aged fighters duel each other at this level possibly since Manila, the city Pacquiao may one day preside over as president of the Phillippines. Of course it would have been great if they had fought closer to their primes five years ago, when Pacquiao was a dervish of pain and Mayweather was knocking people out with left hooks, but there’s zero reason to turn your nose up at this one. Even in their late thirties, both are still top five in pound for pound rankings. And they’re both fighting for their entire legacies, the only thing besides money to comfort them in the years ahead as the world slowly forgets about them.
Photo Credit: Esther Lin/SHOWTIME®