There are many ways to keep score, but in today’s bottom-line world, whoever racks up the most cash often is presumed to be the winner. And when you’re talking about a boxing match whose principal revenue-producer’s nickname is “Money,” it’s only natural that the magnitude of the financial bonanza is a major topic of discussion.
There is no disputing that the May 2 pay-per-view pairing of WBA/WBC welterweight champion Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr. (47-0, 26 KOs) and WBO welter titlist Manny “Pac-Man” Pacquiao (57-5-2, 38 KOs) will be the highest-grossing prizefight ever. Projections are for total revenues exceeding $300 million, which would shatter all records, with Mayweather expected to add another $120 million or so to his net worth of $280 million. Pacquiao, on the short end of a 60-40 split, will have to “settle” for $80 million or so to add to a personal fortune estimated at $100 million, although it can be said that a dollar buys a lot more in his native Philippines than it does in the United States.
As might be expected, the income-generating aspects of Mayweather-Pacquiao were a major topic of discussion at Wednesday’s press conference at the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, which was nearly as glitzy as the Academy Awards show in the same city just 18 days earlier. There was a red carpet, of course, and over 700 credentialed media from around the world were in attendance. It’s almost amazing that Floyd and Manny didn’t wear designer tuxedos when they stepped onto the stage.
It didn’t take long for anyone holding a microphone to focus on the almost incomprehensible amount of money this fight – which had been in a holding pattern for five years – figures to tally.
“They’re calling this the biggest payday in sports,” said Brian Custer, who, along with Kieran Mulvaney, co-hosted the offstage portion of the globally streamed presentation. “There’s no other sporting event that has generated the type of money that they expect that this fight will generate. When Floyd Mayweather fought Oscar De La Hoya, it set so many box-office records, especially when you talk about pay-per-view buys – 2.48 million. Bob Arum (the CEO of Top Rank, who promotes Pacquiao) says he expects this fight to do three to four million. Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather generated $150 million. They expect this fight to generate $300 million.”
Leonard Ellerbe, the CEO of Mayweather Promotions, got the gig as emcee at the podium and he, too, hammered home the point that every revenue stream is apt to turn into a raging, flood-level river.
“Hello, welcome to this amazing moment in boxing and sports history,” Ellerbe said. “We’re very excited to be making history today by officially announcing the biggest boxing event in the history of the sport, and one of the biggest events ever in all of sport – Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao.”
In introducing Mayweather, Ellerbe again referenced the spreadsheet logic that the worth of this fight is largely tied to its financial implications, and to Mayweather’s status as the world’s No. 1 PPV attraction.
“He’s been named the world’s highest-paid athlete by Forbes magazine, ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated, which is truly a testament to his great popularity around the world,” Ellerbe said. Showtime ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. also touched on the familiar theme, calling Mayweather “the pay-per-view king” who is “recognized as the world’s highest-paid athlete, for good reason.”
All well and good. But to me, and I’m sure a lot of other fight fans, rich guys getting richer isn’t a reason to pony up wallet-draining amounts for tickets in the arena (face values range from $1,500 to $7,500, with scalpers likely to get much more) or for PPV subscriptions set at $89.95 (regular TV) or $99.95 (high-definition). What matters is this: Can the action in the ring possibly live up to the incredible hype? Because if it’s one thing that we all ought to know by now, it’s that, in boxing, “highest-grossing” isn’t necessarily tantamount to “biggest” or “best.”
There have been fights that were bigger and better than Mayweather-Pacquiao is likely to be, despite technological that have made the concept of superstardom in sports a much more lucrative proposition. Consider this: Maybe the most dominant lefthanded pitcher ever, Sandy Koufax, was paid $125,000 by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966, and he had to hold out to get that. In today’s dollars, Koufax’s career-high salary equates to $904,440. Another Dodgers southpaw ace, Clayton Kershaw, recently signed a seven-year, $215 million contract, with an annual payout of $30.7 million. Anyone who saw Koufax in his prime would dispute the notion that Kershaw, as good as he is, is 30 times better than Koufax, if at all.
Money skews all debate. Are Mayweather and Pacquiao, at 38 and 36, respectively, better fighters than, say, Micky Ward and the late Arturo Gatti? They are, without question. But will their May 2 showdown approach the fury and competitiveness of any or all of the three fights in the Gatti-Ward trilogy? That remains to be seen, although it wouldn’t surprise a lot of people if May-Pac doesn’t rise to the excitement level of those bouts, and any number of others involving lesser talents.
There have been highly anticipated bouts involving big-name fighters that were aesthetic disappointments, such as the welterweight unification pairing of WBC champ De La Hoya (who at the time was 31-0 with 25 knockouts) and IBF titlist Felix Trinidad (35-0, 30 KOs) on Sept. 18, 1999, at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Believing himself to be too far ahead to be in danger of losing on points, the “Golden Boy” played keepaway the final three rounds and was shocked to lose a 12-round majority decision to Trinidad, whose largely ineffective aggression was nonetheless rewarded. Statistics compiled by CompuBox revealed that De La Hoya had landed 263 punches to 166 for Trinidad.
In his account of that fight in The Ring magazine, editor Nigel Collins wrote: “The real loser, regardless of what you thought of the official verdict, was boxing. When the spotlight shone the brightest and the challenge was the greatest, neither risked all in the pursuit of ultimate glory, settling for a restrained, conservative approach.”
In truth, De La Hoya-Trinidad was a decent fight if viewed from the perspective of normalcy. Given the exaggerated expectations, though, it fell short. And therein lay the danger of everyone who presumes that Mayweather and Pacquiao will engage in a war for the ages simply because the stacks of high-denomination bills are so high. Consumers contributing to the fighters’ windfall are going to assume they will be rewarded with their money’s worth of spills and thrills, which is at best an iffy proposition.
Mayweather might still be the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, but his age suggests he has at least started on the downhill slope of a remarkable career. He is also known for his splendid defense, which could make it difficult for Pacquiao, who also isn’t quite all that he once was, to find openings. If Pacquiao, a 3-to-1 underdog, finds himself constantly flailing at empty air, as some are predicting, the latest “Fight of the Century” could turn tedious fast.
Face it: if these guys give fans merely a good fight, it won’t be enough, just as De La Hoya-Trinidad wasn’t enough. Risks will have to be taken, caution thrown to the wind, and mindsets will have to be shoot-the-works. Even if all that happens, magic isn’t always made. You never know what’s going to happen until you get there. Prefight hype does not a great event make.
The bar that Mayweather and Pacquiao will try to clear has been set very, very high by fighters from other eras whose historical significance on certain dates might be unapproachable in any case. Even if “Money” and “Pac-Man” fling themselves at each other with reckless abandon, the end result won’t – can’t – approach that of these classic bouts:
Jack Johnson-James J. Jeffries: July 4, 1910, Reno, Nev.
Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion when he defeated Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, and his convention-flouting ways – openly consorting with white women, among other perceived transgressions – made white America nervous. Jack London – yes, the same Jack London who authored “Call of the Wild” — was at ringside for Johnson’s victory over Burns, and, writing for the New York Telegraph, he urged retired heavyweight champ James J. Jeffries to come back and restore the fight game to its proper order.
“Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that smile from Johnson’s face,” London wrote. “Jeff, it’s up to you!”
Jeffries, who hadn’t fought since 1904 and was fat and happy in California, didn’t want the fight. But as public pressure mounted for him, or someone else, to put Johnson in his place, he returned to training.
The first so-called “Fight of the Century” was staged in a temporary stadium specifically erected for this fight, and from the opening bell it was obvious that Jeffries, who had had to lose 70 points to get back into fighting trim, was no match for Johnson, who openly taunted him. Johnson floored him in the first round, the first time Jeffries had ever been on the canvas, and he went down twice more before promoter/referee Tex Rickard stepped in and put a stop to the slaughter in the 15th round of the scheduled 45-rounder.
Johnson walked away with $120,00 – that’s $2,918,100 in today’s dollars – and Jeffries with a nice parting gift of $117,000. He never fought again.
Joe Louis-Max Schmeling II: June 22, 1938, New York City
Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had hoped the 1936 Berlin Olympics would serve as a showcase to promote the notion of Aryan supremacy, but black American sprinter Jesse Owens put the kibosh to that by winning four gold medals. Still, the German hierarchy saw the outcome of the first Louis-Schmeling fight, on June 19, 1936, in Yankee Stadium, as proof that their ideology was correct. Schmeling, a former heavyweight champion, floored the favored and undefeated Louis with an overhand right in the fourth in the fourth round and he remained in control until closing the show on a TKO in Round 12.
For the rematch, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Louis, “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany,” an allusion to the likelihood of America entering the burgeoning global conflict that became World War II. Louis took the admonition to heart and, before a crowd of 75,000, again in Yankee Stadium, he went right at Schmeling from the opening bell, knocking him down four times in Round 1 before the German’s corner threw in the towel.
In Germany, the radio broadcast – which began at 3 a.m. local time – was cut off before the final knockdown. In the U.S., the victory by the “Brown Bomber” was hailed by whites and blacks alike as an affirmation of American values. Modest and clean-living, Louis was widely seen as the antithesis of Johnson.
“He’s a credit to his race – the human race,” New York sports columnist Jimmy Cannon wrote of Louis’ avenging his only previous loss with the emphatic dispatching of Schmeling.
Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier I: March 8, 1971, New York City
In “Boxing,” the epic coffee-table publication authored by Bertram Job, he notes that Ali-Frazier I “was not simply just one more heavyweight world championship bout. It was the greatest event that had taken place since two men walked on the surface of the moon three years before.”
Ali had been stripped of his title for refusing to be inducted into the Army, which had resulted in an enforced 3½-year absence from boxing. During the interim, Frazier had rose up to claim the title, with their first meeting also the first time that two undefeated heavyweight champions: Ali went in at 31-0, with 25 KOs, while Frazier was 26-0 with 23 wins inside the distance. In demeanor, style and appearance, the two men could hardly be more dissimilar: Ali was tall, lithe, narcissistic and controversial; Smokin’ Joe was short, stumpy, taciturn and relentless.
If the old bromide that “styles make fights,” then Ali and Frazier were made for one another. Before a sellout crowd in Madison Square Garden, the two – each man was paid a then-record $2.5 million ($14.64 million in today’s dollars) – gave every bit of themselves. Frazier, however, came away with a unanimous decision, punctuating his performance with a leaping left hook that deposited Ali onto his back in the 15th and final round.
Ali would win two subsequent matchups, and it can be argued that Part III in the series, the “Thrilla in Manila,” was even more riveting. But the anticipation of something great, which was delivered in full, and then some, in Part I perhaps is unmatched in the history of boxing.
If there is a fight that, hopefully, holds the most potential parallels to Mayweather-Pacquiao, it is Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns I, which took place on Sept. 16, 1981, in the outdoor stadium at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. It also was a welterweight unification fight, with Leonard, the WBC 147-pound champion, coming in with a record of 30-1 (21) to 32-0 (30) for Hearns, the WBA ruler.
Perhaps because he had that one loss – to Roberto Duran – Leonard was the underdog, albeit a close one, at 6½-5 odds. There was a feeling in some quarters that the 6-1½ “Hitman,” with his imposing 78-inch reach, would put his physical advantages and superior punching power to good use against the quicker, more mobile Leonard.
But the action didn’t follow the script most had visualized. Hearns boxed, and masterfully, for long stretches, so much so that he began to build a substantial lead on the scorecards. Leonard, his left eye swelling, had little choice but to become the aggressor as the fight entered the championship rounds. Advised by his chief second, Angelo Dundee, that “You’re blowin’ it, son,” after the 12th round, he hurt Hearns in the 13th and was able to close the deal with a barrage of blows along the ropes in the 14th.
Six years ago, Leonard looked back at that first scrap with Hearns as the highlight of professional career, even more so than his stunning upset of Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987.
“To me, those were the great days of boxing, when there were rivalries, personalities, legends,” Leonard said. “There was such an abundance of talent in every division.
“Tommy Hearns seemed like an indestructible machine, so to beat him, I think that was my defining moment, the pinnacle. Those kind of matchups don’t come along too often.”
They seem to come along less often now, in an era where there are fewer great rivalries, personalities and legends. We look to Mayweather-Pacquiao because, where Leonard, Hearns, Duran and Hagler were able to test each other on almost a rotating basis, May and Pac were left with few attractive options except each other.
And so we pay, and pay big, for an oasis of a big in a parched landscape. Here’s hoping that Floyd and Manny provide us with the cool sip of pugilistic refreshment to carry us through until the next water hole shimmers somewhere off in the distance.
Photo by: Chris Farina / Top Rank