The question often asked in the buildup to Mayweather vs. Pacquiao was whether this richest of all prizefights could give a boost to boxing’s future by living up to the glories of its past. As May 2 approached, the anticipation reminded many of the 1980s, when the mega-million “superfights” got started with a series of bouts between the so-called Four Kings—Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, and Marvin Hagler.
Leonard and Hearns fought each other in two cliffhangers eight years apart; Hearns vaporized Duran with a right hand that looked like it could have killed a man; Hearns and Hagler fought the most celebrated short boxing match since Dempsey and Firpo; Leonard and Hagler waged a tense battle, culminating in a decision still debated today. And in 1980, Leonard and Duran got it all started with the celebrated Brawl in Montreal, a 15-round struggle fought at a breathless pace, and then a rematch, five months later, that gave us the most infamous moment in modern boxing: No Mas, when Duran threw up his hands and quit. Taken together or separately, these fights aren’t easily forgotten.
Only in 1989, when Duran and Leonard met for a third time, did these matchups result in a bout that slowed the pulse. Duran, supposedly out for revenge, fought like a man looking for his paycheck. Taking a safety-first approach, Leonard won easily, but for the only time in his career on the big stage, he failed to inspire.
Unfortunately, Leonard-Duran III is the bout from that past era that most closely resembles what we saw this weekend, when Floyd Mayweather beat Manny Pacquiao by decision in a fight that was about as inspiring as watching a golfer try to get out of a sand trap. Part of this disappointment was inevitable: the massive hype set a steep bar for expectations that only a great battle could have satisfied. And Mayweather’s defensive mastery, on full display once again, is not designed to entertain. But Pacquiao’s lack of fire was the surprise of the event.
Anyone who had not seen Pacquiao box before must be wondering what all the fuss was about. He seemed almost resigned to his fate 60 seconds into the first round, when Mayweather started getting over with his right leads. But for a few brief flashes, especially in round four, Manny was listless, as if he were enduring a sparring session against his will. He had no answer to Floyd’s defensive tactics, none of which could have come as any surprise. His corner gave him no sense of urgency, even as the fight clearly slipped away. There is no dishonor in losing, but the collective strategic effort of Team Pacquiao seemed bafflingly inadequate, a point HBO’s Max Kellerman tried to get at in his post-fight interview with Pacquiao (and for which he has been attacked on Twitter, for the crime of committing journalism).
The Pacquiao camp now says that Manny competed with an injured right shoulder. Given the dramatic drop in his usual punch volume, the injury excuse has merit, but it still doesn’t explain the absence of passion. Nor does it excuse the Pacquiao team’s sending him into this half-billion-dollar extravaganza as damaged goods, cheating the paying public and creating an impression, whether true or not, that they cared most about getting their hands on that $100 million purse.
As for Mayweather, he fought as he had so many times before, with strategic and tactical genius that makes even vaunted opponents look pitiful. Still, Floyd can’t escape blame for his soul-less approach to performance, his complete disregard for the notion of an audience. With two rounds to go, Floyd had things well in hand; might he have come out, just this once, and gone for the knockout, or at least tried to put an exclamation point on his achievement? That’s what Ray Leonard would have done.
Instead, it was left to a fighter from Ray’s generation—Floyd Mayweather, Senior—to throw the most memorable punches. Working his son’s corner, the elder Mayweather showed more intensity than the two combatants combined. He kept urging Floyd to be more aggressive, warning him that offense-minded judges could score against him. For his urgency alone—not a small factor in such bouts, as Angelo Dundee proved more than once—Floyd’s father earned his paycheck on an evening when everything else was overpriced. At one point, trying to demonstrate what he wanted, Senior let go with a combination in the air. Maybe it was the lateness of the hour, but his hands seemed to move with blinding speed. It was a rare sign of passion on a night that boxing staged a superfight and the fighters forgot to care.
Photo Credit: Esther Lin / SHOWTIME.